Monks in the modern world are daily confronted with incongruities. We dress in tunics and scapulars that were the workaday clothing of sixth-century peasants. We pray the Psalms, composed some three thousand years ago in a language that does not translate into contemporary idioms very well. Many of our customs date from the early Middle Ages (suddenly a controversial era!), presupposing a worldview that is unfathomable to many of our neighbors in Chicago.
It takes time to get used to this worldview, and it would be foolish for me to claim that I’ve mastered it. This is simply to say that to understand our own tradition as Benedictine monks, we must undergo conversion. But this is true for all Christians. In this moment of lingering crisis in our clerical ranks, it is important for us to recall this. The Church is not a place to be comfortable according to cultural standards, passively imbibed. It is a place to become radical witnesses to another world, a kingdom that is not of this age.
A few years ago, one aspect of this struggle struck me with particular force. I was working on the early history of Gregorian chant and reading through old collated manuscripts of tenth and eleventh-century liturgical books. They were organized according to the Church year, beginning with Advent. There were the usual solemnities of the life of Christ: Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Sprinkled throughout were the feasts of saints. At some point, I began to muse on the familiar saints who hadn’t been born yet: Francis, Dominic, Catherine of Siena, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila. Then it struck me that none of these familiar saints were martyrs. I went back to the manuscripts and noticed other names that were not in the calendar, but this time of saints who had lived long ago and were recognized as saints: Augustine, Gregory the Great, Basil. In fact, there were only a handful of feast days of saints who were not martyrs in the strict sense: aside from the feasts of the Mother of God, there were John the Evangelist, and, in some locations, Benedict of Nursia and Martin of Tours.
The rest of the saints were a parade of men and women who shed their blood for the Faith. Many names are still remembered in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I): John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian, Felicity and Perpetua. After the Apostles themselves, one of the most famous was Saint Lawrence, whose feast we celebrate today.
Before I say a bit about Lawrence, however, let me finish this thought about conversion. When the persecution of the Church ended in the West in the fourth-century, non-martyr saints became more common. Eventually, beginning mainly in the thirteenth century, these saints were given days on the Church’s liturgical calendar. This swelling of the ranks of the blessed altered the “feeling” of the liturgy in a subtle way. Holiness was demonstrated less by a sacrificial death and heroic witness in the face of persecution, and more in an active life of charity. Now, there is nothing wrong with charity! But even in Scripture, the main proof of love is the “laying down of one’s life for one’s friends.” [John 15 :13]
This seems to me to be at the heart of the misunderstanding of contemplative life, which, from an early period in the Church, was understood as a form of martyrdom, a leaving of the world as a sign of the Kingdom that is “not of this world.” [John 18: 36] The shift of focus has been away from this primary form of witness toward a more exclusive concentration on good works. This subtly tempts us to see our Faith as a form of “religion,” one of many forms of belief that make this world (the one we’re to witness against!) a better, kinder place. It is easy for our horizons to be lowered under these circumstances. Conversion for us today might mean regaining a focus on the example of the martyrs and the Desert Fathers.
And so I finally turn to today’s great saint, Lawrence, who is remembered not only for his brave (and light-hearted) acceptance of martyrdom, but for his selfless charity. This charity grew, not from a desire to make the Roman Empire a kinder place, but out of his renunciation of the world, symbolized by his identification with the poor.
It is sometimes remarked that anyone who dies for a cause is a kind of a martyr. In extreme forms of this assertion, Christian martyrs are compared to suicide bombers and the like. The comparison is not valid—unless we have fallen into the temptation to see the Faith as a species of the genus “religion” in support of this-worldly political “progress.” The suicide bomber is surely brave, but he is seeking political goals in this world. True, he won’t live to see these goals realized, if ever they are. But in any case, the Christian martyr has her sights set elsewhere. The acta of Saint Lawrence were clearly modeled on those of an earlier deacon and martyr, Saint Stephen. As he was dying, his gaze was lifted by the Holy Spirit into heaven, unto the glory of God.
There was a young man there, a zealous and true believer in religion, Saul of Tarsus. His salvation required much the same conversion that we are all striving for. May our celebration of Saint Lawrence help us to train our gaze on Jesus Christ, in heaven in glory and, mysteriously, in our neighbors.