Today the Church celebrates Saint Lawrence: deacon, martyr, and patron saint of chefs and cooks. As you’re about to see, I’ve had something of a lifelong connection to and affinity for Saint Lawrence.
For starters, my father is a Roman Catholic deacon, so I’ve spent my entire life around the diaconate. As a result, I can say with some confidence that I’m pretty familiar with the role of the deacon, and Lawrence is, by far, my second favorite. After my dad (of course). My next brush with Saint Lawrence came in 1988 when my family moved to Sacramento, California, and we ended up attending Saint Lawrence Parish. (My brother and I were subsequently enrolled in Saint Lawrence Parish School, which we both attended until high school.) Then, at some point shortly after college, I found myself in possession of what purported to be a fragment of Saint Lawrence’s bones. (That’s a longer story, which I recalled for Catholic Majority here.) But most recently, and with some frequency, I contemplate the life (and especially the death) of Saint Lawrence whenever I go camping.
In the past few years I have taken quite a shine to camping, and at least once a month I find myself camping on the beaches or in the mountains of North Carolina, or somewhere in-between. It is during these “wilderness” excursions that the story of Saint Lawrence, and the unforgettable legend of his martyrdom, frequently come to mind. (Another coincidence: the Basilica of Saint Lawrence is located in Asheville, North Carolina, which is not too far from my home. In fact, beautiful Asheville is a frequent destination for my camping trips.) I’ll explain the connection between Saint Lawrence, my camping trips, and his patronage in just a moment. First, I want to share a little bit about his life.
Lawrence was born about two hundred years after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in what today would be considered Spain, making him a contemporary with some of the earlier figures of the Church. (Early enough that he may have had his hands on the “Holy Grail” at one point, if that particular legend is to be believed.) As an adolescent he moved to Rome and was ordained a deacon by Pope Sixtus II. Lawrence had known and studied with Sixtus back in Spain, and had earned his trust. As archdeacon of Rome, Saint Lawrence was entrusted with the distribution of alms to the poor out of the Church’s coffers. (There are also tales of miracles performed by Lawrence around this time that were written in a book, The Acts of Saint Lawrence, which apparently has been lost to time, or never existed.)
What we do know is that at this time, Valerian was emperor of Rome. He was a bad, bad man, and he issued an order that all clergy be executed, and their goods collected and absorbed by the Roman government. Not long thereafter, Pope Sixtus, Saint Lawrence’s friend and patron was captured and beheaded.
Lawrence, having control over the Church’s money, was put upon by the Roman prefect to relinquish the money to the Romans. Saint Lawrence requested that he be given three days to gather all the riches together with the promise that he would then present them at that time. (Here, Lawrence fibbed a little. Yes, he took the three days to gather the riches, but he also spent the three days distributing it to the poor as quickly as he could.)
On the third day, he was called upon to present the Church’s riches and treasures to the government. Lawrence understood the instructions perfectly, and rather than hand over the Church’s money, he presented the Roman prefect with an assemblage of the people — the poor, the disabled, and the suffering. “The Church is truly rich,” Lawrence sassed. “Far richer than your Emperor.” It was (and still is) the people that were (and are) the real treasures of the Church. As you can imagine, this did not go over well. Lawrence was captured, imprisoned, and killed. He was only in his early 30s at the time of his martyrdom.
So what does this have to do with camping, and why is Lawrence the patron saint of chefs and cooks? Well, as it is told, Lawrence’s presentation of the poor to the Roman prefect who asked for the Church’s riches was not the only example of his tenacious wit.
Legend has it, Lawrence was martyred on a gridiron over a bed of coals. In other words, he was grilled. This is a gruesome and depraved way to die, regardless of whether or not one is being martyred. However, it was the cheer and wit that Saint Lawrence displayed at this crucial moment that most endears him to me. “I’m well done,” he told his executioners. “Turn me over.” Talk about turning the other cheek!
Campsite and backcountry cooking have their own inherent challenges, and I’m no expert chef even when I do have electricity, quality cookware, and digital help. So I find myself saying quick little prayers to Saint Lawrence whenever I’m huddled over a fire or camp-stove (I recommend the MSR WindPro II Stove, by the way). Why say a prayer to Saint Lawrence at these times? Because he is the patron saint of chefs and cooking, for sure, but also for the other, more macabre reason.
Saint Lawrence was as much of an example of Christian cheer in death as he was in life. And sometimes — sometimes when the food is sticking to the grill — you need to give a little shout-out to a saint that shares and would appreciate your sense of humor.
As we remember Saint Lawrence today and throughout the year, let’s remember to say a little prayer for our local deacons, too.
“The beauty, power and the heroism of Deacons such as Lawrence help to discover and come to a deeper meaning of the special nature of the diaconal ministry.”