[This is a work of fiction, of St Lawrence's actions after the martyrdom of Pope St. Sixtus II. I tried to imagine some of what was going through his mind, and how the events weighed upon his heart, and how his love for Christ inspired his "gambit" regarding the Prefect's edict. I suppose if I had started writing it sooner than 11 PM Thursday night, I could have written it better.]
The young man staggered down the cobbled street, at times bracing himself against the limestone walls of the buildings that lined both sides, pausing for breath and balance. He was surprised he had made it this far, towards the house without getting lost, without falling on his face, without being accosted or harassed by soldiers or merchants. He was barely aware of anyone else, but in the back of his mind, he knew people were staring at him. He heard children crying when he approached them, or women gasping as he went on by. None of that mattered.
A group of three women moved to the opposite side of the street, huddling together as if to shrink away and avoid being stumbled into, their faces wrought with fear as the young man passed. His face was streaked with tears, mingled with perspiration and white dust and red blood, giving him the appearance of a spectre, or grotesque masqued character from a theatrical production. The front of his cream-colored tunic was smeared with blood, and his tan sandals were splattered and stained a darker shade of brown. But their fear was not so much at how the young man looked, but as to the why he looked the way he did. They knew the reason behind his countenance. He had not committed madness-driven murder, nor had he survived deadly combat.
This day, there had been a death in Rome – perhaps more than one. Gossip traveled more quickly than news in the city, and whispers of violent death even more so. They didn’t know why the young man had been spared – sometimes, one was left alive as a warning or a witness; other times, a pinch of incense had stayed the executioner’s hand. They didn’t know for sure. What they knew – or at the very least, what they thought they knew – was that he was succumbing to the horror of the experience. One whispered to the other two, while pointing towards a black wooden door several yards away from the young man, in the direction that he was heading.
On the lintel, in white chalk, was a crudely drawn fish.
The young man stuttered to a stop at that doorway, framed on either side by white bricks, smaller than those that comprised the wall, and capped with a heavy black wooden beam. He leaned his shoulder against the frame, drew a deep breath and slowly exhaled. As he regained his composure, he watched the women out of the corner of his eye, watching him, one of them still pointing. Her finger wavered between him and the image above the door.
Christian, her gesture indicated, and none too charitably. They turned away and shuffled off as one, heading quickly towards the small plaza at the end of the street. He craned his head to watch them depart, and one woman glanced backwards over her shoulder. Their eyes made contact, ever so briefly, but in that second, he saw what he thought was compassion. Then, they stepped into the plaza, and were lost in the crowd.
He knocked four times on the heavy door, using the side of his fist, in a bah-DUM, bah-DUM rhythm. Within moments, the door opened several inches, and a man’s face appeared in the gap. His blue eyes widened upon seeing who had knocked.
“Laurence!” the man exclaimed, and he flung wide the door and assisted his guest inside. “One of my servants has just returned from the market, and told me what he saw, and I thought…”
Laurence allowed himself to be led to a bench just beyond the entrance. As he sat down, his host went back to close the door, not before checking the street, in case his friend had been followed.
As he strode to the bench, he clapped his hands three times in quick succession, and within seconds, a servant girl entered the front room, coming out of a corridor that led deeper into the home. She demurely bowed her head as she waited for her master’s commands.
“Kyria, quickly! Fetch clean water and a basin for Laurence, and meet us in my chamber! Quickly now!”
Kyria exited the way she came, her feet making no sound on the cool flagstone floor.
“Come, Laurence,” the man said, helping him rise to his feet. “To my chamber, where we can give you a fresh tunic. Then you can tell me what has happened, for I have heard only rumors and whispers, and I yearn to hear the truth from your lips.”
Laurence looked up at his host, and smiled weakly. “You are a good friend, Paulinus. I was wise to come here.”
The pair left the front room by a second short corridor into a larger room, separated by a white finely embroidered curtain. Paulinus held it aside, allowing Laurence to enter the chamber. A large window opened onto a courtyard, bounded by four walls dotted with doorways and windows, two stone stairwells on opposite sides that led to upper rooms and rooftops. Two trees rose from the center of the courtyard, their branches heavy with fruit – one with bright yellow lemons, the other with round ripe oranges. Several people worked in the courtyard – servants from this household and the others that bordered the courtyard. Two were laundering tunics and other garments, while another attended a large oven that stood in the far corner. Half the courtyard – the far side – was bathed in afternoon sunlight, while the other was already darkening with shadows.
The chamber was sparsely populated with furniture – a bed, two chests and a long table, plus a single chair. Laurence sat down in the chair, positioned to permit its occupant to look out the window and enjoy any breeze that found its way through the opening. The coolness of the shade was welcome relief after having endured the heat of the burnishing August sun.
Kyria came into the room bearing an ewer brimming with water, supported in a wide stone basin, with two towels draped over her arm. Paulinus motioned for her to leave them on the table that stood against the side wall. After depositing them there, she asked,
“Do you require anything else, master?”
“Yes, thank you. Some bread, goat’s cheese if there is any, and ask Flavius to bring in oranges. Oh, and some wine.”
Kyria retreated from the chamber, and as the curtain swayed from her passing, Paulinus brought the ewer and basin to where Laurence was seated.
“Here, brother – cleanse yourself.” He poured some of the water into the basin and held it so that Laurence could splash it upon his face. It was refreshing and invigorating, and seemed to revive him immediately. A memory of his baptism, when he had become a new creation… The water that fell back into the basin swirled with grays and browns. Paulinus placed the basin on the floor, and handed Laurence one of the towels.
As Laurence dried off, Paulinus said “I have a spare tunic. Remove yours and I’ll have Kyria clean it for you.”
“No,” Laurence said, drying his neck. “This shall not be cleaned. It holds the blood of martyrs.”
Paulinus opened a nearby chest and took out a fresh white tunic and offered it to Laurence. “As you wish. Pray, tell me what happened.”
Laurence, having taken the tunic, leaned back in the chair and took a deep breath. “I had been distributing alms when the guards arrived at Sixtus’ home. The others were there with him – Januarius, Vincentius, Agapitus, Magnus. Stephanus and Felicissimus as well. They passed me on their way to the Prefect’s estate, as I was returning to the home. I knew what was going to happen, and I insisted that the guards arrest me as well. Thus, we were all taken to see the Prefect.”
Just then, Kyria came back into the room, carrying a platter of food – half a loaf of bread, chunks of white cheese and wedges of oranges. Behind her stood an older man – Flavius – and in his hands were two cups and a ceramic amphora. Without being asked, they left their wares on the table and quietly departed.
“Then what happened?” Paulinus asked. He moved to the table and began preparing the food and wine.
“The Prefect demanded we offer sacrifice to his gods, and we were all of one mind. We refused. Of course, the Prefect was enraged and ordered that we all be executed.” Laurence stopped and looked away momentarily, blinking rapidly. “Except for me,” he continued, his voice wavering slightly. “I begged to be included, but Sixtus stayed me. He said, my son, you shall follow me, in but three short days. Oh, how I desired to be taken then and there, and not be separated even for a moment from the good bishop and my fellow deacons. At first I felt that the Lord may have deemed me unworthy of such a great witness. But now I understand that the Lord has a different mission in store for me. So while my heart has been crushed with grief, it has also been borne up with great and abiding joy.”
Paulinus tore off a piece of the hard-crusted bread and offered it and thick slice of the goat cheese to his friend, considering the deacon’s words. As Laurence took it, he asked, “And then?”
“And then the guards dragged them all off to be beheaded, there in the Prefect’s great courtyard. I watched them all die, Paulinus. Praising the Lord, singing hymns as the executioner’s blade severed their heads from their bodies. Sixtus was the last to be killed, a rag stuffed into his mouth, to prevent the sound of any hymn from reaching the Prefect’s ears.”
Paulinus filled the two glasses with wine – as red as the blood stains on Laurence’s tunic. “So now Rome has no bishop,” he said softly.
“For now,” Laurence countered. “Another will be appointed.” He slowly chewed his bread and cheese, and then swallowed. “But there is more of the story to tell, my good friend.”
“More?” Paulinus asked as he handed Laurence a glass.
“The Prefect came down to where I was standing, after Sixtus and the other deacons had been killed. He demanded that I hand over to him all the riches our church possesses. He claims to know of our ciboriums and chalices, that some are wrought from gold. He wants our linens and our scrolls. Every treasure belonging to the church, he now claims for himself.”
“What did you tell him?”
Laurence sipped from his glass. The wine was sweet, its bouquet full and rich. It seemed to wash away his grief. “I asked for three days, that it would take me that much time to gather our religion’s greatest riches.”
Paulinus sat down on his bed and ran a hand through his curled brown hair. “And the Prefect agreed?”
“Yes. In three days time, I am to return to his estate bearing all the church’s riches. Paulinus, there is much to do.”
“That, my friend, is an understatement.”
Laurence rose from his chair, placed his glass on the sill, and started to remove his soiled tunic. “First, we must make arrangements to have the bodies collected and buried. I did my best to respectfully arrange them. The Prefect has permitted me to have that done, but it must be done before nightfall, else he will throw their corpses to the dogs. I must make haste from here to Cyriaca’s villa where other followers are gathered.” He pulled the tunic over his head and proceeded to wash off the grime and blood that had soaked through to his skin. “As for you, my friend, I have a favor to ask.”
“Merely ask, Laurence, and I shall do it.” He raised his glass to his mouth.
“I must ask you to go to Huesca, to the city of my youth, and seek out my parents.”
Paulinus spluttered wine, some back into the glass, most down his chin. “But…but that is in Iberia! That is many days travel!” he exclaimed, wiping the wine off his stubbled chin with the back of his hand.
Laurence placed his hand on Paulinus’ shoulder. “I cannot make the journey, there and back, in three days’ time. You are my closest friend. My parents know you. They would want to learn of my witness from someone they love, from someone who loved their son. Would you not do for me, what I would do for you? Would you not do for me, a small sacrifice compared to what I am about to do for you?”
Paulinus lowered his head, ashamed. “I beg your forgiveness, Laurence. Yes. Yes, I will do this for you and for your father and mother.”
“Thank you.” Laurence put on the fresh tunic, and tied a cincture around his waist. “There is one more favor I must ask of you, Paulinus. As you know, the Lord’s chalice is kept at Cyriaca’s villa. It had been entrusted to me, and now I entrust it unto you. You must take the Lord’s chalice with you to Huesca for safe-keeping. There is a monastery there where I am sure it will be safe. I will send it with a letter of instruction. Will you do that as well?”
Paulinus nodded. “But the Prefect…”
Laurence sat back down, picking up his glass again. “The Prefect will receive what he has demanded. The Lord’s chalice…that is much too holy to be given to pagan dogs, to be abased and defiled. As to the other treasures of the church? What the Prefect regards as treasure, and what the Church regards as valuable are not one and the same. I could deliver unto him what he seeks, but it is better that I deliver unto him the truth.”
Laurence smiled. “Oh, my friend, have you learned nothing since becoming a believer? The treasures of the church are not to be found in gold, or fine linen, or in any such created thing. Yes, we use such worldly goods in our worship because He is worthy of what is best in the world, not because such created things are worthy in and of themselves. No, the Prefect will not receive what he expects, because what he believes to be valuable can be stolen, or destroyed by moths, or lost to the passage of time.”
“So what will you deliver him instead?”
“I have three days to gather up what our Lord Jesus Christ considers valuable. What He has deemed blessed – the poor, the meek, the grieving, the humbled. Whom did He love in His time? The crippled, the blind, the destitute. I shall deliver unto the Prefect what are the greatest treasures the church possesses – the people she serves.”
“The Prefect will not be happy,” Paulinus said.
“It is not the Prefect I am trying to please.”
[There is a legend that tells how the "Holy Grail" had been entrusted to Lawrence, and that he had given it to a friend to be brought to Huesca, his purported place of birth. I thought that was pretty cool, so I created the character of Paulinus and included it in this short story. There is a St Cyriaca, who was St Lawrence's patroness, whose villa he used after her martyrdom. The names of the six deacons martyred with Pope St. Sixtus II can be found here.]