Today is the feast day of St. Polycarp, whose story I told here.
The novel I wrote, What Our Eyes Have Witnessed, is an … unusual … but reverent celebration of a remarkable figure. A man who once wrote in a letter to a community that was primarily a mix of Greek and Middle Eastern women and their families whose religion had just recently been unrecognized by the Roman government (whose magistrates at the time wanted nothing to do with “dangerous” Middle Eastern immigrants and their ways), with lethal consequences…he wrote:
“Stand fast and follow our master’s example, with firm and constant faith, loving each other, united in unforgetting, helping one another with the focused gentleness of the master, despising no man.”
That he could live in the violent and divided time in which he did — an era that put him violently to death — and write of living with “focused gentleness, despising no man,” has always moved me.
He also wrote:
“I do not see my master, but I trust him; trusting him, I have unspeakable joy.”
He also wrote,
“The one who loves is far from error.”
He also wrote,
“The one who cannot hold himself back from love of money has been devoured by idolatry.”
And when told before being burned by the magistrate of Smyrna that he must recant his faith and revoke his community if he wished to live, he said gently,
“I think you are pretending that you don’t know who I am.”
Asked a second time, he growled,
“Eighty years and six have I served my master, who has never harmed me in all that time; why should I forsake him now?”
The third time:
“Why do you delay? Do what you will.”
So I told his story. That of the patient man who fed the impoverished, taught the young, told hopeful stories, and committed that he would despise no one, even at the hour of his death.
I might have blended his story quite a bit with that of Clement of Rome, and I might have told his story with a few ravenous zombies included in it. But I do not think the story suffered for it.
My fictional Polycarp said these things, in the story:
“Nothing is broken that cannot be remade,
Nothing is ill that cannot be healed,
Nothing captive that cannot be freed.
We must live lives of unstoppable hope.”
And he cautioned:
All our lives, we feed on what leaves us hungry, drink from what leaves us thirsting. Because we are always left hungry and always thirsty, we begin to think that those visible objects of our hunger are what we need most. A loaf of bread, a pouch of coins, the respect of others, success, a woman’s body, or a man’s. Or even a person o a thing from times past, something lost and remembered that we crave. But it is not so. These are not what we need most. Our hunger thieves us from our true selves. Like a violent fever, the hunger eats away mind and spirit. In the end, everything that we truly are is gone. Only the hunger remains. Even other men and women are no longer anything but food to us, meat for our desires and obsessions.
“We can feed on each other, or we can feed each other and feed with each other.”
And he confronted the court of Rome with these words, speaking truth to power:
“You wish to believe that we who worship differently are therefore a different kind of people, a people capable of any sacrilege and therefore deserving of any punishment. But your wishing does not make it so! You make so much of the fact that I come to you here from the Subura. It is pointless. The distinctions you make, make fools of you. Patrician, plebian.” He turned, held the youngest juror’s gaze with his. “You wear the toga; I wear the simpler tunic of the people. It means nothing. Stripped of it, you and I look the same—just two men hungering and thirsting. It is only a garment. What matters is the heart.” He took his sleeve between his chained hands, tried to tear it; the cloth was stubborn. “Look at it. Look at it!” he cried. “A thousand threads—different threads—woven together so they cannot break. That is what we are to be. We are to be one cloth, one body, one gathering. Patrician! Plebian!” he shouted. “You weaken Rome with your distinctions. Rome now is not one whole cloth but layers, castes, one sitting atop the other. It needs only a strong wind, and the separated layers of the city will be tossing in the air, tumbling and helpless. We cannot survive unwoven from each other. You have to understand that.
“We are all on trial,” he cried. “Our dead are here to demand answers, and we are out of time. We have to choose, now, this day. Will we have a City divided into the eaters and the eaten—a City populated in the end only by the hungry dead!—or will we build a City where we break bread together, all of us, not feeding on each other but feeding and sustaining each other? Give me your verdict, please, then let me rest. The past few days have been more exhausting than any in my life. I will admit that I would rather die in my bed than in a fire. But now, if you can’t manage to look at the truth and decide what to do about it, I am done talking with you.”
And at the moment of his death:
“I have done my work in the world.”
The Polycarp whose story I told has been a comfort to me many times, a father I would have liked to have had.