Olympias (c 363-408) was a rich widow who became a devoted disciple of St John Chrysostom.
When that golden-tongued preacher’s zeal for moral reform in Constantinople – and more especially his likening of the Empress Eudoxia to Queen Jezebel – resulted in his exile, Olympias too found herself persecuted.
“I cannot cease to call you blessed,” John Chrysostom wrote to her at the end of his life. “The patience and dignity with which you have borne your sorrows have won you a glory and a reward which hereafter will make all your sufferings seem light and passing in the presence of eternal joy.”
Olympias had been born to quite a different inheritance, for her family was one of the richest in Constantinople. Both her parents died when she was young, leaving her an immense fortune.
She might have become hopelessly spoilt. Her uncle, though, put her in the charge of a godly woman called Theodosia, who ensured that Olympias grew up as prepossessing in character as in wealth.
Good-looking as well, she was soon married to Nebridius, treasurer of the Emperor Theodosius, and for some time prefect of Constantinople. Nebridius, though, died shortly after the wedding.
Theodosius then sought a second husband for her among his relations, to no avail.
“Had God wished me to remain a wife,” she argued “he would not have taken Nebridius away.”
Piqued, the Emperor put her fortune in trust until she was 30. Olympias sweetly thanked him for removing from her the burden of riches and suggested that he might further improve this good turn by distributing her money among the poor and within the Church.
Theodosius, impressed, restored Olympias’s estate to her sole charge. Her benefactions now became so generous that even St John Chrysostom advised her to moderate her charity. “You must not encourage the laziness of those who live upon you without necessity,” he told her. “It is like throwing money into the sea.”
When John Chrysostom became Archbishop of Constantinople in 398 he took Olympias and her followers under his special protection, distributing their alms throughout the empire. At home, Olympias ran an orphanage and a hospital. In 404, though, John Chrysostom was banished from Constantinople. At their last interview Olympias clung to his feet with such desperation that she had to be torn away by force.
She refused to acknowledge Chrysostom’s replacement as archbishop, and found herself abused and robbed at every turn.
Her health rapidly failed, but her spirit remained indomitable.
Finally driven out of Constantinople, she found refuge in Nicodemia (modern İzmit). There, she heard that John Chrysostom had died at Pontus, on the Black Sea. Shortly afterwards she herself expired.
Another saint, Gregory Nazianzen, called her “the glory of the widows in the Eastern Church”.