Amma Olympias The Deaconess
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Amma Olympias the Deaconess?
Amma Olympias was called "the glory of the widows of the Eastern Church." The light of her life shone so brightly, she considered some of the greatest theologians in church history her close friends. John Chrysostom counted her as one of his most trusted advisors, Gregory Nazianzen was responsible for the aforementioned quote, Basil the Great considered her trustworthy, and many others were touched by her life.
Olympias was born around 360 AD. She was widowed at a young age and orphaned at an even younger one. She inherited incredible wealth when her parents in her early childhood. Known as a an attractive young woman, it was no difficulty marrying her wealth into the elite aristocracy by her uncle, Procopius.
Her husband, Nebridius, was a powerful politician in Constantinople. He passed away very shortly after they were wedded. The Emperor of the day, Theodosius, pressed her to remarry, mainly to keep the family wealth within the upper class. Olympias declared to him,
"Had God wished me to remain a wife, He would not have taken Nebridius away."
Theodosius responded by placing her wealth under the control of a local governor. Olympias wrote to the Emperor and thanked him for absolving her of the responsibility of managing her finances, and asked him to order the governor to distribute the entirety of her wealth to the poor and to the local churches. When Theodosius realized what manner of woman she was, that she was dedicated to God and pursuing His Kingdom, he restored her wealth to her. She promptly went about giving it away.
It was said of her,
“…that she only lived according to the Divine Word in chastity, wherein was mingled true humility, and that she made herself a friend of and ministered to all those who were needy.”
She was known as so generous, that Chrysostom felt the need to chastise her generosity.
“You must not encourage the laziness of those who live upon you without necessity. It is like throwing your money into the sea.”
She was in danger of making those she supported reliant upon herself, and not upon Christ.
“…for there is not a city, or a district, or a desert place, or an island, or a shore which did not enjoy the gifts of this glorious woman. And she gave gifts also to the churches for their maintenance, and to the houses wherein strangers were received, and also to the prisons and, moreover, to those who were in exile, and, so to speak, on the whole world this blessed woman scattered her alms broadcast.”
She kept a number of houses owned in Constantinople for herself and began the work of monastic living with a number of woman under her leadership. She freed the slaves and servants belonging to her family and a number of them joined the monastic community. At its height, the community consisted of around 250 members. Eventually, a hospital and an orphanage were added to the buildings. When a number of Desert Fathers were expelled from the desert of Nitria, she housed them and cared for their needs.
Amma Olympias was ordained a deaconness by the bishop of Constantinople, Nectarius. For most of her life, she served Chrysostom as a leader in the church and monastic community. Chrysostom entrusted Olympias with the care and oversight of many church responsibilities.
Prayer, humility and generosity were the life-blood of her monastic community. Prayer to her was watchfulness of the heart. Watchfulness of heart took care to consider all that would hinder the heart in its application towards God. A heart that is guarded is a heart that is peaceful and without anxiety. That interior life that is peaceful can know the simplicity of God and the “love which has no limit.” When the mind can hold itself before God in simplicity and peace, it knows “…the hope which never fails, and the loving-kindness which is unspeakable…” This “unspeakable loving-kindness” engender tears that leave the heart soft and malleable in the presence of the One who knows the heart.
Humility would greatly aid this effort of prayer. The life of simplicity would shun pride and vanity. Pride and vanity would distract the heart and leave it anxious and without peace. The exterior discipline impacted the interior life. When external discipline is focused towards knowing God, it rears the interior life into simplicity of heart before God. Humility of life would bring submission to leaders and honour to elders. Amma Olympias…
“…submitted herself to all sorts and conditions of the children of men for the sake of God…”
She wasn’t so much interested in submitting to others as she was in submitting to God. As any great Christian leader has recognized, our willingness to submit to others is a test of our submission to God. She submitted for the sake of God, not for the sake of men.
This prayer and humility opened the way for her care of the poor. She was know as one who…
“…visited the widows, and she reared the orphans, and she strengthened [those who were in a state of] old age, and she had care for the sick and she mourned with the sinners, and she led the erring into the right path, and she tended every one, and she converted many women among those who did not believe, and prepared them for life.”
The humility she embraced and the prayer she practiced softened her heart towards those who most needed Christ. She truly lived the example of Paul,
Influential women in the city also joined the monastic community she had begun. A number of them were ordained as deaconesses as well. She paved the way for many women to lead and influence the Church of God.
Letters of Chrysostom
A large portion of what we know of her character and nature have come through in the letters of correspondence with the bishop John Chrysostom. The only extant letters that remain are those that Chrysostom wrote to Olympias, and they help paint a picture of who she was and how he trusted her. John Chrysostom is counted as one of the most influential theologians and leaders in church history. He wrote and taught extensively throughout his whole life.
“The most reverend and divinely favoured deaconess Olympias, I John, Bishop, send greeting in the Lord,” thus begins John’s letters to Amma Olympias.
Chrysostom wrote of her concerns for the affliction befalling the church.
“For what is it which upsets thy mind, and why art thou sorrowful and dejected? Is it because of the fierce black storm which has overtaken the Church, enveloping all things in darkness as of a night without a moon, and is growing to a head every day, travailing to bring forth disastrous shipwrecks, and increasing the ruin of the world?”
In today’s term she would be known as a significant intercessor, constantly praying for and taking care of the church.
He encouraged her to hope in God in spite of what was happening in the world.
“He (the Lord) does not at the beginning put down these terrible evils, but when they have increased, and come to extremities, and most persons are reduced to despair, then He works wondrously, and beyond all expectation, thus manifesting his own power, and training the patience of those who undergo these calamities. Do not therefore be cast down.”
Through patience God will persevere. We may not see the ways of God immediately, but he is faithful and just.
He encouraged her to see God as big.
“Dost thou see the abundance of resource belonging to God? His wisdom, His extraordinary power, His loving-kindness and care? Be not therefore dismayed or troubled but continue to give thanks to God for all things, praising, and invoking Him; beseeching and supplicating; even if countless tumults and troubles come upon thee, even if tempests are stirred up before thy eyes let none of these things disturb thee.”
Amma Olympias so forcefully put into practice this advice you can almost say she understood it better than Chrysostom himself.
Chrysostom was amazed at the tenacity with which Amma Olympias attacked the challenges that were set before her.
“I am exceedingly glad and delighted to hear, not only that you have been released from your infirmity, but above all that you bear the things which befall you so bravely, calling them all but an idle tale; and, which is indeed a greater matter , that you have applied this name even to your bodily infirmity, which is an evidence of a robust spirit, rich in the fruit of courage. For not only to bear misfortunes bravely but to be actually insensible to them, to overlook them, and with such little exertion to wreathe your brows with the garland prize of patience, neither labouring, nor toiling, neither feeling distress nor causing it to others, but as it were leaping and dancing for joy all the while, this is indeed a proof of the most finished philosophy.”
Her language for what befell her? She called the difficulties of life an “idle tale.” How true this is! In the face of an insurmountable God, what could difficult circumstances possibly do to deter our service and love for Him?
Chrysostom was inspired by her example.
“I rejoice, and leap for joy; I am in a flutter of delight, I am insensible to my present loneliness, and the other troubles which surround me, being cheered, and brightened, and not a little proud on account of your greatness of soul, and the repeated victories which you have won…”
He also recognized her influence on men and women.
“also for the sake of that large and populous city, where you are like a tower, a haven, and a wall of defence, speaking in the eloquent voice of example, and through your sufferings instructing either sex to strip readily for these contests, and descend into the lists with all courage, and cheerfully bear the toils which such contests involve.”
She clung to the virtuous life when it seemed that others had run in the face of persecution.
“It is indeed always fitting to admire those who pursue virtue, but especially when some are found to cling to it at a time when many are deserting it. Therefore, my sweet lady, you deserve superlative admiration…”
Amma Olympias was considered a confessor, someone who had refused to renounce Christ in the face of persecution.
Lastly, Chrysostom admonished and recognized her growth in the midst of fiery trials.
“Nothing strange or unnatural has befallen your Piety, but only what is quite natural and consonant to reason, that by a constant succession of trials the sinews of your soul should become more braced, and your zeal and energy for the struggle increased, and that you should therefrom derive much joy.”
Nothing about the depth of her heart surprised him, for she was what Chrysostom referred to as a “golden character” that had been purified,
“And as the fire makes the piece of gold, when it is applied to it, of better proof: so also affliction when it visits golden characters renders them purer and more proven."
She passed away in 408 AD, one year after Chrysostom’s death. She was remembered as no less influential than the theologian.
“…she had become so celebrated for her great goodness that her very name was considered worthy of imitation, parents hoping that their children would be built on a like model.”