February 6, 2018

Saint Boukolos in the "Life of Saint Polycarp"

The anonymous 3rd or early 4th century Greek Life of Polycarp, attributed to Saint Pionius, recounts the life and miracles of Saint Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr of Smyrna, describing him as a holy man and miracle worker, without referring to his martyrdom. It was written in Smyrna of Asia Minor.

In this text the following information is given us regarding Boukolos, the predecessor of Polycarp, who was the first Bishop of Smyrna.

Chapter Three

During the episcopate of Boukolos, a pious lady called Kallisto has a dream vision of an angel instructing her to go to the Ephesian Gate of Smyrna, where she will meet two men, with a boy from the East called Polycarp. She must ask them if the boy is for sale, buy him for any price and keep him in her household. She does as instructed and raises Polycarp, educating him in the faith and loving him like a son. As he grows up, she assigns to him the administration of her household, entrusting him with the keys of her storerooms.

"One whose name was Boukolos being bishop in Smyrna at that time, there was in those days a certain lady, devout and fearing God, conversant in good works, whose name was Kallisto. An angel sent from the Lord stood by her and said to her in a vision of the night; 'Kallisto, rise up and go to the gate called the Ephesian, and when you have gone forward a little in front of it, two men shall meet you, having with them a little lad named Polycarp. Ask them, if he is for sale; and when they say "Yes," give them the price that they shall demand, and take and keep him with you. This child is a native of the East.' Then she, the voice still ringing in her ears and her heart bounding with fear and joy, sat up and arose with haste, and without delay did as she was ordered. And with hurry and flurry she came to the aforesaid gate, and found as the angel told her, and she took him and brought him to her house and delighted in rearing him decently and nurturing him in the nurture of the Lord. And she was amazed, when she saw his intelligence and seemly behavior and his aptitude for piety. And in point of affection she treated him as a son, while as regards promotion over the servants, gradually as he advanced in age he was made manager of her property. And further she gave into his hand the keys of the storehouses."

Chapter Ten

As an adult, Polycarp realizes that freedom is the result of discipline, but very few can have it. He decides not to marry, in order to keep himself free from the distractions of living with a wife and raising children. Polycarp’s predecessor as bishop, Boukolos, loves him and hopes to be succeeded by him. Polycarp, in turn, loves his bishop like a father. Boukolos follows Polycarp’s eagerness to help the destitute, the sick and the elderly, hearing about him from the recipients of his charity. He is also aware of cures of diseases and exorcisms performed by Polycarp, and receives visions about him.

"Boukolos then, who was bishop before him, cherished him and set great store by him from his childhood. And being sanguine he entertained great hopes of him, as the fathers of good sons rejoice in having steady successors. And he in turn requited Boukolos, cherishing him as he would a parent, yet not with feigned language but inobtrusively and without forcing himself always upon him; and acting with reserve he observed the opportunities which occurred from time to time, so as not to appear to be officious nor yet neglectful. For he was not eager to give him a present or gift when he could supply his own wants, nor was Boukolos on his part eager to receive one; for the latter regarded the young man's alacrity in relieving those in want as his own personal gain, while the former duly fulfilled the command of the Lord Jesus by giving to those who were not able to pay him back; whereas some persons artfully pursue honor and are ever coveting some other greater honor. While then Polycarp, like Jacob, being a simple and plain man, acted in all things without vanity or ostentation, by the labors of his own hands supplying the poor with bodily ministrations as regards food and other necessaries of life, he gained renown by his actual deeds; and Boukolos was informed of this not by the doer, but by the recipients. For as good men regard the conferring of benefits as imperative, so likewise with reasonable men thankfulness on receiving benefits is indispensable. Moreover he rejoiced to see that many persons who were sick and afflicted with devils were restored to sound health through the grace given to him from God, and so the Lord Jesus Christ was glorified. And he beheld many things also concerning him in visions."

Chapter Eleven

Boukolos ordains Polycarp a deacon.

"Boukolos perceived therefore that Polycarp was worthy; and for the present, owing to his youthfulness, he enrolled him in the order of deacons with the approval of the whole Church. Blessed indeed was he in being permitted to cover such a head with his hand and to bless so noble a soul with his voice. For the approved and discreet advancement of those who are appointed to an office in the sacred ministry through faith in God is a source of confidence and joy to those who have made the good selection, provoking no blame before men and causing no secret reproaches to the conscience."

Chapter Twelve

As a deacon, Polycarp demonstrates particular eloquence in refuting Jews and pagans, and is persuaded by Boukolos to start preaching in the church as well. He is thus trained in the teachings of the canon of the orthodox and catholic faith, and shows remarkable ability in explaining difficult passages of the scriptures. He writes several treatises, homilies and letters, which, however, were lost during the persecution, after his martyrdom. Yet his extant works still demonstrate the character of his writings, especially the Letter to the Philippians, which the author promises to include in the present book.

"As a deacon then he approved himself among his own contemporaries, as Stephen did among those of the Apostles; for being well-equipped in speech, and adorned with good deeds, he boldly confuted Greeks and Jews and the heretics. And many a time did Boukolos, by exhortation and encouragement, with difficulty persuade him to allow himself to be disciplined by the Lord and to give catechetical discourses in church. Thus there was given him by Christ in the first place an ecclesiastical and catholic rule of correct instruction; and being able to interpret mysteries which were hidden from the multitude he expounded them so clearly that the hearers attested that they not only heard but saw the things described. He wrote also many treatises and sermons and letters, but in the persecution which arose on his account, when he was martyred, certain lawless heathen carried them off. Their character however is evident from those still extant, among which the Epistle to the Philippians was the most adequate. This we will include in its proper place."

Chapter Seventeen

As Polycarp grows older, grey hair appears on his head, reflecting the growth of his perfection and wisdom. After a vision, Boukolos ordains him a presbyter, to the joy of the whole church, and in spite of Polycarp’s own reservations.

"Boukolos therefore, seeing that Polycarp's age was adequate and that the propriety of his conduct throughout all his life was even more adequate than the number of his years, perceived that he was most excellent as a fellow-counsellor to him in questions relating to the Church and as a fellow-minister in teaching; while the Lord set His seal on and ratified his design, giving him commandment in a vision. Accordingly he appointed him to an office in the presbyterate, the whole Church with one accord welcoming him with great joy, although he himself shrunk from such an undertaking. For he said that it was enough in itself to give account of one office and one ministration, let alone of several. And he went on to say; 'If a man being unworthy dares to lay hold of such an honorable office, he brings judgment on himself; but if he be worthy, he has the full reward of his former works, receiving the order of the priesthood as in a manner a reward.' Seeing then that it was impossible to gainsay the counsel and appeal of God, he receives the order of the presbyterate, whereupon he saw a vision and received much comfort."

Chapter Twenty

Knowing that he will be succeeded by a man of such virtue, Boukolos reaches happily the end of his life. On his deathbed, he takes the hand of Polycarp and places it on his chest and face, symbolizing the passing on of his grace to him. The elderly bishop dies and the Christians bury him at the cemetery outside the Ephesian Gate of Smyrna, at the place where a myrtle sprouted after the burial of the martyr Thraseas. Having accomplished everything, the Christians ‘offer bread for Boukolos and the rest’ (probably a memorial meal or Eucharist), and ask Polycarp to preside over the ceremony, although he insists that more senior clerics should be given this privilege, but he is persuaded.

"Boukolos then, forasmuch as the Lord had often signified to him beforehand in visions that he had a man of this kind for his successor, in joy and gladness at leaving as it were a prudent heir, when he went to his rest fell asleep in this manner. At the season of his departure he took hold of Polycarp's hand, and pressed it first upon his own breast, then on his face, signifying that whatsoever graces are ministered through these organs of sense (the heart that understands and the eyes that see and the ears that hear and the nostril that inhales the odor of Christ and the mouth that by speech preaches God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ) will all be committed to him. He then having done this and said, 'Glory be to You, O Lord,' fell asleep. But Polycarp for the present took no account of any of these things, for his hope and longing was always set on things future. But the believers who were present and standing round, when they saw this, compared notes one with another privately, being hopeful of getting such a man for their pastor. So having taken the body of the blessed Boukolos to Smyrna to the cemetery in front of the Ephesian Royal Gate, and placed it where recently a myrtle tree sprung up after the burial of the body of Thraseas the martyr, when all was over, they offered bread for Boukolos and the rest. Now they were all of one mind that Polycarp should offer it; but as he was always scrupulous and desired to yield honor to his superiors, they prevented its happening otherwise. And so he was persuaded and performed the service."