The Treasure of the Church

St Lawrence, whose feast we keep today, was one of the seven deacons of Rome martyred during the persecution of Valerian in 258. When the prefect of Rome demanded that he should give up the treasure of the Church, Lawrence asked for three days in which to gather it together (or so St Ambrose says). When the day came to deliver it up, he presented the poor, the disabled, and the needy. They, he said, were the treasure of the Church.

As someone who loves the artistic and cultural riches of the Church, its intellectual and musical wealth, I find Lawrence’s action a challenge. I don’t myself think we should divest the Church of everything material, but it is a powerful reminder of the importance of what we in the monastery call ‘detachment’. We are stewards for a short while, and it is important that we should be honest and trustworthy, not storing up treasure for ourselves on earth but treasure in heaven through generous and selfless service of the poor and needy. Poverty and neediness take many forms, and are not always to be identified with material want. Indeed, spiritual poverty can lead to terrible evils, as we saw yesterday in the life of St Teresa Benedicta and all those destroyed by the Nazis.

So, the question for today is: how am I to serve, who are the poor and needy I must reach?

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St Lawrence and his Gridiron

The one thing everyone seems to remember about St Lawrence is his gridiron. (Those who use the Latin antiphoner may smile a little at the mention; if you want to know why, look at the antiphons for the feast.) Traditionally, for us, it is also the day we first pick tomatoes from the garden: their redness reminds us of Lawrence’s martyrdom. This year there are no tomatoes, and somehow I don’t think we shall manage a BBQ for supper. That means we can reflect on another aspect of St Lawrence’s story.

When Lawrence was asked to give up the Church’s treasure, he asked for a respite of three days. When he next appeared, he brought with him not the gold and silver that was confidently expected but the poor, the sick, the blind, the underclass of Roman society. Suddenly we are dealing not with a pious legend of the third century but with the reality of Church and society in the twenty-first century. The riches of the Church are, above all, people. Sometimes we forget that in our anxiety to ensure that buildings are looked after, outreach properly financed, educational programmes adequately staffed and liturgy reverently performed. For a Benedictine, it is very obvious. Throughout the Rule Benedict comes back again and again to the way in which we treat one another being a mark of our godliness, a measure of our transformation in Christ. We see Christ in the superior and in one another; in the old, the young, the guest; above all, in the poor.

Today would be a good day for thinking about how we treasure the poor. Poverty does not mean only hunger and thirst and degradation; it can be hidden; it can exist where we would suspect it least. Nor is it necessarily something ‘other’. We can be intellectually impoverished, spiritually poor; and the tragedy is we may not know the extent of our need.

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The Treasures of the Church

St Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome martyred during the persecution of Valerian and whose feast we keep today, was a very modern kind of churchman. When asked for the treasures of the Church, he pointed to the poor. I was reminded of this yesterday when accosted by a fellow shopper in Sainsbury’s. Inevitably, the conversation turned to how rich the Catholic Church is (it’s either that or paedophilia these days) and how surprised she was that we are struggling to afford more permanent premises. It is perfectly true that some parts of the Church are very rich in material terms; it is also true that if one looks for examples of excess and irresponsibility, one will find them (one will not have to search very hard: a misplaced sense of entitlement bedevils certain areas); but the real wealth of the Church is always the People of God, among whom the poor hold  a very special place. St Lawrence was absolutely right about that.

Unfortunately, such sentiments can be a sop to the rich, reassuring us that we honour (and occasionally help) the poor in ways God would approve. The poor are special. We know that, we say that. Bully for us. We are the do-gooders; the poor are the done-to; and God is tremendously pleased with us for our generosity and kindness. It is, of course, the other way round. We who share material resources with the less fortunate are the people who receive a blessing from the poor. It is they who are the givers, we who are the receivers. That can make us uncomfortable, because we all like to believe that we are a little nobler than we actually are. I fear there can be no grounds for complacency, still less for pride. The treasures of the Church are indeed the poor, and comparatively few living in the west can count themselves among them.

Every evening at Vespers the Church sings Esurientes implevit bonis; et divites dimissit inanes ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty.’ They are words worth pondering. I don’t think any of us will lie on our death-beds fretting that we didn’t acquire more money, but we may be troubled about how we spent it.

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