Tuesday, 19 February 2013

With the Saints in Lent (7): Saint Philothei, 19 February

Saint Philothei, ‘Teacher of the Greek Girls’

Patrick Comerford

I pray constantly for the people of Greece and their sufferings in the present financial crisis. The consequences for families have taken on tragic dimensions, and it is heart-breaking to realise that these sufferings are going to continue for generations.

As we pray for the people of Greece in this present tragedy, I am reminded on our journey through lent with the saints that this day (19 February), the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of Saint Philothei of Athens (1522-1589), Ἡ Πολιοῦχος τῶν Ἀθηνῶν Ἁγία Φιλοθέη (the Patron Saint Philothei of Athens) or the Ὁσιομάρτυς (Monastic Martyress).

Saint Philothei was born as an answer to the prayers of Angelos and Syriga Benizelos, a well-to-do and pious couple in Athens, and she was baptised with the name Revoula.

However, at the age of 12 she was married to a nobleman who turned out to be an abusive husband and impious and crude man. The young girl “admonished and censured him” and prayed fervently that God would change him. Her prayers seemed in vain, but he died three years later when she was 15.

Her parents wanted the young widow to marry again, but Saint Philothei resisted and remained at home until they died 10 years later.

According to her biographer, Photios Kontoglou, she also “catechised her housemaids and made them receptacles of the Spirit.”

Saint Philothei sees the Apostle Andrew in a vision telling her to build a convent dedicated to him

It is said she had a vision of the Apostle Andrew, who asked her to build a convent dedicated to him. Saint Philothei used her wealth and lands to build a central convent in Athens and dependencies in outlying areas and on the Greek islands. When the first building was complete, she entered the convent, became a nun and received the name Philothei or “friend of God.”

Saint Philothei is remembered for her generous philanthropy. She built hospitals for the sick, homes for the elderly, and schools for children, and used her wealth to ransom slaves.

According to Photios Kontoglou, she was known as Κύρα Δασκάλα, “lady schoolmistress.” She took in women who were beaten by their husbands, abducted by the Turks, or pressured to convert to Islam, even enduring imprisonment and the threat of death for protecting some women who had been enslaved. Her biographer writes: “The infirmaries and hostels that she built, not too far from the convent, were a reflection of her compassionate soul.”

The popular stories of Saint Philothei include accounts of many miracles. It is said she healed a young shepherd who had become demonised, and that “through long and ardent prayer, she released him from the demonic scourge. After properly admonishing him, she tonsured him a monk. He then lived the remainder of his life in penitence, to the amazement of all.”

The Martyrdom of Saint Philothei

When the Turkish authorities in Athens learned that women had taken refuge in her convent, some Turks burst into her cell and beat her before taking her to the governor, who threw her into prison. In the morning, a mob of Turks had gathered, and they led her out of the prison, and the governor agreed that if she did not renounce Christ she would be hacked to pieces.

Just when Saint Philothei was ready to accept a martyr’s crown, a crowd of Christians gathered and she was freed. She returned to her monastery, where she continued with her cycle of abstinence, prayer and vigil. She then founded a new monastery in Patesia, a suburb of Athens.

During the all-night vigil at the monastery on the feast of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite (3 October), her fellow patron of Athens, a gang of Turks seized her, tortured her and beat her almost to death.

The sisters tried to treat her wounds and carried her flowing with blood to a safer monastery in Kalogreza. But Saint Philothei never recovered from this beating, and she died on 19 February 1589.

The reliquary of Saint Philothei in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens

Her relics were eventually placed in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens, where they remain to this day. The inscription on her reliquary reads:

Φιλοθέης ὑπὸ σῆμα τόδ᾿ ἁγνῆς κεύθει σῶμα,
ψυχὴν δ᾿ ἐν μακάρων θήκετο Ὑψιμέδων.

The body of pure Philothei is kept beneath this memorial,
But her soul is kept among the blessed on high.

The Burial of Saint Philothei

Dismissal Hymn of the Righteous One:

Let us worship the Word
The famed city of Athens honours Philothei,
the righteous Martyr, whose relics it now reveres with joy;
for while living in sobriety and holiness,
she exchanged all earthly things
for the everlasting life through great contests as a martyr;
and she entreats the Saviour to grant his mercy to all of us.

Tomorrow: 20 February: Frederick Douglass.

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