The memory of Saint Olga is celebrated at the end of July and at the end of August the Church remembers Saint Monica
Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest
Saints Olga and Monica, whose memory adorns the church calendar of summertime, are an amazing example of female and maternal righteousness.
On July 24, the Church celebrates the memory of St. Olga. One of the greatest Russian saints, Olga is revered as the first of the Russian rulers to receive holy baptism. Celebrating the memory of Saint Olga, the Church thanks God for her personal conversion, as well as for the beneficial influence she had on her grandson, Prince Vladimir (956–1015).
The church calls Olga “equal to the apostles.” The history of the origin of such a term in relation to the saints is symbolic and curious at the same time. The fact is that Emperor Constantine the Great I (+337) was baptized before his death and bequeathed to bury himself in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, which he himself built.
It is important to understand that the signing of the Edict of Milan in 313, the holding of the Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325, which united the episcopate of the Christian Church to resolve doctrinal issues, and then the baptism by the Emperor became the stages of an event of truly revolutionary importance. Before the accession of Constantine to the throne, Christians in the Empire were a minority. At the end of his reign, Christianity actually became the official confession of faith. Moreover, the very term Orthodoxy began to denote the interpretation of Christian teaching accepted in the Roman Empire.
The Emperor was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles. So, symbolically, he rested next to them, became “one of them.” This marked the beginning of the naming of Constantine himself Equal to the Apostles.
Indeed, his services to the Church and Christianity were very great. Therefore, over time, the title of Constantine Equal to the Apostles became an expression of gratitude of the Church, as the People of God, for his work.
Thus, the origin of the term Equal-to-the-Apostles was originally “political”. Over time, this title began to be called the great missionaries. So, the theological meaning was added to the political meaning of the term.
So, by analogy with Constantine, the Church calls “equal to the apostles” those rulers who have become enlighteners and baptizers for their countries. In addition, subsequently, holy missionaries began to be called Equal-to-the-Apostles. These were those preachers, evangelists, spreaders of the faith of Christ, who later began to be revered by the people of God as saints.
At the same time, the name “equal to the apostles” in relation to one or another saint is not necessarily synonymous with the success of their work. Thus, in the case of Cyril (827-869) and Methodius (815-885), whom the Church also calls Equal-to-the-Apostles, the historical mission of the Slavic enlightenment of Moravia came to naught during their lifetime. The mission of the Orthodox missionary in Japan, close to us in time, Nikolai Kasatkin (1836–1912), according to statistics, was less successful than the corresponding mission of Protestants and Catholics over the same years. It is important to understand that statistics cannot measure apostolate.
But back to Saint Olga. According to the chronicles, she came from the outskirts of Pskov. She was born there around 890. Already in 903, she became the wife of Igor (878–945), who, according to the chronicles, was destined to ascend the throne in 912. Such an early marriage in those days from the point of view of law was not a rare occurrence. So according to medieval church rules, marriage was allowed very early. Apparently, the marriage of Igor and Olga was stable and successful, but in 945 the prince was killed. Olga became the de facto ruler of Rus’ due to the infancy of her son Sviatoslav (942–972).
At the same time, neither Igor nor Olga were Christians. Although exact information about this has not been preserved, due to their origin, they most likely shared the pagan ideas of the Varangians and Slavs. Olga may have been a Slavic; her husband was from the Varangian tribe. At the same time, her very name, which comes from the Germanic word for “holy” or “sacred”, speaks in favor of her Scandinavian origin. Apparently, in the “original language” it sounded like Helga.
The most important act of Olga on the princely throne was baptism in 955. According to the chroniclers, Olga was baptized by the Patriarch, and the Emperor himself was the godfather. Later enlightened historians questioned this version, seeing in it a kind of naive ambition of a very young people, which was then Rus’. It is possible that Olga was baptized in much more modest circumstances, in private in her homeland.
But it seems that the chronicles do not lie. After all, the name that Olga received in baptism – she was called ‘Elena’ – was no doubt a project name. After all, Olga had a son, Sviatoslav, who, if we continue this logic of the name, by analogy with the Equal-to-the-Apostles Constantine and Elena, was to become Constantine.
That first, ancient, Roman, Saint Helena was the mother of the Emperor. In 330, it was he, Constantine, who founded New Rome on the banks of the Bosphorus – the City, which was soon to be named after him. Constantine also built the church of Hagia Sophia. In it, destroyed and immediately rebuilt in the 6th century by the Great Justinian, Olga was baptized in 955. So, according to the chronicle, the princess was baptized by Patriarch Theophylact (933–956), Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (945–959) acted as a godparent. After this event, he had only four years left to live. About the same number of years Olga had to rule. In 961 Sviatoslav ascended the throne and ruled until his tragic death in 972.
In 1453, Constantinople, which by that time had become a city-state, fell under the blows of the Ottomans. Hagia Sophia, whose name, based on the semantics of ancient terminology, should be understood as the “Temple of Christ the Savior” became the military trophy of Sultan Mehmet (1432–1481). The conqueror entered the Cathedral on a horse, and soon turned the temple into a mosque.
By an amazing coincidence, the service, that is, the liturgical service in honor of the saint, was written by the Serbian and Russian theologian and author of liturgical texts and the lives of the saints Pachomius the Serb (+1484) in 1453. It was in this year, on May 30, that the fall of Constantinople took place.
History made Hagia Sophia a museum in 1935 before being reversed today. In 2020, Sofia again became a mosque, and the second transformation took place on July 24 – exactly on the day when our Church celebrates the memory of Equal-to-the-Apostles Olga. The lives of the saints, like postmodern literature, are often rich in play of coincidences. Such coincidences keep a warning.
The Byzantine project ‘Olga – Helena – Konstantine’ failed. According to the testimony of the same chroniclers, her son Sviatoslav (942–972) refused to accept Christianity. At the same time, unlike so many rulers of that time, who, like so many today, wanted to turn the rivers of time back, he did not hate Christianity at all. According to the chronicle, it seemed to him unworthy of the calling of a commander. From 961 he became the ruler of Rus’. So, it became obvious that Olga did not manage to baptize her country, or maybe she simply did not have time.
The story doesn’t stop though. The answer from above to the Constantinople project “Baptism of Rus'” was not long in coming. Already in 970, that is, only five years after Olga’s baptism, Sviatoslav almost took Constantinople himself. The army of the prince stood under its walls. The Patriarch in Hagia Sophia prayed God to deliver the believers.
What happened was an indication that true politics is the highest form of love for one’s neighbor. And real, genuine Christianity will always be … the faith of the absurd, and the ridiculous, and the weak. “Blessed are the meek,” as Jesus said in the Gospel (Matthew 5:5).
But Olga knew how to wait. She surprisingly had the wisdom not to baptize Rus’, taking advantage of her son’s infancy. She made no plans. Didn’t build great churches. Olga was granted by Christ the Grace of Expectation. The ability to wait and mourn is an amazing ability that unites man and God in Scripture.
It so happened that this, perhaps the most unsuccessful – in terms of the success of a personal mission – “Saint Equal to the Apostles” in history, in fact, built something that hardly any of the others succeeded. Olga did not create a great local Church and did not build many temples. But by her very expectation, she built a stairway to heaven. It was the same staircase, along which, in 988, Vladimir, the Baptist of Rus’, whom his contemporaries would call the Red Sun, soon ascended.
Eight years after the Baptism of Rus’, in 996, Prince Vladimir transferred the relics of St. Olga to the Church that she once built. The ancient Church, and such was the Russian Church in the first period of its history, did not know the formal regular canonizations of saints. Therefore, in accordance with another ancient tradition of the Church, which called the days of the death of the martyrs and the righteous “birthdays”, the day of remembrance of the revered saint relied on the day of his departure to God. Thus, the celebration in honor of Olga was established on the day of her death on July 11 according to the Julian calendar. Recall that according to the modern secular calendar, this day corresponds to July 24. Olga passed away to the Lord in 969.
Often, St. Olga is mistakenly perceived as a successful statesman. She is presented as a kind of prince Vladimir before prince Vladimir, the preliminary baptizer of Rus’ before the baptism in 988, final, solemn, and decisive. But Olga’s Constantinople project failed. It is important not to forget about this.
However, if what the chroniclers tell about Vladimir before his baptism corresponds to historical reality, then Olga, undoubtedly, should have mourned that her son refused to share her convictions. Her grandson grew up as a pagan and developed in the opposite direction to Christianity, the habit of sin, according to the chronicles, became rooted in him. So, in this grief, Olga became like many grieving holy mothers, among them the mother of St. Augustine Monica.
On August 28, the Church celebrates the memory of St. Augustine. The Russian philosophical tradition calls him Blessed Augustine. Because in our modern Orthodox terminology it is customary to call “blessed” saints who voluntarily or due to character traits have refused to realize their intellectual abilities, the use of this term in relation to Augustine should be avoided. Augustine was one of the greatest Church Fathers, philosopher, and theologian.
Аt the end of August 430 he passed away to the Lord in the city of Hippo Regius, besieged by the Vandal tribes. In this modern Algerian city called Annaba, Augustine was the bishop of the Christian Church for more than thirty years.
According to tradition, on the eve of Augustine’s Memorial Day, August 27, the Church remembers his mother, Saint Monica.
Like Emilia of Caesarea (+375), Nonna of Nazianzus (+374) and Anthusa of Antioch (324-?) – the mothers of Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom – Monica was one of those great wives who brought up great teachers of universal Christianity. Without them, the history of the Church and the world would have been different. The holy mothers of the Church Fathers are truly worthy of veneration.
The mother of the greatest of the western Fathers of the Church was born in Thagaste, modern Algerian Souq-Ahras, in 331. At the age of 22, she gave birth to Augustine, being 40 years old, she was widowed in 371.
Monica’s husband, Patricius, or, in modern transcription, Patrick, was baptized before his death. Such a tradition, in fact, turning sacramental baptism for the remission of sins into a washing before death, was widespread in antiquity. Paradoxically, it was the future teaching of the late Augustine that contributed to the abolition of this practice.
The death of the father did not change the attitude of the future Father of the Church towards Christianity. He was in religious delusions, and, like the Apostle Paul before his conversion, but intellectually, he persecuted the Church (1 Cor.15:9), denying the meaningfulness of Christianity and mocking the biblical Old Testament foundations of faith in Jesus Christ. Saint Monica prayed for her son, her prayer then was based on the conviction of the Christians of the Carthaginian Church that God, by the power of grace, can change the will of a person, break it by transforming it into a Thirst for Good (cf. Luke 14:23). Faith, prayer, and patience of St. Monica did not remain without fruit.
In 387, on the night of Easter, April 24, Augustine was baptized in Milan by Saint Ambrose. A few months later, on November 13, Monica reposed in the Lord in Roman Ostia.
In addition to her first child, Augustine, Monica gave birth to a son, Navigius, and a daughter, Perpetua (+423). The latter is also canonized in the saints.
Augustine’s conversion to Christianity was the result of a personal search and the most complex spiritual evolution. However, he himself believed and claimed that he became a Christian through the predestination of God and the prayers of his mother. In his later writings, Augustine insisted that he received knowledge of this from above by divine revelation at the moment of episcopal ordination.
In addition to Monica’s Memorial Day on August 27, the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of the saint on May 17, as well as on June 14 (27), on the eve of another Augustine memorial day in some Orthodox Churches. Let us recall that on June 28 our Church honors the memory of the Father of the Church jointly with another great representative of the ancient Western Orthodox tradition, the translator of the Bible into Latin, Jerome (347-420).
Interestingly, the May celebration in honor of the mother of saint Augustine is associated with the transfer of part of the relics of Monica from Rome to the Augustinian abbey of Arrouaise in northern France in 1162.
Founded in 1090, the monastery in the name of St. Nicholas needed the special heavenly intercession of Augustine, whose monastic charter he was guided by. Obviously, the veneration of the Father of the Church himself in those days was very great. Augustine was called the “Matrix of all conclusions” and the “Father of Fathers.” His relics rested in the northern Italian city of Pavia. Therefore, bringing any ancient relic directly related to him was simply not possible.
On the contrary, the veneration of Augustine’s mother Monica began to spread in the Church only seven centuries after her righteous death. At the turn of the first and second millennia of the Christian era, it greatly increased and continued to spread unspeakably until our time. It turns out that the transfer of relics to France and the beginning of the flowering of her veneration in that era are mutually intertwined.
Like many shrines, churches, and monasteries, the once very glorious Abbey of the canons of St. Augustine ceased to exist during the French Revolution (1789). But connected with the circumstances of the heyday of the monastery, the transfer of the relics of the saint by the mysterious predestination of God became one of the dates for the celebration of the memory of Monica of Thagaste in Orthodoxy.