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St. Lawrence—No Joke

Today, August 10, is the Feast Day of St. Lawrence (or “Laurence”), Deacon and Martyr, patron saint of cooks, chefs, librarians, archivists—and comedians. And thereby hangs not just one tale, but two.

Lawrence lived in the third century. Born in Spain he became friends with the eventual Pope Sixtus II and was made chief deacon (or “archdeacon”) by Sixtus in Rome. In this position, per Acts 6, Lawrence distributed charity to Rome’s poor—a striking ministry, given Roman culture’s characteristic lack of interest in such.

Roman authorities had established a norm according to which all Christians who had been denounced must be executed and their goods confiscated by the imperial treasury. According to Cyprian of Carthage, in August 258, the emperor Valerian issued an edict that all bishops, priests, and deacons should immediately be put to death. Pope Sixtus II was captured immediately at the cemetery of St. Callixtus while celebrating mass and executed forthwith.

Lawrence was next. According to widely venerated accounts, his persecutors devised a gridiron over coals on which they secured him for torture. (Lawrence, in the manner of much Western Church iconography, is thus typically pictured with the manner of his martyrdom: a griddle. The Escorial Palace in Spain is reputed to be built in this design in Lawrence’s honour.)

As the story goes, Lawrence eventually called out, “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”—thus prompting his adoption (in the grimly humorous way many saints are adopted by this or that profession) by, yes, chefs and cooks (and firefighters)—as well as by comedians.

This story is unlikely to be true and is instead probably the result of a scribal error. Normally, enemies of the state would be decapitated, as was Sixtus himself. Some have suggested a mistake in the transcription of the account of Lawrence’s death, the omission of the letter "p"— "by which the customary and solemn formula for announcing the death of a martyr—passus est ["he suffered," that is, was martyred]—became assus est [he was roasted]."

The irony here is that St. Lawrence is also venerated as patron of librarians and archivists, as keeper of the important documents of the Roman church, people who would be aghast at such a scribal mistake. And Lawrence’s colourful story takes on truly saintly hues as he is reputed to have been ordered, upon Sixtus’s death, to hand over the riches of the church. Thus the second tale.

Lawrence asked for three days to assemble the goods. Instead, he gave them away as quickly and fully as he could to the poor, even selling the church’s sacred vessels. Upon the third day, he presented himself to the prefect and gestured at the beggars and sick around them, saying, “Here! Here are the riches of the Church!” For this holy insolence, the story goes, he was put on that gridiron.

St. Lawrence is widely honoured around the world. Curiously, he is almost unknown outside traditional Roman Catholic circles here in Canada, despite Jacques Cartier naming one of our most important waterways after him: the St. Lawrence River emptying into the Gulf of St. Lawrence—since Cartier’s voyage began on August 10. The Laurentian Mountains are beloved by a considerable fraction of Canada’s population, and thus the saint lends his name to one of the alternative names for the whole Canadian Shield: the Laurentian Plateau. (Montrealers know St. Lawrence Boulevard spans the width of that island. Torontonians know of the St. Lawrence Market, St. Lawrence Hall, and St. Lawrence subway station.)

The weird insouciance of his martyr legend—joking as he burned—is matched by the courageous faithfulness of his service to the poor throughout his ministry and especially at the end, charity that almost certainly cost him the fury of his enemies in one form or another.

One of Canada’s patron saints, let all of us, Canadian, Spanish, or otherwise, pause today to give thanks for the admirable Lawrence, a man who dedicated himself wholly, in life and in death, to the welfare of the Church and particularly of its shining treasure, the poor so beloved by our Lord.


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