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San Lorenzo del Fuego : (Retablo of St Lawrence of the Fire
The philosophers and the orators have fallen into oblivion; the masses do not even know the names of the emperors and their generals; but everyone knows the names of the the martyrs, better than those of their most intimate friends.
“It is in these terms that Theodoret bishop of Cyrrhus sought to convey the extent of the triumph of Christianity: by the mid-fifth century, the cult of the saints had ringed the populations of the Mediterranean with the intimate invisible friends. ‘The Invisible Friend” - the “Intimate Friend” - these are terms on which Theodoret and his contemporaries dwelt lovingly in relation to the saints ... we shall touch upon the subtle transformation of immemorial beliefs that was involved when Mediterranean men and women, from the late fourth century onwards, turned with increasing explicitness for friendship, inspiration and protection in this life and beyond the grave, to invisible beings who were fellow humans they could invest with the precise and palpable features of beloved and powerful figures in their own society.”
From “The Cult of the Saints : It’s Rise and Function in Latin Christianity”
By Peter Brown
I think just of a few Christian and spiritual writers that for me combine “readability” with deep love, and affection for their subject and the kind of scholarship which sends you to an abundance of other sources, to learn more. Peter Brown, Valentin Tomberg, G.B. Caird, Monika Hellwig, Christopher Pramuk, Dorothee Soelle, James Martin, SJ, William Lynch, SJ, Melissa Raphael, Mirabai Starr, Kathy Hendricks, Noel Dermot O’Donoghue, Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, Iain Matthew (and also a follower of Eknath Easwaren,)Carol Lee Finders ...just a few. If a person can change the world then also a book can change your life.
Anything Peter Brown writes is that way for me. He’s transcendent, I believe, without knowing it. I think some of the great scholarly saints like Thomas Aquinas, or Edith Stein must have been the same way. It seems to me now that any “working-Christian” must often feel the heavy weight of being an Christian apologist to friends and even blood family, concerning beliefs. I believe too, that the desire to share your beliefs/loves comes naturally if you are given a “church-soul” as von Balthasar calls a person who loves the church so much that they speak of her, like people speak of the greatest loves in their lives.
This is how I encounter Peter Brown’s book on the very beginning of the deep love and veneration of the saints. It began with the early martyrs. Just imagine if you were living then, these would be people you either knew or had heard of living near by you; friends, family. They’d be Agnes, Pancratius, Lawrence, Tarcissius, Sebastian, Cecilia.
The legend of the most compassionate Lawrence the Deacon is filled with the “fuego” of the early church, and how they they regarded earthly rulers to be continually passing-fleeting; don’t ever give your soul to them. Yet people have done just that for centuries, and ended up being shadows of themselves and (to them) surprisingly and shockingly betrayed, when the present emperor, always has no clothes.
Lawrence shocked me, as a child, and the older I get the more shocking he becomes. He drags the Roman guards (police) when they demand that he take them to the place where the riches of the church are kept. He goes to a house of the homeless and proudly explains to the proud boys that these homeless, are the treasures of the Church. They are angry and humiliated and arrest Lawrence. He is later sentenced to die, not just for being a Christian but for being so disdaining, so naively cavalier about the reigning few, and his seriously not funny situation; the fact he’d soon be brutally tortured and murdered. But Lawrence wasn’t having any of the imaginary absolutes. Filled and afire with the Holy Spirit, he was reminding them and us, of part of the essence of the Gospel. After his arrest, he was sentenced to die laid upon a gridiron; and burned to death. And to add salt to the wound he managed to joke while being burnt on the gridiron,
“Turn me over, I think I’m done on this side.” If you ponder, really ponder this martyrdom story, concerning today, you’ll find a wealth of things to pray about. I know his legend has never revealed so much to me as it has this year.
St Lawrence is very present and wildly, impossibly relevant as a saint for us today.
I’ll continue to tell you why, but if you really pray about the contemporary graces of his legend it will open you to a possible spiritual reality of our times or any times on earth.
Here’s the story of the creation of this retablo:
“If you take care of the people, they will take care of you.” St Francis
This is a bit exaggerated in my case but in Taos, I loved the people so much and I felt they really loved me too. It was one of the best experience of community I’ve ever, or probably will ever, have. I have never lived in a Matriarchal Society so I had no idea of what that was like. If you think about the concept of a Matriarchal Society, you might begin to imagine what the life and death issues and values might be. There was a teenager in our community who took it upon himself to make sure I had a continual supply of wood for the winter. He was mature beyond his age and approached me with old fashioned reverence, but as an equal; a typically Northern New Mexican intuition about outsiders who for centuries, did not understand or perform a proskyinesis ((bowing low) to their ancient, God-given, wisdom. Lorenzo Herrera was taking a class in woodworking in school. He had made/carved a beautiful retablo board, and brought it to me to paint a retablo of his patron santo . At that time I was living in the guest Casita of a family situated near a well traveled road, and the kids I knew from church, used to honk when they’d drive by. Because I had so many commissions I was not getting to the retablo. I had these beautiful hand-made arched windows in my studio and Lorenzo would drive in and look in my studio window and there would be his retablo, waiting, on the floor up against a cabinet, undone. I finally began because of Lorenzo’s enthusiasm. Now you see the finished retablo, but I can’t say enough about that time (14 years) and how it continues to guide me. Someday I’ll try.
Fr Bill McNichols 💮 August 2021