Skip to comments.St. Lawrence -- Deacon and Martyr (Early historical accounts)
Posted on 08/10/2009 4:36:10 PM PDT by Salvation
St. Lawrence -- Deacon and Martyr
The earliest extant document commemorating the martyrdom of St. Lawrence is found in the "Hymn in Honor of the Passion of the Blessed Martyr Lawrence" composed by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens and published in the year 405. Prudentius was born in 348 in the city of Calahorra in Spain. His works give evidence of a profound knowledge of Christian doctrine and a wide acquaintance with patristic literature. He visited Rome, probably between the years 401 and 403, made pilgrimages to the tombs of the martyrs of Rome, and read the inscriptions in the catacombs and basilicas, including the famous epigrams of Pope Damasus (366-383).
A somewhat earlier but less complete account of the martyrdom of St Lawrence is found in the treatise "On the Duties of the Clergy" (1.41, 2.28) composed by St Ambrose, the highly esteemed Bishop of Milan, about 391.
Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome who, along with Pope Sixtus II and other Roman deacons, suffered martyrdom in the year 258 during the persecution of Valerian. [Note. Sozomen, a Greek historian, writing in the middle of the fifth century, mentions the curious fact that the Roman church never had more than seven deacons, a number which they considered sanctioned by the apostles.] Prudentius describes Lawrence as follows.
First of the seven ministers
Who nearest to the altar stand,
Levite in holy orders high
And eminent above the rest.
He guarded well the sacred rites
And kept in trust with faithful keys
The precious treasure of the Church,
Dispensing riches vowed to God.
St. Cyprian (Epistles, 81,1) tells us that Valerian issued an edict commanding that all bishops, priests, and deacons should be put to death. Pope Sixtus was "martyred in the cemetery ... and with him four deacons" on August 6. Lawrence was martyred four days later on August 10.
Ambrose writes that Lawrence on seeing "his bishop led to martyrdom, began to weep, not at his sufferings but at the fact that he himself was to remain behind. With these words he began to address him: 'Whither, father, goest thou without thy son? Whither, holy priest, art thou hastening without thy deacon? Never was thou wont to offer sacrifice without an attendant. What are thou displeased at in me, my father? Hast thou found me unworthy? Prove, then, whether thou hast chosen a fitting servant. To him to whom thou hast entrusted the [distribution] of the Saviour's blood, to whom thou hast granted fellowship in partaking of the Sacraments, to him dost thou refuse a part in thy death?'"
Sixtus replied, "I leave thee not nor forsake thee. Greater struggles yet await thee. We as old men have to undergo an easier fight; a more glorious triumph over the tyrant awaits thee, a young man. Soon shalt thou come. Cease weeping; after three days thou shalt follow me. This interval must come between the priest and his levite. It was not for thee to conquer under the eye of thy master, as though thou needest a helper. Why dost thou seek to share in my death? I leave to thee its full inheritance. Why dost thou need my presence? Let the weak disciples go before their master, let the brave follow him, that they may conquer without him. For they no longer need his guidance."
Prudentius relates this episode in the following stanzas.
The Pontiff Sixtus, from the cross
On, which he hung, saw at its foot
His deacon Lawrence weeping sore,
And these prophetic words he spoke:
'Let tears of sorrow cease to flow
At my departure from this life;
My brother, I but lead the way,
And you will follow in three days.'
The prefect of Rome driven by a greed for gold summoned Lawrence to his court and questioned him about the treasures of the Church. Lawrence, as if ready to cooperate, gave his reply.
'Our church is very rich,' he said.
'I must confess that it has wealth;
Our treasuries are filled with gold
Not found elsewhere in all the world.
Lawrence agreed to surrender the treasure and requested a short delay so that he could gather all the goods and estimate their total worth. The prefect's heart swelled with joy and he readily granted Lawrence three days. He dismissed Lawrence from the court and the latter went forth to carry out his task.
He hastens through the city streets,
And in three days he gathers up
The poor and sick, a mighty throng
Of all in need of kindly alms.
He sought in every public square
The needy who were wont to be
Fed from the stores of Mother Church,
And he as steward knew them well.
When the appointed time had come, Lawrence assembled those whom he had gathered before the temple gate. He then invited the prefect to accompany him to view the "wondrous riches of our God."
The prefect deigns to follow him;
The sacred portal soon they reach,
Where stands a ghastly multitude
Of poor drawn up in grim array.
The air is rent with cries for alms;
The prefect shudders in dismay,
And turns on Lawrence glaring eyes,
With threats of dreadful punishment.
Lawrence, undaunted, faced the prefect's rage at the unwelcome spectacle.
He admonished him and urged him to consider a more sublime reality.
'These poor of ours are sick and lame,
But beautiful and whole within.
They bear with them a spirit fair
And free from taint and misery
'These humble paupers you despise
And look upon as vile outcasts,
Their ulcerous limbs will lay aside
And put on bodies incorrupt,
'When freed at last from tainted flesh
Their souls, from chains of earth released,
Will shine resplendent with new life
In their celestial fatherland.
'Not foul and shabby, or infirm,
As now they seem to scornful eyes,
But fair, in radiant vesture clad,
With crowns of gold upon their heads.
The prefect was neither amused nor edified. He accused Lawrence of making him a laughingstock, of mocking him, and of staging a farce. He promised that Lawrence would pay for it with a slow and lingering death. The prefect then prepared a bed of coals and ordered Lawrence to ascend the pyre and lie on the bed he deserved.
Thus spoke the prefect. At his nod
Forthwith the executioner
Stripped off the holy martyr's robes
And laid him bound upon the pyre.
Prudentius wrote that the "martyr's face was luminous" and that "round it shone a glorious light" but noted that this phenomenon was only visible to the baptized. Similarly, he wrote that, "the very odor given forth by holy Lawrence's burning flesh was noxious to the unredeemed and to the faithful nectar sweet." The poet then presents the final moments in the life of Lawrence in a paean that has resounded through the centuries.
When slow, consuming heat had seared
The flesh of Lawrence for a space,
He calmly from his gridiron made
This terse proposal to the judge:
'Pray turn my body, on one side
Already broiled sufficiently,
And see how well your Vulcan's fire
Has wrought its cruel punishment.'
The prefect bade him to be turned.
Then Lawrence spoke: 'I am well baked,
And whether better cooked or raw,
Make trial by a taste of me.'
He said these words in way of jest;
Then rising shining eyes to heaven
And sighing deeply, thus he prayed
With pity for unholy Rome.
Thus ended Lawrence's fervent prayer,
Thus ended, too, his earthly life:
With these last words his eager soul
Escaped with joy from carnal chains.
Some noble Romans, who were led
By his amazing fortitude
To faith in Christ, then bore away
The hero's body from the scene.
Lawrence has been one of the most venerated martyrs of the Roman Church since the fourth century. It is known that he was buried in the cemetery of Cyriaca 'in agro Verano' on the Via Tiburtina. This is the spot where Constantine built the first chapel on the site of what is now the church of St. Lawrence-outside-the-Walls.
(The Church celebrates the feast of St. Lawrence on August 10.)
"The Poems of Prudentius" translated by Sr. M. Clement Eagan, C.C.V.I. "The Fathers of the Church," Vol. 43; The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1962.
"On the Duties of the Clergy" by St. Ambrose; translated by the Rev. H. De Romestin. "The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers," Second Series, Vol. 10; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
[© Michael Closs, May 30, 1997]
I found these historical accounts, even though in poetry quite interesting.