I met also the blessed Avita, deserving of God, and also her husband Apronianus and daughter Eunonia. In all things they were pleasing to God, having been openly converted from a careless and voluptuous life to a life which was exemplary and continent. It was granted to them to fall asleep in Christ freed from all sin, having battled their way to perfection in unremitting struggles, held in precious memory by those from whom they have departed.
In the country of Ancyra there were many other virgins, up to about ten thousand of them, who lived disciplined lives and fought to develop all the virtues, women who were famous and well known everywhere for their ascetic customs, and the zeal with which they waged the heavenly battle. Among them all the crown of devotion was held by Magna, a woman of probity and integrity.
I am not sure whether to class her as a virgin or a widow, for after her mother forcibly joined her to a husband, she contrived to avoid violation and retain her virginity intact, so her family says. She would put her husband off with various excuses for delay, and plead various bodily infirmities. Her husband died not very long into the marriage and left her the sole heir. She offered herself to God entirely, exchanging the concerns of this world for the concerns of God, and this she did for the rest of her life. Justice was her watchword in ruling her household, taking great care to order all things with due orderliness. She was very strict in her dealings with the community, so that even the most highly esteemed bishops stood in awe of her outstanding religious devotion.
She possessed far more material goods than were necessary, but scorned them by living in poverty. Her surplus wealth she entrusted to stewards who distributed alms to monasteries, hostels for the homeless [ptochotrophiis, those who care for beggars], guesthouses, churches, the poor, travellers, bishops, orphans, widows and anyone in need. She never ceased to nourish a hidden life of devotion both in herself and in her faithful slaves, attending church without fail, especially in the night vigils, conducting herself virtuously in everything for the hope she had of the true eternal life.
The VIRGIN who sheltered bishop Athanasius.
I happened to come across this virgin in Alexandria when she was about seventy years old. All the local clergy could testify to the fact that when she was a very attractive young girl of about twenty anyone seeking to be celibate kept away from her, because she was so beautiful that people might have suspected there was something going on.
Now at that time the Arians were stirring up trouble for Athanasius the bishop of Alexandria. They not only slandered him but also accused him of various wicked crimes before Eusebius, who was then the governor under the emperor Constantius.
He knew how biased that court could be in its judgment and also how useless it would be to try and escape from it by hiding with relations or friends or fellow-clergy or household slaves. When the officers of the governor suddenly appeared at the bishop's house looking for him in the middle of the night he put on slaves' clothing and fled to no one else but this same virgin. She was naturally astonished and very frightened.
"I am being accused of terrible crimes by the Arians," said Athanasius, "and I have decided to fly rather than be publicly condemned and drag into the same condemnation anyone who might have sheltered me. God has revealed to me this night that I cannot possible be safe with anyone else except you."
Being totally on the Lord's side, her fear was cast out and exchanged for joy. With willing and eager heart she concealed that holy bishop for six years, for as long as Constantius lived. She washed his feet and emptied his chamber pot and provided for all his needs, making sure that he had plenty of books. For all those six years nobody in Alexandria knew where that blessed bishop was.
When he heard the news that the emperor Constantius was dead, he dressed himself in his accustomed vestments and appeared in church one night. All who saw him were overcome with amazement, as if they were looking at someone who had risen from the dead. His friends were all asking him about the hiding place that nobody knew of or had been able to find.
"I did not flee to any of you," the blessed Athanasius said to his friends and relations, "so that you would truly be able to swear to your own ignorance in the event of your being interrogated. Instead, I sought refuge with one upon whom no suspicion could possibly rest, because of her beauty and youth. Two good things have resulted, one of which is her own salvation. For I have been able to give her "some guidance, as well as providing for my own reputation and security."
The life of Amma TALIDA
In the state of Antinoe there was a monastery of twelve women, among whom I met Amma Talida who had been living the life for eighty years, so her sisters told me. There were sixty younger women with her who all held her in such great respect that there was no key to the main gate as there was in other monasteries. They were held there simply by love.
When I went in to see her and sat down she came in and sat down beside me. She was so liberated from any kind of emotional instability that with great freedom and trustfulness she even put her hand on my shoulder.
The life of Amma TAOR
There was a disciple of Talida's in this monastery called Taor, who had been there for thirty years, so those who knew her told me. She would never wear new clothes, or a cloak or shoes.
"I don't need them," she would say. "That way no one can compel me to go out."
So when everyone else went to church on Sunday for Communion she stayed at home dressed in rags, hard at work. She was so dazzlingly attractive that even the most resolute might easily have been led astray by her beauty had she not had such a marvellous gift of self-denial that she was able in all honesty to turn away lustful eyes into reverence and respect.
The VIRGIN who renounced the world
There was another virgin who lived near me, following a strict religious rule, but whose face I never had seen. They say that she had never been outside since she first began this kind of life. When she had lived with her own mother for sixty years like this the time came for her to leave this world. She saw in a vision Colluthus who had been named a martyr and who used to live locally.
"Today you are to go to the Lord," he said, "and you will see all the Saints. Come then, and dine today with us in the martyrs' chapel."
Next morning when she awoke and got dressed she packed some bread and olives and a few herbs into a basket and went out for the first time in all those years. She went into the chapel and prayed all by herself the whole time up until the ninth hour when she sat down and prayed directly to the martyr.
"Bless this food, O holy Colluthus" she asked, "and guide me along the way by your prayers."
After she had eaten her food and prayed for some time more she went home at about sunset and handed to her mother her book on the prophet Amos by Clement Stromoteus.
"See that the exiled bishop gets this," she said, "and pray for me, for today I go to my Lord."
A VIRGIN who lapsed and did penance.
There was a certain virgin who had lived the disciplined life with two others for nine or ten years when she was led astray by one of the cantors and began a shameful affair with him. She conceived and gave birth to a child, with deepest compunction in her soul and the most intense hatred for him who had deceived her. She imposed a most severe penance on herself, being willing to die from hunger should she persevere in it.
"O almighty God," she prayed in tears, "you who bear all our sins and the infinite wickedness of the whole world, who do not will the death of sinners or those who fall into ruin (Ezekiel 33.11), but have mercy on every creature, it is your will that all should be saved (1Tim.2.4). If it is your will that I who am perishing should be saved pour out on me your loving kindness and show me your wonderful works. Command that this fruit of my iniquity be taken away and gathered up. It was conceived in lust and born in sin. This all makes me want either to hang myself or throw myself over a cliff."
Her prayer was heard and answered, for the child she bore died not long afterwards. Ever since that time she had nothing to do with the man who enslaved her, but with great determination gave herself totally to maintaining her chastity. For the next thirty years, she dedicated herself to caring for the sick, the lame and the wounded, making such acceptable reparation to God that it was revealed to a certain priest that she was more pleasing to God in her penitence than ever she had been in her virginity.
I write this so that we do not condemn those who have grievously sinned and sincerely do penance from the heart. This blessed woman was one who forced herself to pour out her heart to the Lord in humility of life, and she is not least among those constrained by penitence.
The DAUGHTER of a priest who falsely accused a lector (a minor clerical order), and the lector EUSTATHIUS
There was a priest's daughter in Caesarea of Palestine who fell from grace and was urged by her seducer to implicate a certain lector. She was persuaded, and did put the blame on him, for when she was questioned by her father about her swelling waistline she named Eustathius. The priest was very upset and took the matter to the bishop, who, upon hearing this, summoned the lector to appear before a council of the priests. Questioned about the matter by the bishop the lector would not confess, for what could he say seeing that he had not done anything?
"You unfortunate and unclean person," said the bishop, in a distressed and stern tone of voice.
"Won't you confess your fault?"
"Oh, please," replied the lector. "I've told you how it is. I have had nothing to do with the matter. I am totally free of blame. This thing had never even entered my head. But if you want to hear me tell a lie, then yes, I did it."
Hearing this the bishop deposed him from the office of lector.
"My lord bishop," he said, falling at his feet, "seeing that you think I am guilty, in spite of what I have said, I am now stripped of my ecclesiastical position, and unworthy to be one of your holiness's clerics. Order that she be given to me as a wife from now on, for I am no longer a cleric any more than she is a virgin."
When the bishop and the priest heard this the father handed the girl over to the lector, trusting that the young man was kindly affectioned towards her, and that in any case it would be impossible to keep them apart. Accepting her from the bishop and her father he comforted her, led her away and took her to a monastery of women. He begged the one in charge of this brotherhood (sic!) to care for her until she gave birth.
Having left her in the monastery the lector went away and shut himself in a primitive cell, taking upon himself a life of the greatest asceticism, approaching the Lord with a contrite heart and with many tears and groans.
"You know my deeds, O Lord," he prayed. "You know everything. Nothing is hidden from you. There is no secret place where anyone may hide from your all-seeing power. You see all things before they even happen. You alone see into the depths of the mind. Every mental idea is discerned by you as if open to view. And since you know all hearts exactly you judge justly. You bring help to those who are unjustly condemned. You cannot be wrong. You exonerate those who are oppressed by slander. Injustice is abhorrent to you. Yours is every weight going into the scales of justice, for light unapproachable is yours for ever, and every human deed is done in your sight. Just and unchangeable judgment belongs to you. Pronounce therefore your judgment on me."
As the young man went on praying purposefully and fasting diligently the young woman's birth pangs began. The just judgment of God began at that very hour, for that slanderer suffered the most bitter and intolerable pains, huge groan after groan, unspeakable birth pangs. Terrible visions of the punishments of hell beset this miserable wretch, and still the infant because of its great size would not come forth from the womb.
The first day and the second day came and went and still she suffered unbearable pains. The third day and the fourth day followed and her pains were more grievous than many births put together. The fifth, sixth and seventh were darker still, and the unhappy woman plumbed the depths of misery. In all this time she had eaten nothing and not had a moment's sleep. But after the hard heart of this false accuser had been so grievously given up to such severe torments and groans of agony, after all that she was at last conquered by God. Into the midst of her groaning she brought to light things which had been hidden and confessed.
"Alas, what a wretch I am!" she sadly exclaimed. "I have brought myself into grievous danger of perishing. I have committed two serious sins, not only fornication but also slander. To the loss of my virginity I have added defamation of character. It was somebody else who led me into sin, but I accused the lector."
Hearing this the virgins of the monastery immediately told the father. But he was frightened of being implicated in the slander, and was reluctant to believe what was being told him, so did nothing for two days. Meanwhile the wretched woman continued to be afflicted with grievous pains, hovering between life and death. While he did nothing the eighth and ninth days struck her down into the deep darkness of unrelieved semi-consciousness. The convent realised she had stopped crying, and hastened to tell the bishop that this was now the ninth day and that she had confessed to accusing the lector unjustly, and that she was unable to give birth as a punishment for her calumny.
When the bishop had heard what the virgins had to say he sent two deacons to the lector to tell him everything and beg for his prayers that the miserable woman might be released from her plight. But the lector gave no answer and would not even open the door. From the day that he had gone into this cell he had not ventured out, but had carried on with his regular routine of fasting, and pouring out his prayers to God.
The father then changed his mind and took pity on his daughter. He went to the bishop and asked that prayers be said for her in church. But even when prayers had been said to the Lord by everyone she still was not released from her plight. The prayers to God of him who had been calumniated were preventing the prayers of the others from being heard. So the bishop himself went to the lector's cell, but he still would not come out. After the bishop had been outside for some time, with the lector inside, he ordered the door to be taken off. He went in and found the young man prostrate on the floor, praying without ceasing.
"Brother Eustathius, lector," the bishop said, "by the providence of God the calumny against you has been revealed and your prayers have been heard. Now have pity on her who sinned against you and who is suffering torments worse than being whipped. Have pity on the wretched woman. Rise up and loose what you have bound. She is suffering because of your prayers. Beg the Lord to allow her to give birth."
The lector and the bishop prayed fervently together and at once the poor woman was freed from her plight. The child was born. They all prayed that her sin should be forgiven through the prayers of that righteous man, whom from then on they famously held in as much honour as they would a martyr. Freed from the cloud hanging over him he attained to the highest possible level of the virtuous life which he had begun, so that he was found worthy of being granted spiritual gifts.
We have written about these things lest anyone else who slanders should be embroiled in the snares of the enemy and suffer intolerable bodily pains such as I have described befell this false accuser. Even after having been liberated from the body there is the danger of the pains of eternal torment from which there can be no respite. For God has nothing but anger for anyone who slanders. But let him who is unjustly accused bear it calmly and charitably, praying that all will be revealed and that God's judgment will be just, exactly like Eustathius who was crowned by Christ. Such a man is to be praised and had in honour and given an eternal crown. Let us also learn from this the unconquerable power of prayer, strengthening the faithful, bringing mercy to sinners, moving and turning the creator of all, crowning those who act righteously, and granting the kingdom of heaven to those who persevere.
The life of holy SILVANIA At that time it happened that when we were sailing from Aelia in Egypt we had with us the blessed virgin Silvania, the sister of Ruffinus, the former governor.
We also had with us Iubinus, at that time a deacon, but now the devout and learned bishop of the church in Ascalon. The heat was terribly severe, and when we went ashore at Pelusius it so happened that Iubinus took a basin, washed his hands and feet in very cold water, spread his cloak on the ground and lay down. When Silvania noticed this, like a good mother correcting her own son she admonished Iubinus for his softness.
"What are you thinking of," she said, "to pamper your miserable flesh like this, at your age, when the blood still courses freely in your veins? Are you not frightened of being condemned for this? Believe me, believe me, I am sixty years old, and apart from washing my hands before Communion no water has touched my feet or my face or any part of my body, even when I have been ill. Even when urged by the doctor to take a bath I have not allowed my mind to give in to the flesh. Nor have I ever used soft chairs or been carried in a litter."
She was very learned, filled with such a love of learning that she would burn the midnight oil reading all the commentaries of the ancient writers, all of Origen's three hundred thousand lines, Gregory, Stephen, Pierus and Basil, two hundred and fifty thousand lines of other famous men of outstanding virtue. She did not merely skim lightly through them, but devoured each book carefully seven or eight times, in order to be carried away on high by the grace of their words, in good hope of becoming like a spiritual bird flying away to Christ and receiving from him everlasting rewards.
Olympias followed in Silvania's footsteps by seeking after all the divine virtues of the spiritual life She was someone to be revered for her integrity. With steadfast zeal she kept to the paths which lead to heaven, following the precepts of the divine Scriptures in everything.
According to the flesh she was the daughter of a nobleman (comes) called Seleucus, but according to the spirit a true daughter of God. Her grandfather was Ablavius, one of the governing classes (praefecti), and for a few days she was married to Nebridius, one of the governing class of the city of Constantinople, although to tell the truth she was the wife of nobody. She is said to have slept alone as a virgin - effectively living with only the divine word as companion. Her husband was a completely humble man who sympathised with her and provided her with all her needs.
She shared her immense wealth with everyone, completely undiscriminating about whom she might help. Town, country or desert - no one escaped the generosity of this famous virgin. She helped build churches in place of shrines where sacrifices were made; she supported monasteries and coenobia and pilgrim hospices and guardhouses and exiles - in a word, she gave alms to all the corners of the earth.[
A 'monastery' might consist of only one cell or many. A 'coenobium was a community of many monks.]
This blessed woman more than anyone else attained to the greatest heights of humility There was no false glory in her life, she had no guile, she wore no make-up, she was physically fit, not given to boasting, with a mind free from arrogance, a peaceful heart, keeping sleepless vigils, not a meddlesome spirit, of immense charity, more than you could possibly grasp, wearing cheap and ugly clothing, completely continent, her thoughts always rightly ordered, her eternal hope always in God, her almsgiving beyond reckoning, chief among all humble people, beset by many temptations from the one who of his own will is totally evil and without one shred of goodness, that is, the devil who frequently attacked her, floods of tears were a constant part of her life [of compunction], her human nature completely subject to God, devoutly obedient to the holy bishops, respecting the priesthood, honouring the other clerics, maintaining discipline, caring for virgins, helping the widows, comforting the bereaved, protecting the aged, visiting the sick, taking pity on sinners and leading those who have strayed back into the right path, showing compassion to all but especially the poor, bringing many deserted wives into the catechumenate, even helping them by providing them with food. She spread a reputation for generosity about her throughout her whole life.
She restored from slavery to freedom an innumerable crowd of slaves, fitting them out as splendidly as any of the nobility. To tell the absolute truth, they were a great deal better clothed than this holy woman. It would not be possible to find cheaper clothing than this woman wore. Even people dressed in rags would scorn this holy woman's clothing. So great was her meekness that she quite surpassed her own servants in simplicity of life. Her neighbours never had anything to complain about in this woman who was a living embodiment of Christ himself.
All her leisure time (vita non vitalis) was given up to compunction accompanied frequently by floods of tears. This noble woman would rather the summer heat dry up her own household water supply than that her eyes fixed on Christ should fail to pour forth tears. What else can I say? For the more I turn my mind to the story of her struggles and virtues, her rocklike solidity, the more I find that my words are nowhere near doing justice to the facts. And don't let anyone think that I have gathered up all this splendid and magnificent material by seeking for information at second hand about this most chaste Olympias. She was a precious vessel filled with the Holy Spirit and I witnessed with my own eyes her blessed and angelic life. I was her spiritual friend, more familiar to her than all her relations. It was I who distributed much of her money at her directions.
There is no more to say about her but that she was down to earth, subject to the governors, obedient to the powers that be, respectful to the priesthood, holding all the clergy in honour, valiant for truth having been found worthy to suffer various unjust accusations. The faithful in Constantinople regard her as a Confessor, and venerate her almost as they would [Christ's] mother, for she was tried and tested in all the struggles she endured for God's sake. For these things she has been given the blessing of glory after her death. Crowned in eternity she lives in splendour, dwelling in everlasting mansions with saints like unto her, where no ruin or evil may have place, receiving from Christ the due reward of her faithfulness and good works.