At the end of the year 404, in the seventh month of his exile in the mountains of Armenia, the deposed Archbishop John of Constantinople chastised his disciple Olympia because she had fallen into despondency.
In his ninth letter to Olympia, collected in Letters to Saint Olympia (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), the future St. John Chrysostom (347-407) asks his disciple and the future St. Olympia (361-408) whether she knows that despondency is a great evil and that she is following the devil’s will because she is so distraught and tormented by his exile.
In his tenth letter, he continues to speak of despondency to clarify for Olympia “how heavy and oppressive a burden it is.” Despondency, he tells her, “is a continual executioner that not only tears in pieces one’s torso but also mutilates the strength of one’s soul. It is a continuous night, darkness with no light.”
Although the course his life had taken had caused Olympia and his disciples in Constantinople to become distressed and despondent, St. John was at peace. He had endured the persecution of the emperor and empress of Constantinople and the bishop of Alexandria.
Fever and other ills, barbarians, and hostile clergy and monks had troubled him through seven months of exile. Yet he could write to Olympia in his ninth letter:
“If you are grieving because of the aftermath of the evils I’ve experienced, know for certain that I have shaken them off completely.”
Throughout the seventeen letters he writes to St. Olympia, St. John offers sound advice about how to patiently endure as a Christian despite the difficulties of one’s life. The letters are personal, spiritual direction for a faithful disciple who is suffering.
He tells her in his tenth letter that he writes “not only to banish your despondency but to fill you with great and continual gladness.” She can endure, he says, because she has been enduring since her youth. Reflecting on Scripture will help her understand how to endure.
The despondency Olympia suffers is what we call depression. Such depression, St. John recognizes, damages our relationship with God.
Olympia also suffers because she is scandalized. This can be translated as a snare or a stumbling block set by others. Public torturers have harmed her, he says, but she is more harmed by the illness caused by her despondency, “the extreme infirmity . . . which is like having a public torturer continually residing in your house.”
She must drive away her despondency and stop punishing herself, he says in his seventeenth letter, reminding her that this is the subject of the treatise he wrote not long before this letter. The subject, he says, can be summarized as “no one can harm the one who does not injure himself.”
Olympia’s despondency is well explained by the definition of depression that Orthodox clinical psychologist Thomas Brecht says (in Archbishop Chrysostomos, Orthodoxy and Psychology) affects about eighty percent of those seen in a clinical setting, what “Freud identified . . . as anger turned inward.”
Olympia is angry about the treatment of St. John by his persecutors, and she is angry that those persecuting him go unpunished.
Olympia’s depression also seems to fall into one of the categories that Brecht identifies as affecting some of the remaining twenty percent of those suffering from depression: “the learned habit of looking at only the negative aspects of life or some circumstance.”
To drive away her despondency, she will need to follow St. John’s advice in his letters, and this will require her to work against her anger and to look at the positive aspects of life and circumstances. She will need to accept what she sees as the negative circumstances of her life and trust more in God:
“. . . let us learn from Job, who shone forth with great brilliance; and from Timothy, was so excellent and who fulfilled such a noteworthy ministry, who went with Paul across the whole world—and who, not for just two or three days, or ten or twenty or a hundred, but for many days, lived continually in sickness, with a body greatly weakened.”
Olympia was not the only member of St. John’s flock distressed by his persecution and exile, and the persecution they as followers experienced at the hands of St. John’s enemies.
St. John wrote the treatise, translated recently as On the Providence of God (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood), to help them to understand the cause of their distress and to give them a means for abandoning themselves to divine providence.
In the treatise, he seeks to instruct his followers in how to identify scandal or stumbling blocks, and to become truly vigilant through reflection on Holy Scripture and the lives of Paul, Abraham, Job, David, Daniel, and others, but especially Our Lord and the apostles.
He seeks to help his followers to become “persuaded that God provides for all things”; to accept that when the Church is troubled it “instructs the whole world—to be steadfast, to practice self-constraint, to endure trials, to display patient endurance, to despise the things of this world. . . .”; and to stand firm.
Letters to Saint Olympia and On the Providence of God are masterpieces of spiritual direction. In these two works, St. John offered an individual, Olympia, and a group, his followers, a remedy for the sickness they were suffering.
His medicine of words, as he calls them, is a remedy for the ages.