Feast of St Olga

Feast of St Olga July 11, 2008

“Today let us praise God the Benefactor of all, who has glorified the divinely-wise Olga. And through her prayers may He grant to our souls the forgiveness of our sins” (Kontakion of St. Olga). 

On July 11, the Church celebrates one of the most remarkable women who ever lived – St Olga. From what has been written of her, one could say that the only thing which rivaled her beauty – which made her greatly desirable by the men of her age – was her intellect. Like Solomon, her great wisdom was made known by deed. She was as crafty as they came. She first used her intellectual gifts for earthly pursuits, and with them, she out-maneuvered all who challenged her. She would not be deterred; she would get what she wanted, no matter who stood in her way. Yet she was eventually the one who was overcome, because she would come across Jesus Christ and be mastered by him. Her earthly brilliance was nothing compared to his greatness, and all that she had done for and by herself was to come to naught. Through the grace given to her by the enlightening waters of baptism, her earthly sins were forgiven, and her wits would be put to use for the kingdom of God.   

She had first made her place in history by the brilliant, but cruel, tactics she used to inflict revenge upon the Derevlians.[1] A couple years later, she journeyed to Constantinople for both political and religious reasons. The emperor, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, took an interest in her and became yet another man who wanted to marry her (which is saying something, because of his general disdain for Rus). One again, she did not want to get married, but things had changed, and she did want to be baptized and become a Christian. She told him she couldn’t marry him until after her conversion, and asked him to lead her to the baptismal font as her godfather. Agreeing to it, she was baptized by Patriarch Theophylaktos, whereupon she took the name of Helen. And then, once she was a Christian, the emperor again approached her, asking for her hand in marriage only to be rebuffed: she couldn’t marry him, because, by becoming her godfather, she was his daughter in the faith and no father can marry their own daughter. Not even the barbarians would accept such a practice! Astounded by what she had done, he saw that she had outwitted him, and that there was nothing he could do but accept what had happened. He let her return to her people, taking with her the priests, texts and relics she needed to help Christianize Rus.

Back home, she followed the example of her patron saint, Helen. She took the faith seriously, even though her family did not. Her son did not follow her in baptism, despite all of her prayers and attempts to convince him to become Christian. The change in her life was obvious. She sowed the seeds for the eventual conversion of Rus to Christ, which would happen under her grandson, St Vladimir. “Olga was the precursor of the Christian land, even as the day-spring precedes the sun and as the dawn precedes the day. For she shone like the moon by night, and she was radiant among the infidels like a pearl in the mire, since she people were soiled, and not yet purified of their sin by holy baptism. But she herself was cleansed by this sacred purification. She put off the sinful garments of the old Adam, and was clad in the new Adam, which is Christ.”[2]

We must now look at the example the Church provides for us in honoring St Olga (as an Equal of the Apostles, no less!). It might at first seem like her canonization was political. Perhaps some of that is true. God can and does work in and through politics. But when God does so, it must be for his greater glory. And in the canonization of St Olga we do get a glimpse of it. We can see something amazing going on here, something which should make all Christians rise up to honor God: God can turn someone was cruel and barbaric as St Olga was into one of his great saints. So many times we look at someone who does evil and think there is no hope for them. We demand justice, but the justice we demand is not Christian justice, but human justice: revenge. We don’t want to consider the fact that they are persons made in the image and likeness of God, and that God’s grace is there, even for them. We don’t want to hope for their spiritual transformation. Instead, our concupiscence can get in the way. We want them wiped off the face of the earth, and we want to consider that to be justice. It’s justice without mercy, the kind of justice which Christianity must always repudiate. Indeed, St Olga, before her conversion, shows us the kind of evil that can happen in the name of that kind of justice. If she were alive today and did what she did in her day, she would have been captured, tried and condemned for war crimes. She harmed the Derevlians with her indiscriminate actions against them. The circle of vengeance would have led many people calling for her death; they would show her no mercy, even as she showed none to the Derevlians. The lack of mercy to her would have continued the cycle of hate. The only way out of it, as Christ shows us, is through love in mercy. Christ’s grace was for everyone, even for one who conducted war crimes like her. It can transform anyone and turn them into saint! No matter what kind of evil one might have done, the Christian response to them can never be one based upon hate; it must be based upon mercy. It must always be one of charity. It must always be rooted in hope. It doesn’t, of course, have to be foolish. But how foolish would it have been to have returned St Olga’s evil with more evil, if the Byzantine emperor had taken her in and had her executed for crimes against humanity? It would not only have been her own life which would have been lost: a whole nation would have been affected. The circle of violence would have continued. Her people would have thought that injustice was shown against Olga, and demanded retribution. Instead, the grace given to Olga was able to bring Christ to a whole nation. The seed of grace might start out small. But when properly planted, even in a war criminal, it can turn out a great bounty.[3] But for that to be the case, Christians must act as Christians, and bless those who do them evil. Otherwise, nothing they say and do can show them to be any different from the rest of the world. And the Gospel will be proven a lie by those who claim to be its followers.

Footnotes

[1] Her husband, Igor, ruled over Rus from Kiev when Rus was beginning to find its place on the world scene; he had even entered into a pact with Constantinople, greatly increasing his land’s prestige. But he was like any other prince of his time. He wanted to develop his kingdom. To do that meant he had to go out and acquire tribute from the neighboring lands. In one such excursion, while at the Derevlian city Iskorosten’, he was slain. As a widow with a young son, the up-and-coming kingdom was placed into her control. That alone would have made Olga a prize to any man who could win her hand in marriage. It was a prize she would never let herself to become: she loved Igor and had no interest in any other men, no matter how much interest they would have in her. And many of them would end up wanting to be with her. One of them was Prince Mal of the Derevlians. When he sent ambassadors to her indicating such an interest, she pretended to accept his proposal, but only because she knew she could use it as a means to wreck her vengeance against her husband’s killers. More than once she responded to him, indicating that she would marry him, but each time she would ask him to do something for her to prove his worth to her. Everything she asked him to do, he did it, because he believed her, blinded as he was to her real motives. She had him where she wanted him, leading him by his passions. Each request gave her the opportunity to have many Derevlians brutally killed. Her schemes were the stuff of legend. Eventually, she had enough and besieged Iskorosten’. When both her army and the city’s citizens were tired of the war, she promised to leave if the city gave her the tribute she wanted: three pigeons and sparrows from each place of residence. Thinking they were getting off lightly, they accepted her demands. Once she got the birds, she had her soldiers tie a piece of cloth containing burning coals to their feet, and then let them go. Free, they returned to their nests. The coals did what she wanted, having the city burn. The citizens of the city, unable to keep the fire down, fled from the city and into her hands. She placed a ransom upon some of the citizens, turned others into slaves, and killed the rest. Afterwards, she finally returned to Kiev, satisfied that she did all she could do to pay back the Derevlians for what they had done to Igor.

[2] The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text. Trans. and ed. Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Cambridge, MA: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1973), 86.

[3] Of course, I understand that we should not read the past with modern sensibilities. People should be judged, in part at least, according to the time and place they lived. Yet, this does not allow us to deny the objective evil in St Olga’s pre-Christian actions, even if the subjective culpability can be questioned.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Catholic
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • susanj

    For the sake of clarity: I believe it is the Russian Orthodox Church that celebrates St,. Olga on July 11. In the Catholic Church, July 11 is the memorial of St. Benedict. This morning I posted a short entry, along with a link to an English translation of his Rule, here: http://susanjoan.wordpress.com/2008/07/11/st-benedict/.

  • July 11 is also her feast day for Catholics, and remembered as such, as you can find, for example here: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=427 and here: https://www.sqpn.com/sainto03.htm

    However, the feast day is more signicant in the East, and has prominence for Byzantine Catholics because of her role in our history (I am Byzantine Catholic).

  • susanj

    Thanks, Henry, I hadn’t been aware of that. The Magnificat lists only St. Benedict and so I wondered when I saw your post. The couple of places I quickly checked spoke of the feast as celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church only. I appreciate the correction – as well as the chance to learn more about a saint who is not one I had familiarity with.

  • Susan,

    You are welcome. One of the things you will probably note is that the Byzantine Catholic Calendar and the Western Calendar will differ; since I am Byzantine, I will be using my calendar for this ongoing series of posts. I want to highlight some of the liturgical feasts for our daily lives. I can’t do them all (every day there are, of course, many saints being celebrated), but I am trying to many of the important ones to the Byzantine tradition. It will sometimes seem strange to the Western eye (like All Saints Sunday or even Sts Constantine and Helen). Soon, the Dormition, I am sure, will raise some questions (the East has always been clear on Mary’s death before the assumption). But what I will reflect is will be from a Catholic tradition and I hope, because of its unusual nature, it will also help inspire people and they will learn something new. I am glad when people do.

  • jenny

    this is very interesting. i am doing a report and this is very helpful