Read THE PENANCE OF SAINT LAURENCE of Legends of the Saxon Saints , free online book, by Aubrey de Vere, on

Eadbald, King of Kent, persecuting the Church, Laurence the Bishop deems himself the chief of sinners because he has consented, like the neighbouring bishops, to depart; but, being consoled by a wonderful reprimand, faces the King, and offers himself up to death. The King reproves them that gave him evil counsel.

The day was dying on the Kentish downs
And in the oakwoods by the Stour was dead,
While sadly shone o’er snowy plains of March
Her comfortless, cold star. The daffodil
That year was past its time. The leaden stream
Had waited long that lamp of river-beds
Which, when the lights of Candlemas are quenched,
Looks forth through February mists. A film
Of ice lay brittle on the shallows: dark
And swift the central current rushed: the wind
Sighed through the tawny sedge.
So fleets our life
Like yonder gloomy stream; so sighs our age
Like yonder sapless sedge!’ Thus Laurence mused
Standing on that sad margin all alone,
His twenty years of gladsome English toil
Ending at last abortive. ’Stream well-loved,
Here on thy margin standing saw I first,
My head by chance uplifting from my book,
King Ethelbert’s strong countenance; he is dead;
And, next him, riding through the April gleams,
Bertha, his Queen, with face so lit by love
Its lustre smote the beggar as she passed
And changed his sigh to song. She too is dead;
And half their thanes that chased the stag that day,
Like echoes of their own glad bugle-horn,
Have passed and are not. Why must I abide?
And why must age, querulous and coward both,
Past days lamenting, fear not less that stroke
Which makes an end of grief? Base life of man!
How sinks thy slow infection through our bones;
Then when you fawned upon us, high-souled youth
Heroic in its gladness, spurned your gifts,
Yearning for noble death. In age, in age
We kiss the hand that nothing holds but dust,
Murmuring, “Not yet!"’
A tear, ere long ice-glazed,
Hung on the old man’s cheek. ‘What now remains?’
Some minutes passed; then, lifting high his head,
He answered, ‘God remains.’ His faith, his heart,
Were unsubverted. ’Twas the weight of grief,
The exhausted nerve, the warmthless blood of age,
That pressed him down like sin, where sin was none
Not sin, but weakness only. Long he mused,
Then slowly walked, and feebly, through the woods
Towards his house monastic. Vast it loomed
Through ground-fog seen; and vaster, close beside,
That convent’s church by great Augustine reared
Where once old woodlands clasped a temple old,
Vaunt of false Gods. To Peter and to Paul
That church was dedicate, albeit so long
High o’er the cloudy rack of fleeting years
It bore, and bears, its founder’s name, not theirs.
Therein that holy founder slept in Christ,
And Ethelbert, and Bertha. All was changed:
King Eadbald, new-crowned and bad of life,
Who still, whate’er was named of great or good,
Made answer, ‘Dreams! I say the flesh rules all!’
Hated the Cross. His Queen, that portent crowned,
She that with name of wife was yet no wife,
Abhorred that Cross and feared. A Baptist new
In that Herodian court had Laurence stood,
Commanding, ‘Put the evil thing away!’
Since then the woman’s to the monarch’s hate
Had added strength the serpent’s poison-bag
Venoming the serpent’s fang. ‘Depart the realm!’
With voice scarce human thus the tyrant cried,
‘Depart or die;’ and gave the Church’s goods
To clown and boor.
Upon the bank of Thames
Settled like ruin. Holy Sebert dead,
In that East Saxon kingdom monarch long,
Three sons unrighteous now their riot held.
Frowning into the Christian Church they strode,
Full-armed, and each, with far-stretched foot firm set
Watching the Christian rite. ‘Give us,’ they cried,
While knelt God’s children at their Paschal Feast,
’Give us those circlets of your sacred bread:
Ye feed therewith your beggars; kings are we!’
The Bishop answered, ’Be, like them, baptized,
Sons of God’s Church, His Sacrament with man,
For that cause Mother of Christ’s Sacraments,
So shall ye share her Feast.’ With lightning speed
Their swords leaped forth; contemptuous next they cried,
’For once we spare to sweep a witless head
From worthless shoulders. Ere to-morrow’s dawn
Hence, nor return!’ He sped to Rochester:
Her bishop, like himself, was under ban:
The twain to Canterbury passed, and there
Resolved to let the tempest waste its wrath,
And crossed the seas. By urgency outworn,
’Gainst that high judgment of his holier will
Laurence to theirs deferred, but tarried yet
For one day more to cast a last regard
On regions loved so long.
As compline ceased
He reached the abbey gates, and entered in:
Sadly the brethren looked him in the face,
Yet no one said, ‘Take comfort!’ Sad and sole
He passed to the Scriptorium: round he gazed,
And thought of happy days, when Gregory,
One time their Abbot, next their Pope, would send
Some precious volume to his exiled sons,
While they in reverence knelt, and kissed its edge,
And, kissing, heard once more, as if in dream,
Gregorian chants through Roman palm trees borne
With echoes from the Coliseum’s wall
Adown that Coelian Hill; and saw God’s poor
At feast around that humble board which graced
That palace senatorial once. He stood:
He raised a casket from an open chest,
And from that casket drew a blazoned scroll,
And placed it on the window-sill up-sloped
Breast-high, and faintly warmed by sinking sun;
Then o’er it bent a space.
With sudden hands
The old man raised that scroll; aloud he read:
’I, Ethelbert the King, and all my Thanes,
Honouring the Apostle Peter, cede to God
This Abbey and its lands. If heir of mine
Cancel that gift, when Christ with angels girt
Makes way to judge the Nations of this world,
His name be cancelled from the Book of Life.’
The old man paused; then read the signatures,
‘I, Ethelbert, of Kent the King.’ Who next?
‘I, Eadbald, his son;’ to these succeeding,
I, Hennigisil, Duke; I, Hocca, Earl.
‘Can such things be?’ Around the old man’s brow
The veins swelled out; dilated nostril, mouth
Working as mouth of him that tasteth death,
With what beside is wiselier unrevealed,
Witnessed that agony which spake no more;
He dashed the charter on the pavement down;
Then on it gazed a space.
Remembering soon
Whose name stood first on that dishonoured list,
Contrite he raised that charter to his breast,
And pressed it there in silence. Hours went by;
Then dark was all that room, and dark around
The windy corridors and courts stone-paved;
And bitter blew the blast: his unlooped cloak
Fell loose: the cold he noted not. At last
A brother passed the door with lamp in hand:
Dazzled, he started first: then meekly spake,
’Beseech the brethren that they strew my bed
Within the church. Until the second watch
There must I fast, and pray,’
The brethren heard,
And strewed his couch within the vast, void nave,
A mat and deer-skin, and, more high, that stone
The old head’s nightly pillow. Echoes faint
Ere long of their receding footsteps died
While from the dark fringe of a rainy cloud
An ice-cold moon, ascending, streaked the church
With gleam and gloom alternate. On his knees
Meantime that aged priest was creeping slow
From stone to stone, as when on battle-plain,
The battle lost, some warrior wounded sore,
By all forsaken, or some war-horse maimed,
Drags a blind bulk along the field in search
Of thirst-assuaging spring. Glittered serene
That light before the Sacrament of Love:
Thither he bent his way, and long time prayed:
Thence onward crept to where King Ethelbert
Slept, marble-shrined his ashes, not the King,
Yet ashes kingly since God’s temple once,
And waiting God’s great day. Before that tomb,
Himself as rigid, with lean arms outspread,
Thus made the man his moan:
’King Ethelbert!
Hear’st thou in glory? Ofttimes on thy knees
Thou mad’st confession of thine earthly sins
To me, a wounded worm this day on earth:
Now comforted art thou, and I brought low:
Yet, though I see no more that beaming front,
And haply for my sins may see it never,
Yet inwardly I gladden, knowing this
That thou art glad. Perchance thou hear’st me not,
For thou wert still a heedless man of mirth,
Though sage as strong at need. If this were so,
Not less thy God would hear my prayer to thee,
And grant it in thy reverence. Ethelbert!
Thou hadst thy trial time, since, many a year
All shepherdless thy well-loved people strayed
What time thyself, their shepherd, knew’st not Christ,
Sole shepherd of man’s race. King Ethelbert!
Rememberest thou that day in Thanet Isle?
That day the Bride of God on English shores
Set her pure foot; and thou didst kneel to kiss it:
Thou gav’st her meat and drink in kingly wise;
Gav’st her thy palace for her bridal bower;
This Abbey build’dst her fortress! O those days
Crowned with such glories, with such sweetness winged!
Thou saw’st thy realm made one with Christ’s: thou saw’st
Thy race like angels ranging courts of Heaven:
This day, behold, thou seest the things thou seest!
If there be any hope, King Ethelbert,
Help us this day with God!’
Upon his knees
Then crept that exile old to Bertha’s tomb,
And there made moan: ’Thou tenderest Queen and sweetest,
Whom no man ever gazed on save with joy,
Or spake of, dead, save weeping! Well I know
That on thee in thy cradle Mary flung
A lily whiter from her hand, a rose
Warm from her breath and breast, for all thy life
Was made of Chastities and Charities
This hour thine eyes are on that Vision bent
Whereof the radiance, ere by thee beheld,
Gave thee thine earthly brightness. Mirrored there,
Seest thou, like moat in sunbeam well-nigh lost,
Our world of temporal anguish? See it not!
For He alone, the essential Peace Eterne,
Could see it unperturbed. In Him rejoice!
Yet, ’mid thy heavenly triumph, plead, O plead
For hearts that break below!’
Upon the ground
Awhile that man sore tried his forehead bowed;
Then raised it till the frore and foggy beam
Mixed with his wintry hair. Once more he crept
Upon his knees through shadow; reached at length
His toilsome travel’s last and dearest bourn,
The grave of Saint Augustine. O’er it lay
The Patriarch’s statued semblance as in sleep:
He knew it well, and found it, though to him
In darkness lost and veil beside of tears,
With level hands grazing those upward feet
Oft kissed, yet ne’er as now.
’Farewell forever!
Farewell, my Master, and farewell, my friend!
Since ever thou in heaven abid’st and I
Gregory the Pontiff from that Roman Hill
Sent thee to work a man’s work far away,
And manlike didst thou work it. Prince, yet child,
Men saw thee, and obeyed thee. O’er the earth
Thy step was regal, meekness of thy Christ
Weighted with weight of conquerors and of kings:
Men saw a man who toiled not for himself,
Yet never ceased from toil; who warred on Sin;
Had peace with all beside. In happy hour
God laid His holy hand upon thine eyes:
I knelt beside thy bed: I leaned mine ear
Down to thy lips to catch their last; in vain:
Yet thou perchance wert murmuring in thy heart:
“I leave my staff within no hireling’s hand;
Therefore my work shall last,” Ah me! Ah me!
There was a Laurence once on Afric’s shore:
He with his Cyprian died. I too, methinks,
Had shared how gladly shared my Bishop’s doom.
Father, with Gregory pray this night! That God
Who promised, “for my servant David’s sake,”
Even yet may hear thy prayer.’
Thus wept the man,
Till o’er him fell half slumber. Soon he woke,
And, from between that statue’s marble feet
Lifting a marble face, in silence crept
To where far off his bed was strewn, and drew
The deer-skin covering o’er him. With its warmth
Deep sleep, that solace of lamenting hearts
Which makes the waking bitterer, o’er him sank,
Nor wholly left him, though in sleep he moaned
When from the neighbouring farm, an hour ere dawn,
The second time rang out that clarion voice
Which bids the Christian watch.
As thus he lay
T’wards him there moved in visions of the Lord
A Venerable Shape, compact of light,
And loftier than our mortal. Near arrived,
That mild, compassionate Splendour shrank his beam,
Or healed with strengthening touch the gazer’s eyes
Made worthier of such grace; and Laurence saw
Princedom not less than his, the Apostles’ Chief,
To whom the Saviour answered, ‘Rock art thou,’
And later crowning Love, not less than Faith
‘Feed thou My Sheep, My Lambs!’ He knew that shape,
For oft, a child ’mid catacombs of Rome,
And winding ways girt by the martyred dead,
His eyes had seen it. Pictured on those vaults
Stood Peter, Moses of the Christian Law,
Figured in one that by the Burning Bush
Unsandalled knelt, or drew with lifted hand
The torrent from the rock, yet wore not less
In aureole round his head the Apostle’s name
Petros, and in his hand sustained the Keys
Such shape once more he saw.
’And comest thou then
Long-waited, or with sceptre-wielding hand
Earthward to smite the unworthiest head on earth,
Or with the darker of those Keys thou bearest
Him from the synod of the Saints to shut
Who fled as flies the hireling? Let it be!
Not less in that bright City by whose gate
Warder thou sitt’st, my Master thou shalt see
Pacing the diamond terraces of God
And bastions jacinth-veined, my great Augustine,
When all who wrought the ill have passed to doom,
And all who missed the good. Nor walks he sole:
By him forever and forever pace
My Ethelbert, my Bertha! Who can tell
But in the on-sweeping centuries thrice or twice
These three may name my name?’ He spake and wept.
To whom the Apostolic Splendour thus:
’Live, and be strong: for those thou lovest in Christ
Not only in far years shall name thy name;
This day be sure that name they name in Christ:
Else wherefore am I here? Not thou alone,
Much more in grief’s bewilderment than fear,
Hast from the right way swerved. Was I not strong?
I, from the first Elect, and named anew?
I who received, at first, divine command
The Brother-band to strengthen; last to rule?
I who to Hebrew and to Gentile both
Flung wide the portals of the heavenly realm?
Was I not strong? Behold, thou know’st my fall!
A second fall was near. At Rome the sword
Against me raged. Forth by the Appian Way
I fled; and, past the gateway, face to face,
Him met, Who up the steep of Calvary, bare
For man’s behoof the Cross. “Where goest thou, Lord?”
I spake; then He: “I go to Rome, once more
To die for him who fears for me to die.”
To Rome returned I; and my end was peace.
Return thou too. Thy brethren have not sinned:
They fled, consentient with the Will Supreme:
Their names are written in the Book of Life:
Enough that He Who gives to each his part
Hath sealed thy sons and thee to loftier fates;
Therefore more sternly tries. Be strong; be glad:
For strength from joyance comes.’
The Vision passed:
The old man, seated on his narrow bed,
Rolled thrice his eyes around the vast, dim church,
Desiring to retain it. Vain the quest!
Yet still within his heart that Radiance lived:
The sweetness of that countenance fresh from God
Would not be dispossessed, but kindled there
Memorial dawn of brightness, more and more
Growing to perfect day: inviolate peace,
Such peace as heavenly visitants bequeath,
O’er-spread his spirit, gradual, like a sea:
Forth from the bosom of that peace upsoared
Hope, starry-crowned, and winged, that liberates oft
Faith, unextinct, though bound by Powers accursed
That oer her plant the foot, and hold the chain
Terror and Sloth. To noble spirits set free
Delight means gratitude. Thus Laurence joyed:
But soon, remembering that unworthy past,
Remorse succeeded, sorrow born of love,
Consoled by love alone. ‘Ah! slave,’ he cried,
That, serving such a God, could’st dream of flight:
How many a babe, too weak to lift his head,
Is strong enough to die!’ While thus he mused
The day-dawn reaching to his pallet showed
That Discipline, wire-woven, in ancient days
Guest of monastic bed. He snatched it thence:
Around his bending neck and shoulders lean
In dire revenge he hurled it. Spent at last,
Though late, those bleeding hands down dropped: the cheek
Sank on the stony pillow. Little birds,
Low-chirping ere their songs began, attuned
Slumber unbroken. In a single hour
He slept a long night’s sleep.
The rising sun
Woke him: but in his heart another sun,
New-risen serene with healing on its wings,
Outshone that sun in brightness. ’Mid the choir
His voice was loudest while they chanted lauds:
Brother to brother whispered, issuing forth,
’He walks in stature higher by a head
Than in the month gone by!’
That day at noon
King Eadwald, intent to whiten theft
And sacrilege with sanctitudes of law,
Girt by his warriors and his Witena,
Enthroned sat. ‘What boots it?’ laughed a thane;
‘Laurence has fled! we battle with dead men!’
‘Ay, ay,’ the King replied, ’I told you oft
Sages can brag; your dreamer weaves his dream:
But honest flesh rules all!’ While thus they spake
Confusion filled the hall: through guarded gates
A priest advanced with mitre and with Cross,
A monk that seemed not monk, but prince disguised:
It was Saint Laurence. As he neared the throne
The fashion of the tyrant’s face was changed:
Darst thou? he cried, I deemed thee fled the realm
What seek’st thou here?’ The Saint made answer, ‘Death.’
Calmly he told his tale; then ended thus:
’To me that sinful past is sin of one
Buried in years gone by. All else is dream
Save that last look the Apostle on me bent
Ere from my sight he ceased. I saw therein
The reflex of that wondrous last Regard
Cast by the sentenced Saviour of mankind
On one who had denied Him, standing cold
Beside the High Priest’s gate. Like him, I wept;
His countenance wrought my penance, not his hand:
I scarcely felt the scourge.’
King Eadbald
Drave back the sword half drawn, and round him stared;
Then sat as one amazed. He rose; he cried,
’Ulf! Kathnar! Strip his shoulders bare! If true
His tale, the brand remains!’
Two chiefs stepped forth:
They dragged with trembling hand, and many a pause,
The external garb pontific first removed,
Dark, blood-stained garment from the bleeding flesh,
The old man kneeling. Once, and only once,
The monarch gazed on that disastrous sight,
Muttering, ‘and yet he lives!’ A time it was
Of swift transitions. Hearts, how proud soe’er,
Made not that boast consistency in sin,
Though dark and rough accessible to Grace
As earth to vernal showers. With hands hard-clenched
The King upstarted: thus his voice rang out:
’Beware, who gave ill counsel to their King!
The royal countenance is against them set,
Ill merchants trafficking with his lesser moods!
Does any say the King wrought well of late,
Warring on Christ, and chasing hence his priests?
The man that lies shall die! This day, once more
I ratify my Father’s oath, and mine,
To keep the Church in peace: and though I sware
To push God’s monks from yonder monastery
And lodge therein the horses of the Queen,
Those horses, and the ill-persuading Queen,
Shall flee my kingdom, and the monks abide!
Brave work ye worked, my loose-kneed Witena,
This day, Christ’s portion yielding to my wrath!
See how I prize your labours!’ With his sword
He clave the red seal from their statute scroll
And stamped it under foot. Once more he spake,
Gazing with lion gaze from man to man:
’The man that, since my Father, Ethelbert,
Though monarch, stooped to common doom of men,
Hath filched from Holy Church fee-farm, or grange,
Sepulchral brass, gold chalice, bell or book,
See he restore it ere the sun goes down;
If not, he dies! Not always winter reigns;
May-breeze returns, and bud-releasing breath,
When hoped the least: ’tis thus with royal minds!’
He spake: from that day forth in Canterbury
Till reigned the Norman, crowned on Hastings’ field,
God’s Church had rest. In many a Saxon realm
Convulsion rocked her cradle: altars raised
By earlier kings by later were o’erthrown:
One half the mighty Roman work, and more,
Fell to the ground: Columba’s Irish monks
The ruin raised. From Canterbury’s towers,
‘Rome of the North’ long named, from them alone
Above sea-surge still shone that vestal fire
By tempest fanned, not quenched; and at her breast
For centuries six were nursed that Coelian race,
The Benedictine Primates of the Land.