Review: Letters to Saint Olympia
Posted by SVS Press on 9th Sep 2020
Feeling Depressed? Try a Church Father
Depression has been called the malady of the modern age. And yet there is no shortage of psychotherapies, medicines, and self-help gurus promising relief. Letters to Saint Olympia by St John Chrysostom, from St Vladimir’s Seminary (SVS) Press, allows us to receive instruction from a renowned Church father on how to deal with this most painful of struggles.
John Chrysostom was a priest-monk from Antioch who became the Archbishop of Constantinople. Known as “the golden-mouthed,” he was a powerful orator and is considered one of the greatest Church fathers. Olympia was an abbess and a deaconess who had been widowed young. Endowed with enormous wealth from her parents, she used her wealth to build the churches of Asia Minor and to assist the poor. Both Olympia and Chrysostom were persecuted from inside the Church. Chrysostom was forced into exile, and it was apparently this that caused Olympia’s profound and unrelenting despair.
The seventeen letters from John Chrysostom (twelve appear here in English for the first time) to his spiritual daughter, Olympia, at the end of his life, are by turns touching, profound, insightful, and deeply personal. Throughout, Chrysostom, one of the most gifted writers of Christian antiquity, demonstrates his deep knowledge of the nature of despondency and the great torment that it causes in both body and soul. He writes in Letter 10:
For despondency [athymia] is for souls a grievous torture chamber, unspeakably painful, more fierce and bitter than every ferocity and torment. It imitates the poisonous worm that attacks not only the body but also the soul, and not only the bones but also the mind. It is a continual executioner that not only tears in pieces one’s torso but also mutilates the strength of one’s soul.
The main thesis of his letters is that despondency is brought on by incorrect thinking, which can be overcome by a person exerting their will to correct the thoughts. God must be beseeched for help again and again, and, above all, the sufferer must patiently, and with gratitude, endure every hardship. “Bearing suffering nobly, without complaining, is probably the most common theme in his entire corpus,” writes translator David C. Ford in his introduction.
Often in the letters, Chrysostom uses the example of his own suffering to help Olympia to see that God uses it to train us for endurance and that the reward for such endurance is joy in this life and in the afterlife. The greater the suffering, the greater the reward. He writes in Letter 14:
Whatever is like a spider’s web, or shadow, or smoke, or anything else even more paltry—this is what the fierce torments coming upon you are like in comparison with the prizes that will be given to you in the coming age. For what is it to be driven out from one’s city, to be transferred from place to place, to be harassed everywhere, to have one’s goods confiscated, to be dragged before the tribunal, to be savagely mistreated by soldiers, to endure the opposition of those who have received from you a myriad of benefactions, to be abusively treated by both servants and free men, when the prize for all these things is heaven, along with those pure, good things which are impossible to describe and which have no bounds, and the enjoyment of which will be eternal for those who have procured them?
The letters are remarkable for Chrysostom’s lengthy and involved exegesis of key Biblical figures including Moses, Joseph, Elijah, Paul, and, his favorite Old Testament example of triumph over suffering, Job. He writes in Letter 10:
In order that you may learn, from another angle, what the gain of suffering is, even if one does not suffer for God—and no one would consider this to be an exaggeration—if one suffers and bears it nobly, and with meekness glorifies God for everything, he will be rewarded. Even Job did not know that he suffered those things for God—and indeed, this is why he was crowned, because he endured them nobly, not knowing the reason for his sufferings.
The letters are also extraordinary for the window they offer us on the intrigues and troubles of the Church in Chrysostom’s day. He entrusts to Olympia’s care several matters including ensuring the wellbeing of bishops whom he consecrated. Above all, he wants Olympia to bear up under the grief of these troubles. He writes in Letter eight:
When you hear that among the churches one has sunk, another is shaken, another is beaten by fearsome waves, another has suffered irreparable damage, one has received a wolf instead of a shepherd, and another a pirate instead of a pilot, and another an executioner instead of a doctor, then grieve (for it is not possible to bear such things without being pained)—yes, grieve, but set a limit to your grief.
It has been said that the best kind of writing is when the writer has been able to duplicate their speaking voice into words. It makes you feel like the person is speaking to you personally. And that is the case with this extraordinary set of letters that have, by some miracle, survived to us today.
Anther book from SVS Press that deals with the subject of depression and how to treat it from the perspective of the Orthodox Church is Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia by Gabriel Bunge.