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Deaconesses in Europe and their Lessons for Americ

Deaconesses also penetrated to Ireland


the great capital of the Eastern Empire, where the luxuriance and magnificence of the Orient combined with the keen, quick intellectual life of the Greeks; in the circle of the imperial court, with its intrigues, its fashions, its favoritisms; at a time when outwardly much respect was paid to the forms of religious life, but when the great and vital dogmas of the Church were made the sport of witty sophistical disputations; when those who endeavored to lead an earnest Christian life met with nearly as much to oppose them as in periods of active persecution; such were her environments. They were little favorable to the strength of mind, the fixedness of purpose, the self-denial and Christian devotion that marked this noble deaconess. Born in 368 A.D. of a heathen family of rank, owing to her parents' early death she was educated a Christian. In her seventeenth year she married Nebridius, the prefect of the city, but after a married life of twenty months he died, leaving her at eighteen years a widow, rich, beautiful, and free to decide her future. The Emperor Theodosius desired her to marry one of his kinsmen, but she refused, saying, "Had God designed me to lead a married life he would not have taken my husband; I will remain a widow," and shortly after she was consecrated a deaconess by Bishop Nectarius. The emperor, angered at her refusal, took from her the use of her large fortune, and put it under the care of guardians until she should be thirty years old, whereupon she only
thanked him for relieving her of the heavy responsibility of administering her estate, and begged him to add to his kindness by dividing it between the poor and the Church.

Shamed out of his anger, the emperor soon restored her rights, and when Chrysostom came to Constantinople her lavish and often unwise generosity was felt in every direction, being compared to "a stream which flows to the end of the world." He reproved her unbounded liberality, and advised her to administer alms as a wise steward who must render an account. This counsel guided her into safer paths. Finally, when Chrysostom was driven forth to banishment, by his advice she remained in the city, and became a support for his followers and those who had been dependent upon him. She met contemptuous treatment and judicial persecutions, but continued her works of charity, and outlived the man whose mind and heart had so influenced hers by eleven years. Chrysostom wrote her many letters, of which seventeen are extant.[14] They plainly show the estimate he set upon the diaconate of women, and his endeavor to wisely cherish it. Unfortunately, they also show exaggeration of compliment and praise which detract from his words of sincere and honest admiration. Too often, also, he gives undue value to works of mercy, and exalts acts of ascetic self-denial.

The question of the age at which deaconesses could be received is a vexed one. The confusion of apprehension touching deaconesses and widows led to differing enactments at different times and places. The restriction of age, however, must now have lost its force, as we find Olympias a deaconess when not yet twenty years of age, and Makrina, the sister of Gregory of Nyssa, was ordained when a young girl. Deaconesses retained control of their property. In truth, a law of the State forbade them to enrich churches and institutions at the expense of those having just claims on them. Deaconesses also existed in the Church of Asia Minor. Ignatius mentions them as at Antioch in Syria. They were in Italy and Rome. The Church of St. Pudentiana, in the Eternal City, keeps alive the memory of two deaconesses whose house is said to have stood on this site; Praxedes and Pudentiana, the daughters of a Roman senator, who devoted themselves, with all they had, to the service of the Church. Deaconesses also penetrated to Ireland, Gaul, and Spain, lingering in the last named country many years after they had passed out of knowledge elsewhere.

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