So: This is my favorite martyrdom, hands down. It might be that my family enjoys a long connection to St Lawrence (it’s my grandfather’s given name, my father’s Confirmed name, and the name of the church we’ve attended for the past ten years); it might also be because Lawrence’s martyrdom is the most poignant showcase of idealized Catholic badassery that exists. I’m not thinking about the why too deeply.
(As I am lying in a hotel bed in midtown Atlanta at the moment and writing on a phone keyboard, this will lack pictures, but I’ll do my best to get the point across!)
Lawrence was a deacon of the Church in the middle of the third century A.D. – one of the first seven thus ordained, and Kind Of A Big Deal. His job involved taking care of and distributing to the needy the wealth of the church, making him a high-profile guy at a time when Christians existing was punishable by death. He’d been doing the deacon thing for a few years when Rome cracked down on the existence of Christianity with greater-than-normal fervor – in about 258 his church was taken over, his boss Pope Sixtus was captured and executed, and Deacon Lawrence was ordered to turn over all the treasure of the Church to the cartoonishly evil prefect of Rome.
Lawrence informed the prefect that the treasure of the Church, being vast and wide-scattered, would take three days to gather into one place, and that the prefect should meet him in that time to see it presented. At the appointed time, they met, and Lawrence’s delegation pulled back the curtain (I assume there was a curtain but sadly St. Ambrose’s account of the event is unclear on this point) to reveal not a pile of gold-encrusted candlesticks and little shiny dishes, but a crowd of the sick, the poor, the infirm, the widowed, and the orphaned.
“This is the treasure of the Church,” Lawrence reportedly said, and among those who prefer their saints with balls that drag the ground, he is said to have followed that up with, “And thus is the Church greater in riches than even your emperor.” Unfortunately (and to the surprise of absolutely no one), the prefect’s small heart did not grow three sizes that day, and Lawrence left the church that day in his custody.
(TIME OUT: You know, as a kid, I always wondered both what happened to the treasure of the Church, and the treasure of the Church in this story. How did Lawrence convince all those people to come along? What did he tell them? “Hey show of hands, who in this crowd here wants to help me piss off Rome”? Was he brutally honest? “So I think in response to the murder of our highest-ranking member I’m going to line up a hundred of you in front of his persecutor and just pull his pants right down, but in, like a spiritual way. I think it’ll make a great point. Who’s in?” Maybe he hung up posters – COME TO CHVRCH ON SVNDAY, GET FREE MEAL, FREE SHIRT, BIT PART IN DEACON LARRY’S MARTYRDOM. I don’t know, but I’ve wondered this for years. I remember always asking too whether the prefect ever actually got his pile of gold candlesticks and little dishes – did he make Lawrence do a do-over before he died? Were the other six deacons like “yes sir sorry sir here is the gold and the precious statuary sir please don’t kill us sir”? And what did they do with all the people-treasure? Did they all get to go home? Did that shit go on their permanent records? Did they tell that story ever, or did they just come for the soup and stay for the show? That Ambrose never chronicled this vitally important detail is, in my opinion, the story’s greatest failing; but I have worked around it for 22 years, and so too must we.)
Lawrence, according to legend, was martyred by roasting on a gridiron over hot coals. This had to suck – martyrdom as a rule sucks, but roasting is a slow process, a gridiron not an efficient roasting implement, and the whole idea like something off an episode of Hannibal. That said, Lawrence reportedly never relinquished his title as Sassmaster of the Church, even as he languished over the flames – in the middle of the roasting, he is said to have called out to the executioner, “Turn me over – this side is done!”
I’ve said before that I don’t understand our system of patronage for martyrs, who are so often made patrons of the agents of their brutally creative deaths. But in Lawrence’s case I am willing to put my upset aside, because the Church, in Her infinite wisdom, decided that his legacy was to be the patron saint of barbecue.
Barbecue. Get it. Because they roasted him alive on a grill.
He’s also the patron of tanners, chefs, and comedians, all because of the means of his gruesome demise, but it is barbecue for which he is, in my experience, truly remembered and venerated in the American south. My own home parish of St. Lawrence celebrates his feast day on August 10th every year with a chili cook-off and a gigantic barbecue in the park. It’s huge fun! We have yet to make a cake in the shape of a gridiron in his honor; but it is only a matter of time.
ROMAN CATHOLICISM: That’s Some Hannibal Shit.