Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume IX/Letters to Olympias/Letter I
letters to olympias.
to my lady.
The most reverend and divinely favored deaconess Olympias, I John, Bishop, send greeting in the Lord.
1. Come now let me relieve the wound of thy despondency, and disperse the thoughts which gather this cloud of care around thee. For what is it which upsets thy mind, and why art thou sorrowful and dejected? Is it because of the fierce black storm which has overtaken the Church, enveloping all things in darkness as of a night without a moon, and is growing to a head every day, travailing to bring forth disastrous shipwrecks, and increasing the ruin of the world? I know all this as well as you; none shall gainsay it, and if you like I will form an image of the things now taking place so as to present the tragedy yet more distinctly to thee. We behold a sea upheaved from the very lowest depths, some sailors floating dead upon the waves, others engulfed by them, the planks of the ships breaking up, the sails torn to tatters, the masts sprung, the oars dashed out of the sailors’ hands, the pilots seated on the deck, clasping their knees with their hands instead of grasping the rudder, bewailing the hopelessness of their situation with sharp cries and bitter lamentations, neither sky nor sea clearly visible, but all one deep and impenetrable darkness, so that no one can see his neighbour, whilst mighty is the roaring of the billows, and monsters of the sea attack the crews on every side.
But how much further shall I pursue the unattainable? for whatever image of our present evils I may seek speech shrinks baffled from the attempt. Nevertheless even when I look at these calamities I do not abandon the hope of better things, considering as I do who the pilot is in all this—not one who gets the better of the storm by his art, but calms the raging waters by his rod. But if He does not effect this at the outset and speedily, such is His custom—He does not at the beginning put down these terrible evils, but when they have increased, and come to extremities, and most persons are reduced to despair, then He works wondrously, and beyond all expectation, thus manifesting his own power, and training the patience of those who undergo these calamities. Do not therefore be cast down. For there is only one thing, Olympias, which is really terrible, only one real trial, and that is sin; and I have never ceased continually harping upon this theme; but as for all other things, plots, enmities, frauds, calumnies, insults, accusations, confiscation, exile, the keen sword of the enemy, the peril of the deep, warfare of the whole world, or anything else you like to name, they are but idle tales. For whatever the nature of these things may be they are transitory and perishable, and operate in a mortal body without doing any injury to the vigilant soul. Therefore the blessed Paul, desiring to prove the insignificance both of the pleasures and sorrows relating to this life, declared the whole truth in one sentence when he said—“For the things which are seen are temporal.” Why then dost thou fear temporal things which pass away like the stream of a river. For such is the nature of present things whether they be pleasant or painful. And another prophet compared all human prosperity not to grass, but to another material even more flimsy, describing the whole of it “as the flower of grass.” For he did not single out any one part of it, as wealth alone, or luxury alone, or power, or honour; but having comprised all the things which are esteemed splendid amongst men under the one designation of glory he said “all the glory of man is as the flower of grass.”
2. Nevertheless, you will say, adversity is a terrible thing and grievous to be borne. Yet look at it again compared with another image and then also learn to despise it. For the railings, and insults, and reproaches, and gibes inflicted by enemies, and their plots are compared to a worn-out garment, and moth-eaten wool when God says “Fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye afraid of their revilings, for they shall wax old as doth a garment, and like moth-eaten wool so shall they be consumed.” Therefore let none of these things which are happening trouble thee, but ceasing to invoke the aid of this or that person, and to run after shadows (for such are human alliances), do thou persistently call upon Jesus, whom thou servest, merely to bow his head; and in a moment of time all these evils will be dissolved. But if thou hast already called upon Him, and yet they have not been dissolved, such is the manner of God’s dealing (for I will resume my former argument); He does not put down evils at the outset, but when they have grown to a head, when scarcely any form of the enemy’s malice remains ungratified, then He suddenly converts all things to a state of tranquillity and conducts them to an unexpected settlement. For He is not only able to turn as many things as we expect and hope, to good, but many more, yea infinitely more. Wherefore also Paul saith “now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” Could He not, for example, have prevented the three children at the outset from falling into trial? But He did not choose to do this, thereby conferring great pain upon them. Therefore He suffered them to be delivered into the hands of barbarians, and the furnace to be heated to an immeasurable height and the wrath of the king to blaze even more fiercely than the furnace, and hands and feet to be bound with great severity and they themselves to be cast into the fire; and then, when all they who beheld despaired of their rescue, suddenly, and beyond all hope, the wonder-working power of God, the supreme artificer, was displayed, and shone forth with exceeding splendour. For the fire was bound, and the bondmen were released; and the furnace became a temple of prayer, a place of fountains and dew, of higher dignity than a royal court, and the very hairs of their head prevailed over that all devouring element which gets the better even of iron and stone, and masters every kind of substance. And a solemn song of universal praise was instituted there by these holy men inviting every kind of created thing to join in the wondrous melody; and they uttered hymns of thanksgiving to God for that they had been bound, and also burnt, as far at least as the malice of their enemies had power; that they had been exiles from their country, captives deprived of their liberty, wandering outcasts from city and home, sojourners in a strange and barbarous land; for all this was the outpouring of a grateful heart. And when the malicious devices of their enemies were perfected (for what further could they attempt after their death?) and the labours of the heroes were completed, and the garland of victory was woven, and their rewards were prepared and nothing more was wanting for their renown; then at last their calamities were brought to an end, and he who caused the furnace to be kindled, and delivered them over to that great punishment, became himself the panegyrist of those holy heroes, and the herald of God’s marvellous deed, and everywhere throughout the world issued letters full of reverent praise, recording what had taken place, and becoming the faithful herald of the miracles wrought by the wonder-working God. For inasmuch as he had been an enemy and adversary what he wrote was above suspicion even in the opinion of enemies.
3. Dost thou see the abundance of resource belonging to God? His wisdom, His extraordinary power, His loving-kindness and care? Be not therefore dismayed or troubled but continue to give thanks to God for all things, praising, and invoking Him; beseeching and supplicating; even if countless tumults and troubles come upon thee, even if tempests are stirred up before thy eyes let none of these things disturb thee. For our Master is not baffled by the difficulty, even if all things are reduced to the extremity of ruin. For it is possible for Him to raise those who have fallen, to convert those who are in error, to set straight those who have been ensnared, to release those who have been laden with countless sins, and make them righteous, to quicken those who are dead, to restore lustre to decayed things, and freshness to those which have waxen old. For if He makes things which are not, come into being, and bestows existence on things which are nowhere by any means manifest, how much more will He rectify things which already exist. But you will say there are many who perish, many who are caught by snares. Many such things have indeed often taken place, yet afterwards have all received their appropriate correction, save some few who have remained in an incurable condition, even after the change in their circumstances. Why are you troubled and distracted because such a person is cast out and such another is put into his place? Christ was crucified and the release of Barabbas the robber was demanded, and the depraved populace clamoured for the preservation of the murderer rather than of the Saviour and benefactor. How many think you then stumbled at these things? how many were destroyed? But I must carry my argument yet further back. Did not He who was crucified become immediately after his birth a wanderer and a fugitive? was He not from the very cradle removed with the whole household into a strange land, taking that long journey into a barbarous region? And this removal gave occasion to torrents of blood, and cruel murder and slaughter, and all the children of tender age were cut to pieces just as if they had been soldiers arrayed in battle, and infants torn from the breast were handed over to death, and even when the milk was in their throats, the sword was driven through their necks. What could be more distressing than this tragedy? And these things were done by him who sought to destroy Jesus, yet the long-suffering God endured this tragical cruelty, which caused so much bloodshed, and forbore to prevent it although He had the power, displaying his long-suffering for some inscrutably wise purpose. And when Jesus had returned from the foreign land and was grown up, war was rekindled against him on every side. First of all the disciples of John were envious of Him and tried to slander Him, although John himself behaved reverently to Him, and they said “He who was with thee beyond Jordan, behold the same baptizeth and all men come to Him.” For these were the words of men who were already irritated, and agitated by ill-will, and consumed by that passion. For the same reason also one of the disciples who said these things disputed with a certain Jew and raised a contentious argument about purifying, comparing one kind of baptism with another, the baptism of John with that of the disciples of Christ. “For there arose” it is said, “a questioning on the part of John’s disciples with a certain Jew about purifying.” And when He began to work miracles how many calumniators He had! Some called Him a Samaritan and demoniac saying “Thou art a Samaritan and hast a Devil” others “a deceiver,” saying “This man is not of God but deceiveth the multitude” others “a sorcerer” saying “He casteth out devils through Beelzebub the prince of the Devils” and they continually said these things against Him and called Him an adversary of God, and a gluttonous, and greedy man, and a drunkard, and a friend of the wicked and depraved. “For” He said, “the Son of man came eating and drinking and they say behold a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.” And when he was conversing with the harlot they called Him a false prophet; “For had He been a prophet,” one said, “He would have known who this woman is which speaketh unto Him;” in fact every day they sharpened their teeth against Him. And not only did the Jews thus oppose Him, but even those who were reputed to be his brethren were not sincerely attached to Him, but even out of his own family opposition was kindled against Him. See at least how they also themselves were perverted, from the evangelist adding the remark “for neither did His brethren believe on Him.”
4. But since you call to mind many who were offended and went astray, how many of the disciples do you suppose were offended at the time of the crucifixion? One betrayed Him, the others took to flight, one denied Him, and when all had abandoned Him He was led away bound without companions. How many then think you who had lately seen Him working His miracles, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, casting out devils, multiplying loaves, and doing all other kinds of wonderful deeds, were offended at that season, when they beheld Him led away and bound, surrounded by common soldiers, and followed by Jewish priests making a tumult and uproar; alone in the midst hemmed in by all his enemies, and the traitor standing by and exulting in his deed? And what was the effect think you when He was being scourged? and probably a vast multitude was present. For it was an illustrious festival which brought all together, and this drama of iniquity was enacted in the capital city, and in the very middle of the day. How many think you who were present then were offended when they saw Him bound, scourged, streaming with blood, examined before the governor’s tribunal, and not one of His disciples standing by? What was the effect again when He was subjected to those manifold kinds of mockery, successively repeated, when they crowned Him with thorns, then arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, then put a reed in His hand, then fell down and worshipped Him, setting in motion every species of ribaldry and derision? How many think you were offended, how many bewildered, how many perplexed when they smote Him on the cheek and said “prophesy unto us thou Christ who is He that smote thee?” and when they led Him hither and thither, and spent the whole day in scoffs and abuse, and ribaldry and derision in the midst of the Jewish assembly? and when the servant of the High-Priest dealt Him a blow; and when the soldiers parted His garments amongst them and when He was led up to the cross, having the marks of the scourge upon His back, and was fastened to the wood, how many think you were offended? For not even then were those savage beasts softened, but became more furious than before, and the tragedy became more intense, and the ribaldry increased. For some said “Ah! thou that destroyest the temple, and in three days buildest it up;” and some, “He saved others, Himself He cannot save.”
And others said “If thou art the Son of God come down from the cross and we will believe thee.”
Again when they insulted Him by offering Him gall and vinegar on the sponge how many think you were offended? or when the robbers reviled Him? or when as I have already said, they made that dreadful and monstrous assertion that the robber and housebreaker, the man laden with the crime of murder deserved to be released rather than Jesus, and having received permission from the judge to make their choice preferred Barabbas, desiring not only to crucify Christ, but also to involve Him in infamy? For they thought that by these means they should be able to manufacture the belief that He was worse than the robber, and such a great transgressor that neither on the plea of mercy, nor of the privilege of the Festival was it possible to save Him. For they did everything with a view to slander His fame; which also was the reason why they crucified the two robbers with Him. Nevertheless the truth was not obscured, but shone forth all the more clearly. And they accused Him of usurping kingly power saying “Every one who maketh himself a king is not a friend of Cæsar” bringing this charge of usurpation against one who had not where to lay his head. Moreover they brought a calumnious accusation of blasphemy against Him. For the High Priest rent his clothes saying “He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses?” And what was the nature of his death? was it not a violent one? was it not the death of capital offenders? of execrable criminals? was it not of the vilest kind? was it not the death of those who have perpetrated the worst offences, and are not worthy to draw even their last breath upon the earth? And then as to the manner of his burial, was it not accomplished as a matter of favour? For a certain one came and begged for his body. Thus not even he who buried Him belonged to his own friends, to those whom He had benefited, to his disciples, to those who had enjoyed such free and salutary intercourse with Him, for all had taken to flight, all had hurried away from Him. And that base suspicion which his enemies contrived in consequence of the resurrection when they said “His disciples came and stole Him” how many think you were offended, how many for a time upset by that? For the story prevailed at that time, although it was a fabrication, and was bought for money; nevertheless it held its ground amongst some people, after the seals (of the sepulchre were broken) after the manifest appearance of the truth. For the multitude did not know the prediction of the resurrection (and no wonder), inasmuch as even his disciples did not understand it; for we read “they did not know that He must rise again from the dead.” How many therefore think you were offended in those days? And yet the long-suffering God patiently endured, ordering all things according to His own inscrutable wisdom.
5. Then again after those days the disciples continued to live in hiding and secrecy, being fugitives full of fear and trembling, continually shifting from place to place, and even when they began to appear after fifty days, and to work miracles, they did not enjoy perfect security; but even after those events there were innumerable stumbling-blocks to offend the weaker brethren, when they were scourged, when the Church was distressed, when they themselves were driven away, and their enemies had the upper hand in many places, and raised tumults. For when they had acquired much confidence by means of the miracles which they wrought, then the death of Stephen again caused a severe persecution, and dispersed them all, and involved the Church in confusion; and the disciples were again alarmed, fugitive, and distressed. And yet the Church continually grew, when it flourished by means of the signs which were wrought and became illustrious from the manner of its introduction. One disciple for example was let down through a window, and so escaped the hands of the ruler; others were brought out of prison by an angel and so released from their fetters; others were received into the houses of common people and artisans when they were driven out by those in authority; they were courteously treated in every way, by female sellers of purple, by tentmakers, and tanners dwelling in the outskirts of the cities, and by the sea shore. Frequently moreover they did not dare to appear in the middle of the towns; and if they did venture there themselves their entertainers did not. And thus amidst alternate trials, and respites from trial, the fabric of the Church was wrought, and they who once stumbled were afterwards set upright, and they who wandered away were brought back, and the ruined places were built up more firmly than before. For this cause when Paul prayed that the preaching of the word might proceed by a smooth course only, God rich in wisdom and resource did not yield to His disciple; nay even when many times invoked he would not consent but said “my grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” If then even now you will reckon up the good things with the painful, you will see that many events have occurred which if not positive signs and wonders do yet resemble signs, and are unspeakable proofs of the great providence and succour of God. But that you may not hear everything from me without any trouble, I leave this as thy task, that you may reckon up everything accurately and compare them with the misfortunes, and by occupying yourself with this good employment may divert your mind from despondency; for you will derive much consolation from this work.
Pray say many kind words from me to all your blessed household. May you continue in good health and good spirits, most reverend and divinely favoured lady.
If you wish me to write long letters inform me of this, and pray do not deceive me by saying that you have thrown off all despondency, and are enjoying a season of rest. For letters are a remedy of the proper kind to produce great cheerfulness in thee, and you will continually see letters from me. And when you write to me again do not say “I have much comfort from your letters,” for this I know of myself, but tell me that you have as much as I wish you to have, that you are not confounded with sorrow, that you do not pass your time in weeping, but in serenity and cheerfulness.
- 2 Cor. iv. 18.
- Is. xl. 6.
- Is. l. 7, 8.
- Ephes. iii. 20.
- John iii. 26.
- John ii. 25. St. Chrysostom here follows the same reading which is found in the three oldest extant mss. of the New Testament, the Sinaitic, Vatican and Alexandrian. The textus receptus has μετ€ 'Ιουδαίων “with the Jews” instead of μετ€ 'Ιουδὰίου “with a Jew.”
- John viii. 48.
- John vii. 12.
- Matt. ix. 34.
- Luke vii. 34.
- Luke vii. 39.
- John vii. 5.
- Matt. xxvi. 28.
- Matt. xxvii. 40.
- Matt. xxvii. 42.
- Matt. xxvii. 40.
- John xix. 12. The latter part of the sentence, which is not correctly quoted, was probably suggested by the words immediately preceding, “if thou let this man go, thou art not Cæsar’s friend.”
- Matt. xxvi. 65.
- Matt. xxviii. 13.
- These words in brackets are not in the original, but must be understood, to make sense of the passage.
- John xx. 9.
- 2 Cor. xii. 9.