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July 9, 2014

St. Photios the Thettalos: The Forgotten Life of a Great Saint

St. Photios the Thettalos (Feast Day - July 9)

By Archimandrite Gregory Papoulas

Forgotten for many centuries was the life and memory of yet another great saint, who came from the bowels of saint-bearing Thessaloniki, and who by the struggles in his life contributed to the sanctification of the city and to its spiritual boasting in Christ.

Only his name survived throughout the centuries in the lists of saints without any other reference.

We are speaking of the venerable Photios the Thettalo whose memory our Church honors today.

Recently the Professor of Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Mr. Symeon Paschalides, after a thorough scientific investigation pulled a Byzantine manuscript, which contains a most beautiful literary laudation (he is preparing it for publication) which contains the life and celebration of the memory of the Saint as well as many other important things.

I want to thank the Professor very much for unconditionally granting me the authorization to use descriptions and details from the life of the Saint, contained in this work, that I may make known to our saint-loving brethren the life of Saint Photios today, July 9th, when our Church honors his memory and Thessaloniki celebrates him.

He came from Thessaly, a place with wide geographical meaning during this period in the 11th century. The area of Thessaloniki was also known as Thessaly. He had wealthy and prominent parents, whose names are not given in his Life.

In his youth he embraced the monastic life, and engaged in austere asceticism. Arriving in Thessaloniki, Photios settled in a small Monastery in an area within the walls of the Acropolis, which was dedicated to the names of the holy and healing unmercenaries Kosmas and Damian.

Here he made his acquaintance with the important Elder of the Monastery, famous for the sanctity of his life, many gifts and for being a knowledgeable connoisseur of the perfect life, the great ascetic and sacred Vlasios, to whom he submitted himself in order to learn from his experienced wisdom the secrets of the higher spiritual life and to be securely led by the connoisseur of the way along the path of perfection.

Having become a shareholder of the Divine Light the sacred Elder Vlasios illumined from the Monastery of the Holy Unmercenaries of the Acropolis, not only Thessaloniki but the entire Christian East, even the Queen City of Constantinople, which is why he was invited by the Emperor there and he went, accompanied by his imitator in struggles and fellow struggler for holiness the venerable Photios. In Constantinople the Elder became the spiritual father and guide of Emperor Romanos II.

After being supplicated, he himself performed the baptism of his son, Basil II, in 958/9, giving him the name Basil by foresight. Saint Photios was also at the baptism, whom the sacred Elder Vlasios indicated to be the right person to process, according to ecclesiastical order, the newly-illumined infant through the palaces and his dormitory, accompanied by a group of chanters.

Photios returned to Thessaloniki and, having gained experience and fame like that of his Elder Vlasios, yet becoming a lover of quietude, and wanting to protect himself from the danger of praise, but also ensure the necessary conditions for ascetic struggles for perfect personal purification, his complete and undivided union with Christ, with the blessing of his sacred Elder, he arrived at the foot of Chortiatis, where he built a hut with stones and he settled there, continuing his battle in the arena of the monastic life.

In the spring and summer he would climb to the summit of the mountain, where he built a church dedicated to the Archangel Michael, and there miraculously a source of clean water began to gush, which became holy water with healing power.

At that time, the raids of the Bulgarians caused great instability, forcing Basil II to gather the Byzantine troops in a campaign against them, but the outcome was negative (the first campaign of Basil in 986 was unsuccessful).

Basil went to Thessaloniki. There he visited the sanctified area of the Sacred Monastery of the Holy Unmercenaries in Acropolis, and having prayed he sought its famous elder, the most sacred Vlasios, for confession and to be consoled spiritually, but sadly he learned of his repose in Christ.

He then inquired about his disciple, who had held him in his arms at his baptism.

Eventually he learned that Photios was living as an ascetic outside the city and he invited him to meet him; from then on Basil held the venerable Elder near him, not only in Thessaloniki but during his campaigns.

After the complete predominance of Basil II in 1017/8, Photios returned to Thessaloniki cheered by the people of Thessaloniki.

The Emperor sent him a chrysobull letter and many gifts, which Photios used for good works and the construction of churches and monasteries in the area of the Acropolis, such as that which dominated the city at the time, the prestigious Church of the Savior Christ Pantocrator, directly in front of the walls of the Acropolis, probably where today is found the sacred Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ, the Vlatadon, and the famous Royal Monastery of Akapniou, as well as many other places of philanthropy, sanctification and reverence in other parts of the city.

Having been recognized as a great spiritual father and guide, he became a center of Christian life in the city, a safe spiritual place of guidance for the lives of monastics and lay people, a place of refuge for all, a brightly lit beacon that illumined hearts, the person needed by all to lean on.

Before his repose in his will, the Saint arranged for the sequester in the Monastery of some female monastic sisterhood that he had set up within the area of the Monastery, he arranged for the care of the churches and monasteries he himself founded, his successor in the spiritual guidance of the monks that formed his brotherhood, as well as the rules for various aspects of the monastic life: fasting, rest, liturgical typikon, care for the poor.

In deep old age, full of fruits of the Spirit, and having accomplished important spiritual work of cultivation, he delivered his venerable soul, probably on July 9th, into the hands of the Lord, having around him countless spiritual children. The exact year of his repose is not known, but it is quite confidently placed after the year 1017, when, as mentioned above, Basil II definately routed the Bulgarians.

The example of his life, the signs of sanctification of his life, his boldness before God, the honor attributed to him by all Christians, and his celebratory commemoration by numerous people, led the Church to immediately canonize him.

The suffering that followed for the city and the race in general, kept this bright star of the spiritual firmament hidden, until Divine Providence in our days raised him up again brilliantly, because we need much more light, as well as more models, so we can choose to imitate them and follow the good.

Ἀπολυτίκιον. Ἦχος πλ. α΄. Τὸν συνάναρχον Λόγον.
Ἀναργύρων Ἁγίων Μονῆς οἰκήτορα, Θεσσαλονίκης καὶ Μάνδρας τοῦ Ἀκαπνίου σεπτὸν ὕμνοις κτίτορα, Ὁσίων εὖχος, Φώτιον, μέλψωμεν θείοις Θετταλόν, ἀρετῆς ὑπογραμμὸν καὶ ἔκτυπον ἀπαθείας, ὡς φωτιστὴν μονοτρόπων, θερμὰς αὐτοῦ λιτὰς αἰτούμενοι.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.