Phocas the Gardener vs. Katharina von Bora

The Quotes and Quirks of the Saintly Sixteen continue as Phocas the Gardener faces Katharina von Bora. To make it to this round, Phocas defeated Isidore the Farmer while Katharina took down Wulfstan. Today's winner will face Richard Hooker.

Don't forget, the Saintly Sixteen write-ups are not the sum of what has been shared about each saint by our Celebrity Bloggers. Click the links above or scroll down on the bracket page to supplement your knowledge of our daily contestants.

Yesterday, the great controversy surrounding whether or not it was "fair" to stick an angel in the bracket was decided as Esther soundly dismantled Michael the Archangel 70% to 30%. This sets up the first Elate Eight matchup, a sure-to-be epic battle between Peter and Esther. Now go vote!

Phocas the Gardener

PhocasIt is no surprise that Phocas the Gardener is best known for his eponymous horticultural habits. Phocas’ garden, near the Black Sea city of Sinope, provided food to the poor and hospitality to strangers, including to the strangers at whose hands he would ultimately be martyred during the Diocletian persecution. In writing Lives of the Saints, Alban Butler praised Phocas, saying he was one who “join[ed] prayer with his labor, [and] found in his garden an instructive book and an inexhaustible fund of meditation. His house was open to strangers and travelers who had no lodging in the place; and after having for many years liberally bestowed the fruit of his labor on the poor, he was found worthy also to give his life for Christ.” Yet Phocas’ legend is not limited to his garden.

Phocas’ name appears to come from the Greek phoke, meaning “seal” (as in the lovable seafaring mammal, and, alas, not the British singer or a wax signet affixed to paper). It is speculated that his common name with the lovable sea mammal, along with a life and ministry lived near a major port, gave rise to his patronage of sailors, mariners, and watermen. A reference by Asterius of Amasea in the year 400 refers to hymns sung in Phocas’ honor by sailors in the Euxine, Aegean, and Adriatic seas.

It is perhaps around this time that a unique custom arose among some sailors in honor of St. Phocas. It became customary that for each meal, a portion would be designated for Phocas, which would be purchased by one of the voyagers or sailors. The cost of the meal would be left with the ship’s captain, and, upon arriving into port, the money from Phocas’ portion would be given to the poor.

Remembered and venerated for his patronage of gardeners, farmers, providers of hospitality, and sailors, Phocas’ witness of faithful generosity to the vulnerable and powerful alike paints a vivid picture of answering the call given to all Christians to love our neighbors as ourselves.

-David Sibley

Katharina von Bora
Katharina von Bora statueUnlike many of the women who played a role in the Protestant Reformation — or many of the saints who appear in Lent Madness — Katharina von Bora’s primary vocation was not ministry.

Rather, biographer Ruth A. Tucker notes, von Bora was “a farmer and a brewer with a boarding house the size of a Holiday Inn. All that with a large family and nursing responsibilities.” And yet, Tucker writes, the former nun was “the most indispensable figure of the Reformation, save for Martin Luther himself.”

(She was, of course, also the wife of the surly Reformer, which many have quipped should be enough to win her sainthood.)

It’s perhaps fitting that while few of von Bora’s quotes have survived, what letters remain are all business. Most plead with Luther’s benefactors to continue their support for her family after her husband’s death.

Nevertheless, several of her quips have persisted in letters written by Luther, in his “Table Talk” and in other contemporary accounts.

One of the most endearing comes after Luther tried to bribe von Bora to read through the Bible in a year, still a popular undertaking by many Christians. Her response, after having lived behind convent walls for nearly two decades: “I’ve read enough, I’ve heard enough, I know enough. Would to God I lived it.”

Evidently, she knew more than enough. Luther elsewhere said in his typically colorful language that his wife knew the Psalms “better than ever the papists had done.”

And in response to a joke from Luther about taking more than one wife, von Bora reportedly said, “I’d rather go back to the convent”.

Perhaps the biggest celebration of Katharina von Bora also has little to do with ministry: Thousands of people gather each summer in Wittenberg, Germany, for a quirky weekend festival that celebrates not the couple’s role in the Reformation, but their wedding. During “Luthers Hochzeit,” or “Luther’s Wedding,” performers dress as Luther, von Bora and 16th century wedding guests and parade through the streets — a far more elaborate affair than the couple’s actual wedding, which took place within a day of Luther’s proposal.

-Emily McFarlan Miller

Phocas the Gardener vs. Katharina von Bora

  • Phocas the Gardener (60%, 4,120 Votes)
  • Katharina von Bora (40%, 2,720 Votes)

Total Voters: 6,840

Loading ... Loading ...

Phocas: Orthodox Icon
Katharina: Photo by Emily McFarlan Miller


* indicates required

Recent Posts



113 comments on “Phocas the Gardener vs. Katharina von Bora”

    1. Phocas got my vote again. I can only imagine how developed his spirit must have been been to host the men who he knew were to kill him and make all preparations to die - giving his things away and digging his own grave while they slept in his home. Then not to take the easy way out when offered by the soldiers yet to stand with his faith and die. May I some day have that deep a faith.

      1. Me too! I feel sorry for the legendary saints of long ago, who so often get matched up against saints from more recent times, whose claims to sainthood sometimes seem more relevant to us.

  1. To have inspired sailors to continue his ministry of hospitality was enough to sway my vote to Phocas.

    1. That stood out to me, too! I'm so glad to be able to vote for Phocas for the second time.

  2. Usually I am drawn to vote for the more modern saint probably because there is more reliable information about them. Although I am no gardener, I was moved by the words by Alban Butler “join[ed] prayer with his labor, [and] found in his garden an instructive book and an inexhaustible fund of meditation. His house was open to strangers and travelers who had no lodging in the place; and after having for many years liberally bestowed the fruit of his labor on the poor, he was found worthy also to give his life for Christ.” Besides, I just can't forget that Phocas offered hospitality and forgiveness to the soldiers who would kill him. So even though Katharine has much to teach me, I had to vote for Phocas today.

  3. I, too, voted (yet again!) for Phocas. It was a difficult choice in the first round, but over the days I have developed a great fondness for him, with his great generosity and courage!

  4. Phocas got my vote because of his faith and service to the poor. I like that sailors would remember him by donating money to feed the poor.

    1. I also voted for Phocas, Debbie. It seems to me the guy has got it covered on all fronts, with his active spirituality, his hospitality, his good works, his courage in martyrdom, and as you cite, his inspiration to others' good works!

  5. Wow! I don't think I've ever looked at Letn Madness this early: only 4 comments, and none of them Oliver! I had better wait for more wisdom to arrive, though my leaning is toward the loving and generous martyr.

  6. Voted for von Bora. Since Luther isnt in this madness, von Bora comes a close second. Besides, I usually pick the loser anyway.

    1. I'm rooting for her, so I'm glad for your vote...but don't vote for her as a surrogate for her husband! Vote for HER!

      1. My thought exactly! Intelligent and well-spoken in her own right; worked (no doubt) day and night in the domestic area that made possible Martin's work; partner, not surrogate or subordinate helpmate; dare I say that she kept him humble? Good, strong person, whether male or female.

        1. Indeed, she did work day and night — Luther called her "the morning star of Wittenberg" because she rose so early in the morning to get to work. That's probably why she didn't have time for intense Bible study every day!

  7. These additional details about Phocas (or rather the cult associated with his name) further endeared him to me, especially all the connections with the seal and the sea. The sailors who honored him by perpetuating his benevolence remind us that our call to be saints includes us among "the meek and lowly." Any good literary work from small-scale (Synge's "Riders to the Sea") to epic ("Moby Dick") teaches us much about the sea-going life, its dangers, and the generosity of spirit it breeds.

  8. Katharina got my vote with “I’ve read enough, I’ve heard enough, I know enough. Would to God I lived it.”

  9. I love that sculpture of Katharina standing in the open doorway to offer hospitality (at least I think that's what that is!). She does capture my heart, but Phocas with that shovel and an armful of beautiful vegetables reminds me that difficult sacrifice plus God's power to create abundance and sustenance from plain old dirt can yield kindness and life-giving love. I vote for Phocas. Now I'm going to go water my chard!

  10. I am a gardener and a sailor so I have to vote for Phocas, even though I admire Katharina greatly.

    1. My track records as a gardener and a sailer are both far from impressive. Can I still vote for Phocas? Actually, when I lived in the Pacific Northwest I was a pretty decent kayaker and always enjoyed the (careful) company of seals--so this additional meaning of his name, introduced today, is a nice surprise.

  11. I voted for Phocas just because growing things gives such pleasure to the grower and the ones who eat or smell (the daisies). I figured he'd be losing this match up and what a surprise I got when I saw the results of the voting to date.

  12. “I’ve read enough, I’ve heard enough, I know enough. Would to God I lived it.” sold me on Katharina. That is a statement that needs to become one of my prayers.

  13. A farmer, brewer, opener of her home to orphans and strays, and masterful practicer of hospitality? How can today's writer not think of all that as consummate ministry? Katharina gets my vote.

    1. My thoughts exactly, Lisa! Katharina was apparently a nice (if spicy) blend of Martha and Mary. Would that we all could live that! It may be a hopeless vote, but I’m going for Luther’s lady.

      Kudos to Phocas, too, though—I love the maritime connection and the ongoing charity in his honor.

      1. This one is a very hard choice. I voted for Katharina though and am very surprised the sentiments so early were she would be an also ran. She seems the real deal to me and definitely an inspiration as others have said more eloquently.

    2. Luther, perhaps because of von Bora's example, greatly broadened what was then the definition of vocation in his writing. Every Christian has a calling and a ministry — even those that might not be considered traditional ministry, like von Bora's, perhaps like many of ours. She's patron saint of all us laypeople, without whom the work of the church couldn't be done!

  14. Now this old black-shoe sailor has a rooting interest. Fair winds and following seas, Phocas

  15. I must admit, it disturbs me that Phocas offered himself up to be killed. Where is the merit in that? On the other hand, there’s Katharina, the bold, gutsy, hardworking wife and partner of Luther. She inspires me.
    Yeah, I’m voting for Katharina.

    1. I re-read the biography on Katherina and wow!! Just like a woman (ie, dancing backwards on high heels, see Ginger Rodgers) always had to do twice as well, work twice as hard, raise 6 kids, caring also for all who entered the boarding house/ brewery. And though impoverished as a widow despite get husband's best efforts, "stuck to Christ like a burr."
      Also remember she escaped the nunnery in a herring barrel once Luther's protestations were leaked... gutsy on so many levels!!
      For sainthood, she is definitely a top runner up. However, I went with Phocas, partially as I am biased toward seals.

    2. Of course Phocas answered the soldiers' question; he could hardly lie about his Christianity and remain true to Jesus. And just maybe the soldiers would spare the life of another Christian.

    3. Merit in offering your live in witness? Watch Peter Weir's The Year of LIving Dangerously again (or read the C. Koch novel). But I could go on listing dozen's of stories (even in the NT of all places). Granted, Phocas's offering, like that of Dirk Willems, has a special "crazy" twist to it. But I think that is the point of his story (cf the 1st round bio) and is why I am moved. Know, though, that I also say AMEN to the inspiration you find in Katharina.

  16. Voted for Phocas. Never heard of him before LM, but that's part of the fun and consternation. And even though we are patio container gardeners these days, the gardener wins the day for us.

  17. I've read the Bible in a year, its a challenging task to read straight through
    without skipping parts because you know what is coming later on.
    My mother started reading the Bible, selecting a verse each chapter
    for the thought of the day. Took her 3 years the first time through
    but Mama knew her Bible better than most of the pastors we had.
    Come on Katherina, you can do it!

  18. This old submariner has to vote for the patron saint of sailors.
    Sailors singing hymns? Anyone who can get that going deserves a halo!

  19. As much as I enjoy the meditative aspect of gardens Phocas' rather typical story of the period just doesn't resonate. I prefer the robust and active life of Katharina von Bora who through her influence on Martin Luther and her own example and teachings affects so many lives today. Votes for Katharina!

  20. As the mother of a US Navy Sailor, I had to vote for Phocas! I probably would have anyway because his quiet dedication to God and service to others appeal to me even though I admire the bold Katharina.

  21. A marriage within a day of the proposal? Now how did the license get through the county clerk's office so quickly? Does that count as a miracle toward Katharina's beatification?

  22. Though I'm still smarting from the beating that Phocas gave Isidore, he is my choice this day. Gardeners 'grow' in their love of all creation and I find that gardening does indeed lend itself to meditative moments and life lessons.

    1. An 1856 biography of von Bora says of her, “No innocent woman was ever more bitterly and cruelly defamed.” We haven't even gotten into all the polemics written about her as a supposed evil seductress who caused a monk to break his vows, and one recent book I read suggested many in the town may have thought her a witch. We know several witches were killed in Wittenberg, and men always have been intimidated by strong women!

  23. As tempting a it was too think about voting for the person who said she had "read enough, learned enough, and seen enough" but who wished to "live" the Bible, I still have to go with Phocus.

    He DID live the Gospel, even into death.

    Phocus for the win!

  24. This was a hard choice! I thought they were equally qualified, so I went with the Katharina, as she had a better personality.

  25. I feel as though I'm voting between a harried housewife and a quaint legend. What appeals to me today is the vision of a garden and of hospitality. "Food for the poor and hospitality to strangers" seems to be at the heart of the Christian message. A garden nurtures both souls and bodies. So I'll put my "seal" on this decision and vote for Phocas. Yesterday was pi day, so I'll focus on charity and hospitality as the axis of symmetry for my heart's parabola.