23 August 2009

'Manduca, Iam Coctum Est'—Holy Martyr Laurence the Archdeacon

Today, 10 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Martyr Archdeacon Laurence of Rome (c. 225 – 258). As an overview of what is known about his life and sufferings, I offer the account in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid: Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 177):

When Pope Stephen (see August 2nd) was killed, St Sixtus was installed in his place. St Sixtus was an Athenian, first a philosopher and later a Christian. At that time, the Roman bishops were being killed one after the other in such quick succession that to be made Bishop of Rome was tantamount to a death sentence. The Emperor Valerian was determined to stamp out Christianity, and Pope Sixtus was quickly brought to trial with two of his deacons, Felicicius and Agapitus. When they were being taken off to prison, Laurence said to the Pope: ‘Where are you going, Father, without your son? Whither, O Bishop, without your archdeacon?’ The Pope consoled him with the prophecy that he would undergo yet greater suffering for Christ, and follow him very soon. And indeed, as soon as Sixtus and the two deacons had been beheaded, Laurence was arrested. He had been inspired to set in order both his own affairs and those of the Church. As treasurer, he had taken all the Church’s valuables to the house of a widower, Cyriacus. At that time, he healed Cyriacus of terrible pains in the head by the touch of his hand, and restored the sight of a blind man, Crescention. Thrown into prison, Laurence healed there an elderly prisoner, Lucillus, of blindness and baptised him. Seeing this, the warder, Hippolytus, also received baptism, and later suffered for Christ (see August 13th). As Laurence would not deny Christ, but strongly counselled the Emperor Valerian to abandon his false gods, he was beaten on the face with stones and on his body with scorpions (chains with poisoned teeth). A soldier, Romanus, who was present at the torture, came to belief in Christ and was immediately beheaded. They finally put Laurence on an iron grid and lit a fire underneath. Roasting in the fire, Laurence gave thanks to God, and mocked the Emperor for his paganism. When he had given his pure and heroic soul to God, Hippolytus took his body by night, first to the house of Cyriacus and then to a cave, where he buried it. St Laurence suffered, together with the others, in 258.

The Holy Fathers laud St Laurence as an exemplar of the cardinal virtue of fortitude. In his Sermon LXXXV.2, St Leo the Great says that St Laurence’s persecutors ‘found that his wondrous courage, born principally of love for Christ, not only did not yield itself, but also strengthened others by the example of his endurance’ (here). Citing the example of the Righteous Martyr Jonathan Maccabaeus in I Macc. 11, St Ambrose writes in his treatise On the Duties of the Clergy I.41, ‘Here, then, is fortitude in war, which bears no light impress of what is virtuous and seemly upon it, for it prefers death to slavery and disgrace. But what am I to say of the sufferings of the martyrs?’ And after describing some of these, he says, ‘And let us not pass by St Lawrence . . . [who after three days of torture] was placed on the gridiron by the tyrant whom he mocked, and was burnt. He said: “The flesh is roasted, turn it and eat.” So by the courage of his mind he overcame the power of fire’ (here).

Umberto Eco has cited this last story in his incredible novel, The Name of the Rose. William of Baskerville and Jorge the blind librarian are debating on the admissibility of laughter, when we read (The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver [Orlando, FL: Harvest, 1994], pp. 95-6):

‘Manduca, iam coctum est,’ William murmured. ‘Eat, for it is well done.’

‘What?’ asked Jorge, thinking he referred to some dish that was being brought him.

‘Those are the words that, according to Ambrose, were uttered by Saint Lawrence on the gridiron, when he invited his executioners to turn him over, as Prudentius also recalls in the Peristephanon,’ William said with a saintly air. ‘Saint Lawrence therefore knew how to laugh and say ridiculous things, even if it was to humiliate his enemies.’

‘Which proves that laughter is something very close to death and to the corruption of the body,’ Jorge replied with a snarl; and I must admit that he spoke like a good logician.

The hymn of the Peristephanon to which William refers can be read in Latin here. Unfortunately, I can’t find a translation, and my Latin is far too paltry to produce my own. If only some pious soul, learned in the Latin tongue, would honour the Holy Martyr by producing a translation of this ancient hymn! Here, however, is the hymn written by St Nicholas for today’s Prologue:

Lawrence, the evil emperor asks:
‘Where are you from? What is your rank?’
Lawrence, to the emperor replies:
‘From Spain, educated in Rome,
And of the One God, a servant, I am.’
‘Of the Church's treasure, are you the guardian?’
‘Of that good treasure, I am, O emperor.’
Give us the treasure and your life, save!
The treasure of the Church, in heaven, is,
In the Lord Jesus, believe ye also,
And, of that treasure, an heir, you will be.’
Lawrence, deny Christ!
‘You, O Emperor, deny the idols!’
And the Emperor became infuriated and to the servants motioned,
Lawrence, they beat and crushed,
And on a fiery gridiron, they placed him.
This fire to me, it is cool,
And [the fire] for you in the midst of
Hades is prepared!
Lawrence, deny Christ!
Are you not sorry, to die young?
Christ, on the Cross, suffered for me,
For me, He died; I, for Him, die
One side of the body, entirely burned,
Lawrence, to the executioners, speaks:
Half of the body is roasted,
Turn it over, behold food for you,
Turn it over, let the other side roast!
This said, he flew away
Into the sweet heavenly mansions.

In chapter II.28 of the same work quoted above, St Ambrose tells another edifying story, concerning St Lawrence’s praiseworthy actions as treasurer of the Roman Church. Between this duty and his famous suffering and quip on the gridiron, the West came to honour him as patron Saint of archivists and librarians, on the one hand (making William’s quotation to Jorge the librarian somewhat ironic—and this observation of mine, in turn, a delightful pun!), and of comedians and cooks on the other. He is also patron of Amarillo, TX, and of the Benedictine Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire, England. According to Fish Eaters, the occurrence of the Perseid meteor shower around the feast of St Laurence has given the phenomenon the name ‘tears of St Laurence’. Finally, I advise everyone to read this awesome post at the hitherto unknown (to me) blog, Varieties of unreligious Experience, demonstrating what even the OED did not know: that the expression ‘as happy as Larry’ was originally a reference to St Laurence, dating back at least to the following passage in John Scotus Eriugena’s Periphyseon:

Quam igitur felices erant Beati Laurentius Stephanusque, & nullis agitabantur perturbationibus animorum: tam felix universa societas esset humana.

Therefore, [if it hadn’t been for the Ancestral Sin] all human society would have been as happy as Saints Lawrence and Stephen, who were troubled by no perturbations in their souls.

In conclusion, here is the final paragraph of St Leo’s sermon on St Laurence:

Thou gainest nothing, thou prevailest nothing, O savage cruelty. His mortal frame is released from thy devices, and, when Laurentius departs to heaven, thou art vanquished. The flame of Christ’s love could not be overcome by thy flames, and the fire which burnt outside was less keen than that which blazed within. Thou didst but serve the martyr in thy rage, O persecutor: thou didst but swell the reward in adding to the pain. For what did thy cunning devise, which did not redound to the conqueror’s glory, when even the instruments of torture were counted as part of the triumph? Let us rejoice, then, dearly-beloved, with spiritual joy, and make our boast over the happy end of this illustrious man in the Lord, Who is ‘wonderful in His saints’ (Ps 68:35, LXX), in whom He has given us a support and an example, and has so spread abroad his glory throughout the world, that, from the rising of the sun to its going down, the brightness of his deacon’s light doth shine, and Rome is become as famous in Laurentius as Jerusalem was ennobled by Stephen. By his prayer and intercession (cf. Sermon LXXXII. c. 7.) we trust at all times to be assisted; that, because all, as the Apostle says, ‘who wish to live holily in Christ, suffer persecution’ (II Tim 3:12), we may be strengthened with the spirit of love, and be fortified to overcome all temptations by the perseverance of steadfast faith.


Ian Climacus said...

A blessed Feast Day!

One of my most beloved Saints.

matushkadonna said...

My husband is in the midst of writing an akathist for this, his patron saint.

aaronandbrighid said...

Matushka> Good news! I'd love to see it when it's done.