Saint of the week: Phocas the Gardener (July 3)

Growth in holiness
In WH Auden’s long poem “Horae Canonicae”, he says that to desert the “formidable shrines” of the pagan gods and “to pray instead to St Phocas … or whoever one’s patron is, / that one may be worthy of their mystery, /what a prodigious step to have taken.” What might you pray to St Phocas for? Perhaps for your garden, since this 3rd-century saint was famous for his. Phocas lived in Sinope (today Sinop in Turkey), and his garden provided plenty of food which he was able to share with the poor. His home, meanwhile, was a famous house of hospitality.

Innocent delights
In a panegyric after Phocas’s death, the bishop St Asterius observed that no form of work was preferable to gardening, for the “innocent pleasures” of scent, colour and birdsong, the joys of observing the diversity of creation, and the opportunities for contemplating divine wisdom.

But this gardening career was cut short by the Emperor Diocletian, who in 303 launched a violent persecution.

Dug his own grave
Phocas’s fame meant he was immediately on the target list. Some state-sponsored assassins travelled to Sinope, and by a bizarre coincidence ended up staying at Phocas’s house, not realising they were in the home of their intended victim. By the time Phocas revealed that he was the man they were looking for, they had so warmed to this kindly gentleman that they were unsure what to do.

When Phocas said that death would be the greatest of favours, the assassins beheaded him.