(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Theodore of Perge, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saint Theodore of Perge
Refusal to serve in the military in answer to conscription on the grounds of what has come to be known as conscientious objection was of no consequence in the second century. The domination of the world by the Roman Empire was assured by its military might, which in turn attracted young men anxious to wear the uniform, but never in numbers enough to satisfy the chiefs of staff. To augment their forces, the Roman commanders pressed into service the natives of the countries they had subjugated, making it attractive enough to insure harmony and efficiency.
One whose conscience would not allow him to take up the sword under any banner was a man known to Christendom as Theodore of Perge, who had the courage to fight for his religious convictions, facing a formidable enemy with the truth of the Savior as his only weapon. When conscripted for service during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius (140), he refused to take up arms, according to the dictates of his conscience, in a protest for peace which even his fellow Greeks seemed to construe as a form of cowardice. It remained for ensuing events to prove that not only was he not a coward, but that his was the greater courage.
The Greeks had a regiment of their own under Roman supervision known as the Tiro unit (so called for the word meaning recruit), a unit that was under the usual discipline, but afforded the rights and privileges of any of the soldiers who served Rome. It was therefore no disgrace and, more often than not, somewhat of an honor to serve as a Tiro who could win military rank and honor, so long as it was not at the expense of his fellow Greeks. It came as no surprise to those who knew him as a pious Christian since childhood when Theodore refused to report for duty. But the reaction of the authorities was quite unfavorable.
Ordered to give account of himself, Theodore appeared before what passed for a draft board in those days to explain that he had been raised by his mother, Philippa, a deaconess of the Church, as a Christian and a man of peace who could not compromise a life pledged to the Savior with any other kind of service, military or civil. An indifferent panel listened to an eloquent defense of the Christian faith, interrupting after a short time to issue a recommendation that he report as ordered or be turned over to a military tribunal for trial as a traitor, meaning certain death. Or, if he declared himself for the pagan god of war together with other assorted gods and give himself over to their service, he would not need to enter the military and his life would be spared. The obvious refusal brought a military trial and condemnation.
What ensued is one of the marvels of Christianity that stagger the mind, a study in the blending of human endurance with the supernatural powers that emanate from the divine, a phenomenal occurrence needed to bolster a faltering faith in the early years of persecution. Theodore was attached to a grill and stretched across a blazing pit dug in the earth, but no sooner was his body over the flames than water gushed from beneath the pit to extinguish the fire. The presiding officer in this grisly affair explained away the phenomenon as a coincidence in having excavated a pit over a well and ordered another pit to be dug and refueled. Before this could be done, Theodore asked that the fire be rekindled and that another be tested for what was called a coincidence, since the waters had receded.
The challenge was answered by a pagan priest named Dioskoros who allowed himself to be placed on the grill. When he felt the first lick of flames, he looked to Theodore to beg that he invoke his God to help him, but Theodore was brushed aside by one of the attendants and the pagan priest perished in the fire. When the process was repeated from a freshly-dug pit, the devout Christian prisoner again was saved by a seeming geyser which sprung anew to douse the flames. Two soldiers named Socrates and Dionysios accepted Christ on the spot, for which they were ordered put to death with Theodore. When Philippa appeared to plead for her son, she too was condemned. Mother, son and the two converted soldiers were beheaded on April 19.