July 26, 2010

Letters From A Lonely Exile: John Chrysostom to Olympias the Deaconess

Christopher A. Hall
October 1, 1994
Christian History

On June 20, 404, Archbishop John Chrysostom left Constantinople under military escort, never to return.

He was exiled to the backwater town of Cucusus, in the mountains of Armenia. Separation from friends and raids from Isaurians (tribes from mountainous southern Turkey) continually plagued his last years—as did the climate and his poor health: “During the last two months I have been no better than one dead… In spite of endless contrivances, I could not shake off the pernicious effects of the cold… I underwent extreme sufferings, perpetual vomiting … loss of appetite, and constant sleeplessness.”

Three years of these severe hardships would end with death, yet Chrysostom remained faithful to Christ. He also remained a source of encouragement to friends and followers. To paraphrase Chrysostom himself, the gold of his life undergirded the currency of his words.

What spiritual principles supported him during these last, brutal years in exile? Some answers can be gleaned from correspondence with his friend Olympias, a deaconess of the church in Constantinople who was exiled for her friendship with John. John also wrote and sent to Olympias a short book on the subject of God’s providence. This book and these letters show us how spiritual theory and practice intersected in Chrysostom’s life.

Strength from Disciplines

One scholar has noted that we learn much from the simple formula at the beginning of his letters: “To my Lady, the most reverend and divinely favored deaconess Olympias, I John, bishop, send greeting in the Lord.” Even in exile, with their ecclesiastical connection formally broken, they continued to exchange greetings using their ranks within the church.

Within the church, they had celebrated the Eucharist, prayed and fasted, heard the Scripture preached and applied, and given alms. This disciplined and celebrative life prepared them for the present testing, for they were part of something larger than themselves:

“Amid alternate trials, and respites from trial, the fabric of the Church was wrought… If then even now you will reckon up the good things with the painful, you will see that many events have occurred which … are unspeakable proofs of the great providence and succor of God.”

Dejection and Sickness

In her exile, Olympias soon became despondent over her drastic change in circumstances. She also wondered why God would allow the faithful to suffer.

Chrysostom first reminds her of the close connection between emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being: “For dejection causes sickness; when the body is exhausted and enfeebled, and remains in a neglected condition, deprived of the assistance of physicians, and of a wholesome climate, and an abundant supply of the necessaries of life, consider how great an aggravation of distress is occasioned thereby.”

So he beseeches Olympias, who suffers from some malady, “to pay great attention to the restoration of your bodily health.” He relates some practical measures he has taken: “For a few days ago when I suffered from a tendency to vomiting, owing to the state of the atmosphere, I had recourse to the drug which was sent me … and I found that no more than three days’ application of it cured my infirmity.” John even rebukes her gently: “If you also would take the requisite care of yourself, you would be in a far more satisfactory condition.”

Think Like a Christian!

Chrysostom also reminds Olympias of the spiritual principles he had consistently preached in Antioch and Constantinople.

“The present life,” he says in one forceful passage, “is a wrestling school, a gymnasium, a battle, a smelting furnace, and a dyer’s house of virtue. Therefore, just as tanners grasp the hides and first work them vigorously, stretching, striking, and dashing them against walls and rocks, and by countless other treatments render them fit for the reception of the dye—in this way they bring out the prized color; just as goldsmiths throw the gold into the fire to purify it, delivering it over to the testing of the furnace; just as coaches train the athletes in the wrestling schools with much hard work, attacking them more viciously than their opponents, so that every part of their bodies might be adequately prepared by exercise for the grasps of their enemies and for an easy escape; so in the same way God acts in the present life… Desiring to create steadfast and patiently enduring people, God allows the coin to be tried by every means.”

Thus, he exhorts his friend: “Nothing, Olympias, redounds so much to the credit of anyone as patient endurance in suffering. For this is indeed the queen of virtues, and the perfection of crowns; and as it excels all other forms of righteousness.”

At the same time, Chrysostom skillfully weaves in the theme of the Christian’s final hope: “For in proportion as the strain of the affliction is increased are the garlands of victory multiplied; in proportion as the gold is heated does it become purified; the longer the merchant makes his voyage on the sea, the larger is the freight he collects.”

Elsewhere he adds, “For the circumstances and events of the present life have the character of a journey, but the realities of the future await us in our true homeland.”

Responding to Olympias’s concern about why the righteous suffer, Chrysostom reminds her about John the Baptist:

“Do not say: ‘Why was John allowed to die?’ for what occurred was not a death, but a crown; not an end, but the beginning of a greater life. Learn to think and live like a Christian, and you will not only not be harmed by any of these events, but will reap the greatest benefits.”

The Greatest Harm

Paul himself fervently requested that God deliver him from his “thorn in the flesh,” a thorn Chrysostom interprets as “the blow, the bonds, the chains, the imprisonments, the being dragged about, and maltreated, and tortured by the scourges of public executioners.” When Paul realized that his petition was not to be granted, “having learned the benefit of the trial, he held his peace, and rejoiced at the things that happened to him.”

Paul had peace in the midst of physical suffering because he knew that genuine harm had another source. “I at least have not ceased, and will not cease saying,” wrote Chrysostom, “that sin is the only thing which is really distressing.”

“In what way were the apostles harmed, some of whom were beheaded and others handed over to even worst punishment? In what way were the martyrs harmed, whose souls were broken by the most severe tortures? Didn't they all shine brightly at the very moment they were being abused, at the time others set traps for them, when they nobly stood firm while suffering the worst agonies?”

One might have expected that exile would have disillusioned Chrysostom since his suffering was in many ways a direct result of his faithfulness. One can imagine him on a frigid winter’s night in Cucusus, asking himself if this indeed was how God should treat those who diligently sought his will and attempted to live it out.

Instead, he looks not at his suffering but at the example of previous Christian heroes like Paul. Perhaps during bouts of nausea, while shut up in a smoky room, wrapped in blankets to ward off the cold, Chrysostom pondered the examples of Job and Abraham, Joseph and John the Baptist. In one passage, Chrysostom tells Olympias, “May the endurance of these spiritual athletes become a teacher of patient endurance for you. Seeing that the entire life of these noble and lofty men is woven through with these kinds of sufferings, don’t be disturbed or alarmed—neither by your own particular trials, nor those trials common to all. For the Church has been nourished from the very beginning in this fashion, and in this way has grown.”

This is one reason he continues to revel in the love of God. I have been unable to find a single instance in Chrysostom’s correspondence or discourses from his last months where he questions the goodness and love of God for him. Instead, he concludes that God “does not simply watch over us, but also loves us; he ardently loves us with an inexplicable love, with an impassable yet fervent, vigorous, genuine, indissoluble love, a love that is impossible to extinguish.”

And thus he encourages Olympias, “If you experience deliverance from your sufferings in this present life, glorify God. If your life ends in severe difficulties, even then offer thanks.”

Mystery Is the Answer

Finally, even in the midst of adversity, Chrysostom is keenly aware of the mystery and providence of God: “He granted existence itself to us out of his goodness and has no need of our service. It is fit to regard him with wonder and worship him, not only because he created us, nor because he gave us a spiritual and rational soul, nor because he made us better than all other creatures, nor because he entrusted to us the dominion over all visible things … but rather because he has no need of us.…

“Indeed, before we or angels or the powers above were created, he was already existing, possessing his own glory and blessedness. It is only through love that he created us. He did all these things for our sake and many more other things in addition.”

He concludes, “For the providence of God is beyond understanding, his care is incomprehensible, his goodness is indescribable, and his love for humanity is unsearchable.”

The advice and model Chrysostom presents, then, is two-sided: Do what you can to avoid suffering; if it cannot be avoided, if your prayers do not bring your deliverance, know that God will remove any lasting harm from what you are enduring.

Chrysostom offers Olympias a spirituality for the long haul, a manner of thinking and living that is broad enough to encompass all of life’s struggles and tragedies: “Therefore, my friend, wait for the final outcome. For all things will certainly turn out, whether in this life or the life to come. In every circumstance, yield to the incomprehensibility of God’s providence.”