St. Philothei of Athens 1522-15892 November 2011
St. Philothei lived in the Turkish-occupied, sixteenth-century Athens. Her spiritual and social work was groundbreaking, especially for a woman of that era. It was accomplished within the Church and dedicated to the service of the Greek people as a continuation and consequence of Orthodoxy and Romanity. On 19 February 1589, she passed into the ranks of the New Martyrs who, with their blood, paid for their dynamic missionary work during the years of the Turkish occupation.
As we leaf through the Synaxarion, the Spiritual Meadow, and the lives of the athletes of the Church, a complete army of righteous, heroes, martyrs, venerable ones, and Saints come to mind. And that Church that is “adorned in the blood of the martyrs as purple and fine linen” praises martyrdom, setting up and lauding the spirit and sanctity of the martyrs as an example to the faithful, aimed at encouraging them to emulation and the praise of their spiritual strength.
Do not be frightened, brethren, by the frightful faces of tyrants, nor by their great numbers, nor by their voices, nor by their terrible actions. Do not be afraid of wounds, by swords, by chains, by imprisonment. Do not be frightened of gallows, of hooks, of fire…
So writes St. Nicodemus the Athonite in the New Martyrlogion. And Philothei Angelou Venizelou was one of those rare personalities of her era that stood against the vested interests, the threats, personal torture, and affronts, and “first raised up the banner of faith, beneath which was hiding a great and noble idea, the free development and education of women,” as John Gennadios writes.
Sixteenth Century Athens, the time of St. Philothei
Philothei Venizelou’s birth is surrounded by the mystery of divine intervention. Very quickly, even from her childhood and teen years, her life is described as a ray of hope and consolation, and more: she reacted against Athenian indifference and the spiritual lethargy of the Greek people and her life ended, through her faith, vision, and boldness, in her personal and unavoidable martyrdom.
“Oh ruler, I desire to suffer different types of tortures for the name of Christ, whom I worship and venerate as the true God and perfect man, from the depths of my heart and soul. You will do me a great favor, if you would like to send me to Him an hour earlier through this crown of martyrdom.”
With these few words, which echo a deeper state of freedom, vision, and social presence, the blessed Philothei Venizelou responds to her judge and tyrant Voivod, who violently demands that she choose “death by the sword or rejection of her faith”! This choice of hers happens during a historic phase of the Greek people, during which the thought alone of using some argument against the ruling social institutions, would mean certain destruction, especially when the person speaking is a woman! All mechanisms are closed down. And the idea and possibility for personal action comes and goes, not only in the realm of production, rivalry, and spirituality, but also in the revelation of understanding some metaphysic. It is very important that one understand the era about which we are speaking, in all realms of personal and social life, so that one is able to present and interpret the capabilities, the actions, and the final ideas of a developing group or a single person. These things took place in sixteenth century Athens, with its 3,500 – 4,000 inhabitants, where, as various chronographers, writers, and historians relate, poverty was commonplace, as was illiteracy, piracy, mass kidnapping of children, epidemics, and unscrupulous violence. A. Vakalopoulos notes that this period of the Turkish occupation, “the first two centuries of the occupation (1453-1669) were truly the Greek Middle Ages; they were centuries of dark chaos. The Greek people seem to have been destroyed, to have lost their orientation and to move forward without any guidance.” Athens was an unknown Turkish village at that time, when travelers were even unaware of the city’s name! Some occasionally saw the city from Porto Drako, Piraeus, and went on a massacre there, and immediately sailed away in their ships. Athenians spent most of their time in their small houses, speaking their local tongue, which would sometimes be incomprehensible to other people – both Greeks and foreigners – and it was drifters: Voivods, Disdaris, Katis, and Tzambitis that ruled the city. In a letter of response to the Athenian Krousios, Portos the Frank writes, “I wept at the disorder and change of fortune that has happened, in Athens, and in Greece…it has now become enslaved to the barbarians and destruction, and nothing of that famous name has been saved.” And the further Islam spread in the Balkans, and the eastern Mediterranean fell into the crooked claws of the Ottomans, the deeper the Athenians descended into the darkness of despair and, hidden from the Turkish authorities and the local spies, they mourned:
Athens sits and mourns,
She weeps and does not endure.
Woe is me the downtrodden one,
Woe is me the saddened one,
Woe is me the sinful one
More than the others.
Once again Athens in lamenting
From her depths she laments.
So, in this Athens, without light or hope, in this nearly invisible and darkened culture, “a fragrant flower and gentle light appeared in the depths of the winter of bondage….” In 1522, Reboula (Paraskevoula) is born, who would later be Philothei, the daughter of “Bas Kotsambasi” (“Lord”) Angelos Venizelou and Syringas, of the line of the Paleologans of Moria.
Reboula Venizelou – Childhood and Teen Years
From her earliest years of childhood, Reboula lived an economically and socially comfortable life. Her experiences were the benefit of a rich ancestral inheritance. And her education was a marked by self-reliance and a spiritual and moral struggle. Charismatic elements of her personality would eventually reveal to those around her, and beyond, that she was a significant personality whose well-ordered life would have great effect. At the beginning of her life, she followed the established traditional principles of those who wielded power, those lawfully entrusted with manners and traditions. And at the age of fourteen she married some Athenian lord! Just three years later, however, she became a widow, after an unsuccessful and tortuous marriage, as her biographer recounts. And so once again, she gives herself over to herself. The social circle to which she belongs as well as her family, among whom she is now living, pressure her to remarry so as to find a place in the established social setting, and so as to leave children for her renowned family, since she had a traditional and social obligation. Though she was just seventeen years old, she now refuses to enter the ranks and the molds that preserve the exclusivity and the static condition of their lives. Thousands of realms open up before her! These realms await this anti-conformist who will serve them and will pour upon her numb people the word, action, free movement, overcoming, the resurrectional vision.
Philothei is Tonsured a Nun
So, she decisively insists that she is not going to remarry. And ten years later, after the repose of her parents, she is tonsured a nun and takes the name Philothei. In the place of the present Archbishopric of Athens, there where the family home of the Venizelos’ family was located, she built the Monastery of St. Andrew around the year 1551, and endowed it with her entire fortune, which was one of the greatest in Athens. This was how she began her dynamic offering to the Church, and her unstoppable quest to boost the education, self-confidence, and material and moral comfort of her people. Regarding this, Nikos Tomadakis notes, “It is well known that…she abandoned worldly things and the marriage bed, not only for the Bridegroom Christ, but also for the glory of the former Athens whose denizens had become illiterate, barbarous, and which did not care for the poor, the homeless, and the sick, nor for the unprotected young women, many of whom were serving Muslim families or who, because of their beauty and physical graces, aroused the passions of the local Muslims, and were in danger of becoming Muslim either under pressure or by having been talked into it.”
So, considering these facts, the social setting, and the conditions that ruled the ideological, social, and economic lives of the people, and that were required for survival in Athens, it becomes clear that Philothei:
1. Was an urban lady, who dared to move from her class.
2. Was a world-weary lady, whose marriage was unsuccessful and who was left early on as a widow and without children.
3. Was a lady who dared to throw off the veil of slavery to established ideas, and who tried to give practical and decisive answers and solutions to an era in which everything was voiceless and hopeless.
4. Was basically an unprotected woman, who gave herself and her wealth to the Church, with the only certain return being her martyrdom by the Tzambitis Ottomans.
Her Spiritual and Social Work
Her monastery (Parthenona) was a spiritual and social center, unique in its services and philanthropy. It quickly became very well known in East and West. Philothei personally overlooked its educational work. There, her young ladies systematically taught the common language, handiwork, weaving, and basic art, as well as housekeeping and cooking. In this way, she prepared the young women of Athens, as well as others who came from far away locations, not only to become nuns, but also for the domestic life. In addition, young ladies that were being hunted by both Greeks and Turks would find refuge at the Parthenona. And she did not offer them only material relief. She also helped them escape secretly to Tzia, to Andros, to Aegina, or to Salamina, if there was a need, and she would protect them in those places. And as if this was not enough, the tireless and prudent Philothei also offered a great deal of money to free those in bondage, as various manuscripts inform us, “…and beyond this, she never ceased to free – as is widely known – that she truly freed many slaves.” The synaxarian account of her life also tells us about her broader philanthropic work, which was dynamic and well-organized, and included progressive means of social work, remarkable by even today’s standards. It is written, “The hospitals and hotels that she built at a certain distance from the monastery, are sufficient examples of her incredibly merciful and compassionate soul, and when she came to these places, to visit the various ill people living there, not only did she care for them as regards their food and the necessary physical comforts, but she fed their souls with consoling and evangelical words, becoming all things to all people so she might win all, as Paul said.” Truly and without question, the historical confirmation of all of the above comes through a reference in a letter sent by Philothei on 22 February 1583 to the Venetian Gerousia, where she asks for monetary support so as to manage to pay off her debts from ransom money, duties, bribes, and taxes to the Turks. It is a document that reveals many things that Constantine Bertzios of blessed memory brought to light from the archives of the Venetians in 1953. Preserving the orthography of the text untouched, we reproduce only one section from this request of Philothei’s, which describes her missionary work and her daily adventures in clear language,
Most enlightened, most esteemed, most righteous…rulers of Venice…As you know, I have built a monastery dedicated to the all-praised holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called, along with two dependencies in Athens and I brought together a hundred and fifty virgins to live a normal coenobitic life, but the Turks have slandered me during this time of trial because of the enslaved Christians that we have managed to liberate, and because some Turks were discovered in the monastery, who had come to believe in Christ and became nuns…and in the never-ending month of August the Turks came and searched the monasteries and found a slave of the flag, where we had been protecting him for his freedom, as well as three Turkish women that had become nuns, and at the same time they took me into their hands and put me into jail, a large jail, and they robbed the monasteries, and the virgins fled, some of whom managed to escape secretly, and the rest of whom are here with us. And every hour they try to convince me and the sisters to become Turks, or else they will burn me.
After this letter, a correspondence followed until she received some help from Gerousia of Galinotatis. Among these manuscripts is a document of the Latin bishop Paul of Zakynthos and Kefalonia, on 25 May 1583, who among other things writes regarding the “venerable Philothei, who is of good social standing, and is well known for her good Christian works,” and the following, “her goodness and good works were renowned, and she drew many Turkish women to her and she made them Christian. She also receives many sinful women at her monastery, who are pregnant and she hides them at the monastery, so that the Turks do not punish them. Because of all of these actions, she is persecuted by the unbelievers.”
And it was only natural! Such a progressive and provocative social and pedagogical actions could only elicit ferment, whispered slander, strident testimony by locals, blackmailing, and the immediate threat of the Ottoman conqueror. Her monastery was frequently plundered, they would leave it barren, sabotaging her farming and agricultural program, which was a basic source of sustaining her work. They also frequently put her in jail, interrogated her, whipped her, and forced her to abandon her successful service to the Church and her people. Her dynamic life, which transcended the narrow bounds of Athens and its four thousand souls, had become known by many supporters in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in its areas along the Danube, in Crete, in the Eptanisa, and on many islands of the White Sea. And this shows how the Tyrant always tries to find an opportunity to close the center of revival that flourishes and extends its influence before his eyes. In the center of Athens. And later, to get rid of Philothei, who was the active agent behind this change. And the opportunity for this terrible catastrophic event appeared on 3 October 1588, the eve of the feast of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, at the dependency of St. Andrew in Patisia. During the nighttime service, five Turks that had been paid entered the church, “took Philothei and after whipping and beating her, left her nearly half dead.” The nuns took her to her crypt, in the suburb known today as “Philothei.” And there, 139 days later, on 19 February 1589, she passed into the ranks of the New Martyrs who, with their blood, paid for their dynamic missionary work during the years of the Turkish occupation.
For these souls, obedient to the will of God and faithful to the vision of the freedom of their people, Photios Kontoglou writes in his “Downtrodden Romanity,” “What heights and what spiritual grace did our race have during [this] period that we describe them as illiterate and barbarous. We moderns, we are the barbarians, who are unable to feel as we should their nobility and the greatness of their sacrifice for the name of Christ, which those lion-hearted ones offered with their bodies, and about whom the Evangelist John wrote that they were not born of blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, but they were born from God.”
Philothei Venizelou, Continuer and Fruit of Romanity and Orthodoxy
Philothei Venizelou, “…in Athens, warmed and enlightened the very enslaved and those in the darkness…,” in broad strokes, she stood within the sphere of the spiritual and the revivalists, the revolutionary powers of our race and of the Church. The realization of the contemporary feminist ideal pales before the progressive achievements and positions of this young woman living more than four hundred years ago. Even before the educational battles, in a timely and effective manner Eugene Voulgaris, Kosmas the Aetolian, Rigas Velestinlis, Philothei made dynamic steps towards preparing the social groups. In practice, Philothei harmonized her service with the Orthodox way of life. She developed the solutions to her problems according to her own ethic, which proved to be justified through her inspiration, faith, and personal ethic. She broke many established bonds of social ethics. And she used old, strong wine, in completely new, revolutionary wine sacks. This is why the enslaved people had nearly boundless faith in her. In her day, the common consciousness was united and all of Athens willingly ceded their power to Philothei, imitating her dynamic example. We could even say that there was no other similar anarchic personality, which was, at the same time, prophetic and that brought revival to her era.
These ideas are based on the following beliefs that preserved a certain vision and goal in Philothei’s work:
1. Philothei was a cultivated Athenian. This was a very significant fact for her era. Cultivation (“cultured” according to contemporary terminology) is that luminosity of the nous and soul that remains after knowledge and information have disappeared.
2. She had a real awareness of many things, situations, and persons, difficulties and necessities, and even as regards the broader European reality. Whoever passed through Athens at that time would have necessarily visited her paternal home, and later on her monastery.
3. Her actions, as a woman, were unprecedented. And they neutralized every local Ottoman or bondsman’s reaction. Even today, it seems remarkable that a woman of that era would have had a direct correspondence with the Collegio of the Venetian Democracy.
4. The great Logothete Ierakas who, sent from the Patriarchate, came to deal with questions of the Monastery of St. Andrew with certain ill-mannered Athenians was deeply moved by the person of Philothei and vindicated her with fanfare.
And let us not forget that the Greeks were always suspicious and guarded in the face of every spiritual or social extreme. They would often judge anything that they, themselves, could not attain.
5. Philothei understood, in a complete and radical manner, the meaning of philanthropy and education. She does not offer her young women only food and shelter, but shows them the ways of Romanity and of freedom within the ark of Orthodoxy.
“This habit that we wear, my sisters, we do not wear just for prostrations and prayers, to save, in short, our souls; but also to show mercy to the people around us. So, let us see the many and innumerable benefactions that our Lord bestows every hour. We also, for our part, have a great obligation to give our blessings to those on the streets and, openly or in secret, to have mercy on souls, so that they will not be lost.”
6. Philothei’s work is ecclesiastical. For this reason, it is also evangelical and ecumenical. It goes beyond the bounds of the parish, of the Metropolis, and of Athens. It has diachronic dimensions. And it is grounded, so that its benevolent influence reaches even into the twenty-first century.
She gave, she distributed
her wealth everywhere, rejoicing
the poor and the hungry.
Through God she lent
And she freely gave,
Therefore the Savior richly gave
She was recompensed with divine grace…
Reading the biography of the Athenian lady and teacher (as they called her), Philothei Venizelou, one sees unravel before one’s eyes the whole continuation of Romanity and Orthodoxy and one “feels…a shiver that belongs to such a stream of ethnic and spiritual life.”
And yet, there are many today who occasionally come up with misconstrued interpretations, or raise false problems, so as to falsify the true historical reality. Despite their insufferable dependence on irrelevant fixations, they do not know that during the Turkish occupation we see the purest form of lived Orthodoxy. During this period, everything took place within the church and outside in her courtyard. That was where the mystery of life, of hope, and of the vision for tangible changes to their enslaved condition was lived. It was from this place that the ideologically and socially bold deed leapt, the personal objective and the eschatological position of the Greek as regards the realities of daily life. And along with this, those who would be bold enough to lead the people, through organization and priorities, would be witnesses from the seat of introspection, of revelation, of responsibility, and of self-sacrifice. Philothei was a child of the Church as were Leontia, Andromaris, Kosmas the Aetolian, Makrigiannis, K. Paparrigopoulos, Phlamiatos, Papoulakos, Papadiamandis, Priest monk Nicholas Planas, Photios Kontoglou, and all those who rooted self-consciousness and love of freedom in the consciousness of the Modern Greek. Despite this, secular history tells us nearly nothing of their lives and their sacrifices for the Greek people and for Orthodoxy. However, this intentional neglect for 170 years, now acts in a positive way in the service of the truth. So, through denials and deceptions, the unaffected reality shines in the open light: that which Philothei Venizelou revealed from the darkness of neglect. The teacher and lady of Athens, as is chanted in her church service:
Rejoice, Light of Athens
Who lived a burning and public life
Faithful in your benefactions
And in your life of purity
You taught those who came to you
And you fed them
You were a protectress and bulwark,
You were a safe haven for those who were pursued
And saved the young and imprisoned.
And you were truly a luminary giving light
Lighting up the night
The darkness of slavery,
Oh Philothei, for your people
We praise you
And we ask you to intercede
For us before the Lord.
The work of Philothei Venizelou was so important, missionary and educational for the Greek people during the years of the Turkish Occupation, that she was recognized and immediately found worthy by the Church and by the people. And just a few years after her martyric death, she was canonized a Saint, in the days of the Ecumenical Patriarch Matthew the Second (1595-1600).
After the report of Metropolitan Neophytos of Athens, which was also signed by the Metropolitans of Corinth and Thebes, as well as by the clergy of Athens and the lords-notables of Athens, was sent to the Patriarchate, a Synodal Letter was “released, regarding the annual celebration and Church memorial of the Venerable Philothei,” on 19 February. So,
Come, oh lovers of the feast
Let us praise Philothei
In songs and hymns
To her feast we go
A feast that is holy and divine
For she truly lived
A holy life here on earth
And through her works showed forth her faith
Therefore she also received
The crown of the athlete
From the hand of the One Whom she glorified
And for Whom she loved the people.
– From the Synaxarion
A few sources:
Dim. Kampouroglou, Ioannis Gennadios, A. Goudas, K. A. Christomanos, K. Sathas, N. Th. Filadelfeas, Pan. Skouzes, Sp. Lambrou, K. Biris, T. Neroutsos, G. Th. Maltezos, D. Sisilianos, T. Konstantinidis, F. Michalopoulos, M. Honiatis, E. K. Frangkaki, Dim. S. Ferousis, N. Tomadakis, K. Dimitriadis. In particular, the book by Demetrius Ferousi, Philothei Venizelou, published by Astir Publications, Athens, 1982.