The Final Letter

St. Ignatius of Antioch's Letter to Polycarp—the very last, and the shortest, of the seven written and sent since his arrest in Antioch—is not meant to tell him things he does not already know.

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[Editor’s Note: This is the fifteenth and final in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]

Taken to Troas, a port city located along the northern route through Asia Minor to the Aegean Sea—across which lies Europe and the final, fateful leg of the journey to Rome—St. Ignatius of Antioch will write three letters, the last of which was sent to the saintly bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, numbered among the immortals of the Early Church. For like Ignatius himself, he, too, will wear the laurels of martyrdom, the crowing jewel of his old age.   

But not just yet. In fact, not until nearly a half century later when, as a very old man about to be burned at the stake, he will boldly announce his faith before the whole crowd of unbelieving pagans and Jews. “Take the oath,” shouts the Proconsul, “and I shall release you! Curse Christ!”  To all of which the aged Polycarp will calmly reply, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” 

The fire is lit, which at once assumes the shape of a vaulted chamber, “like a ship’s sail filled by the wind,” eyewitnesses report, “making a wall around the body of the martyr.” And, behold, there he will stand before the astonished crowd, “not as burning flesh, but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace. And we perceived such a sweet aroma as the breath of incense or some other precious spice.”

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And then, as if there were not already enough amazement to go around, they see that the body of Polycarp does not burn, so that the Proconsul must order one of his executioners to go and dispatch him with a dagger.  

And when he did this a dove and a great quantity of blood came forth, so that the fire was quenched and the whole crowd marveled that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.

With credentials like these, one might imagine that there can’t be much reason for Polycarp needing to receive letters from anyone, not even a few lines written in haste by Ignatius of Antioch. Can there really be anything touching on matters of either faith or morals about which Polycarp does not already know everything? 

What more does a man who first heard the Good News as a child from the Beloved Apostle himself, St. John the Divine, require? Who, years later, while visiting Rome to confer with the pope, will run into the heretic Marcion—who, having just eviscerated the entire Old Testament owing to the fact that the God of Jesus Christ could not have been its author—and when asked whether Polycarp knew him, will straightaway be told, “Yes, I know that you are the firstborn of Satan!” 

So learned and brave a witness to Christ would seem quite competent enough to manage his own affairs. But then, of course, Ignatius’ Letter to Polycarp—the very last, and the shortest, of the seven written and sent since his arrest in Antioch—is not meant to tell him things he does not already know. “It is because I am well aware of your earnest sincerity,” he assures him, “that I limit my appeal to so few words.” 

And such words as he may feel it necessary to pass along are intended rather to remind Polycarp of things he is not likely ever to have forgotten anyway. Not if he is to stay strong for an end that will surely prove as bloody as the one Ignatius himself awaits.

Just as pilots demand winds and a storm-tossed sailor a harbor, so times like these demand a person like you. With your help we will both get to God… The prize, as you very well know, is immortality and eternal life.

There is gratitude in spades running through this last letter of Ignatius, and not a little of it the happy result of simply having known this man, this heroic exemplar of the Christian life, in whom the outline of the face of Christ may be seen. And while the young Polycarp had his own encounter with Christ through John, whose face was filled with light whenever he spoke of seeing Jesus for the first time, so too will Ignatius espy the same face upon the countenance of Polycarp.    There is gratitude running through this last letter of Ignatius, and not a little of it the happy result of simply having known this man, this heroic exemplar of the Christian life, in whom the outline of the face of Christ may be seen.Tweet This

“While I was impressed,” he tells him, “with your godly mind, which is fixed, as it were, on an immovable rock, I am more than grateful that I was granted the sight of your holy face. God grant I may never forget it!”  

Let us steel ourselves, he seems to be saying to his episcopal friend, for the fearful ordeal that is to come, an ordeal that will only end in the end. And so, in exhorting Polycarp to play the man, he does not wish to detach himself from the same performance. Let us together, therefore, stand our ground, “like an anvil under the hammer,” resolutely receiving blow upon blow. “A great athlete,” he declares, “must suffer blows to conquer. And especially for God’s sake must we put up with everything, so that he will put up with us.”

As always, then, there is this same pressing need not to lose sight of the ball—nor to chase after other balls that go exactly nowhere—but to remain fixed upon that which defines everything, reducible to nothing other than itself. That is because, as von Balthasar reminds us in his Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen, “the light of Christ,” to which all that we say and do must point, “proves itself and thus repels what is false; it is index sui et falsi. Thus everything depends upon whether the light of Christ in its incomparable unity becomes evident.”

What is finally at stake here is nothing less than “the still point of the turning world,” that mystic point where all things come together in Christ. It is Christ, you see, who furnishes the Kairos, the Now Moment, which is that divinely appointed hour of divine/human intersection, where history and mystery, nature and grace, the carnal and the celestial are joined together in a common dance.

And while the usual, customary curiosity of most men, “searches past and future / And clings to that dimension,” the would-be saint must look elsewhere, must bend every muscle, as it were, “to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless with time…” There, says T.S. Eliot, “is an occupation for the saint—No occupation either, but something given / And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love, / Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.”

Alas, for most of us, continues Eliot, “there is only the unattended / Moment, the moment in and out of time, / The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight…” So many “hints and guesses,” continues Eliot,

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half-guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled…                                        

And so Ignatius tells Polycarp to be ever vigilant for the promised appearance of God, who breaks into our world with the surprise and spontaneity of a child—both sudden and unforeseen, yet longed for from the beginning. And, of course, He never disappoints.

Mark the times. Be on the alert for him who is above time, the Timeless, the Unseen, the One who became visible for our sakes, who was beyond touch and passion, yet for our sakes became subject to suffering, and endured everything for us.

There is one final point, and it is a source of some wonderment to Ignatius in making it. “News has reached me,” he tells Polycarp, 

that, thanks to your prayers, the Church at Antioch in Syria is now at peace. At this I have taken new courage and, relying on God, I have set my mind at rest—assuming, that is, I may get to God through suffering, and at the resurrection prove to be your disciple.  

So, his last request is that his friend write at once to the various churches of Asia, importuning them to give all glory and honor and thanksgiving to God for so blessed and unexpected a deliverance. For here is Ignatius’ very own church, the See of Antioch, the place from which he’d been so cruelly torn away by the emperor Trajan for the mob’s amusement in Rome. Free at last from the grip of a persecution of which he, Ignatius, had been so conspicuous—and celebrated—an example.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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