Thursday, August 09, 2018

"Prepare for Him a Bed of Coals" ~ Prudentius’s 4th Century poem in honor of Saint Lawrence

The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence ~ Engraving taken from
Shea's Pictorial Lives of the Saints.
Commemorated on August 10, Saint Lawrence is one of the most famous early martyrs of the Roman Church. He was one of the seven deacons of Rome under Pope Sixtus II, and as such, Lawrence found himself a primary target during the persecution of Christians under the emperor Valerian in AD 258.

Sadly, none of the close contemporary documentary accounts of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence survived the subsequent persecutions of the Church, though his story was well enough known that the principal facts were passed on for 100 years or so via oral tradition. His story was again set down on parchment after the time of Constantine, the earliest surviving sources being a mention in On the Duties of the Clergy by Saint Ambrose of Milan in the late 4th century, a very brief epitaph by Pope Damasus from about the same time, and a homily of Pope Leo the Great in the mid-5th century.

However, the most detailed ancient account of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence comes from a work by the Spanish Latin poet, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, which was written, most likely, in the late 4th century. Though obviously embellished, the key facts of Lawrence's martyrdom are clear through the interpolated speeches. Please enjoy these extended excerpts from the poem which formed part of Prudentius's larger work known as The Peristephanon or The Martyr's Garland. It is from this ancient poem that most of the unique details of Saint Lawrence's martyrdom are drawn.
Hymn in honor of the passion of the blessed martyr Lawrence
Once mother of unholy fanes,
Rome, dedicated now to Christ,
By Lawrence led to victory
You trample on the heathen rites.

Proud kings have bowed before your sword
And conquered peoples felt your sway;
Now pagan gods are made to pass,
Beneath the yoke of your empire.

Though savage tribes had been subdued,
The city of the toga lacked
One glorious title of renown,
The triumph over wanton Jove,

Not by Camillus’s stormy might,
Nor Cossus’ arms or Caesar’s power,
But by the bloody combat waged
By Lawrence in his martyrdom.

Embattled Faith took up the fight,
Of her own blood most prodigal;
For she destroyed death by death
And lost her life to save her life.

The Pontiff Sixtus, from the cross
On which he hung, saw at its foot
His deacon Lawrence weeping sore,
And these prophetic words he spoke:

“Let tears of sorrow cease to flow
At my departure from this life;
My brother, I but lead the way,
And you will follow in three days.”

The holy bishop’s dying words
Sure glory for his friend announced,
For Lawrence on the day foretold,
Victorious, won the martyr’s palm.

. . .

The prefect of imperial Rome,
The agent of an insane prince,
Athirst for money and for blood
Is driven by his greed for gold

To wrest the sacred shrines by force
Suspected riches lurking there,
The talents gathered in vast sums,
And hidden in their secret vaults.

He summons Lawrence to the court
And questions him on coffers filled
With massive ingots of pure gold
And hoarded coins in shining heaps.
The prefect then makes a long speech, enjoining Lawrence to hand over the Church’s treasures. Here’s the gist of it, along with Lawrence's reply:
“This wealth is hid in secret crypts
Of churches where the Christians meet,
And to despoil your dear offspring
Is deemed the highest piety.

“Bring forth the gold you have amassed
By force and evil trickery,
The hoarded treasures you now keep
Enclosed in subterranean vaults.

“The public welfare now demands
That you give up your boundless wealth
To fill the coffers of the state
And pay the armies of your prince.”

. . .

Untroubled, Lawrence made reply
To this perfidious overture,
And as if ready to obey
He gently nodded his assent.

“Our church is very rich,” he said.
“I must confess that it has wealth;
Our treasuries are filled with gold
Not found elsewhere in all the world.

“Not even high Augustus holds
Such wealth within his mighty grasp,
Though every silver coin forged
His image and inscription bears.

“Yet I refuse not to yield up
The riches of our Lord and God;
I shall display for all to see
The treasures that belong to Christ.

“However, one request I make:
Vouchsafe to me a short delay
That I may carry out my pledge
With greater ease and richer gain.

“I need this time to take account
Of all the goods possessed by Christ,
And then to estimate their worth
And reckon up the total sum.”
The prefect, in his greed, grants Lawrence three days to collect the wealth of the Church. Lawrence does this, but the wealth he collects is not exactly what the prefect had in mind.
He hastens through the city streets
And in three days he gathers up
The poor and sick, a mighty throng
Of all in need of kindly alms.
Here, Prudentius gives an account of the various infirmities of the mass of beggars Lawrence has collected. Soon enough, however, he must face the prefect again.
By now the fated day had come:
The cruel judge, insane with greed,
Commanded Lawrence angrily
To bring at once the promised gold.

To him the martyr made reply:
“I pray you come with me and view
The wondrous riches of our God
Displayed for you in the sacred shrines.

. . .

The prefect deigns to follow him;
The sacred portal soon they reach,
Where stands a ghastly multitude
Of poor drawn up in grim array.

The air is rent with cries for alms;
The prefect shudders in dismay,
And turns on Lawrence glaring eyes,
With threats of dreadful punishment.

The saint, undaunted, answers him
“Why do you gnash your teeth in rage
At this unwelcome spectacle?
Do you scorn these as foul and mean?

. . .

“These poor of ours are sick and lame,
But beautiful and whole within.
They bear with them a spirit fair
And free from taint and misery.

“Your followers are strong of frame,
But marred by inward leprosy.
Depravity is halt and lame,
And sightless fraud is blind indeed.”
Lawrence continues in this vein and gives a lengthy speech which is very likely a poetic embellishment added by Prudentius, but perhaps containing a kernel of fact. He finishes as follows:
“These riches are now yours; take them
To beautify your lofty Rome,
To fill the treasury of your prince,
And your own fortunes to augment.”
The prefect responds, enraged:
“Do you imagine, slippery knave,
That this buffoonery you have staged,
This sanctimonious farce, this hoax,
Will go without due punishment?

. . .

“But I will see to it forthwith
That you will quit this earthly life,
Not by the short and easy route
Of sudden death, as you desire.

“I will prolong and stay your life
In pains and anguish without end,
And death in lingering agony
Will bar a merciful release.

“Prepare for him a bed of coals,
Lest raging flames that burn too high
May seize too soon the upstart’s face
And penetrate his inmost heart.”
The executioners do as they are told, and Lawrence is laid upon the fire. Prudentius describes how the odor of the martyr’s burning flesh smelled noxious to the heathens, but sweet to the faithful. Then, the poet records a literal example of gallows humor that has since been one of the traditionally recognized unique markers of Lawrence’s martyrdom.
When slow, consuming heat had seared
The flesh of Lawrence for a space,
He calmly from his gridiron made
This terse proposal to the judge:

“Pray turn my body, on one side
Already broiled sufficiently,
And see how well your Vulcan’s fire
Has wrought its cruel punishment.”

The prefect bade him to be turned.
Then Lawrence spoke: “I am well baked,
And whether better cooked or raw,
Make a trial by a taste of me.”
Lawrence then offers a very historically literate prayer for Rome, that the city in all its past earthly glory, may come to reject its pagan pantheon and accept the heavenly glory of Christ and His redeeming grace. At the end of his prayer, Lawrence offers a prophecy, probably invented or exaggerated by Prudentius who already knew the outcome.
“I see in future times a prince,
Adorer of the one true God,
Who will not suffer Rome to serve
The idols foul of pagan cults.

“The heathen temples he will close,
Wall up their doors of ivory,
And make secure their brazen bolts,
That none may pass their vile thresholds.

“Of bloody sacrifices cleansed,
The marble altars then will gleam,
And statues honored now as gods
Will stand, mere harmless blocks of bronze.”
This future prince is most likely Theodosius the Great who closed the pagan temples of Rome during the time when Prudentius was active. Prudentius then brings his hymn to an end, making the martyrdom of Lawrence the beginning of the end of pagan worship in Rome:
From that day forth the worship paid
To sordid pagan gods grew cold;
The temples unfrequented stood,
While people to Christ’s altars thronged.

. . .

The holy martyr’s valiant death
Of pagan temples was the end;
Then Vesta saw Palladian fires
Untended with impunity.

The Roman people, who were wont
The cup of Numa to adore
Christ’s sanctuaries now frequent
And hymn the holy martyr’s praise.

Illustrious senators themselves,
Once flamins and Lupercal priests,
Now kiss the threshold of the shrines
Where martyrs and apostles rest.

We see patrician families,
The parents, both of noble birth,
Their children dedicate to God,
The dearest pledges of their love.

The pontiff once with chaplet crowned
Is signed now with the cross of Christ,
And, Lawrence, to thy temple comes
The vestal of the Claudian house.
Thus we see how about 130 years after the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, and about 80 years after the last persecution in Rome, the Christian religion now reigns supreme in the city.

Click for info.
The full poem of Prudentius on the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence is well worth reading. The above excerpts were taken from the English translation of Prudentius's Poems, Volume 1, done by Sister M. Clement Eagan in 1962 which may be found in this excellent edition published by The Catholic University of America Press. I highly recommend purchasing the entire book (if you can find it), filled as it is with Prudentius’s late 4th century poetical take on the ancient martyrs, many of whom are known to us only from his accounts. Other poems from the Peristephanon which have appeared on this blog in the past include the Martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul and an excerpt from the Martyrs of Calahorra.

Click for info.
More about Saint Lawrence and many other early Christian martyrs may be found in I Am a Christian: Authentic Accounts of Christian Martyrdom and Persecution from the Ancient Sources. It includes the above mentioned epitaph for Saint Lawrence written by Pope Saint Damasus in the late 4th century, as well as the excerpts about Lawrence in the writings of Saint Ambrose and Pope Saint Leo the Great. If you have enjoyed my posts about the saints and martyrs of antiquity and the various persecutions endured by the Church in late Roman times, this book distills a good number of the authentic accounts in one place, beginning with the earliest martyrs and proceeding through the soft persecution of Julian the Apostate. It is history that every Christian ought to know but is sadly neglected in modern education.

No comments: