Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Garden-Variety Martyr: Digging Your Own Grave Takes on a Whole New Meaning

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Garden-Variety Martyr: Digging Your Own Grave Takes on a Whole New Meaning

Article excerpt

Sister Angeline, a nun with a sour disposition, should have retired from teaching sometime during the Truman administration. As she droned on one afternoon, under the misconception that I really cared about algebra or world geography, I reached to the windowsill for something to look at. The book I chanced to pick up was The Lives of the Saints.


Thumbing through the pages, I came upon the bizarre tale of a forgotten saint, Phocas the Gardener. According to the legend, he was a holy man who lived at the beginning of the fourth century.

Phocas lived a simple, quiet life in the city of Sinope, in what is now Turkey. He had a small cottage near the city gates, almost hidden behind a spectacular display of flowers. Here he worked in his garden, grew food for the poor, and was certain to have any passerby who was lost or hungry come into his home, receive a good meal, and hear the word of Christ. His generosity to the poor and his great faith were becoming well known, and soon many people were converting to Christianity because of his influence.

Phocas would have been just one of the many forgotten early Christians who led quiet and holy lives, until the Roman Emperor Diocletian began one of the most bloody and brutal persecutions the fledgling Christian church had ever known.

Someone seeking royal favor denounced Phocas, and soon a squad of soldiers was galloping toward Sinope. Their information was sparse, however, and they did not know what he looked like or where to find him. As chance would have it, like many lost and weary travelers, they stopped at that little flower-strewn cottage near the city gates.

Here they were greeted by an old, bearded man who insisted that they come in for a meal and some rest before proceeding farther. As the soldiers enjoyed his hospitality they explained that they were searching for some Christian troublemaker named Phocas. The gardener said nothing but that the hour was late and that the soldiers should spend the night in his cottage. In the morning he would take them right to this Phocas.

That evening, as he heard the soldiers snoring, he went outside. There by moonlight, in prayer and confidence, he began to dig in his beloved garden for the last time. When he was finished he had dug his own grave. …

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