17 Dec Saint Olympias of Constantinople, Widow
Today is the feast day of Saint Olympias. Ora pro nobis.
Olympias was born the daughter of senator Anicius Secundus, and a descendant (on her mother’s side) of noted rulers.
Left an orphan at a tender age, she was brought up by Theodosia, sister of Saint Amphilochius, a virtuous and prudent woman. At the age of eighteen, Olympias was regarded as a model of Christian virtues. It was then that she was married to Nebridius, a young man worthy of her; the new spouses promised one another to live in perfect continence. After less than two years of this angelic union, Nebridius went to receive in heaven the reward of his virtues.
The Emperor would have engaged her in a second marriage, but she replied: If God had destined me to live in the married state, He would not have taken my first spouse. The event which has broken my bonds shows me the way Providence has traced for me. She had resolved to consecrate her life to prayer and penance, and to devote her fortune to the poor. She liberated all her slaves, who nonetheless wished to continue to serve her, and she administered her fortune as a trustee for the poor.
The reach of Olympias’ benevolence reached far and wide—to the most distant and remote—in fact, the poorest—portions of the kingdom. Not only did she distribute her money—which she viewed as belonging to the Lord, not herself—to those determined to be “good people,” but also to their enemies. No one was exempt from her charity. Due to her great faith and charitable works, Olympias was appointed deaconess by Nectarius, and served as a model for all religious in her devout pursuit to live a life above reproach. Her days were spent in prayer and penance, contemplating the beauty and goodness of the Lord.
Saint Olympias was held in high regard by Saint John Chrysostom, who enjoyed a longtime correspondence with her. When Saint John was banished, Olympias and the other deaconesses of Constantinople were deeply upset, and vocal in their protests. Saint John for his part, encouraged them to continue serving the Church with obedience and fidelity. This Olympias did. However, many had been angered by the banishment of Saint John, and an unknown arsonist set fire to a large church, leading to the destruction of a great portion of the city. Those known to be faithful to Saint John were summoned and accused of the crime, including Saint Olympias.
She underwent a long and biased trial, during which she was mercilessly mocked and questioned. While there was no evidence against her, and she maintained her innocence, Olympias was found guilty and fined a large sum of money, which she obediently paid. However, soon afterwards, she left the city and moved to Kyzikos on the Sea of Marmara. There, her enemies continued to persecute her, arresting her and imprisoning her for false accusations. While suffering grief and deprivation in prison, Olympias received letters of encouragement from Saint John. However, even with his consolation, her body slowly failed and she perished in exile, going to the Lord for her eternal rest.
After her death, no one was quite sure what to do with the body of this holy woman. Saint Olympias appeared in a dream to the Bishop of Nicomedia and commanded that her body be placed in a wooden coffin and cast into the sea. “Wherever the waves carry the coffin, there let my body be buried,” said the saint. The coffin was brought by the waves to a place named Brokthoi near Constantinople. The inhabitants, informed of this by God, took the holy relics of Saint Olympias and placed them in the church of the Saint Thomas. Years later, during wartime, her relics were miraculously saved from the burning church and translated to the woman’s monastery she had founded in Constantinople. Numerous miracles and healings have been reported by her intercession there.
After her death she was venerated as a saint. A biography dating from the second half of the fifth century, which gives particulars concerning her from the “Historia Lausiaca” of Palladius and from the “Dialogus de vita Joh. Chrysostomi”, proves the great veneration she enjoyed. During he riot of Constantinople in 532 the convent of St. Olympias and the adjacent church were destroyed. Emperor Justinian had it rebuilt, and the prioress, Sergia, transferred thither the remains of the foundress from the ruined church of St. Thomas in Brokhthes, where she had been buried. We possess an account of this translation by Sergia herself. The feast of St. Olympias is celebrated in the Greek Church on 24 July, and in the Roman Church on 17 December.
Image: St Olympias, St Peter's Basilica, Statue Installed – 1667-1668 Sculptor – Giovanni Maria De Rossi (6)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff