Book review: Letters to Saint Olympia, by Saint John Chrysostom

Letters to Saint Olympia

Letters to Saint Olympia,
by Saint John Chrysostom
Written between 404-407
Translated by David C. Ford
Published on 2/1/2017
by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press
172 pages


Saint John Chrysostom wrote these 17 letters during his very last exile. They are addressed to Olympia, a widow who embraced a life of asceticism and was ordained a deaconess.  She was very instrumental in her local church, but having to face many pressures, and feeling the pain of John’s exile, she suffered from a disease which we often think to be proper to our modern times.

The recurring theme in these letters is indeed the malaise of despondency, in other words, depression.

These letters are fascinating, as we see John Chrysostom using all kinds of spiritual remedies and reasoning to help Olympia get out of her despair.

In footnote 30 page 24, Doctor Ford mentions the very last Canon of the Quinisext Council (A.D. 692), Canon 102 on pastoral care. I will quote it here, as it beautifully illustrates what John was trying to do:

It behooves those who have received from God the power to loose and bind, to consider the quality of the sin and the readiness of the sinner for conversion, and to apply medicine suitable for the disease, lest if he is injudicious in each of these respects he should fail in regard to the healing of the sick man. For the disease of sin is not simple, but various and multiform, and it germinates many mischievous offshoots, from which much evil is diffused, and it proceeds further until it is checked by the power of the physician. Wherefore he who professes the science of spiritual medicine ought first of all to consider the disposition of him who has sinned, and to see whether he tends to health or (on the contrary) provokes to himself disease by his own behavior, and to look how he can care for his manner of life during the interval. And if he does not resist the physician, and if the ulcer of the soul is increased by the application of the imposed medicine, then let him mete out mercy to him according as he is worthy of it. For the whole account is between God and him to whom the pastoral rule has been delivered, to lead back the wandering sheep and to cure that which is wounded by the serpent; and that he may neither cast them down into the precipices of despair, nor loosen the bridle towards dissolution or contempt of life; but in some way or other, either by means of sternness and astringency, or by greater softness and mild medicines, to resist this sickness and exert himself for the healing of the ulcer, now examining the fruits of his repentance and wisely managing the man who is called to higher illumination. For we ought to know two things, to wit, the things which belong to strictness and those which belong to custom, and to follow the traditional form in the case of those who are not fitted for the highest things, as holy Basil teaches us.

I was particularly struck by the powerful imagery and argument of Letter 7. The first paragraph (page 45) could have been written in 2018-2019, as we consider the issue of Ukrainian autocephaly:

Olympia p45

Nothing new under the sun…
And yet, John teaches her how to keep her eyes on the captain of the boat amidst the storm, and to read everything in the light of His Providence.

Letter 8 also deals with something very modern. We daily hear about numerous bad news, and the media make money through spreading only bad news and all kinds of scandals. We constantly have to fight the battle of thoughts, in order not to sink deep into despair. This is exactly what John is trying to help Olympia with.

The brand new translation by David Ford flows very well. There’s also a good introduction.

I highly recommend the book to those who need help against despair, help rooted in century-old Christian wisdom.




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