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LAWRENCE


First published in Dappled Things Magazine.


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CAST OF CHARACTERS

OLD WOMAN (NARRATOR)

SIX HOLY DEACONS (already dead)

LAWRENCE

SIXTUS

EMPEROR VALERIAN OF ROME

CHORUS OF THE POOR

SOLDIERS, GUARDS, EXECUTIONERS

The action takes place at Rome, on the10th of August in the year 258 A.D.

 

PROLOGUE

[Night. A hill overlooking Rome. Enter an Old Woman. She gazes up at the night sky, which suddenly explodes with falling stars.]


OLD WOMAN           Tonight the sky is falling.

                             Stars like fiery tears rain down from heaven.

                             Tears of men, or of angels

                             Tears of Christ, shed for our sins.

                             Stars, why do you weep?

                             Do you mourn the six young men

                             murdered this very afternoon?

                             Six Holy Deacons of the Christian Church

                             Killed in cold blood by the Emperor's men

                             Killed for Christ, whose name was on their lips

                             as they died. They died for Christ

                             Who died for us. Their headless bodies

                             wallow in the Tiber now.

                             Our Bishop, Sixtus has escaped

                             And with him, Lawrence, youngest of all

                             the Holy Deacons of Rome.

                             We all know Lawrence, for he it is that gives

                             Bread to the poor and with it the bread of life,

                             Christ's kiss. 'God be with you, Mother,'

                             He said, and kissed me himself, like a son

                             Not at all ashamed to kiss a beggar woman.

 

                             In the city the soldiers go from house to house

                             The glare of torches desecrates the peaceful night

                             Peering into every corner, down alleys, under bridges -

                             Shouts, cries, the glint of armour and the flash of swords.

                             Christian men and women, along with their children,

                             are dragged from their beds.

                             Like sheep without a shepherd they stand

                             shivering in confusion.

                             Their eyes look this way and that -

                             No help is at hand. The soldiers

                             mock them and strike blows at random.

                             Soon a man's head is bleeding

                             Another lies still upon the ground.

                             The women utter prayers through trembling lips

                             And try to calm the little ones

                             Who hang upon their necks and cry.

                             The men, powerless to protect them,

                             Are flogged and thrown into prison.

                             In the morning they are brought before magistrates

                             Forced to reveal the names of priests and deacons.

                             Instruments of torture are set before their eyes.

                             Their goods are forfeit, their wives and children

                                                                                           threatened.

                             Some even curse the name of Christ

                             and burn offerings to the eyeless gods of Rome.

 

                             How long, Lord?

                             Will you hide your face forever?

                             How long will you burn

                             like fire against your children?

                             In vain we cry out

                             Our voices ring upon the hollow vault of heaven

                             The Emperor is merciless, the people terrified.

                             Now stars drop from the sky like tears -

                             What can it mean?

                             What terrible thing is about to happen?

                             When angels weep then surely men

                             have cause to fear.

   

[Exit Old Woman. Now the Six Holy Deacons rise from the waters of the Tiber and stand, just on the surface of the water. They are dressed in white robes, and each bears a circular red wound around the neck, where his head was severed. A soft, golden light illuminates them; all else is in darkness.]

 

SONG OF THE SIX HOLY DEACONS

                             We are the Six Holy Deacons

                             Killed for Christ. We stand before you now

                             Our hearts in our hands.

 

                             We are the Six Holy Deacons

                             We stand before you bathed

                             in the blood of Christ.

 

                             Like soldiers we went into battle

                             Armed not with hatred

                             But with holy love.

                             Let any man raise his hand against us

                             We greet him with a kiss,

                             We call him 'Brother'.

                             Let any man lift up a sword against us

                             We kiss his hand and call upon our Father in heaven

                             to reckon it not.

 

                             We have given our lives, a free gift,

                             to you who come after us

                             and drenched the thirsty earth with our blood

                             That you might reap a great golden harvest.

                             Let truth and righteousness spring up out of the land

                             Let mercy and peace blossom here

                             And let men say -

                             See how they love one another!

                             These Christians have renewed the face of the earth.

 

[The Six Holy Deacons sink back into the river as their light is extinguished.]

 

SCENE ONE

 

[In the catacombs. Sixtus and Lawrence, on the run.]

 

SIXTUS                   Quick, my son- the time has come -

                             Death like an angry dog is snapping at our heels.

                             Heaven and hell stand open

                             and an Angel with a ready pen

                             soon will write our names in characters of fire.

                             Six of your brothers stand, even as we speak,

                             at heaven's gate. Only you have been spared,

                             my one ewe lamb.

 

LAWRENCE             Father, I'm not afraid -

                             When the soldiers come I'll stand over you

                             Ward off their blows with my naked hands,

                             Their harsh words with my prayers.

                             Surely they won't dare to stain white hairs with blood

                             Nor strike a holy man like you

                             But take me instead.

 

SIXTUS                   My child, listen carefully -

                             I call you my child because I love you

                             But in truth, Lawrence, you are a man.

                             The seed fell on good ground

                             And you've grown up a strong young plant

                             Your roots deep in the Lord.

                             When the soldiers come for me

                             You must run and hide...

 

LAWRENCE             Father, what are you saying!

                             Never, oh, never -

                             Leave you, dear to me as my own soul

                             Leave you, an old man, alone and defenceless,

                             to face a pack of soldiers -

                             Leave you alone to die - !

 

SIXTUS                   Listen to me, Lawrence -

                             You must abandon me to God's will.

 

LAWRENCE             It is you, Father, who abandon me!

                             Do you take heaven for yourself

                             And leave me the earth?

                             Where are you going, Father, without your son?

                             Where, holy priest, without your deacon?

                             Never have you offered sacrifice to God

                             without the help of your servant.

                             Will you now make this last sacrifice alone?

                             Oh my Father, how have I offended you?

                             How am I unworthy to be called your son?

                             Bind me to the altar

                             Oh, I am bound already with iron bands of love

                             Offer your child to God, a living sacrifice

                             Only do not send me away into a wilderness

                             to hide in the shadows, alone and ashamed.

 

SIXTUS                   My son, I do not abandon you -

                             A still greater trial awaits you

                             in all the strength of your youth.

                             God in his mercy sends me on before,

                             A lighter combat is granted to old men.

                             But you shall be tried, like gold in the fire,

                             Like silver, seven times made pure.

                             Hold fast to the faith.

                             Truth like a sword cleaves heaven and earth

                             and cuts the very marrow of the heart.

                             And after three days you will follow me -

                             the levite after the priest,

                             the obedient son after his loving father.

 

[Sound of marching footsteps off.]

 

                             The soldiers are coming -

                             Here is the key to the Church's treasure.

                             Open, and give all that we have to Christ's poor.

                             Let it not fall to the Emperor's greedy hands.

                             And now - Farewell, my son!

 

[He gives the key to Lawrence, and they embrace solemnly. Lawrence hastens away, stage left, just as the Soldiers enter, stage right. Sixtus raises his hand and makes the sign of the cross in the direction of the departing Lawrence. The Soldiers seize Sixtus and bind him roughly.]

   

SCENE TWO

[Enter Old Woman and Chorus of the Poor]

OLD WOMAN           Now Sixtus too has lost his life

                             And wears a martyr's crown in heaven.

 

CHORUS OF THE POOR

                             How many old men cling with greedy hands

                             to life? Content to live their last

                             in some forgotten corner by the fire.

                             Not so our Father, Sixtus

                             Not so this brave old man.

                             Frail and white-headed he went out to meet death

                             Trusting not in himself but in God.

                             In weakness he was strong

                             Smiled on the angry mob

                             and blessed his executioners.

                             They thrust him down

                             His thin knees buckled under him.

                             Falling sideways, he uttered a prayer -

                             The blow was struck. His spirit

                             like a wandering bird flew home to God.

                             Some cheered, others rushed up

                             to dip their hands in his blood.

                             Truly this old man lived like a lion

                             and died like a lamb.

 

OLD WOMAN           And of what of Lawrence?

                             I hear he too has been taken.

 

CHORUS                 Still slippery with Sixtus' blood

                             The marble floor before the great palace

                             Where Lawrence is brought to face the Emperor.

 

                             'What's all this talk of treasure?

                             They say you drink the blood of God from golden cups

                             Make nightly sacrifice by light of golden candlesticks

                             And serve up meat in jewel-encrusted golden bowls.

                             Bring me that treasure - Render

                             unto Caesar what is Caesar's due,

                             And keep your head, young man.'

                             These were the Emperor's words.

 

OLD WOMAN            And how did Lawrence answer him?

 

CHORUS                  He agreed to the Emperor's demand.

                             'Only grant me three days' grace,' he said,

                             'To gather all the treasure of the Church

                             For it is great indeed. In three days' time

                             I shall lay it at your feet.'

 

OLD WOMAN           Can this be true?

                             Lawrence a traitor?

 

CHORUS                 Listen! He rushes off to secure the treasure -

                             With both hands he gives away

                             Every last bit of it into our hands.

                             He seeks out the poorest quarters

                             The narrow streets that he knows so well -

                             Eagerly thrusts gold coins into the hands of poor widows,

                             Hides a gold cup in a child's ragged shirt,

                             Gently he seizes the beggar's wooden bowl

                             And gives him a golden one instead.

                             When all of it's gone he gives thanks to God -

                             'See, Father, I have fed your little flock!' he cries.

                             Now what will he show the Emperor

                             in three day's time?

 

OLD WOMAN           Oh, brave young man!

                             My spirit trembles.

 

CHORUS                 Now he runs from street to street

                             Gathers up the poor, the halt,

                             the lame, the blind.

                             Sick men, too weak to walk,

                             Are brought on pallets to his house -

                             Beggars with running sores,

                             Men without eyes,

                             Without legs

                             Children without parents,

                             Old people without children -

                             All of us he brings together and blesses.

                             All of us know him

                             He's fed us so many times

                             with bread and tenderness.

                             Now he says he needs our help -

                             But what is he planning?

                             Nobody knows.

 

OLD WOMAN          What did our Father Sixtus say?

                             'After three days you will follow me.'

                             The hour comes round -

                             Let us go now to the palace and see

                             in what manner this promise

                             shall be fulfilled.

   

SCENE THREE

[Before the Sallustian Palace. The Emperor Valerian sits on a raised throne, stage left, flanked by several Guards. Lawrence enters from stage right, leading in the Chorus of the Poor, including the Old Woman, who position themselves before the Emperor.]

 

CHORUS OF THE POOR

                             Great Caesar, hear us!

                             The wheel of sorrow

                             turning and turning

                             grinds us to dust.

 

                             Great Caesar hear

                             the voice of your servants

                             Our children go hungry

                             and ragged to bed.

 

                             Great Caesar pity

                             affliction and sorrow

                             Show us your mercy

                             and something to eat.

 

                             Great Father show us

                             the depth of your kindness

                             A cup of cold water

                             and something to eat!

 

EMPEROR               What's the meaning of this?

                             Who are all these people?

                             You there, hold your impudent tongues!

                             Lawrence, have you brought

                             the treasure you promised me?

                             Your three days' grace is done.

 

LAWRENCE             Great Caesar, why do you turn your eyes

                             Away from these little ones?

                             Does something here displease you - Look again!

                             The treasure that you seek

                             lies not in golden but in earthen vessels.

                             I told you that our Church

                             is rich indeed - Now, see for yourself

                             These children of God, his only treasure on earth.

                             You ask me for gold?

                             Behold these poor men's faces

                             shining with the charity of Christ.

                             How they shame the brightest metal

                             wrested from base earth.

                             You ask for precious stones? Behold these women -

                             The glittering jewels upon our temple walls.

                             Young virgins full of modesty and grace

                             Chaste wives and holy widows

                             A diadem of pearls to crown our Saviour's head.

                             Last of all, behold these little children

                             These doves with golden feathers

                             Their eyes behold their Father's face in heaven -

                             Take them to your heart

                             Learn from them to be poor in spirit

                             And you too shall grow as rich as they.

 

EMPEROR               Is this some kind of joke?

                             I think you'll regret it.

                             Enough of this nonsense -

                             What have you done with the gold?

 

CHORUS                 We have borne it away with our hands -

 

OLD WOMAN           The treasure that you seek is now in heaven -

 

CHORUS                 Where no rust can stain it

                             Nor moth corrupt it

                             No thief can steal it

                             Nor any man spend it.

 

                             The treasure men seek

                             that grows ever greater

                             is given to each

                             and found in all.

 

LAWRENCE             The gold you ask for is gone, Caesar.

 

EMPEROR               You arrogant young fool!

                             You Christians disobey me in everything.

                             Fearing neither Caesar nor the gods

                             You make a law unto yourselves

                             to mockery and ruin of our city.

                             Lawrence, what are you doing with this rabble?

                             I know who you are -

                             A young man of good name and good family

                             Well-versed in the arts and sciences

                             A fair face and a noble spirit -

                             I'm sorry to see you in such low company.

                             Why do you forsake the gods of your fathers

                             The ancient guardians of great Rome

                             to run after lurid superstitions?

                             They say you worship a dead man, a certain Jew,

                             and eat his flesh - Or else

                             You worship a fish - or some such nonsense.

                             How can you, a wise young man,

                             Believe such childish tales?

 

LAWRENCE             I worship neither dead man nor fish -

                             I worship Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

 

EMPEROR               And is this Jesus not a dead Jew?

 

LAWRENCE             He is the living Christ

                             The living Bread come down from heaven

                             And whoever eats of this Bread

                             shall live forever.

 

EMPEROR               Will you live forever, young Lawrence?

                             I think you may die tonight.

 

LAWRENCE             I fear no death but sin.

 

EMPEROR               Then I think we must teach you to know fear,

                             To worship Caesar and the gods of Rome.

 

LAWRENCE             I worship Christ, my light

                             The strength of my soul.

 

EMPEROR               Lawrence, listen to me -

                             I take no pleasure in the death

                             of such a man as you.

                             Rome has need of brave new men.

                             Abandon this company of vagabonds and slaves,

                             Make your peace with the gods

                             And we'll forget the whole affair of the treasure.

                             I myself will appoint you to an office in my household -

                             Only agree to offer sacrifice.

 

LAWRENCE             I agree -

                             And give my body to be burned

                             A living sacrifice to Christ my Lord!

 

EMPEROR [rises to his feet]

 

                             Enough! Guards seize him!

 

[Two Guards converge on Lawrence and restrain him.]

 

                             Very well, young man, let it be so.

                             Perhaps when you lie on Vulcan's bed

                             You'll sing a different song -

                             This insolent defiance has gone on too long.

                             Prepare the fire!

   

SCENE FOUR

[Night. The same place before the Sallustian Palace. The scene opens in almost total darkness. Two Guards carry on stage a man-sized gridiron and proceed to light a fire beneath it. While these preparations are underway, the Six Holy Deacons appear, standing on the balcony of the palace overlooking the scene. They are once again bathed in their own warm, golden light.]

 

SIX HOLY DEACONS

                             I am come to cast fire on the earth -

                             Let it be kindled!

                             As gold is purged in the fire

                             Our brother's body too must burn

                             in the fiery furnace of charity.

                             Lawrence, prepare to be baptised

                             with the Holy Ghost and with fire.

                             The flames leap up in the darkness

                             The smoke rises to heaven

                             But where is the lamb for the sacrifice?

 

[Gradual half-light comes up as Lawrence, arms bound behind him, is led in by two Executioners carrying long-handled iron prods. They are accompanied by two Soldiers with flaming torches, who position themselves to either side of the gridiron. The effect should be one of 'points of light' in the darkness. These are followed by the Chorus of the Poor, including the Old Woman, who range themselves around the gridiron. Last of all, the Emperor emerges from inside the palace, and takes his place on the raised throne.]

 

SIX HOLY DEACONS [Spoken as Lawrence is being led on stage as above.]

                             Behold, our youngest brother, Lawrence -

                             See where he walks with measured step

                             and eyes that look to heaven,

                             A deacon approaching the altar

                             His thoughts are all of God.

                             See how his face shines

                             like that of an angel -

                             He does not fear the flames

                             but welcomes them.

 

[The Executioners unbind Lawrence and strip him of his robe. The Guards stir the coals beneath the gridiron, so that the flames shoot up and blaze brightly.]

 

SIX HOLY DEACONS [Spoken while the above action takes place.]

                             See him now, naked before his God

                             A hero goes clad in armour to the battle

                             But a saint must be stripped of everything

                             Nothing to protect him

                             Nothing to console him

                             Emptied out, so God can enter in

                             Now he is ready at last

                             to be laid on the altar of love.

 

[The Executioners stretch Lawrence upon the red-hot gridiron and press his body down with the iron prods. Lawrence cries out in anguish, then lies back onto the blazing iron. A ray of light suddenly streams down from above, bathing his whole body in a warm, golden glow.]

 

LAWRENCE             Here I am, Father!

 

SIX HOLY DEACONS

                             See how he lies upon his bed of fire

                             Quiet as a lamb in a green pasture.

                             With the weight of one man's body

                             the world is moved

                             The balance of the universe is turned

                             The centre of evil cannot hold

                             And darkness melts in the womb of the morning.

 

CHORUS OF THE POOR

 

                             How can he bear it?

                             He's simply being roasted

                             Just as if he were an ox or a sheep.

                             How can he bear it?

                             Such cruel torture

                             Is surely too much for any man!

 

OLD WOMAN           And he is so young!

                             So full of life -

                             Surely the young want to live!

                             Where does he find

                             such terrible courage -

 

SIX HOLY DEACONS

                             It is Christ who has come

                             Christ who bears witness

                             Here in his servant

                             naked in the flame.

                             Christ is the flame

                             that lights up the darkness

                             Christ is the light

                             that enlightens the world.

 

EMPEROR               Tell me, Lawrence -

                             How do you find the bed I've made for you?

                             Comfortable, I hope?

 

LAWRENCE             Thank you, I'm quite done on this side -

                             You may turn me over now, I think.

 

CHORUS OF THE POOR

                             Did you hear what he said?

                             He laughs at the Emperor

                             Even now, as he burns in the heart of the fire.

                             Look at his face!

                             It shines like an angel's,

                             But what is he looking at?

                             What is he reaching for?

                             I don't see anything -

                             What is he gazing at

                             up in the sky?

 

LAWRENCE [Straining towards the light, he reaches upwards with his left arm, while the Executioners force him back with the iron prods.]

 

                             Father! Father!

                             O my Father in heaven!

                             Hear my prayer for these, your little children!

                             Turn their hearts from blood and idols

                             Tear down their temples to the glittering gods of fear

                             And make of great Rome a Christian city.

 

                             Christ stands at the crossroads

                             His arms stretched out

                             to catch poor sinners as they pass.

                             He catches them up in his arms

                             and carries them off to heaven -

                             Not one of them can escape his love.

                             No, not a single one of us

                             shall escape -

                             Ah, Father, I thank you!

                             Come, Lord Jesus!

                             Come!

                             Ah the light! the light!

                             My night has no darkness

                             All things shine with light.

 

          [He dies. At this same moment the Six Holy Deacons vanish, along with their light. The ray of light that shines down on Lawrence flickers, and then goes out. The stage is again in semi-darkness, lit only by the fire under the gridiron and by the torches.

          All are perfectly still. Then, slowly, and all together, the Chorus of the Poor kneel down. After these the Guards, the Soldiers, and the Executioners also kneel. Last of all, the Emperor gets to his feet, comes down from his throne, and kneels beside the body of the saint.]

 

EPILOGUE

[While all others remain kneeling, the Old Woman makes the sign of the cross, rises, and comes down stage and stands, facing the audience. As she begins to speak, a soft, golden light shines around her.]

 

OLD WOMAN           No man dies for himself alone

                             No good man is good for himself alone.

                             From that day forth the people of Rome

                             began to forsake their idols

                             for the gentle yoke of Christ.

                             The courage of this one man

                             made many Christians

                             And by his example

                             drew many noble hearts after him.

                             For virtue shines

                             like a lamp in the darkness

                             Those who follow it

                             shall not lose their way.

 

CHORUS OF THE POOR

[Speaking in hushed voices, that gradually rise in volume . As they speak, the falling stars appear once again over the scene.]

 

                             Let us weep

                             fiery tears for our sins,

                             Tears that melt the ice

                             from around men's hearts.

                             Let us lie

                             all night upon a bed of fire

                             burning with love for Christ.

                             And when the morning comes

                             stepping over the mountains,

                             Let us rise and dry our tears

                             And run to his arms.

 

                             With tears we sow the seeds of love

                             in the cold earth of the heart,

                             With laughter we shall gather

                             a hundredfold harvest.

                             The Lord has sent a tender rain

                             The blood of his saints

                             to water the earth.

                             May the fields be white with grain

                             and the vines bowed down with fruit

                             May the trees droop their boughs with heavy fruit

                             For the Lord has sent a new rain

                             the blood of his saints

                             to renew the face of the earth.

 

FIN



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