ST. OLYMPIAS, WIDOW368-410
Feast: December 17
[From St Chrysostom's seventeen letters to her: Palladius in his life; another Palladius in Lausiac. c. 43, Sozom. lib. viii. c. 2; Leo Imp. In Encomio St Joan. Chrysostomi. See Tillemont, t. xi. p. 416.]
St Olympias, the glory of the widows in the Eastern church, was a lady of illustrious descent and a plentiful fortune. She was born about the year 368, and left an orphan under the care of Procopius, who seems to have been her uncle; but it was her greatest happiness that she was brought up under the care of Theodosia, sister to St Amphilochius, a most virtuous and prudent woman, whom St Gregory Nazianzen called a perfect pattern of piety, in whose life the tender virgin saw as in a glass the practice of all virtues, and it was her study faithfully to transcribe them into the copy of her own life. From this example which was placed before her eyes she raised herself more easily to contemplate and to endeavour to imitate Christ, who in all virtues is the divine original which every Christian is bound to act after. Olympias, besides her birth and fortune, was, moreover, possessed of all the qualifications of mind and body which engage affection and respect. She was very young when she married Nebridius, treasurer of the Emperor Theodosius the Great, and who was for some time prefect of Constantinople; but he died within twenty days after his marriage.
Our saint was addressed by several of the most considerable men of the court, and Theodosius was very pressing with her to accept for her husband Elpidius, a Spaniard, and his near relation. She modestly declared her resolution of remaining single the rest of her days; the emperor continued to urge the affair, and after several decisive answers of the holy widow, put her whole fortune in the hands of the prefect of Constantinople with orders to act as her guardian till she was thirty years old. At the instigation of the disappointed lover, the prefect hindered her from seeing the bishops or going to church, hoping thus to tire her into a compliance. She told the emperor that she was obliged to own his goodness in easing her of her heavy burden of managing and disposing of her own money; and that the favour would be complete if he would order her whole fortune to be divided between the poor and the church. Theodosius, struck with her heroic virtue, made a further inquiry into her manner of living, and conceiving an exalted idea of her piety, restored to her the administration of her estate in 391. The use which she made of it was to consecrate the revenues to the purposes which religion and virtue prescribe. By her state of widowhood, according to the admonition of the apostle, she looked upon herself as exempted even from what the support of her rank seemed to require in the world, and she rejoiced that the slavery of vanity and luxury was by her condition condemned even in the eyes of the world itself. With great fervour she embraced a life of penance and prayer. Her tender body she macerated with austere fasts, and never ate flesh or anything that had life; by habit, long watchings became as natural to her as much sleep is to others; and she seldom allowed herself the use of a bath, which is thought a necessary refreshment in hot countries, and was particularly so before the ordinary use of linen. By meekness and humility she seemed perfectly crucified to her own will and to all sentiments of vanity, which had no place in her heart nor share in any of her actions. The modesty, simplicity, and sincerity, from which she never departed in her conduct, were a clear demonstration what was the sole object of her affections and desires. Her dress was mean, her furniture poor, her prayers assiduous and fervent, and her charities without bounds. These St Chrysostom compares to a river which is open to all and diffuses its waters to the bounds of the earth and into the ocean itself. The most distant towns, isles, and deserts received plentiful supplies by her liberality, and she settled whole estates upon remote destitute churches. Her riches indeed were almost immense, and her mortified life afforded her an opportunity of consecrating them all to God. Yet St Chrysostom found it necessary to exhort her sometimes to moderate her alms, or rather to be more cautious and reserved in bestowing them, that she might be enabled to succour those whose distresses deserved a preference.
The devil assailed her by many trials, which God permitted for the exercise and perfecting of her virtue. The contradictions of the world served only to increase her meekness, humility, and patience, and with her merits to multiply her crowns. Frequent severe sicknesses, most outrageous slanders and unjust persecutions succeeded one another. Her virtue was the admiration of the whole church, as appears by the manner in which almost all the saints and great prelates of that age mention her. St Amphilochius, St Epiphanius, St Peter of Sebaste, and others were fond of her acquaintance and maintained a correspondence with her, which always tended to promote God's glory and the good of souls. Nectarius, Archbishop of Constantinople, had the greatest esteem for her sanctity, and created her deaconess to serve that church in certain remote functions of the ministry, of which that sex is capable, as in preparing linen for the altars and the like. A vow of perpetual chastity was always annexed to this state. St Chrysostom, who was placed in that see in, 398, had not less respect for the sanctity of Olympias than his predecessor, and as his extraordinary piety, experience, and skill in sacred learning made him an incomparable guide and model of a spiritual life, he was so much the more honoured by her; but he refused to charge himself with the distribution of her alms as Nectarius had done. She was one of the last persons whom St Chrysostom took leave of when he went into banishment on the 20th of June in 404. She was then in the great church, which seemed the place of her usual residence; and it was necessary to tear her from his feet by violence. After St Chrysostom's departure she had a great share in the persecution in which all his friends were involved. She was convened before Optatus, the prefect of the city, who was a heathen. She justified herself as to the calumnies which were shamelessly alleged in court against her; but she assured the governor that nothing should engage her to hold communion with Arsacius, a schismatical usurper of another's see. She was dismissed for that time and was visited with a grievous fit of sickness, which afflicted her the whole winter. In spring she was obliged by Arsacius and the court to leave the city, and wandered from place to place. About midsummer in 405 she was brought back to Constantinople and again presented before Optatus, who, without any further trial, sentenced her to pay a heavy fine because she refused to communicate with Arsacius. Her goods were sold by a public auction; she was often dragged before public tribunals; her clothes were torn by the soldiers, her farms rifled by many amongst the dregs of the people, and she was insulted by her own servants and those who had received from her hands the greatest favours. Atticus, successor of Arsacius, dispersed and banished the whole community of nuns which she governed; for it seems, by what Palladius writes, that she was abbess, or at least directress, of the monastery which she had founded near the great church, which subsisted till the fall of the Grecian empire. St Chrysostom frequently encouraged and comforted her by letters; but he sometimes blamed her grief. He bid her particularly to rejoice under her sicknesses, which she ought to place among her most precious crowns, in imitation of Job and Lazarus. In his distress she furnished him with plentiful supplies, wherewith he ransomed many captives and relieved the poor in the wild and desert countries into which he was banished. She also sent him drugs for his own use when he laboured under a bad state of health. Her lingering martyrdom was prolonged beyond that of St Chrysostom; for she was living in 408, when Palladius wrote his Dialogue on the Life of St Chrysostom. The other Palladius, in the Lausiac history which he compiled in 420, tells us that she died under her sufferings and, deserving to receive the recompense due to holy confessors, enjoyed the glory of heaven among the saints. The Greeks honour her memory on the 25th of July, but the Roman Martyrology on the 17th of December.
The saints all studied to husband every moment to the best advantage, knowing that life is very short, that night is coming on apace, in which no one will be able to work, and that all our moments here are so many precious seeds of eternity. If we applied ourselves with the saints to the uninterrupted exercise of good works we should find that, short as life is, it affords sufficient time for extirpating our evil inclinations, learning to put on the spirit of Christ, working our souls into a heavenly temper, adorning them with all virtues and laying in a provision for eternity. But through our unthinking indolence, the precious time of life is reduced almost to nothing, because the greatest part of it is absolutely thrown away. So numerous is the tribe of idlers and the class of occupations which deserve no other denomination than that of idleness that a bare list would fill a volume. The complaint of Seneca agrees no less to the greatest part of Christians than to the idolaters, that "Almost their whole lives are spent in doing nothing, and the whole in doing nothing to the purpose." Let no moments be spent merely to pass time; diversions and corporeal exercise ought to be used with moderation, only as much as may seem requisite for bodily health and the vigour of the mind. Everyone is bound to apply himself to some serious employment. This and his necessary recreations must be referred to God, and sanctified by a holy intention other circumstances which virtue prescribes; and in all our actions humility, patience, various acts of secret prayer, and other virtues ought, according to the occasions, to be exercised. Thus will our lives be a continued series of good works and an uninterrupted holocaust of divine praise and love. That any parts of this sacrifice should be defective ought to be the subject of our daily compunction and tears.
(Taken from Vol. IV of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler.)