The feast of St Ignatius of Antioch seems to become more poignant year by year. He is so close to the sources of our faith. He knew St John the Apostle and had important things to say about ecclesiology, the role of bishops, and the sacraments. It was he who coined the phrase ‘the Catholic Church’ we still use today, and his Letters remain a wonderful source of encouragement. But there is a darker side. After five years of brutal war in Syria, who would not find uncomfortably familiar what he says of his captivity:
From Syria even to Rome I fight with wild beasts, by land and sea, by night and by day, being bound amidst ten leopards, even a company of soldiers, who only grow worse when they are kindly treated. (Letter to the Romans, 5)
The leopards proved real enough when he finally reached Rome and was tossed straight into the arena where the words he had uttered previously became fact:
I am the wheat of God, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.
There is something heartening about such clear-eyed faith, and I must admit I have often thought of Ignatius as an encouragement to those of us with cancer or any other terminal illness. I cannot identify with all those brave, smiling people in the glossy magazine articles that seem to be appearing everywhere this month. For me, the unpredictability of such diseases is one of their worst aspects. One can feel nearly normal one day, utterly exhausted the next. Mood swings and treatment take their toll; and even if one has survived longer than expected, as I have, there is always the thought that one’s last day may overtake one like the proverbial thief in the night. Ignatius lived his whole life trembling on the brink of eternity. He knew what his end would be, yet he looked forward in faith and hope. That is what I find so encouraging. No nonsense about a pardon or release; no false hope; no ‘bucket list’ of things he wanted to do before he died; just a quiet acceptance that everything — everything — came within the dispensation of God’s mercy; that just going on, as best he could, was his way to become ‘the pure bread of Christ’. May he pray for us all, especially those who suffer in Syria today.