Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Phokas, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)
In the lyrical Psalms of David, perhaps the most beautiful in the language of the Bible, there is a passage which reads: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep.” The strong fascination that has drawn men to the sea, with its boundless might, draws them also closer to the Creator and gives them an awareness of the wonders of creation that makes them better Christians. This love of the sea served to draw closer to God a saint by the name of Phokas, who is dwarfed by so many of the better-known saints that he has remained obscure in the centuries since he died for Christ but who in his time was a spiritual giant and tireless servant of the Lord.
Phokas was born in the town of Sinope on the shores of the Black Sea, the son of a highly respected shipbuilder in whose yards were built some of the finest vessels of the first century of Christendom. Apprenticed to his father, Phokas learned the art of shipbuilding well, and the craftsmanship of father and son was evident in the boats they were commissioned to build both for the state and for private seafarers. A backlog of orders kept the yard busy, but both father and son were never too busy to turn their attention to the sea and to its Creator, both of whom they loved deeply. When a boat was completed, Phokas took delight in giving it the trial run and found himself wishing that he too could make seafaring a full-time pursuit. On some occasions he was allowed to accompany the master of the ship on its maiden voyage as an observer for the yard of the vessel’s response to rudder and sail and the many details that required a trained scrutiny.
Phokas returned from one of these voyages with a compelling urge to become a priest. It appears that a storm had come up at sea, and when mountainous waves threatened to swamp the new craft and plunge all aboard into a watery grave, he knelt in prayer for the safety of the crew and almost at once the wind subsided and the waters were calm. He was convinced that his prayers had been answered and for an instant felt a divine presence which not only gave him a serenity he had never known before, but also seemed to beckon him to work for the salvation of mankind through service to Jesus Christ.
The transition from craftsman to priest was not what Phokas had anticipated and he soon realized that something more was required of him than divine inspiration. He was anxious to get all the study and regimen behind him and to get on with what he considered to be his life’s purpose and would have all but ruined his chances to become a priest with his impatience had it not been for his father, who compared the making of a priest with the building of a ship. Both required endless hours of preparation and Phokas soon saw that in his rush to serve he had put out to sea after having just laid the keel. He curbed his impatience and in due time emerged as one of the finest young priests in all of Asia Minor.
Because of his early training, Father Phokas was assigned to tour the many tiny fishing villages that bordered the Black Sea, and it was to these rugged seamen that he brought the full meaning of faith in God and the power of prayer in times of crisis and in thanksgiving. The farther he traveled the more he found that Christianity in some remote areas had all but disappeared, and he brought about the conversion of many who lived without the light of the Lord. Because of these endeavors, his name was well known to villagers, particularly in those coastal towns, to whom he pointed out the wonders of the deep that had inspired him from the beginning.
The women of these seaside villages were accustomed to the tragedy and heartbreak of shipwrecks, but soon found that through prayer the power of the Lord could be summoned, particularly through the intervention of Father Phokas, who is credited with having prevented many a loss at sea through his earnest prayer to God. Because of his divine spark, he was consecrated bishop of Sinope. He is said to have met a martyr’s death by being scalded by soldiers of the Roman army.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.