The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

I attended a small, private, Catholic school from kindergarten on through eight grade. The school was named St. Lawrence, after the Roman deacon who was famously martyred in 258 AD. The naming of a private school after a venerated saint is common practice among Catholics around the world, much like public schools are named after famous political/historical figures like Eisenhower and Washington. St. Lawrence is also one of the most venerated saints in Catholicism. The river which leads water from the Great Lakes of my home state of Michigan towards the Atlantic also bears the moniker "St. Lawrence."

The martyrdom of St. Lawrence The martyrdom of St. Lawrence.

The retelling of the events of St. Lawrence's death were common fair in religion class, required Wednesday mass, and in the principle's office. As the myth goes, Lawrence was condemned to death for his beliefs and sentenced to "roasting" over an open flame. It was said that, after having been strung up for some time over a fire (not unlike a rotisserie chicken), he remarked thusly: "turn me over...I'm done on this side."

Historians have largely discredited this tale, often reducing the misconception regarding Lawrence's death to a typo in official transcripts. The simple Latin phrase passus est was often used as a formula for announcing the death of a martyr. The phrase roughly translates to English as "he suffered." However, assus est (passus est minus the "p") translates to "he was roasted." This led historian Pio Franchi de' Cavalieri to conclude that the strange story of St. Lawrence's death is no more than a byproduct of sloppy handwriting. In all likelihood, Lawrence was beheaded, as was the norm for public executions of high ranking religious leaders such as bishops and deacons at the time.

This historical recasting of the myth of St. Lawrence did not ever penetrate the walls of St. Lawrence the school though. Students like myself were reminded often of the bravery, commitment, and (dark) humor of the saint in the face of death. The telling of St. Lawrence's story became a panacea for most student problems. Those that complained about homework or duties were often reminded of St. Lawrence, who faced death with a grin and some humor. Students who found themselves the butt of jokes were often meant to be comforted by a retelling of the courageous Lawrence who bore his horrible death, dignity intact.

In essence, the lesson of the Lawrence myth was one of burden and sacrifice for my community. We were Catholic—most of us—and so being led to feel guilty was for the most part a normative practice. St. Lawrence, the impossibly superhuman martyr, was a projection screen for our childhood grapplings with the weight of Catholic faith.