Oratorical Festivals and Lessons Learned

Oratorical Festivals and Lessons Learned


I was privileged to be present at an Oratorical Festival today. Listening to the junior and senior grade divisions, I was impressed with the amount of work that they had put into their verbal deliveries. But, more than that, I was impressed by the research that the youth had to back up their oratory. One particular presentation, about Saint Philothea of Athens (or the Monastic), reminded me that the Orthodox Church is often called back to the straight and narrow by her saints, and that her saints also keep us on the straight and narrow.

Some basic facts on Saint Philothea. She was born in Athens in 1522 and was named Revoula. During this time, Athens was under the cruel occupation of the Turks. When she was 12 years old, she was given away in marriage. Unfortunately, he was an abusive husband who beat and abused her to the point that Revoula would pray that God would bring him to his senses and spare her. Three years later, he died—which quite frankly is a scary reminder of how God sometimes chooses to listen to his saints and answer their prayers. She was 15.

She decided to lead a life of vigil, prayer, and fasting. This is not surprising, given the treatment that she received. She moved back in with her parents and lived with them for 10 years until they had both died. After their death, she built a monastery dedicated to Saint Andrew, and took on the name Philothea (Philothei) as its first nun. But, this is where her story differs from that of many other saints. She does not retreat to her convert, nor does she merely engage in acts of charity. Rather, she becomes a rather strong advocate for women. She begins a rescue mission for abused women.

For the rest of her life, Saint Philothea devotes herself to those who are abused and ignored. She founds schools. But, more importantly, she begins to ransom her fellow countrymen from servitude and slavery. She gives refuge to women who run away from their masters and abused women who run away from their husbands. Contrary to what all too many would have said back then, Saint Philothea stands for the rights of women during a time in which even some in the Church would have agreed with the abusive husband and the Turkish invaders.

Not surprisingly, Saint Philothea faces death at the hands of the Turkish authorities. The first time, she is saved by her fellow Christians, who assemble en masse and pacify the Turkish judges. She founds a second monastery in a suburb of Athens, and continues her work. But finally, years later, the Turks tire of her work. One night, as she goes about her rescue duties, she is grabbed, tortured, and beaten until she is left for dead. She is taken out and thrown on the ground and left for dead. Her sisters rescue her, but she dies on 19 February 1589. Saint Philothea, pray for us.

Saint Philothea is not a liberal. She cannot be. She existed before the days of the modern liberal/conservative debates. But, she speaks clearly to our century and reminds us that human rights are an Orthodox belief. More important, the support of human rights is a godly activity, and representative of the finest part of Orthodox social consciousness. When Archbishop Iakovos marched with Martin Luther King in Selma back in 1965, he was standing in the shoes of Saint Philothea. He did not make a mistake. He was not taken in by liberals. Rather, he was speaking to all of us with the voice of Saint Philothea who called us to support human rights, even to the point of being beaten, being fire hosed, having dogs set upon us, and even unto death itself.

In this century in America, in the midst of our cultural debates, it is the voice of Saint Philothea of Holy Tradition that can guide us to appropriate stances. Human rights are not an option, but an Orthodox necessity. Any stance that does not clearly support human rights to the point of death is not an Orthodox stance.

But, notice that Saint Philothea, along with Archbishop Iakovos, clearly calls us to a radical involvement with the poor, with the oppressed, with abused women, with those who are enslaved. That also is part of the role of the Orthodox Church in this society. I commend those who are involved in the pro-life movement. But, the Church must be involved in more pro-life activities than that. Both Saint Philothea and Archbishop Iakovos point us to other arenas of fruitful involvement in which our witness as a Church is an important part of our life.

Saint Philothea, pray of us.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+

About author

Fr. Ernesto Obregon

I am a Cuban. My sister and I arrived in the United States of America in 1961. I was nine years old at the time and my sister was five. Yes, alone. Our mother, a widow, put us on the plane in La Habana, and we were taken to an orphanage upon our arrival in Miami. No, I never lived in Miami for longer than about six months. Yes, we and our mother were re-united. She escaped from Cuba by boat about four or five months after we arrived in the USA. We were re-united and were sent by the Catholic Welfare folk to Ohio, where they had found my mother a job and us a foster home while she learned English and got situated. So, I grew up in Ohio, had a paper route, learned to build snowmen, and moved from place to place as out mother got better jobs. Eventually she met a good man and re-married and we settled into his house in Mansfield, Ohio. I was a 15-year-old teenager.

Needless to say, none of this was necessarily guaranteed to keep me strong in the faith, although my mother tried. I rebelled during my teenage years and left Roman Catholicism for some vague hippie philosophies and a lot of rebellion. By 1970 I had been expelled from college after my first year, a year in which I was very confused and quite directionless. When I returned to Mansfield in defeat, I was approached by a friend who had become a “Jesus Person.” He took me to this “farm” that was filled with about four middle-aged adults and lots of early 20′s Jesus People. One of those adults was a Southern Baptist pastor, a former Campus Crusade staffer, and uncomfortable supervisor of hippy Jesus People, and is now the Very Rev. Gordon Walker, an Archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. His story, along with others whom I know, is chronicled in the book, “Becoming Orthodox” by the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist.

My journey was different. I eventually ended up as an Anglican priest, and a missionary. My wife and I served in both Bolivia and Perú, and our three intelligent and very perspicacious daughters spent a decade of their formative years in South America. I ended up as The Archdeacon of Arequipa of the Anglican Church of Perú, which is part of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which is part of the Anglican Communion.

We returned to the USA when our children began to attend college, and I took a parish in one of the dioceses of The Episcopal Church. Within less than four years, we realized that this was not a Church in which I could doctrinally live.

It was at this point that Fr. Gordon Walker came actively back into my life and told me that it was time that I came into Orthodoxy. He was right, and I have been Orthodox ever since. I was ordained in the Antiochian Orthodox jurisdiction, but am currently serving as an attached priest at a Greek Orthodox Church. God has blessed us. We have wonderful grandchildren. And we are truly blessed.