04 March 2009

'The Lady Schoolmistress of Athens'—St Philothei the Venerable Martyr

On this day, 19 February, we celebrate the memory of St Philothei (sometimes ‘Philothea’) of Athens (1522-1589), the Ὁσιομάρτυς, or ‘Monastic Martyress’, although it appears she is not officially so named in the Services. According to the Life printed in The Lives of the Spiritual Mothers: An Orthodox Materikon of Women Monastics and Ascetics Throughout the Year, According to the Church Calendar, trans. and comp. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1993), p. 87, her status as a martyr was not mentioned at her glorification (in Constantinople c. 1600) due to fear that the Turks would inflict their wrath on the many monasteries and hospitals she founded.

St Philothei was born as an answer to prayer to Angelos and Syriga Benizelos, a well-to-do and pious Athenian family, and given the name ‘Revoula’. According to her Life, ‘As a God-given child, the blessed Revoula foreshadowed all those virtues and godly accomplishments she was to attain later’ (p. 74). But while the Saint thus wished ‘to preserve her virginity and to live an austere life’ (p. 75), out of obedience to her parents she agreed at the age of twelve to be married to a certain nobleman. Unfortunately, the latter proved to be terribly abusive, and though the young girl ‘admonished and censured him’ and prayed fervently that God would change him, all was in vain. ‘Indeed, three years passed with many tribulations and sufferings until God, seeing her patience and his incorrigibility, reaped him with the scythe of death’ (p. 75).

As she was still only 15, the parents of the young widow wanted her to marry again, but St Philothei resisted more strongly this time and ‘remained at home, offering incessant prayers, as a sacrifice of praise, to God’ (p. 75). After ten years, her parents fell asleep in the Lord, and straightaway, ‘With humility, she began to lead a much more austere life, striving with abstinence, vigilance and prayer, like an industrious bee gathering the honey of virtue’ (pp. 75-6). According to Photios Kontoglou, she also ‘catechised her housemaids and made them receptacles of the Spirit’ (‘Ἡ Πολιοῦχος τῶν Ἀθηνῶν Ἁγία Φιλοθέη’).

Soon, our holy Mother had a vision of St Andrew the First-called, commanding her to build a convent dedicated to him. St Philothei used her wealth and lands to build not only a central convent in Athens, but also dependencies in outlying areas and even the islands. When the initial building was complete, she was tonsured into the Schema and received the name ‘Philothei’, or ‘friend of God’. According to her Life:

Immediately, thereafter, Mother Philothei abandoned all the perishable things of the world and eagerly entered the stadium of asceticism. She took in her company all of the maidservants of her father’s house. . . . In addition to them, many other wealthy and noble virgins forsook all the temporal and perishable things of this life. (p. 77)

While St Philothei, of course, was not deficient in the usual monastic virtues, such as vigils and continence (Life, p. 83), and even built a convent with greater solitude at Patesia where at times ‘she would struggle alone in a nearby cave’ (Life, p. 84), she is primarily remembered for her abundant philanthropy. She built hospitals for the sick, homes for the elderly, schools for children, the Saint herself ‘providing Christian training by teaching everyone ecclesiastical letters and liturgical knowledge’ (qtd. in Life, pp. 78-9). According to Kontoglou, she was known as κύρα δασκάλα, ‘lady schoolmistress’ (the caption of the icon above reads ‘St Philothei, Teacher of the Greek Girls’). 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 by the cruel Turks. As her biographer writes:

Who could listen to Philothei’s salutary words and not perceive the meekness of hier spirit and all her other virtues, and not be attracted to her? Who could possibly praise her worthily for the sympathy, philanthropy, and daily concern that she manifested towards the needy and the sick? She followed St Paul, who said, ‘Who is weak, and I am not weak?’ (2 Cor. 11:29). The infirmaries and hostels that she built, not too far from the convent, were a reflection of her compassionate soul.

Naturally, St Philothei was also granted the grace of performing miracles. Her biographer records, for example, that she healed a young shepherd who had become demonised—‘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’ (p. 83).

The Turks, however, could not long tolerate her activities on behalf of her Christian sisters. On the feast of St Dionysius the Areopagite (her fellow patron of Athens), during the all-night vigil at the monastery at Patesia, a gang of Turks seized our holy Mother and beat her quite nearly to death. St Philothei of course rejoiced that, according to Kontoglou, ‘she was made worthy to be paid with evil for the good things she had done to men and to resemble Christ in this way, according to the words of the Apostle Peter who says: “rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings” (I Pet. 4:13)’.

Although the sisters tried to treat her wounds and carried their eldress to a safer monastery, St Philothei never recovered from this beating. As Kontoglou writes, ‘On the 19th of February, 1589, she gave her pure soul over to the Lord, who endured such torments for love of Him.’ Her incorrupt relics were eventually placed in the cathedral of Athens, where they remain to this day, bringing grace to the city of which St Philothei is an acknowledged protectress. One Greek biography concludes:

Abbess Philothei (Venizelos), saint and martyr of Christ, was also a handmaid of the nation’s dignity and of the city that gave her birth, Athens. Having united her efforts, that is, of leading a saintly life with education and preservation of her heritage, her memory assumes a double meaning for that celebrated, violet-crowned city. (qtd. in Life, p. 85)

On her sepulchre is engraved these lines (followed by my poor attempt at a translation):

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

The body of pure Philothei is hidden under this marker,
But her soul is kept among the blest, ruling on High.

St Philothei is also my own sister’s patron Saint, and I will never forget the great blessing of taking her myself to the cathedral to venerate the relics of her Saint. I wish her many years on this day, as well as safe travels!

Dismissal Hymn of the Righteous One
Plagal of the First Tone. Let us worship the Word
The famed city of Athens doth honour Philothei, the righteous Martyr, whose relics it now revereth with joy; for while living in sobriety and holiness, she hath exchanged all earthly things for the everlasting life through great contests as a Martyr; and she entreateth the Saviour to grant His mercy unto all of us.


Esteban Vázquez said...

What a lovely post. Holy martyr Philothei, pray to God for us!

In a related subject, this brings to mind the vexing question of how to translate "hosios" into English (and Spanish). For a long time I simply went along with the accepted practice in English-language sources and used "venerable," but found that this didn't allow me to sleep well at night. But are there really any alternatives?

aaronandbrighid said...

Obviously, I too have adopted 'venerable'. I can't think of any possible alternatives. I've seen 'righteous', but that seems to risk confusion with OT figures, right?

Cavarnos's solution, in the beloved Orthodox Christian Terminology, is simply to transliterate it, adding a consonant for the breathing mark, as 'Hosios'. He says this practice is 'wise', because it makes them easy to identify. But I'm not so certain. If nothing else, I'd feel silly using 'Prepodobny' for such Saints when they are Slavs, and even sillier calling Slavic Saints 'Hosios'. And should we start calling the Venerable Bede 'Hosios Bede'?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I think using "Holy" for Οσιος/α conveys it quite well. While Αγιος/α etymologically bears the same meaning of "holy", in connection with a name it's become exclusively the equivalent of "Saint." The overlap between the two in Greek can thus be represented almost exactly in English. Neat trick, eh?