Roses of Martyrdom - C. M. Cresswell
The Roman Forum, even now, in its decay, is one of the most wonderful places in the world. From the Arch of Titus to that of Septimius Severus, beside the rising hill of the Palatine, where the cypresses girdle the ruined palaces of the Caesars, it is possible to wander by temples and buildings that cry aloud the stories of the past. On this side of the way stands the regia of the High Priest; on that, the temple of the Vestals. Here, at the shrine of Juturna, old half-legendary Roman history tells us that the Twin brethren watered their horses after the battle of Lake Regillus. Hard by, the traveller who visits the Forum may stand beneath the columns of Castor and Pollux, in the very place where Antony stood to speak the funeral oration over the body of murdered Caesar. Over these stones of the Via Sacra walked the poet Horace; those of the Via Nova were trodden by the feet of fallen Sejanus, when he was led away, despairing, and yet hoping against hope, that at yonder corner a vestal virgin might come out of her house and claim his release, before he was dragged to death in the Tullianum prison. That prison too is still to-day but a stone's throw off; on the other side of the road.
If the Forum is so wonderful now, what must it have been when Rome was still Imperial, and the Emperors still held sway on yonder ruined hill?
On such a day, towards the end of an August afternoon, the Forum was waking up to life, after the stifling heat of noon. Beneath a sky of intensest blue, the roofs, columns, and statues, shone out in gold and white and in all the rich mottlings of marble. The streets were crowded with people, with the rich in their chairs and litters, and with the poor (glad that the cool of evening was coming) contented to trudge on foot. In the booths and shops the merchants were plying a brisk trade, while, under the lengthening shadows of the porticoes, and on the steps of the basilica that great Julius built, idlers, beggars, and the degraded rabble of Rome lounged, laughed, and squabbled.
Through the cheerful crowds a little procession wended its way along the Via Sacra towards the Capitol—a procession of a kind that had been, and still was common enough throughout the Roman Empire, from the cities of Gaul and sun-lit Carthage to far-off Asia Minor.
On that August evening the prisoner was an old and venerable man. To the dignity of years he added the dignity of one who held high office. His guards might buffet him so that he stumbled as he walked; his chains might bow his aged frame almost to the ground; the rabble might pelt him with dirt; but nothing could mar the majesty of his bearing, or the power of his noble, grey-crowned head. Among the crowd, by the roadside, were a few Christians, whose hearts well-nigh broke at the treatment of the well-known, beloved form. Even, here and there, a pagan turned away his head in pity, reminded of his own father by the old prisoner before him.
At a turn in the street, hard by the Tullianum prison, where the throng was densest, a man stood out from the crowd to face those coming towards him. He was quite young, only in his first manhood. Grace and vigour combined in his tall figure, and his dark beauty was simply set off by his plain white robe. As his eyes, fixed lovingly on the prisoner, noticed the rough treatment accorded to the old man, a mist of tears clouded them. When the group was almost opposite him, he stepped forward boldly into the roadway, heedless of the many witnesses of an act that at once avowed his faith. Thrusting aside, with no uncertain strength, one of the guards, he bent like a son over the captive.
"Why dost thou leave me, holy father?" he said in tones of love and reproach. "Should the priest go to the Sacrifice without his attendant deacon?"
For a few seconds, while the mob watched curiously, the strong young hands clasped the weak wrists and eased the weight of the old man's fetters, as the two looked into each other's eyes with a love beyond that of this world. Then the angry guards tore them apart, and dealt the younger man a furious blow, that sent him, despite his strength, staggering backwards into the crowd. Meanwhile, the prisoner, ere they dragged him away, turned and said,—
"Fear not, my son. After three days thou shalt follow me."
The guards closed round him and hurried him away to the dungeon.
The old man was Sixtus, Bishop of Rome, the younger his Archdeacon, Laurence.
When the doors had closed on Sixtus, Laurence, paying no heed at all to a disposition on the part of the crowd to jostle and threaten him on account of his speech with the prisoner, hurried away from the press of the Forum, through quieter streets to the house where the bishop had formerly dwelt.
Four or five men were there, among them two other deacons and a young soldier. The latter, by his not giving the greeting customary among Christians, proved himself not of their faith. But he was evidently a friend and a favourite, and the first to clasp Laurence's hand.
"I have seen Sixtus," said Laurence, "and have spoken with him outside the prison."
The younger of the deacons made a gesture of surprise.
"Have you betrayed yourself, then?" he asked. "O Laurence, we shall hear of your arrest next. Hippolytus here has brought us word that he was present when the deacons Felicissimus and Agapitus were taken, and you are far better known than they were."
"I have good news for you," replied Laurence smiling. "After three days I am to follow Sixtus to martyrdom—for so he himself has just told me. Who knows, friend?"—and he turned to the young soldier—" by that time you yourself may be assisting at my arrest!"
"But will you not escape while you can?" suggested Hippolytus anxiously. "By Castor, Laurence, you know that I should never betray you, and I am only too ready—
Laurence laid his hand on his shoulder, almost playfully.
"Now, Hippolytus," he asked, smiling, "do you think it likely that I shall run away, when the supreme desire and yearning of my heart is promised me? Ah, you cannot understand. May CHRIST draw you to Himself; to yearn as I do to see His face."
"But, Laurence," cried one of the deacons, "your duties! the treasures—
Laurence stopped him with a gesture commanding silence.
"I must be hastening homewards," he said, "there is business of importance that needs immediate attention. It might be well that one or two of you should accompany me."
The deacons responded at once, and, with a few words of farewell to their companions, left the house with Laurence.
When they were in the streets, over which the darkness of evening had fallen, the latter said—
"I did not wish you to speak of the treasures of the Church before Hippolytus. He is indeed our friend, but not of our faith; and should the authorities suspect that he had knowledge of the Church's wealth, well, he has not our strength in CHRIST to keep silence under torture, and we must not let him suffer on our account. All has been arranged. The blessed Sixtus foresaw what was to come. During the last few days he and I have been busily engaged in taking precautions. The gold and jewels and sacred vessels have all been gathered together at the house of the widow Cyriaca, and we have an agreement with Demetrius the goldsmith that, at a moment's notice, he will buy them from us. The money paid for them is to be distributed among the poor. All can be done to-morrow, quietly, and with the utmost secrecy. Yet I would have as few as possible know this. I shall go to Demetrius to-night. So much for the treasures of the Church. I will say farewell here;" and he paused at the door of his own dwelling, and his voice grew divinely tender, "for now I am going to see my treasures."
The three young men parted. Laurence, having entered the house for a moment only, to get a cloak to cover his white robe, hurried on to the lower parts of the city.
There he called on Demetrius, and made arrangements for the sale of the treasure early on the morrow at Cyriaca's house.
Before the business was transacted and Laurence was free to leave, it was quite dark. Among the great stars, the young moon, already low over the roofs, was hurrying to its setting. In the steep, narrow streets, scarcely a breath of wind stirred. Laurence walked on swiftly, amid a network of courts and cross-roads. He was now in the poorest and most miserable quarter of Rome. Many of the houses—or rather, hovels—were half ruined. Here and there, amid their squalor, some sculptured cornice or battered column, over which the ragged vine now sprawled, spoke pathetically of better days, where naught could be seen now save decay and direst need. Laurence had reached his treasure-house, and in it he found his treasures—the poor, the infirm, the crippled.
As he passed from one poor lodging to another, they came out to him, and crowded round him, happy if they might but touch his garments, as though he were an angel in their midst, as indeed, in love and pity, he was. His arms, more tender than the mother's, held the dying baby; his form bent over the aged, and over the far worse deformities, dreadfully prevalent there in manhood and youth, as if he ached to give his vigorous health and strength to them, and to bear all their pain at once in his young body, that they might suffer no more. He was not afraid to lay his hands in soothing, cleansing touch on the open sore, not ashamed of the tears that stood in his eyes for the eyes that were blind; and always he spoke of courage, of love, of CHRIST. So, for three hours, he walked in their midst, transfigured, and transfiguring them by the might of his love, leaving more ease of body where he had ministered, and more peace of mind where he had spoken. Only, as midnight approached, for he had much to do on the morrow, he returned to his house and slept.
In the morning he joined Demetrius at the house of Cyriaca, and in the presence of a few priests and deacons the precious gold and silver of the Church were sold. That same afternoon, under Laurence's personal supervision, the money was quietly distributed among the poor and needy committed to his care.
It was evening before he once more directed his steps homewards. As he came up the street he saw that he had acted by no means too promptly. A Roman soldier stood on guard before the door. That meant only one thing. Laurence advanced to him with a brisk step.
"Good evening, friend," he said pleasantly; "you have come for me, of course. I am quite ready, and we will go together."
The soldier, whose name was Romanus, regarded him with surprise. Hardly knowing what to make of the extremely cheerful air of his prisoner, be began stammering something about his orders.
"I know!"interrupted Laurence; "I was fore-warned, and have been expecting you."
With which he at once stepped to his side; and the two started off down the street towards the place of judgement as if they were bent upon an evening stroll; Laurence chatting so pleasantly about the affairs of the day that Romanus became too abashed and uncomfortable to be able to answer.
Indeed, when they arrived at the court, any one might have concluded from their faces that Rornanus was the prisoner and Laurence the guard.
The proceedings which ensued were purely formal. It had been considered too late to examine the deacon that evening. The authorities had decided, therefore, to commit him to prison under the ward of an officer. That officer was Hippolytus.
The young soldier made no open recognition of his friend; but when the prisoner had been handed over to him, and night had fallen, Hippolytus stole to Laurence's cell, and entering, closed the door behind him. With a strange, new gladness in his face, he stretched out his hand.
"Laurence, dear friend," he said, "yonder, the minister of the Caesars demands of you the treasures of the Church. I come to-night to ask of you the treasures of heaven. At last, I too believe." And he knelt at the deacon's feet, and besought Baptism.
Almost too glad for speech, Laurence took water, and spoke the blessed words whereby another soul was sealed unto CHRIST. Then they sat side by side on the stone slab that was the only couch, and, in low tones, Laurence spoke of the treasures of heaven: of the new city with foundations laid of sapphires, whose walls are called Salvation and whose gates Praise; gates through which "the kings of the earth "and "the nations of them that are saved "shall pass in, to go out no more. He spoke of the River of Life and the Tree of Life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations: of the curse passed away for ever: and of the throne of GOD and of the Lamb. Last of all, he spoke of that ineffable promise: "and they shall see His face."
A silence fell on them, in which one at least was even now not far off from that beatitude. At last Laurence woke as from a dream, and, standing up, gently dismissed Hippolytus, on the plea that he needed rest and prayer before the morrow.
On the following day Laurence was led up the Clivus Victoriae—truly the first slopes of the Hill of Victory for him—to the Palatine.
It is possible to-day to trace the road he trod, through the corridor whose stones, two hundred years earlier, had reddened with the life-blood of the Emperor Caligula, and into the Basilica Jovis. Here, to-day, before the apse of the judge's seat, still stands a part of the marble balustrade that separated prisoner and judge. Here we, CHRIST'S servants in the latter days, may stand where that most glorious servant stood seventeen centuries ago.
Early as it was, the court was crammed. Laurence the Archdeacon was as well known in Rome as the Bishop Sixtus. Among the crowd were many Christians who had come to see the chief deacon of the Church witness a good confession.
Laurence stood quiet and very unconcerned while the prefect asked if he were indeed the Archdeacon of Rome and friend of Sixtus. On his replying in a simple affirmative, the prefect continued:
"And the keeper of the treasures of the Church?"
"That is so also," answered Laurence.
"Then the divine Augustus demands that you produce and deliver up that treasure to us."
Laurence appeared to consider. During the pause a horrified silence fell on the Christians watching in the crowd. They knew nothing of yesterday's distribution, and were aghast at the deacon's bearing. Was Laurence, the friend, the beloved son of Sixtus, going to yield? They could hardly believe their ears when he said in a clear voice,
"It will take some time to collect."
"Why, yes, of course," interrupted the prefect, melting suddenly from sternness to his most gracious manner.
He was delighted, for he had little expected so easy a victory. The gratified triumph of greed and success fairly shone on his countenance. He bent forward courteously, as he continued,—
"We have heard much of the abundance and richness of this treasure. By all means take your own time. We grant you what you ask."
The dark eyes of the prisoner read his face, and the lust of gold that had sprung to view there, as legible as in a book; but, in the excitement prevalent in the court, few noticed the cold severity of tone in the deacon's answer:
"I shall need a day and a night."
"Then, to-morrow morning," said the judge, smiling blandly, "we may expect you here. Of course, as a mere matter of form, Hippolytus must still be your guard. Otherwise, from this moment, you are, to all intents and purposes, free."
He would have been gratified by some acknowledgement of his clemency. Laurence, however, had no more to say, and, without a word, turned and left the court with the soldier at his side. As he trod through the rich and beautiful halls, a sternness, foreign to his usual cheerful and loving mien, grew on his face. Was he thinking, amidst the luxury around him, of the greedy prefect, and of those other treasures, poor, blind, despised? Hippolytus looked at him askance, and feared to speak to him.
But when they came out on the Clivus Victoriae Laurence was laughing.
"I shall see you in court to-morrow," he said gaily, "when I bring the treasures so desired yonder," and he nodded in the direction of the hall of judgement; "till then, farewell. May CHRIST be with you."
Still smiling, he hurried away, leaving Hippolytus wondering.
All the afternoon, and long into the night, Laurence was passing to-and-fro among the houses where his poor lived, visiting now a crippled child, now an old man or a blind woman. He never tarried long—only a few minutes, to put an eager question, and to receive in every case a sudden smile and nod; in answer to which he would also smile and say, "To-morrow, then, by noon, near the Temple of Saturn."
The morrow came, and by midday, in spite of the burning heat of August, the court was even more closely crowded than before. The prefect sat expect-ant, persuaded, without a shadow of a doubt, that Laurence would shortly bring in the treasure of the Church. The Christians were there, puzzled, yet convinced that Laurence would never fail them. Pagan ladies and patricians chatted of the prisoner, his handsome face and noble bearing, and his wise submission to authority, so unusual in a Christian, and, in his case, so very unexpected.
Slowly the minutes dragged on. At length a tribune in the corridor called to his fellow at the door. The latter went out, stared down the passage and stood petrified with amazement. Inside the hall, amongst those who could not see the two soldiers, excitement rose to fever-heat. Another astonished guard hurried in, stammering, and hard on his heels came the noise of many feet and the tapping of sticks; and then, as those nearest the door bent their necks to see what was going to happen next, Laurence walked calmly into the court leading a little lame child by the hand. After him followed a crowd of men and women, halt, crippled, blind. Leading them into the centre of the court, before the astonished eyes of the rich and careless audience, he ranged them before the seat of judgement, and fixing steady eyes on the face of the prefect before him, said, in tones of quiet reproof,—
"Behold the treasures of the Church."
An awed silence fell on the assembly, and many Christian hearts leapt in elation. Then, unexpectedly, some one in the back rows, whose sense of humour was tickled by the prefect's blank look of disappointment, burst into laughter. The spell of silence was broken. The judge stood up, pallid with rage.
"Drive those people away!" he said to the lictors.
As they obeyed, Laurence calmly blessed his flock with smile and gesture. When the court was cleared, the judge turned to him.
"Now," he said in tones that trembled with anger, "now we will deal with you." And he signed to the tormentors.
The victory of martyrdom is glorious beyond description; but the ordeal by which that victory is won most terrible. Fearful were the weapons—the leaded whips, the cruel iron-starred "scorpions," the bars of heated iron—with which the powers of evil assailed the endurance of this blessed soldier of CHRIST. It is painful to write or read of such a conflict. Turn instead to the glory of the spiritual consolation given him from on high.
Romanus, the soldier who had arrested Laurence was in the crowd. He, like the rest there, saw the tortured flesh, and the unflinching, silent courage that endured. Only, as the pallor of agony grew on the beautiful young face—albeit it remained calm as ever—he saw something else.
By Laurence's side stood a glorious angel, who wiped the brow of the sufferer with a white and gleaming cloth, and fanned his faintness with the sweep of his wings. With that sight came faith. Romanus crept away from the place of torment, at heart a Christian. When Laurence was at length released and carried back to his prison, the soldier followed him, and waited for night to come. In the gloom that gathered early in the low corridors of the prison he approached the door of Laurence's dungeon, and sought admittance.
Some one within opened to him cautiously. It was Hippolytus the guard. Romanus, looking in, saw Laurence stretched on the ground amidst what poor comforts his soldier friend, who had also been tending his wounds, could bring him. Laurence turned with his old bright smile to the new-comer and stretched out one hand to him.
Trembling with compassion and reverence, Romanus slipped in, and fell on his knees at the martyr's side. With Laurence's hand in his, he told him his vision, confessed CHRIST and besought Baptism. Laughing a little at his own weakness—though rage against the tormentors filled the hearts of the two soldiers—Laurence managed to raise himself. He bade Hippolytus bring water, and support him in his arms while he baptized his new friend.
Romanus entered into his rest almost at once. He was seen to leave the prison, and was arrested. When questioned, he confessed that he had been to see Laurence, and that he was a Christian, and his head was forthwith struck off.
The next evening, August l0th, men came to lead Laurence away to his death. Hippolytus, burning to accompany him, would have avowed his faith. But Laurence laid one finger on his lips, and in obedience to his friend, the soldier remained silent. Yet he joined himself to the crowd that gathered and pressed on the deacon's footsteps. The prisoner was led to the open space before the villa of Sallust, and there they made ready his death. He was to be roasted on a gridiron of metal bars over a slow fire.
The grating was prepared. The fire glowed on the pale watching faces, and on him who was to endure it, the calmest and the gladdest man there. At last the executioners were ready, and stretched Laurence on the iron bars over the fire.
Now, like the tender-hearted lictor in command, turn away so as to see no more; for who can bear even to speak of those slow hours of agony. (Only—what does he now think of his sufferings, in CHRIST'S kingdom!) No sound broke upon the still night air, save the hissing of the fire, the rattle of the iron forks with which the executioners tended the brands, and, from time to time, the choking sob of some spectator, who could bear to watch no longer. But no murmur of pain came from the martyr, and those who were bold enough to draw near him could see no faintest shadow of anguish on his face—only the dark earnest eyes bent on heaven, the lips that smiled, and the angelic tenderness and strength of the whole countenance. He has forgotten the world; he is already away with his LORD in Paradise. Once only does he descend to earth. When death is very near, he turns his head on the burning mass towards the prefect his tormentor, and, with a ripple of laughter in his voice, says to him,—
"Turn me! One side of me is done!"
Not long after, he is dead.
The judge and the lictors went away in state. Gathering up their tools, the executioners plodded homewards, and with them the crowds dispersed, till only a few people loitered and whispered near the still form and the dying fire. And soon these too were gone. The embers crackled, flamed up into a momentary life, and then glowed, one by one, more faintly, with a duller red. A great silence reigned over the loneliness. Behind a column of the temple, near by, Hippolytus sat, his head bowed in his hands, and wept as if his heart would break.
For awhile—darkness. Then the stars paled over-head, like the fires of torment, and the temples stood out, ghost-like, in the dawning light that stole over the sky and the streets, over the grey embers and the martyr's body.
From side-streets people began to creep up by twos and threes to the gridiron. When Hippolytus realized that they were Christians, come to prepare Laurence for burial, he joined himself to them. Together they took what was left of the poor body—but, oh, how glorious it shall be when the Resurrection morning dawns!—from the grating, and hid it away in white linen. They carried it solemnly out of Rome to a sand-pit on the Tiburtine Way, and there they laid it.
THE DAWNING LIGHT STOLE OVER THE MARTYR'S BODY.
Hippolytus was not long parted from his friend. His share in the deacon's burial was ascertained and he was himself arrested. And now, after his painful trial here, he has joined St. Laurence and St. Romanus in the "noble army of martyrs" before the throne of GOD.
On the next l0th of August, if it be a clear night, go out and gaze upwards at the calm brilliance of the thousand stars that shine in that vault of ether, beyond which CHRIST reigns among His saints in the city where—oh, wonder of wonders!—even we dare to hope, through His Cross and Passion, some day to be. If your eyes are quick, from time to time you will see a starry sparkle flash into view, trail across a span of sky, and vanish. Such sparkles are called falling stars; meteors, that have strayed into the outer atmosphere surrounding our globe, and have become enkindled by their own rapid motion and at once consumed. Think of them, on this night of the year, by their old sweet name, "St. Laurence's tears "—not tears shed for his own sufferings, for he shed none; but tears of compassion for the poor, the crippled, and the suffering, for which the wickedness of men gave him the agonies of fire, agonies of fire for which his Master has given him a crown more death-less than the stars. "For heaven and earth shall pass away," but not His Word Who promised, "Whosoever therefore shall confess Me before men, him will I confess also before My FATHER Which is in heaven."