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July 25, 2013

Saint Olympia the Deaconess as a Model for our Lives

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

The deaconess Olympia was born and lived in Constantinople in the fourth century. She came from an aristocratic family and was very rich. She was dedicated to the service of the Church by offering all her riches for the relief of the poor. Shortly after her marriage her husband left this vain world and she dedicated herself to Christ and the Church. At her wedding Saint Gregory the Theologian, because he could not attend due to an illness, sent a wonderful letter, which all couples should read today, as it will be of sole benefit to reap strength for the difficult circumstances in their lives.

She was a spiritual child of Saint John Chrysostom, in which she helped in his work with great zeal. When the divine Chrysostom was exiled, Olympia felt great sadness and deep pain. To console her, the Saint sent her several letters from exile, of which seventeen survive. These letters are a spiritual treasure and should be a delight to all believers, especially those with sorrow and pain, since it trickles into the heart spiritual sweetness and true consolation. Also, these letters show the great love of divine Chrysostom, as well as the spiritual wealth of the sensitive and heart full of love Saint Olympia.

The venerable Olympia resided in a monastery with around two hundred nuns, in which love and peace dominated, and prayer was fragrant, like pure incense. Many who hurt found consolation there, and they were taught the pure evangelical life. The Saint, though she continuously served others, herself lived frugally and her clothing was simple. Her slaves, whom she released, wore beautiful clothes and lived with more comfort.

She reposed in peace, "full of good works and acts of almsgiving". Her life and times give us the opportunity to highlight the following:

Joy and sorrow are part of the life of every person, and sorrow undoubtedly has the first place, since it is known that there are more sad events than those which cause joy. There is no man that has not tasted in his life pain and sorrow. Indeed, pain for some people is an inseparable companion throughout their life on earth. The problem, however, is not the sad events, which one way or another will be with us throughout our lives, but the way we treat them, since, when they are not treated properly, they lead a person into depression, despair and hopelessness. When one remains in the Church and fights to live a life according to the will of God, then they will learn to be above their temptations, their difficulties and their sorrows, and in this way they will truly rejoice in their life.

The divine Chrysostom was tested very much in his life, having suffered exile and persecution because of the envy and evil of men, but with spiritual struggle and especially patience and unceasing prayer, he was able to remove sadness and depression and have a cheerful disposition. Indeed, he encouraged and consoled those who visited him, instead of receiving consolation from them. He even advised, within his letters, his disciple and spiritual daughter Olympia to do the same. That is, to turn away the immeasurable sadness and depression and to struggle, with the help of God and the assistance of the "governing thought", to maintain peace of soul and a joyful disposition before God and men.

Below we will record excerpts from those letters:

"The more severe the storm, so are the prizes bigger, if you suffer it continuously with gratitude and proper valor, as you do. For even the captain of a ship during an instance of a blowing gale, if the sails are opened beyond normal, it will upset the ship, but if they are opened as they properly should, it will be driven with much safety. Knowing these things, therefore, do not be given over to the tyranny of despondency, but conquer the storm with your thoughts, because you cannot be swayed by anything greater than your ability."

"Work, train and struggle, having the alliance of my words, to eject and expel with much vehemence the thoughts that agitate you and cause such noise and dizziness."

"I will not stop repeating constantly that the cheerful mood does not so much benefit the nature of things as much as the minds of people... Cheer does not depend on the stationary laws of nature, which are impossible to loosen and shift, but of the free thoughts we choose, which we can easily handle."

Usually we make others responsible for the wrong and twisted things that happen in our lives and not ourselves with our own weaknesses, passions and wrongs, and we do not have the courage to take responsibility. But the divine Chrysostom, in his 17th letter, stresses: "Those who do not justify themselves, cannot be hurt by anyone." Indeed, he sent such a relevant treatise on this subject to the venerable Olympia and urged her to study it, because it would be a "capable remedy". And he wished her to always be, by the Grace of God and her personal struggle, strong and joyful.

If we have any problems surely others are not to blame, so that we should appear with a downcast face. The Orthodox Church teaches us the manner in which we can overcome the adverse and sad facts of our life, so that we can maintain peace of soul, and also have a cheerful disposition before God and men.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Οσία Ολυμπιάδα η Διακόνισσα", June 2012. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.