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Deaconesses in Europe and their Lessons for Americ

Pentadia and Procla were closely associated with Olympias


The

office of the deaconess, as described by the _Apostolic Constitutions_, fitted into the needs of the Eastern Church and the requirements of Greek life. It was in the East that the diaconate of women originated, and here that it attained its greatest growth. In the West custom did not demand the careful separation of the sexes as in the East, and church relations were less bound by social usages; consequently we meet with fewer references to deaconesses in the works of the Latin fathers, and the diaconate of women is not so deeply rooted in the affections of the church communities as we have found it in the Greek Church.[10]

The fourth century was the blossoming period of woman's diaconate, when it attained its highest importance. All the leading Greek fathers and Church authorities of the age make mention of it. The office is spoken of as worthy of all honor, filled by women of rank from noble families, and those of wealth and ability. It found its special advocate and protector in Chrysostom, "John of the Golden Mouth," who was Bishop of Constantinople from 397 until 407 A.D. He seems to have had the ability, rare for that age, of understanding the value of the services of Christian women, and through his wise guidance and encouragement had over them almost unbounded influence. Forty-six deaconesses were under his direction--forty attached to the mother church at Constantinople, and six belonging to a small church in the suburbs. A number of

these were closely identified with his history, either as relatives or friends, and through his writings their memory is preserved. Of these are Nicarete, of a noble family of Nicomedia. We are told she was of a modest, retiring nature, and would not take places of responsibility when urged to do so by Chrysostom. We note a strong tendency toward the later celibate life of the nuns when we read that she was extolled for "her perpetual virginity and holy life." Sabiniana was the aunt of Chrysostom. To Amprucla the bishop wrote two letters still extant.[11] They are filled with words of consolation for the religious persecution she has undergone. In one of them he says: "Greatly did we sympathize with your manliness, your steadfast and adamantine understanding, your freedom of speech and boldness." "Manliness of soul" seems to have held a high place in the bishop's favorite qualities. In another place, writing to the same deaconess, he praises "your steadfast soul, true to God; yea, rather, your noble and most manly soul."

Pentadia and Procla were closely associated with Olympias. In a letter to Pentadia, Chrysostom writes: "For I know your great and lofty soul, which can sail as with a fair wind through many tempests, and in the midst of the waves enjoy a white calm."[12] Reading such words of appreciation, words that in other places approach dangerously near to adulation, we better understand the influence Chrysostom exercised over the women of his time, and their steadfast devotion to him. They had the conviction that all their efforts met with his sincere and profound appreciation and quick responsive acknowledgment.

Pre-eminent among the friends of the great bishop was Olympias, of whom Dean Howson said, "She is the queenly figure among the deaconesses of the primitive Church." To understand her life we must recall the scenes by which she was surrounded and the age in which she lived.[13]


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