A Letter to Saint Philonella

At the 2018 Ancient Faith Women’s Retreat, Melinda Johnson asked those in attendance to write to their patron saint during her session, an exercise to personalize the relationship. This is one of those letters, by a newly chrismated Orthodox woman. 

Philonella (sometimes spelled Philonilla) and her sister Zenaida were the first female unmercinary physicians of Christianity. They were either sisters or cousins of Jason, first Bishop of Tarsus, and related to the Apostle Paul. 

Dear Saint Philonella,

“Holy things don’t depend on you. They exist without our belief.” Melinda said that just prior to starting this writing exercise for us during her presentation, and it is a fitting instruction to me to be reminded of that, since I am a new convert who grew up by defining herself as not-Catholic (Lutheran). But, despite my upbringing spent eschewing belief in the saints’ abilities to hear us and to help us, I am working to embrace this aspect of Orthodox life. I can see how it radiates such beauty and glorious expression of our sanctification, and our common humanity.

I wonder many things about your life. I am thrilled to know as much as I do, since there is very little on so many saints that have passed through this life. I contemplate what your life must have been like, to be both educated and come from a family with means, and also to have a heart for those who struggle, including those who couldn’t afford to see a physician. What was it like to work closely with your sister? Did you face trouble from your family for choosing this life over, say, marriage and children? What opposition did you face from male students and teachers as you studied and worked?

I would love to know more about the common ailments you treated and how you treated them. Was midwifery part of your care, or was that a separate profession at that time (or something completed within families by wise women)? I even wonder about the physical setting of your life, especially once you and your sister bought the land that had your medicinal spring….what was it like to live there, in the cavern? I also hope you partook of time in the spring for your own health!

I am so fortunate that my husband found you and brought us together, even if I still struggle to fully believe you can hear me and care about me and my life. A sign wouldn’t be a bad thing. 😉

I feel I am on the cusp of the next chapter of my life, now that I have made so much progress on my own health issues and have learned so much that has already helped other women, but I also don’t want to run out ahead of what God wants for my life. How did you balance being a strong woman with God’s will for your life? How did you wait on God moving in your life? How did God show you His way in your life??

What do you wish I knew about you? How can I best honor your memory? How can I utilize your abilities in my life? I’m thankful my skills as a writer can carry me through this letter, because it still feels so foreign to me to connect with a saint…but I am looking forward to our continued correspondence.

In Christ,

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