413. Saint Lawrence of Rome: Smart-aleck Martyr

But first: Next Tuesday is August 15, the great feast of the Dormition / Falling Sleep / Kimisis (κοίμησις) of our Lady the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary, when we celebrate her Entrance into Heaven. Let me refer you back to two Posts I wrote in 2019 titled “Why do we honor the Mother of God? Because the Bible says so!” They are still much viewed. (We bloggers know many things.) The second deals, among other things, with the question: “Do the Scriptures teach that Mary has been glorified in Heaven?” The answer, of course, is Yes.

138. Why do we honor the Mother of God? Because the Bible says so! – Part One

139. Why do we honor the Mother of God? Because the Bible says so! – Part Two


Now on to Saint Lawrence, whose feast day was yesterday, August 10.

The Story of Saint Lawrence

Why in the world would I call one of God’s blessed saints a “smart aleck”?

from website of Advent Lutheran Church, North Charleston, South Carolina! (Does anyone here know the original source?)

“Smart alec: informal (US smart aleck, smart-aleck) / someone who tries to appear clever or who answers questions in a clever way that annoys other people'” Cambridge dictionary

So far as the Emperor Valerian was concerned, that was the perfect description of that scoundrel Archdeacon Laurence of Rome. In fact I’d guess he described him in more colorful terms, which I choose not to print here.

In Western Christian practice, both Roman Catholic and Anglican, an archdeacon is usually “A cleric having a defined administrative authority delegated to him by the bishop in the whole or part of the diocese.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church  That was why the Emperor went after Archdeacon Lawrence, in particular, and gave him three days to hand over the treasures of the Roman Church.

But we’re ‘way ahead of the story. Let’s go back to the beginning. In what follows, for the most part I’ll quote from other sources. This is a well established story, and there’s no point in my pretending to make it up on my own.

“Little is known about St. Lawrence. His Acts were lost by the time of Augustine. Legend states that he was a native of Northern Spain, who had received instruction from St. Sixtus while he was an archdeacon in Rome. When Sixtus rose to the papacy in 257, Lawrence was  ordained a deacon and was charged with the administration of ecclesiastical alms for the poor.

“In early August of 258, the Emperor Valerian issued an edict commanding that all bishops, priests, and deacons should be put to death immediately without trial (“episcope et presbyteri et diacones incontinenti animadvertantur”). This command was immediately carried out throughout the city of Rome. On August 6 Pope Sixtus was arrested in the catacombs and executed with his two other deacons, Felicissimus and Agapitus. Lawrence is purported to have said as they were being led to torture, “Where are you going, Holy Father, without your son? Where, O Bishop, without your archdeacon? Before you never approached the altar of sacrifice without your servant, and now you are going without me?” St. Sixtus was said to have prophesied that he would follow them soon after.

“The imperial authorities soon came to St. Lawrence to demand access to the church treasury. In the course of three days after the death of the Pope and his fellow archdeacons, St. Lawrence worked quickly to distribute as much of the ecclesiastical monies to the poor as possible. On the third day, at the head of a small tribunal, he presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to give up the treasures of the Church, he led them to a room.” from “Orthodox Wiki”

Cesare Fracassini, 19th century

There stood some of the poor and needy of the city of Rome. “Here”, Saint Lawrence said, “here are the treasures of the Church!”

As used to be said about Queen Victoria, the Emperor “was not amused”. He ordered that Lawrence be executed immediately on a red hot grid-iron. *1 When Lawrence had laid on the grid-iron for a while (we can only imagine his pain), he called out to the executioners, “I’m done on this side. You can turn me over now!” This was a man with… well, the American word for it is “spunk”, i.e. “that which keeps you upbeat and resolute, inspiring you to persevere.” *2   And so they did, and soon he died. It was August 10 in the year 258.

  • 1. They had many clever ways of execution in the old days. Remember “Saint Catherine’s wheel”? We can just imagine the authorities lying awake at night, trying to think of new, more ingenious, more revolting, more painful possibilities.
  • 2. I know that word popularly means something very different in Britain. Any Brits here present, please stop gasping and just read on.

Veneration of Saint Lawrence

“After his death, Lawrence became a popular figure and his cult spread rapidly in Rome and throughout the Christian world. He was buried on a cemetery on the Via Tiburtina, near the spot where he had been martyred.

“His relics were later transferred to the Church of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome, which was built in his honor, and it became one of the seven principal churches of Rome and an important place of pilgrimage. His skull is also said to be preserved at the Basilica of San Lorenzo.”    Christianapostles.com

Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (by Livioandronico2013, Creative Commons GNU License)

Or another account: “The Emperor Constantine the Great is said to have built a small oratory in honour of St. Lawrence, which was a station on the itineraries of the graves of the Roman martyrs by the seventh century. Pope Damasus I rebuilt or repaired the church, now San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (“outside the walls”) while the minor basilica of San Lorenzo in Panispera was built over the place of his martyrdom. The gridiron of the martyrdom was placed by Pope Paschal IIin the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina.” goanchurches.info *

  • goanchurches.info is an interesting site, providing much material about the Roman Catholic Church in Goa, a small state in western India, where over 25% of the people are Christian.

Saint Lawrence is not widely venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I found relatively few icons of Saint Lawrence and, in a quick search, only one Orthodox church on our continent dedicated to him: Saint Lawrence Church in Felton, California, originally under the Patriarch of Jerusalem, now taken into the Greek Orthodox Church in America. (Why does it have Russian domes?)

Lawrence is on the calendar of most Anglican churches, and I easily found eight or ten American Episcopal churches dedicated to “Saint Laurence”. In England there are over 200 Saint Laurence churches. The Brotherhood of Saint Laurence is an Anglican charitable society.

However “St. Lawrence is one of the most widely venerated saints of the Roman Catholic Church. Legendary details of his death were known to Damasus, Prudentius, Ambrose and Augustine… The church built over his tomb… became… a favorite place for Roman pilgrimages. Devotion to him was widespread by the fourth century. Since the Perseid Meteor Shower typically occurs every year in mid-August on or near his feast day, some refer to the shower as the “Tears of St Lawrence.”

The Shrine in Rome containing the grid-iron on which Saint Lawrence died

“His celebration on 10 August has the rank of feast throughout the Catholic world. On this day, the reliquary containing his burnt head is displayed in the Vatican for veneration.” Lawrence is one of the saints commemorated in the First Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman Mass.

We also venerate Saint Lawrence in a way we tend to overlook:

The Saint Lawrence River and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence

In about 1534 the French explorer Jacques Cartier gave the name “Saint Lawrence” to the great river above and to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence which is the widest estuary in the world. To the north of the city of Montreal are the Laurentian Mountains. The Saint Lawrence Boulevard goes the full length (11.25 km, 7 miles) of the island city of Montreal. Upstream, south of where the Saint Lawrence River first flows out of Lake Ontrario, is Saint Laurence County, New York.

So, now that I think of it, every drop of water in Cedar Creek right down the block from where I am writing, if it doesn’t evaporate, flows into the Milwaukee River and then successively Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, over Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario and finally into the Saint Lawrence River. I like that!

I read that in the Roman Catholic Church, Saint Lawrence is the patron of librarians and archivists because he hid the secrets of the Church. (I guess that makes some sense) and, according to one source, of comedians!

He is also patron of (brace yourself) cooks and tanners. Really! So, brothers and sisters, throw another hamburger on the grill, watch it sizzle, then turn it over and think of Saint Lawrence, and… I think I’m beginning to lose my appetite.

Next Week: This and That

Week after Next: What I’ve learned in 85 years.


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