(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's saint, St. Philothei, comes from Volume 1 of the series.)
The time-honored country of Greece occupies an ill-defined peninsula of the Mediterranean which yields very little in the way of natural resources except perhaps its people, who have been resourceful enough down through the ages to yield to civilization some of the world’s greatest figures in science, culture, politics and religion. At the center of this glorious land is its capital city of Athens, which has been hailed throughout the world for centuries for its great minds, among which is a sixteenth-century woman whose stand for Christ parried the thrust of the Turkish invader and helped assure the permanence of Christianity not only in Greece but in other lands as well. Her name was Philothei, who translated piety into action for God and man in the face of overwhelming odds.
Philothei was born in Athens into an affluent family in the fateful year of 1550, when Christianity was being put to its severest test by a malevolence from Islam holding hostage all of Greece. Reared in an atomosphere of love and forbearance, she was given in marriage to a young man whose early death made her a widow before she was sixteen. Returning to her parents, she took up an active role in family as well as civic and church affairs, finding contentment only when she was doing something for the oppressed and the poor, a peace of mind which drew her closer to the Church. The family wealth afforded her the pleasure of charitable work, and while still a young woman she had gained the respect and love of the community not only for her charity but for her sincerity as well.
When her family died, Philothei found herself the owner of extensive holdings, the direction of which she assigned to others while she became a nun in the Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, her considerable wealth was put to use not only to help the poor, but in the glorification of the Lord with the erection of several churches and nunneries in and around the city of Athens. At her direction, the nuns transferred from passive to active interests, learning to supplement their devotions with practical crafts and arts for the good of the Church as a whole. Her useful works set the pattern for handiwork that has been the hallmark of nunneries for many years.
There was little trace of the glory of the Byzantine Empire, but the glory of Christianity was present everywhere, much to the annoyance of the Turks, who had fondly hoped that Muslim pressure would result in the gradual replacement of Christianity by their own Muslim faith. This Turkish effort met with absolutely no success, but the pressure was constantly being applied to the hapless Greeks nevertheless, and the unrelenting Muslims sought every means of discrediting the leaders of the Christian community. But leaders like Philothei did not give ground and were made even more resolute in their service to Jesus Christ.
When it was evident that Islam could not take root in Athens, a Christian stronghold since the days of the apostles, the Turks lashed out at those in the vanguard of Christianity. They deliberately selected Philothei as their principal target, not only because everything she did was in open defiance of the Muslims, but also because they considered her femininity a weakness that would more readily acquiesce. They were unaware that Christian defiance knows no sex. They might as well have assailed the rugged mountains that surround the city, and in their frustrated anger they set themselves on a brutal course of terrorism.
Philothei had built a beautiful church dedicated to St. Andrew which still stands today, and it was in this house of God that the Turks set upon her and her friends during a service. The defenseless women were clubbed and stoned, then dragged out into the street to be brutally murdered in full view of outraged Athenians. Philothei was carried from the scene of this carnage but succumbed to her wounds, February 19, 1589, at the age of thirty-nine.
A number of miracles have been attributed to Philothei since her death, particularly at the cathedral in Athens and at the Church of St. Andrew, in which her relics are enshrined. The street on which the archdiocese is located is named after her and the cathedral contains one of the most beautiful Byzantine icons of St. Philothei. Her churches and nunneries are still in evidence, and numerous women’s organizations carry her name to honor one of the finest daughters of the city of Athens.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GoArch.org.