The Laughter of Lawrence

You all may know the story of Saint Lawrence (+258) a Spaniard from Valencia, chosen in the very bloom of his early maturity by the intelligent and saintly Pope Sixtus II to be Archdeacon of Rome, in charge of distributing the wealth of the Church. Lawrence’s parents were martyrs – how soon after his birth we know not, but they must have had a good hand in raising the lad before their own witness.

Lawrence’s own sanctity shines through the ages and the legends told of him. In the persecution of Valerian in 258 – mentioned a few days ago – all Christians were to apostatize, or in all likelihood face a swift and sure death. They came for the Pope on August 6th, and then for Lawrence, from whom they demanded all the Church’s riches, to be put into the Emperor’s coffers. Lawrence asked for a few days to get things organized.

And he did, distributing as much of the wealth to the poor as he could, to keep it off the hands of greedy and wasteful government apparatchiks. He then gathered together all the same poor, the lame, the sick and other ‘deplorables’, and said to the magistrate, who was licking his chops in anticipation of buckets of gold coins: ‘Behold, here are the Church’s riches’ declared the Deacon.

Of course, the Magistrate was furious at his avarice being so publicly mocked, and ordered Lawrence to be slowly roasted over a gridiron, rather than the merciful decapitation. When he had been suffering for quite some time, he cheerfully retorted to his tormentors: ‘You can turn me over…I’m quite done on this side’. He was not yet 33 years old.

Modern sniffy historians dispute the veracity of this edifying tale – but, then, they are nearly all imbued in Whiggism, that what we might find unlikely, or what we might not do, was also unlikely in the past, and something ‘they’ would not have done.

The story makes sense to me, and to many of the Fathers, who lived not that long after Lawrence, so we’re in good company believing it. The gridiron is on display at San Lorenzo fuori la Mura, his principal church in Rome, on the Church’s seven major basilicas.

We need more cheerful saints, who look upon the world and their own lives, as a path and a means to a much more real life, and so can look at all things with some air of healthy detachment. As Pope Leo XIII put it, only in heaven will we truly begin to live.

So laugh a little, and be not anxious for the morrow. Let the evil of the day be sufficient thereof. The form of this world – and the form of our bodies – is passing away, to be transformed in a blink of an eye into something far, far more glorious.


A postscript on the grim, cheerless persecutor Valerian – a few years later, in 260, he had the ignominy of being the first Roman Emperor captured in battle, by the Persians, sending a shock of dismay and despair through the Empire. He was made a slave, and it is said that the once-mighty Caesar was used by Shapur, king of Persia, as a footstool to mount his horse, and then his body stuffed after death as a monument, of sorts, of Persian triumph. We can only hope that his own sufferings and humiliation, and the prayers of Lawrence, saved Valerian, and they’re together in heaven. After all, one never knows the ways of salvation of each soul – God writes with what seem to our perspective seem crooked lines – and, to paraphrase the much-later Saint Jean Vianney, some are meant to bring many in their own holy and glorious wake.

San Lorenzo, ora pro nobis.