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Life Of John Chrysostom by Frederic M. Perthes

OLYMPIAS was born A. D. 368, of one of the most illustrious families of the time. Her grandfather, Ablavius, under the Emperor Constantine, had been prime minister, the most powerful man after his master in the Roman Empire. Her parents she lost when a child, but she had the good fortune to be intrusted for her education to a genuine Christian named Theodosia. Before she was seventeen years of age, the distinguished, beautiful, and gifted young maiden, through her guardian, was married to Nebridius, præfect of the capital. The marriage lasted only twenty months. In 386 her husband died, and it will readily be supposed that suitors for the young widow soon offered themselves. The Emperor Theodosius desired to unite her with one of his relatives, and pressed very earnestly for the fulfilment of his wishes. But she firmly rejected them all. At the death-bed of her husband, the seed which her governess had implanted within her, took root; or, to speak more correctly, the nature of Olympias took its peculiar direction, and aspired after that which is eternal.

The Emperor was displeased and commanded all her property to be put under a guardian until she should reach the age of thirty. But the way in which she bore this, joyful at being thus relieved from much toil and protected from many a temptation, moved the passionate, yet on the whole well-disposed Theodosius, two years later, to restore it to her; and thenceforth all her wealth, which was great, was at her control. But she used it only for others; she had ceased to live for herself, her spirit was wholly consecrated to the service of God and men. Under the predecessor of Chrysostom, she had entered into the service of the church and had accepted the office of deaconess.

When Chrysostom came to Constantinople, she naturally found in him a bishop after her own heart; and the more perfectly she became acquainted with him, the longer she lived and labored under his direction, the higher rose her veneration for him. She was also greatly indebted to him in spiritual things and had been much benefited by his influence.

Before her intercourse with him, Olympias was indeed an earnest and zealous Christian, endeavoring to serve God and man. But her love to men was yet deficient in sound spiritual understanding, and her piety, like that of very many devout persons of this age, had somewhat that did not spring from Christianity; it was morbid. Chrysostom, as a good physician, aided her in both respects.

To be more specific. When the Emperor Theodosius had taken her property from her control she wrote to him a letter of thanks, in which she said: “You have exhibited, Sire, not merely the wisdom and goodness of a sovereign, but also of a bishop, towards your humble servant, by laying the heavy burden of the wealth which I possess, upon your officers, and thus relieving me from the care and disquiet which the necessity of managing it must have occasioned. I have but one request, and by granting it you will greatly increase my joy: command the property to be divided between the churches and the poor.”

We might take this to be the youthful enthusiasm, of one in her first love, and can well understand the pious feelings which she proceeds to express: “I have long felt the movings of that vanity which attends a distribution of one’s own charities, and have been in fear lest the anxieties connected with temporal wealth might lead me to neglect the pearl of great price.” But when her property was restored to her hands, the same disposition was shown. She gave freely, and whoever came and asked went away with a full purse. She gave at once, without ascertaining whether there were any actual need. It was her delight to give, moreover she esteemed it a duty. Especially did she pour out her wealth for spiritual objects; she not only built a number of churches in different places, but also loaded with benefactions the clergy, both monks and preachers. We may easily imagine how her liberality was abused.

Such a course did not secure the approval of Chrysostom. He thus utters his thoughts on this point:—

“If a servant of the church has enough, give him no more, and though he is a pious man thou shouldest prefer a less devout but needy individual before him. Christ did not say: when thou makest a supper call thy friends, but the halt and the lame. He does not say merely: ye fed me; but, I was an hungered and ye fed me. What is the propriety of giving to a man who is not in need, because he is pious? And if he has enough, and yet receives in charity, he is not indeed pious.”

Further: Olympias had not only denied herself all expense, all the vanity of ornament and state, all the pleasures and luxuries of sense,—this we could mention but with praise, since she had become acquainted with a higher good; but along with this, she had become unduly severe to herself, and did not allow to her body the food and drink which it required for this life. She denied herself rest by night, and practised watching and fasting, in order to become still stronger in abstinence. Now, as she was of a delicate nature, and as a maiden of high rank had been delicately nurtured, she suffered by this course, and the bad effects upon her health were soon patent. A letter of Chrysostom indicates the great injury which she had inflicted upon herself: “As thy body was fragile and accustomed to every indulgence, it has been so assailed by these manifold severities, that it is no better than if it were slain, and thou hast brought upon thyself so many diseases, that the skill of physicians is no longer of any avail, and thou livest in perpetual pain.”

She was not alone in this error. It was already wide spread, and in the centuries following gained more and more the ascendency over Christians. To afflict one’s self was supposed to be right and pleasing to God, and the less bodily comfort any one had the better man was he esteemed. Many went so far as to inflict the severest tortures upon themselves, and expected to win the favor of God thereby. We have seen, that life in cloisters was already frequent, and was thought to be especially Christian. The spirit which reigned in cloisters during the early centuries is alien to our pleasure seeking age. In view of this contrast, we may well speak in defence of those cloisters, and may justly say, that they were grand phenomena in this world of sense and sensual pleasure. In them lived the noblest and most gifted men and women, such as were adapted to their time, and exerted in many respects a blessed influence. Yet is it true, that cloisters are not the growth of a Christian soil, nor do they owe their existence to the Spirit of Christ.

Our Bible says, indeed, that “godliness with contentment is great gain; for we brought nothing into the world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out,” etc. 1 Tim. 6:6. It says, that those who belong to Christ, “crucify their flesh with its affections and lusts,” Gal. 5:24. But it also says: “Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility.” It speaks of those who “have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; and do not honor the flesh as it needs,” Col. 2; it warns against such as “forbid to marry and abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving,—for every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving” 1 Tim. 4:3, 4; and in the eighth verse: “bodily exercise profiteth little, but godliness is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is and that which is to come.”

A faith, a view of the world, which announces such principles, will build no cloisters for the reception of monks and nuns, nor will it destroy the health of the body by watching and fasting. The spirit which at that time pressed into the church of Christ, sprung from a different temper, faith, and style of thought. Among the heathen of India, the degenerate Jews in Egypt, and the secluded mystical Essenes, who dwelt on the western shore of the Dead Sea, we find this system even before the time of Christ. From Egypt and Syria it urged its way into the Christian church. The spirit of monachism had its origin in a proud effort of man to feel himself independent in soul of vulgar matter, to be a simple spirit, and it was closely connected with a belief that every thing material is essentially evil, and that the miserable and sinful state of mankind results from a union of the soul with the body. Wherever this belief lived, though unconsciously in the soul, it was perfectly natural that a desire should exist to destroy as far as possible the body. The simplest method of doing this, was for a man to free himself from matter by suicide, expecting at once to possess a healthful spirit and to be delivered from all misfortune and sin.

The Bible, the apostles, and the primitive church speak of a disordered body and of excessive sensuality, but they did not regard a spirit freed from matter as equivalent to a good spirit. On the contrary, they found the seat of depravity in the spirit. This, in order to be independent, has turned away from God, the fountain of life, and trusting in itself is forsaken by the Most High and sinks, helplessly into the power of sense and sin. Man’s redemption, therefore, does not consist in being set free from the body, but in being reunited to God, and by the power of a divine life, becoming the master of his animal nature, making it the organ of a rectified will; and then even the pleasures of sense are sanctified and harmless. Whoever has reached this position can eat and drink as much as the body requires, can enjoy rest, and live in marriage upon earth, and yet be sure of God’s approbation.

This Christian view of things was then lost, and Olympias believed, that her piety would be augmented in proportion to her fasting and watching, and to the pain which she inflicted upon herself. And Chrysostom—?

In youth he had been a strict monk and very severe with himself, and if at a later period he bewailed the sad effect which those excessive severities had upon his health, he did not repent the conflicts which he had then victoriously waged, for he knew how much he was indebted to them. Nay more, through life he esteemed very highly the spiritual labors of earnest genuine monks, and was a friend to cloisters. The spirit of the age, from which no one is able to free himself entirely, had a power over him, and he not only remained unmarried, as a bishop then must, but he also believed a life of celibacy peculiarly holy before God. Yet in his later years he was free from the error of supposing self-torture to be a virtue, and he therefore regarded many repulsive features of his age with a feeling totally different from that entertained by a multitude of his earnest contemporaries. He held in high esteem the life of a pious wife by the side of her husband and in the midst of her children. In one place he very beautifully describes a mother, seated at the bedside of her dying child, and with Christian submission, without a word of complaint, giving back to the Lord what He had given to her. He depicts her sufferings, not unlike those of the martyrs, and the fortitude with which she endures them. Thus a mother, he says, though she takes not the knife in her hand like Abraham, brings the same offering which he brought. And in another place he declares expressly, that the essential element of a virgin life well pleasing to God is not celibacy, but rather a full surrender of the soul to Christ, and he appeals in support of this statement to the Apostle Paul, who says, in 1 Cor. 7:32, that she is a true virgin, who careth for the things which belong to the Lord.

In harmony with these convictions, he must have rejoiced in Olympias in view of her care for the things of God, her declining a second marriage, her love of Divine things, and her cheerful service of the church,—but the way in which she made use of her property for everybody, and the monkish serf-torture which she practised, revealed to him a moral disease which he believed it his duty to heal.

“I praise your zeal,” he once said to her, “but whoever strives to reach the summit of perfect virtue before God, must wisely bestow his charities; while you, by augmenting the treasures of the rich, seem ready to cast your wealth into the sea; forgetting that you have consecrated your gold to the poor, and must therefore employ it as no longer your own property, but as a talent for which you will be called to give account. If you follow my counsel, you will regulate your charities by the necessities of those who solicit them.”

Olympias at length perceived the impropriety of her previous course, and proceeded thenceforth according to the judgment of her bishop. Hence many, who had often enjoyed her liberal gifts, obtained them no longer. And what was the result?—The world is ever the same; there were those from this time onward who gave no good account of the friendship between Chrysostom and Olympias. The Lord Jesus Christ well knew the truth of His words: “behold I send you as lambs in the midst of wolves,” and “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake; rejoice and be exceeding glad.” Chrysostom did not allow himself to be moved by the talk of men. The hearty friendship between him and Olympias continued through life, and the great sufferings which overtook this noble woman and many other persons from their connection with the bishop, but confirmed their attachment to him. We shall hear of this at a later period.

I will close this section with a few words of Chrysostom, who had sharp eyes, and could not be deceived by a course of conduct like that of Olympias, yet not springing from such a mind and spirit.

“Many,” he says, “who have taken the vow to remain virgins, subdue their nature in this respect, but fail in another. The love of ornament and splendid apparel they have not wholly conquered, but they are even more infected with vanity than other women. What advantage have they in not wearing gold and pearls and gems? The pearls and stones are not in themselves evil; it is the desire to please and attract notice which is sinful. It matters not whether I seek to do this by uncommon simplicity, by coarse apparel, by sacrifice and self-conquest, or by gold and silk. But they think not of this; provided only they do not go on as the children of this world, they imagine themselves to be good and devout, thus deceiving and being deceived.”

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