Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict – Saint Laurence, Archbishop

illustration of Saint Laurence, Archbishop, from the book 'Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict', designed by Father Amandus LiebhaberSaint Laurence, when quite a youth, had taken the monastic habit in the Monastery of Saint Andrew’s in Rome, while Saint Gregory the Great was still its Abbot. There he was so distinguished for learning and piety, that he was among the first chosen by Saint Gregory for the mission which that great Pontiff was going to send to Britain. Saint Augustine recognised the help Laurence had given in bringing about the conversion of King Ethelbert of Kent by sharing with him his pastoral cares. Saint Laurence, as an old writer puts it, “was the eye, the hand, the foot, and the staff of Saint Augustine,” when the latter, through advanced age, was unequal to the hardship of preaching the gospel to such fierce idolaters as the Saxons then were. By night and by day he traversed the kingdom to sow more widely the seed of the Faith. Reapers were wanting, so heavy a crop awaited the sickle. Laurence was despatched to Rome to procure more assistance. Saint Gregory, overjoyed at the success of his undertaking, sent Laurence back with another body of Missionaries, among whom were Mellitus and Justus. After their arrival Christianity spread rapidly, and, in order that there should be no falling off when Saint Augustine died, the Pope appointed Laurence to succeed him. By Laurence’s exertions the true Faith was carried even into Scotland and into Ireland. About this time a controversy concerning the fixing of the date of Easter Sunday raged violently between the Irish and Scotch on the one hand, and the English on the other. Laurence, by his letters and by his arguments, maintained the old practice of the Church, and after a long struggle he prevailed on his opponents to yield obedience. Meanwhile Monasteries were rising in all parts of Britain, and Christianity was spreading on every side, when King Ethelbert died. No sooner had Eadbald, the unworthy son of so excellent a father, succeeded to the throne, than he threw off the mask with which he had hitherto concealed his wickedness. The Missionaries, and the Faith they preached, were insulted; the doors were again opened for the return of idols; the King gave way to every kind of licentious excess, and even incestuously took to his bed his stepmother. On the death of Sabarectus, King of London and of the Anglo-Saxons, who had been won over to the true Faith by Mellitus, his three sons, most depraved princes, followed the evil example set by Eadbald. Idolatry once more raised its head. The Monks were in despair. Laurence, and Mellitus, and Justus implored and exhorted the apostates; but they spoke to the deaf. The wretched people seemed to take delight in abandoning the laws of Christ and in going headlong to perdition. Though a just judgment – death in battle – overtook the sons of Sabarectus, their subjects continued obstinate in error. Losing all hope, Mellitus and Justus withdrew to France till better times. As Eadbald had brought back all the old idols, and as their altars were smoking with sacrifices in every quarter of Kent, Laurence, seeing himself a shepherd without sheep, had decided to follow Mellitus and Justus. On the eve of his departure, while keeping vigil in the Church of Saint Peter, and praying fervently for so many perishing souls, sleep seized him, worn out with weeping. Then Saint Peter, his face full of wrath, seemed to descend from Heaven, and plucking Laurence by the ear, said, “Have you the heart to desert your post? Can you expose your sheep to the wolves? Do you think so little of the cross, the nails, the scourging, and the death of Christ, that you, in order to live, neglect those for whose salvation He died? Do you remember Peter, whose keys you, as Archbishop, hold here? When Caesar was persecuting at Rome, did I care for my own safety and leave the city? Remember the chains, the prison, and the fatal tree on which I chose to hang rather than desert my flock. You are a cowardly shepherd, if you run away from difficulties and dangers.” And therewith he scourged Laurence so severely that all his back was covered with bloody weals. Laurence knew that it was no dream when at dawn he saw himself marked by the lash. Going straight to the palace to Eadbald, and throwing off his robe, he cried, “Do you see, O King, how I have been beaten by heavenly hands on your account, because I despaired of saving the souls of yourself and your people? I purposed leaving Kent, when Saint Peter, whose representative here I am, this very night pitilessly scourged me, as you may see for yourself. Let my stripes at least plead for me, if you disregard my words, and may you turn to better ways. If I pay so grievously for my small sin, what penalties await you, incestuous and apostate?” Eadbald trembled in every limb. The sight of the Bishop’s back scored by the thongs softened him to whom exhortations, prayers, and tears had been addressed in vain. He put from him his infamous stepmother, and was reconciled to Christ; he also drew back to the true fold the subjects whom his example had corrupted. Again the people flocked to the Church, and Laurence required more helpers. Mellitus and Justus, recalled from France, lost no time in returning. Justus was soon restored to his See by the people of Rochester, over whom, during the lifetime of King Sabarectus, he ruled as Bishop. As the inhabitants of London, persisting in the worship of false gods, would not allow Mellitus to come back to their city, Laurence, now broken down by age and labours, availed himself of his assistance, and found in him as vigorous and zealous a supporter as he himself had been to Saint Augustine. To Saint Laurence was vouchsafed the grace of not dying till the Faith, which had been weakened by the infidelity of Eadbald, had once more taken firm root in the hearts of the English. Then, when the Church, in the enjoyment of peace, was again flourishing, this most excellent Pontiff went to receive his heavenly crown, A.D. 619.

– text and illustration taken from Saints of the Order of Saint Benedict by Father Aegedius Ranbeck, O.S.B.