St. Phocas the Gardener
The evening of a glorious September day was falling over Sinope, in Pontus of Asia Minor. Under the last slanting sun-rays everything glowed with vivid hues of orange and purple, whilst the white-walled town shone as if dipped in liquid gold.
A breeze—just fresh enough, after the heat of the day, to speak pleasantly of the coming cool of autumn—had sprung up from the waters of the Euxine (which is now called the Black Sea), and at the gate of a garden on the outskirts of the town an old man had come out to enjoy the evening air. He was Phocas the gardener, one of the few Christians of Sinope, living here simply on the produce of his garden, giving away the surplus to the poor, and well loved by all who knew him, even if they were not of his faith.
In front of him lay the sea, on one side the glowing town, behind him, and around his house, where a passion-flower climbed and rioted over the porch, was his garden, sloping uphill to the higher ground that sheltered the city. Such a pretty garden it was!—with its beds of lilies and bowers of roses among the homely rows of vegetables that formed his food. Vines, heavy for the vintage, climbed over his pergola; gnarled grey olives bowed down their fruit-laden branches; and, at the end of the garden, tall on the hill, and black against the blue-purple sky, stood the cypress-trees, like sentinels, keeping watch over the profusion of flowers and fruit below.
The old man stood at the gate and looked on all the peace and beauty before him—the shifting lights, the calm sea, the tranquil sky, and the glory of orange and yellow above the golden city. Then he thought of the other changeless Golden City, "the peace of the Sabbath that hath no end," and the wide sea around the throne of the Lamb.
The lights changed. The gold and purple deepened and passed. The sun set, and the wind became a little chilly, as the violet which the sun had left faded into grey. In the rapid deepening of the twilight three men came toiling up the hill, past the house of Phocas, towards the gate of Sinope. They were tired and stained with travel, and they turned longingly to the peace of the garden, where the flowers nodded among the vines and olives, and the gentle, white-robed old man reigned as king over his little Elysium. So quiet did the haven of rest seem that their gaze and then their feet lingered, as though they were very fain to enter. Phocas saw their weariness and their longing. They were rough-looking fellows, but what of that?—" I was a Stranger, and ye took Me in." He jerked back the gate with a friendly gesture.
THE OLD MAN STOOD AT THE GATE.
"Friends," he said cheerfully, "you look tired and hungry. Come in and rest here before you go on to the town."
The three needed no further invitation. They passed through the garden into the house. Here, in a room where everything was plain, but clean and fresh, Phocas, with simple courtesy, bade them be seated while he lit the lamp, brought them water to wash away the dust, and spread the board with food—bread and fish, fruit and vegetables from his garden, wine from his vineyard, olives and olive-oil from his olive-trees.
The four sat down, and, as they ate, fell to talking. At length, as must have happened anywhere in those days of A.D. 303, the conversation turned to far-off Imperial Rome, the Emperor, his edicts, and then to the Christians and the persecution. The weariest of the strangers broke out into loud abuse of the pestilent sect, that had forced him to leave his home and to take a sudden and irksome journey at most insufficient notice.
"Then your business in Sinope concerns the Christians?" asked Phocas quietly, whilst he thought, "Who knows? This visit may be ordained of GOD for me to help and forewarn His faithful servants."
"With one of them," replied the second stranger. "We have orders to arrest him, and, unless he will consent to forsake his superstition, to behead him at once. What is his name, Caius?—you hold the order for his arrest. Ah, I have it—Phocas. Perhaps you know of him, sir?"
The lamp gave a dim light, and none of the three saw the sudden smile that flickered on the old man's lips. Only a momentary hush broke the conversation, and only a second's hesitation held Phocas silent before his quiet answer came
"I know him rather well—I will show him to you to-morrow."
Stretching out a hand, the slight tremor of which might have been easily taken for infirmity of age, he refilled the wine-glasses and turned the talk to another subject.
When supper was ended, the strangers, amid hearty thanks, were reluctantly preparing to go on their way. But Phocas detained them. Would they not rest that night in his house? It was late, and business was over in Sinope. They could rise early in the morning, when he would point out Phocas's dwelling. They needed very little persuasion. So the beds were made ready, and, after the pleasant bustle of preparation and saying "good-night," the strangers retired to rest, and silence fell on the house.
But Phocas did not sleep. A great awe had fallen on his soul, and, leaving the lamp burning in his room, he went out quietly into his garden, to his flowers and dear familiar trees, the sweet night-scents and the solemn stars, while this new wonder wrapped him from head to foot. What was this message that had come to him to-night? What should he do? Was it his duty to save his life by flight? Had not His Divine LORD and Master Himself said, "When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another "?
Should he, then, hurry away while his executioners slept? But he had told them that he would show them Phocas; and he was very old to seek a living among strangers. Once he turned and noticed, through the shifting and interlacing of the olive-boughs, the light in his house beacon him homewards. But yonder star, above the cypresses—to what home does that beacon? Suddenly the unfading palm and ineffable crown of martyrdom blazed before him, and he bowed his humble head in wonder that he, the old gardener, was called by his Master to so great an honour.
As in a dream, with slow-moving feet and eyes that scarcely saw for the spiritual dazzle of the crown to come, he fetched his spade from the shed where he kept his tools, and, turning his back on the little friendly light in his window, passed, half-unconscious, under the pergola where the grapes hung ripe for the wine-press, to the fairest part of his garden. Bending down there he began to dig. The olive-grove made dark shadow not far from him, and the lilies stood up pale and ghostly against it, and nodded over the crimson carpet of rose-petals at their feet, as he dug and dug in the turf, hollowing out—what? The air was heavy with perfume, the stars went on their slow way, gazing down on him, the tall cypresses stood sentinel that none should disturb him, and bent and whispered to one another of the thing that he—scarce knowing—did. Only when the stars paled, and the garden was grey as the olive-leaves, and the dawn-wind sighed to the little birds to awake—he had finished his work, and knew that he had dug his grave.
Under an ashen sky, that quickened, minute by minute, to a sheet of primrose, and changed, glowed, and rippled into mauve, rose, and flame-colour, the old man knelt and prayed in love and worship to CHRIST the LORD. The birds bore him company, and his flowers stood around—roses red as the martyr-blood so soon to fall; lilies white as his blameless life; violets, whose breath was less sweet than his prayer; daisies, with their eyes fixed less steadfastly on heaven than his unwavering heart. Then the sun rose and flooded with glory him upon whom the Sun of Righteousness would soon rise for ever. GOD'S day had come, and truly, for Phocas, "there shall be no more night."
He arose, and went towards his house. His gladness made his step that of a young man, and the three strangers, who were already up, gazed on him astonished. He stretched out his hands to them.
"Now," he said, "I will show you Phocas."
He led them into the garden, and up the path, and past the vines to the grave; and, as they stood in wonder, he said to them, "I am Phocas, and I am ready."
Upon their heathen hearts fell shame and sorrow, and bitter anger against the Emperor and his edict, that bade them slay this blameless, kind old man, their host. But he, who saw their trouble, stepped up to them, and laid his hands on theirs and on the executioner's sword that one of them carried, and said, "Friends, fear not, but do your duty, for none is more glad to yield to such a fate than I myself, who pass, by this most blessed death, to life immortal."
When they still hesitated, marvelling at his words, and fearing the Emperor's anger, if they disobeyed the imperial mandate, Phocas quietly knelt down by the grave.
Yet, for a moment, they hesitate. Then—for the wrath of the Emperor is no light thing—the leader of the three snatches out his sword. With one merciful blow he severs the martyr's neck, and flings the hateful weapon from him, while the shaken flowers of a red-rose-bush rain down over the now prostrate form a shower of lovely crimson tears.
Hurriedly, with averted eyes, as from a murder, but with reverent touch, the men wrap the old gardener in his white robes, lay him in the grave that his own hands had hollowed out for-himself, and throw the sods and earth over him. Their leader picks up his sword, and, one by one, they steal away, and leave Phocas to the flowers, his mourners.
High above the deserted garden a lark soars triumphant into the blue sky; and, far above garden, lark and blueness, CHRIST'S pierced hand has crowned His martyr.