It's not Gruesome - It's Reverence


Fra Angelico: Saint Lawrence before Valerianus

August 10th is the Feast Day of St. Lawrence the Librarian., also known as St. Lawrence the Martyr. Lawrence was one of seven deacons of Rome during the reign of Bishop Sixtus II. As were Sixtus and the other deacons, Lawrence was put to death in 258, during Emperor Valerian's persecution of the Christian church.

There can be little doubt that Lawrence was a real person or that he was martyred. His existence and death are recorded in the Deposito Martyrum, which was compiled in 354 That he was martyred was generally accepted by Church Fathers. What cannot be certain are the particulars of Lawrence's martyrdom.

That Lawrence was a popular and powerful figure during the Middle Ages is attested to by the multitude of churches dedicated to him. In Rome alone there are five.

Lawrence was a librarian. Tradition tells us he also took care of the working records of the Church. Apparently he also was thought to be a steward over the property and treasure of the Church. According to the hagiographies, it was because of this that he was martyred.

The middle years of the third century were difficult times for Christians living in the Roman Empire. Rome itself was subjected to repeated barbarian attacks and it was these attacks that led to the end of uneasy truces between Roman Christians and pagans.

"To understand the persecution under Decius (or Aurelius) we must imagine a nation in the full excitement of war, frightened by serious defeats, and expecting hostile invasion. In 249 a wave of religious emotion swept the Empire; men and women flocked to the temples and besieged the gods with prayers. Amid this fever of patriotism and fear the Christians stood apart, still resenting and discouraging military service, scorning the gods, and interpreting the collapse of the Empire as the prophesied prelude to the destruction of "Babylon" and the return of Christ…Decius issued an edict requiring every inhabitant of the realm to offer a propitiatory act of homage to the gods of Rome…Most Christians complied; in Alexandria, according to its Bishop Dionysius, "the apostasy was universal"; it was likewise in Carthage and Smyrna; probably these Christians considered the supplicatio a patriotic formallity. But the bishops of Jerusalem and Antioch died in jail, and the bishops of Rome and Toulouse were put to death. Hundreds of Roman Christians were crowded into dungeons; some were beheaded, some were burned at the stake, a few were given to the beasts in holiday festival. After a year the persecution abated; and by Easter of 251 it was practically at an end." (Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, The Story of Civilization: Part III, Simon and Schuster:New York (1944), p. 650)

Just six years later, the barbarians again were at the gates of Rome. And Emperor Valerian

"ordered that 'all persons must conform to the Roman ceremonials,' and forbade any Christian assemblage. Bishop Sixtus II resisted, and was put to death with four of his deacons. Bishop Cyprian of Carthage was beheaded, the bishop of Tarragona was burned alive." (Will Durant, Ibidem)

And here is where the accounts of historians and hagiographers begin to differ. One hagiography tells us that Lawrence stood weeping as Roman soldiers led Sixtus II out to die, saddened because he could not die with his master.

"I was your minister," he said, "when you consecrated the blood of Our Lord; why do you leave me behind now that you are about to shed your own?" The holy Pope comforted him with the words, "Do not weep, my son; in three days you will follow me." (John Gilmary Shea, Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, Benzinger Brothers:New York (1894), p. 621; w/Nihil Obstat & Imprimitur)

Don't you just have to wonder how the folks who create the biographies of Catholic saints are able to come up with precise quotations, not only of the saint himself but others who interacted with him? I find it difficult to believe that anyone was standing by writing in a steno tablet as armed men were dragging the reigning bishop off to be executed as one of his aids stood there sobbing. I have already mentioned that the first account of Lawrence's martyrdom dates to nearly a full century after the event. Do you reckon Catholic hagiographers "fill in the blanks" to make their stories more convincing in much the same way as Catholic theologians do when supplying vital information God "forgot" to include in the Scriptures?

One church historian, in describing some of the locations where the ancient Christian church in Rome kept its archives, offers what appears to be a somewhat objective account of the events leading up to Lawrence's martyrdom.

"It was during the persecutions that followed the Valerian edicts of 257 and 258 that the imperial guard appeared at the door of the archives to confiscate them in the name of the emperor. Old Pope Sixtus had already been arrested. The guards searched in vain for the administrative records, and for the gold and silver that should have been in the safe. All had disappeared. Lawrence had sents the Church's documents, with their incriminating lists of names, into hiding, and had distributed the gold and silver in its treasury to the poor. The guards put him to the fire torture on a gridiron – a method commonly used in ancient times to discover the whereabouts of treasure. But the librarian died without talking." --Maria Luisa Ambrosini w/Mary Willis, The Secret Archives of the Vatican, (c) 1996 Barnes&Noble Books, p. 27)

As might be anticipated, the accounts of Catholic hagiographers are much more exciting and inspirational. The neat thing about them is that, though written centuries after the fact, they almost always seem to include direct quotations from both Lawrence and his bishop. They also a bit bloodier. As quoted above, historian Will Durant tells us that Sixtus II and four of his seven deacons were executed. Clearly that is insufficiently impressive. In the hagiographies, all the deacons died, with Lawrence being the last one to go. Lawrence's death was something Cecile B. DeMille would have included in an epic film.

One hagiology records that

Lawrence being tortured by fire

"St Lawrence was one of seven famous deacons of the early church. The other six deacons along with Pope St. Sixtus II (Xystus II) were captured by the Emperor Valerian on August 6, 258, and martyred. They were buried together in the cemetery of Callistus." --Saint Lawrence, Froebel Web site)

Prudentius tells us that Lawrence was very upset that he was left behind when his bishop and the other deacons were taken away. He followed after them, weeping and demanding to know why he was not also to be killed. Sixtus is claimed to have consoled his deacon by telling him that he would also die in just a few days.

It may be that Lawrence was spared because of his position as librarian and guardian of the Church's records and treasure. Another hagiology informs:

" The prefect, Cornelius Saecularis, believing that the Church was wealthy, ordered that everything of value be turned over to the emperor for the upkeep of his armies. The prefect said, "I understand that according to your teaching you must render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's. Your God didn't bring any money into the world with him, all He brought was words. So give us the money, and you can keep the words."

"Lawrence said he would need three days to gather it together. In those three days he sold the rest of the property that he administered and brought together thousands of lepers, the blind, and the sick, the destitute, widows, orphans, and the aged. These he presented to the prefect, observing, "The church is truly rich, far richer then your emperor."-- Lawrence (Laurence) of Rome, Deacon, Saints O'the Day, St. Patrick's Church web site)

I just love the way these wonderful stories are filled with clever sayings and bold quotations. The best is yet to come, as we read the fantasy of Lawrence's bravery under torture.

"There is also the popular story that he was so willing to embrace Christ in heaven, that he did not mind the pain from the fire of his martyrdom, and indeed, he found the strength to tell his executioners "Turn me over. I am done on this side." --Saint Lawrence, Froebel Web site)

Actually, it is more likely that Lawrence the Librarian was beheaded, this being the favored method of execution in Rome at the time.

"The much lauded martyrdom of the deacon St. Laurentius of Rome, who pointed the avaricious magistrates to the poor and sick of the congregation as the richest treasure of the church, and is said to have been slowly roasted to death (Aug. 10, 258), is scarecely reliable in its details, being first mention my Ambrose a century later, and then glorified by the poet Prudentius. A Basilica on the Via Tiburtina celebrates the memory of this saint, who occupies the same position among the martyrs of the church of Rome as Stephen among those of Jerusalem."--Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, Ante-Nicene Christianity, (c) 1987 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p.63


Skull of Saint Lawrence

Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks (of course), deacons, schoolboys, students, armorers, brewers, confectioners, cutlers, glaziers and launderers. Librarians and archivists usually celebrated his feast day (August 10) with cold cuts. Every year, the Vatican blows the dust off the reliquary holding his head and places it on display in order that Catholic faithful might gaze upon it and do whatever it is one does when reverencing a gruesome mummified body part.

"His charred body was claimed by the Christians, and his mummified skull is still in the care of the popes. At the Vatican on the tenth of August every year they expose in its golden reliquary the head of Saiont Lawrence that still, in the distorted mouth, in the burned bone of the skull, shows the agony he suffered to defend the archives of the popes." --Maria Luisa Ambrosini w/Mary Willis, The Secret Archives of the Vatican, Barnes&Noble Books:New York (1996), p. 27

Pray to the spirit of a dead man while kneeling before a golden case holding his dessicated head? Not me. I believe I shall continue to tender my prayers directly to God Almighty. In so doing, I won't have to worry about being troubled by nightmares.

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