Today is the feast day of St. Lawrence of Rome. St. Lawrence was one of the seven deacons who served under Pope St. Sixtus II. St. Lawrence along with Pope St. Sixtus II and many of the bishops and priests were all martyred in 258 AD during the persecutions of Valerian. St. Lawrence was in charge of the Church's treasures located in Rome, and after the martyrdom of Pope St. Sixtus II, Valerian called St. Lawrence before him and ordered him to present the riches of the church to him or face death. The story that follows is one that every time I read it leaves me in awe of St. Lawrence's bravery and courage. The Roman Christian poet Prudentius recounts the story of St. Lawrence in his Hymnus in Honorem Passionis Laurentii: Beatissimi Martyris.
What follows is Prudentius' full recounting of the story. [I have bolded the best parts]
He [Lawrence], being the chief of the seven" who stand next the altar, the Levite highest in rank and outstanding above the rest, was in charge of the safe-keeping of the holy things, with trusty keys managing the treasury of the heavenly house and paying out the money of the offerings. Now the prefect of the imperial city, the agent of a frantic ruler for enforcing payment of gold and blood, has a hunger for money busy in his heart, pondering how to unearth the hidden cash, for he thinks great riches piled in heaps lie concealed down in the treasury. He orders Lawrence to be brought before him and seeks for information of the chest packed with precious ingots, the mountains of shining coins in store. " It is your wont," he says, " to protest that our cruelty goes beyond all justice in cleaving Christian bodies with worse than blood- thirstiness. Here you have no judge whose mind is heated with passions too violent. Softly and calmly I make a request which you should be ready to meet. It has come out that the custom and style of your secret rites, the rule of your brotherhood, is that your priests make offering from vessels of gold. They say the holy blood smokes in silver cups, and that at your services by night the candles stand fixed in golden candlesticks. And then, as common talk keeps on declaring, it is the brethren's chief concern to sell their properties and offer sesterces " in thousands. The disinherited heir laments that his grandsires' estates have been knocked down in- famously under the hammer ; his holy parents have brought him to want. All this wealth is concealed in out-of-the-way corners of your churches, and it is believed to be the greatest piety to leave your dear children destitute. Fetch out your treasures, those piles you amass through your wicked tricks of per- suasion and shut up in some dark hole. Our country's need, the emperor's chest, the public treasury call for this step, that the money may be devoted to soldiers' pay and assist our High Commander. Your teaching runs thus, I am told: " Render to each his own." Well then, Caesar recognises his own stamp on your coins. What you know for Caesar's, give to Caesar. It is surely a fair request I make. Your God, I think, stamps no money; nor when He came did He bring golden Philips down with Him, but gave instructions in words, not being furnished with a purse. Make good, then, the credit of his sayings, on the strength of which you cry yourselves up throughout the world. Pay over the money cheerfully and be rich in words."
No rough or quarrelsome answer does Lawrence make to this, but assents willingly, as ready to obey. " Our church is rich," he says, " I make no denial. It has very much wealth and gold, no man in the world is richer. The very Augustus who holds the seat of power and whose inscription is on every coin, has not so many images on silver. Yet I do not object to producing our wealthy God's treasure- chest ; I shall divulge and bring forth all the precious possessions of Christ. But one thing I beg and entreat, — a little time of grace, that I may discharge more effectually the task I promise, by making an ordered list of all Christ's belongings ; for we must first compute the total, and then note it at the foot." The delighted prefect, ready to burst with joy, greedily enjoys his hope, exulting as if he had the gold already laid in his possession. The bargain is struck for a space of three days, and then Lawrence is commended and dismissed, standing surety for himself and for the vast riches.
For three days he runs about the city gathering into one flock the companies of the infirm and all the beggars for alms. There a man showing two eyeless sockets is directing his straying, faltering step with the guidance of a staff ; a cripple with a broken knee, a one-legged man with his other limb cut short, a man with one leg shorter than the other, are dragging unequal steps along. Here is one whose limbs are covered with sores and running with decayed matter, and one whose right hand is withered, the muscles contracted to the elbow. Such people he seeks out through all the public places, men who were wont to be fed from the store of their mother the Church, and whom as her steward he knew before. Then he reviews them one by one, writing down each man's name, and makes them stand posted in a long line in the forefront of the church. By this the prescribed time had passed, and the judge was beside himself with the vehemence of his covetous spirit as he called for payment of the promise. Then said the martyr : " Pray give us your presence, and marvel at the wealth set out before you, which our exceeding rich God has in his sanctuaries. You will see the great nave gleaming with vessels of gold, and along the open colonnades course on course of precious metal." So he went, not thinking it beneath him to follow. They reached the hallowed door, and there stood the companies of poor men in their swarms, a ragged sight. Up rises a din of beggars appeals, and the prefect, startled and amazed, turns to Lawrence with menace in his angry- eyes. But Lawrence counters : " Why do you rage and threaten ? What displeases you ? Do you think all this mean or worthless, only to be scorned ? Gold, for which you thirst vehemently, is got from rubbish dug out of the earth ; penal labour excavates it from dirty mines ; or a rushing river rolls it down enwrapped in its muddy sand; and being earthy and dirty it has to be refined with fire. By means of gold the bonds of modesty are unloosed and innocence is outraged, through it peace comes to an end, honour dies, the very law itself lapses away. Why do you exalt the poison of glory and hold it of great worth ? If you seek gold that is more real, it is the light and the race of men. These are foster- children of light, confined by a feeble body lest through the well-being of their flesh their spirit should swell with pride. When disease rives the body the spirit is stronger in activity, but again when the members are stout the force of the spirit is hurt. For the blood is hot for sin, but it furnishes less force if its heat is exhausted by bodily ills and it contracts a poison which enfeebles it. If haply I had to choose , I would rather bear with broken members under the cruellest pain and be handsome in my inner self. Match together the natures of the ills that plague us, compare our calamities of either kind : is disease of the flesh the more loathsome, or the sores on soul and character ? Our people are weakly in body, but within they have beauty unimpaired, they are comely and free from distress and bear a soul that has no hurt. But yours, while strong in body, are corrupted by an inner leprosy, their superstition halts like one that is maimed, their self-deception is blind and sightless. Any of your great men, who make a brave show in dress and features, I shall prove feebler than any of my poor men. Here is one who vaunts himself in his silk and is puffed up with pride as he rides in his chariot, but a watery dropsy of the soul within distends him with its transparent poison. And here is another who in his greed crooks his hands and draws them close, his palm doubled, his finger- nails like hooks, and cannot relax the tendons. This other is dragged by foul lust among public harlots and polluted with mire and filth as he goes a-begging after dirty whorings. And he there, who seeks hotly for advancement and burns with thirst for rank, is he not panting with fevers underneath and maddened by the fire in his veins?
Whoso wants the self-control to be silent and has a restless urge to betray secrets suffers tortures from the irritation of his passion and the constant itch in his heart. You do not need me to recount the scrofulous swellings in envious breasts, or the discoloured, festering sores of malice. You yourself who rule over Rome, who despise the everlasting God, worshipping foul devils, are suffering from the ruler's sickness. These men, whom in your pride you scorn and count detestable, will soon put off their sore-ridden bodies and be in sound health, when they shall be loosed and free at last from the most corrupt flesh and in the most beauteous condition of life shine in their Father's house on high, no longer dirty or feeble as for the present they appear, but bright with gleaming robes and golden crowns. Then, if it were possible, I would have these great men of the world put for review before your eyes. You would see them covered with rags, snivelling at the nose, their chins wet with their slaver, their eyes purblind and mattering on the lids. There is nothing fouler than a sinner, nothing so leprous or rotten ; the wound of his sins keeps bleeding and stinks like the pit of hell. The tables are turned and a corrupted figure is imposed on souls which formerly had delight in a comely presence in the body. Here then are the golden coins which a short while ago I promised, coins which tumbling walls cannot bury under burning ashes, nor thief carry away by stealth. And now I give you noble jewels also, so that you need not think Christ is poor, jewels of flashing light with which this temple is adorned. You see the consecrated virgins, and marvel at the pure old women who after the loss of their first husbands have known no second love. These are the Church's necklace, the jewels with which she decks herself; thus dowered she is pleasing to Christ, and thus she adorns her high head. There are her riches, take them up; with them you will adorn the city of Romulus and enrich the emperor's estate, and yourself be made richer too."
"He is mocking us," cries the prefect, mad with rage, " making wonderful sport of us with all this allegory. And yet the madman lives ! Think you, rascal, to get off with contriving such trickeries with your comedian's quibbling and theatrical buffoonery ? " Did you think it neat pleasantry to make a butt of me? Have you made your guffaws out of me and turned me into a merry piece of entertainment ? Have the magisterial rods so wholly lost their stern control? Has gentle lenity so blunted the axe of authority ? You say ' I am ready to die ; to the martyr death is an object of desire.' You Christians have, we know, this vain persuasion. But I shall not grant your wish to be presented with a short way to your end in a quick death. I shall not let you die in a hurry. I shall hold on to your life and prolong it through slow, unceasing punishments ; a death which keeps you fast in its toils will drag out long-lasting pains. Lay the coals not too hot, so that the heat shall not be too fiery and seize on the stiff-necked fellow's face and get into the depths of his breast. Let its hot breath die down and languish so as to pour out with no strong gust but by degrees temper the torments and only scorch his body. It is well that of them all the head of their secret rites has fallen into our hands, for he by himself will furnish an example of what they next must fear. Get up on to the pyre they have laid for you, lie down on the bed you deserve ; and then, if you like, argue that my god of fire is nothing." While the prefect was thus speaking, the cruel tormentors all around were making ready to strip the martyr of his robe and bind his limbs and stretch them out. His face shone with beauty and a glory was shed around him. Such was the countenance that the bearer of the law brought down from the mountain on his return, and the Jewish people, having stained and tarnished itself with the golden ox, was greatly afraid of him and turned its face away because it could not bear the presence of God.« Such again was the glory which Stephen presented shining on his face as amid the rain of stones he gazed at the open heavens. This was made visible farther off to the brethren lately cleansed from sin, whom baptism given not long before had made fit to receive Christ ; but the blind eyes of the ungodly, their face being covered over with the blackness of night and enveloped under a veil of darkness, saw not the brilliance. It was like the Egyptian plague which, while it condemned the barbarians to darkness, gave to the Hebrews the clear light of day." Even the very nature of the smell arising from the scorched skin gave the two parties contrary sensa- tions : to the one it was the smell of roasting, to the other the scent of nectar ; the same sense, varied by a different aura, in the one case brought on the nostrils an avenging horror, in the other charmed them with delight. So is God an everlasting fire; for Christ is the true fire, it is He who fills the righteous with light and burns the guilty.
After the long-continued heat has burned his side away, Lawrence on his own part hails the judge and addresses him briefly from the gridiron: "This part of my body has been burned long enough ; turn it round and try what your hot god of fire has done." So the prefect orders him to be turned about, and then " It is done," says Lawrence; " eat it up, try whether it is nicer raw or roasted." These words spoken in jest, he then looks up to heaven, and sighing deeply prays in pity for the city of Romulus: "O Christ, the one name, the glory and strength of the Father, creator of earth and sky and founder of this city, who hast set the sceptre of the world on Rome's high citadel, ordaining that the world obey the toga of Quirinus and yield to his arms, that thou might 'st bring under one system of laws the customs and observance, the speech and character and worship of nations which differed among them- selves ; lo, the whole race of men has passed under the sovereignty of Remus, and usages formerly discordant are now alike in speech and thought. This was appointed that the authority of the Christian name might bind with one tie all lands everywhere. Grant, O Christ, to thy Romans that the city by which Thou hast granted to all others to be of one mind in worship, may itself be Christian. All its members everywhere are now allied in one confession of faith. The world it has subdued grows peaceable ; may the supreme head too grow peace- able. May she see that countries far apart are uniting in one state of grace, and may Romulus become one of the faithful, and Numa himself be now a believer. The superstition which came from Troy still confounds a senate of Catos," doing homage at secret altars to the Phrygians' exiled Penates. The senate worships Janus of the two faces and Sterculus " (I shudder to name all these monstrosities our Fathers own) and keeps the festival of old Saturn.' Wipe away this shame, O Christ; send forth thy servant Gabriel that the straying blindness of Julus may recognise the true God. Already we hold most trusty sureties for this hope, for already there reign here the two chiefs of the apostles,/ the one he who called the Gentiles, while the other occupies the foremost chair and opens the gates of eternity which were committed to his keeping. Away, thou lecherous Jupiter, defiled with the violation of thy sister! Leave Rome at liberty, flee from her people, who now are Christ's. Paul banishes thee hence, the blood of Peter drives thee out. That deed of Nero's for which thou didst put the sword in his hand hurts thee. I foresee that one day there will be an emperor who will be the servant of God and will not suffer Rome to be in the service of vile, abominable rites, but will shut and bar her temples, block up their ivory doors, close their unholy entrances and make them fast with bolts of brass. Then at last will her marbles shine bright because they will be cleansed from all blood, and the statues that stand in bronze, which now she thinks of as idols, will be guiltless." ^ So ended his prayer, and with it ended his im- prisonment in the flesh ; the spirit broke forth eagerly after his words. Certain senators carried the body on their shoulders, whom the hero's marvellous inde- pendence had persuaded to seek the favour of Christ. A new disposition had suddenly inspired their inmost hearts and from love of the most high God constrained them to hate their old-time follies. From that day the worship of those base gods flagged, the people were seen in smaller numbers at their shrines, and there was a rush to the sanctuary of Christ. In this warfare Lawrence did not gird a sword on his side, but turned back the foe's steel against its wi elder. In making war on God's indomitable witness, the devil was stabbed himself and fell, and now lies prostrate for ever. The death the holy martyr died was in truth the death of the temples. That day Vesta saw her Palladian house-spirits " deserted and no vengeance follow. All the Romans who used to reverence Numa's libation-cup now crowd the churches of Christ and sound the martyr's name in hymns. The very ornaments of the senate, men who once served as Luperci " or flamens, now eagerly kiss the thresholds of apostles and martyrs. We see distinguished families, where both sides are high- born, dedicate their dear ones, their noble children.
The priest who once wore the head-bands is admitted to receive the sign of the cross and, Lawrence, a Vestal Claudia enters thy church. O thrice and four times, yea seven times blessed
Sancte Laurentius Ora Pro Nobis