Monday, August 10, 2009

Lessons from St. Clement and St. Lawrence

St. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-216), wrote in his work, The Instructor of Children (Paidagogos) (written some time before 202):

The greatest of all lessons, so it would seem, is to know oneself. For whoever knows himself will know God; and knowing God, he will become like God, not by wearing gold ornaments and robes which reach to the feet, but by doing good and by requiring as few things as possible. (William Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. I, #411, p. 180)

As St. Clement points out, we can know about God by knowing ourselves. The concept of natural law explains how this works. That is perhaps one of the conscious or unconscious reasons why many people nowadays try to dismiss natural law; it is an attempt to rid their (and everyone else's) worldview of God. St. Clement then makes an important point: by knowing God, we will become like God. Adam and Eve falsely believed that by trying to usurp God's authority, they could become like God. However, had they instead focused on knowing God, then they could have become like God. Rather, they revealed that they did not know God at all, for, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, Man "let his trust in his Creator die in his heart" and that "[a]ll subsequent sin" would be a "lack of trust in his [God's] goodness" (section 397). Since God is goodness itself, to not trust God's goodness is to not know God.

St. Paul reminds us that even Christ, who is God, did not seek equality of His human nature with his divine nature:

Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6)

As St. Clement notes, to be like God is not to lord it over others, not to have ostentatious wealth, but "by doing good and requiring as few things as possible." All we need to do is look at a crucifix; there we see the greatest good being done (our salvation) on that "Good" Friday, and we see Christ stripped of everything, requiring no things but His body and blood.

And that brings us to St. Lawrence, whose feast day is today. St. Lawrence suffered martyrdom in 258. In 405, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens wrote an account of Lawrence's death:

The prefect of Rome driven by a greed for gold summoned Lawrence to his court and questioned him about the treasures of the Church. Lawrence, as if ready to cooperate, gave his reply.

'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.

Lawrence agreed to surrender the treasure and requested a short delay so that he could gather all the goods and estimate their total worth. The prefect's heart swelled with joy and he readily granted Lawrence three days. He dismissed Lawrence from the court and the latter went forth to carry out his task.

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.
He sought in every public square
The needy who were wont to be
Fed from the stores of Mother Church,
And he as steward knew them well.

When the appointed time had come, Lawrence assembled those whom he had gathered before the temple gate. He then invited the prefect to accompany him to view the "wondrous riches of our God."

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.

Lawrence, undaunted, faced the prefect's rage at the unwelcome spectacle.
He admonished him and urged him to consider a more sublime reality.

'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
'These humble paupers you despise
And look upon as vile outcasts,
Their ulcerous limbs will lay aside
And put on bodies incorrupt,

'When freed at last from tainted flesh
Their souls, from chains of earth released,
Will shine resplendent with new life
In their celestial fatherland.

'Not foul and shabby, or infirm,
As now they seem to scornful eyes,
But fair, in radiant vesture clad,
With crowns of gold upon their heads.

The prefect was neither amused nor edified. He accused Lawrence of making him a laughingstock, of mocking him, and of staging a farce. He promised that Lawrence would pay for it with a slow and lingering death. The prefect then prepared a bed of coals and ordered Lawrence to ascend the pyre and lie on the bed he deserved.

Thus spoke the prefect. At his nod
Forthwith the executioner
Stripped off the holy martyr's robes
And laid him bound upon the pyre.

Prudentius wrote that the "martyr's face was luminous" and that "round it shone a glorious light" but noted that this phenomenon was only visible to the baptized. Similarly, he wrote that, "the very odor given forth by holy Lawrence's burning flesh was noxious to the unredeemed and to the faithful nectar sweet." The poet then presents the final moments in the life of Lawrence in a paean that has resounded through the centuries.

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 trial by a taste of me.'

He said these words in way of jest;
Then rising shining eyes to heaven
And sighing deeply, thus he prayed
With pity for unholy Rome.

Thus ended Lawrence's fervent prayer,
Thus ended, too, his earthly life:
With these last words his eager soul
Escaped with joy from carnal chains.

Some noble Romans, who were led
By his amazing fortitude
To faith in Christ, then bore away
The hero's body from the scene.

The prefect's "greed for gold" is like what St. Clement described as "wearing gold ornaments and robes which reach to the feet." But St. Lawrence knew that by emptying ourselves like Christ, we become like Christ, that by serving, we will be saved. If we can learn the lessons which these two great saints are teaching us, then we will become like God.

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