St. Laurence was born at Venice, in 1380. His father Bernardi Justiniani held an illustrious rank among the prime nobility of the commonwealth; nor was the extraction of his mother Querini less noble. By the death of Bernardo she was left a disconsolate widow with a nursery of tender children; though very young, she thought it her duty to sanctify her soul by the great means and advantages which her state afforded for virtue, and resolutely rejected all thoughts of any more altering her condition. She looked upon herself as called by her very state to a penitential and retired life, and devoted herself altogether to the care of her children’s education, to works of charity, fasting, watching, assiduous prayer, and the exercises of all virtues. Under her inspection her children were brought up in the most perfect maxims of Christian piety.
Laurence discovered, even from the cradle, an uncommon docility, and an extraordinary generosity of soul; and disdaining to lose any part of his time, loved only serious conversation and employs. His mother fearing some spark of pride and ambition, chided him sometimes for aiming at things above his age; but he humbly answered that it was his only desire, by the divine grace, to become a saint. Reflecting from his infancy that he was made by God only to serve him, and to live eternally with him, he kept this end always in view, and governed all his thoughts and actions so as to refer them to God and eternity.
In the nineteenth year of his age he was called by God to consecrate himself in a special manner to his service. He seemed one day to see in a vision the eternal wisdom in the disguise and habit of a damsel, shining brighter than the sun, and to hear from her the following words: “Why seekest thou rest to thy mind out of thyself, sometimes in this object, and sometimes in that? What thou desirest is to be found only with me: behold, it is in my hands. Seek it in me who am the wisdom of God. By taking me for thy spouse and thy portion, thou shalt be possessed of its inestimable treasure.” That instant he found his soul so pierced with the charms, incomparable honor, and advantages of this invitation of divine grace, that he felt himself inflamed with new ardor to give himself up entirely to the search of the holy knowledge and love of God.
A religious state appeared to him that in which God pointed out to him the path in which he might most securely attain to the great and arduous end which he proposed to himself. But, before he determined himself, he made his application to God by humble prayer, and addressed himself for advice to a holy and learned priest called Marino Querini, who was his uncle by the mother’s side, and a regular canon in the austere Congregation of St. George in Alga, established in a little isle which bears that name, situated a mile from the city of Venice, towards the continent.
The prudent director, understanding that he was most inclined to a religious state, advised him first to make trial of his strength, by inuring himself to the habitual practice of austerities. Laurence readily obeyed, and in the night, leaving his soft bed, laying on knotty sticks on the floor. During this deliberation, he one day represented to himself on one side honors, riches, and worldly pleasures, and on the other, the hardships of poverty, fasting, watching, and self-denial. Then said to himself: “Hast thou courage, my soul, to despise these delights, and to undertake a life of uninterrupted penance and mortification?” After standing some time in a pause, he cast his eyes on a crucifix, and said: “Thou, O Lord, art my hope.” In this tree are found comfort and strength. The ardor of his resolution to walk in the narrow path of the cross, showed itself in the extreme severity with which he treated his body, and the continual application of his mind to the exercises of religion. His mother and other friends, fearing lest his excessive mortifications should prove prejudicial to his health, endeavored to divert him from that course, and, with that view, contrived a proposal of an honorable match to be made for him. The saint perceiving in this stratagem that his friends had entered into a conspiracy to break his measures, fled secretly to the monastery of St. George in Alga, and was admitted to the religious habit.
His superiors even judged it necessary to mitigate the rigors which he exercised upon himself. He was only nineteen years of age, but surpassed all his religious brethren in his watchings and fasts. To make a general assault upon sensuality he never took any useless recreation, subdued his body by severe discipline, and never came near a fire in the sharpest weather in winter, though his hands were often benumbed with cold; he allowed to hunger only what the utmost necessity required, and never drank out of meals; when asked to do it under excessive heats and weariness, he used to say: “If we cannot bear this thirst, how shall we endure the fire of purgatory?” From the same heroic disposition proceeded his invincible patience in every kind of sickness. During his novitiate he was afflicted with dangerous scrofulous swellings in his neck. The physicians prescribed cupping, lancing, and searing with fire. Before the operation, seeing others tremble for his sake, he courageously said to them: “What do you fear? Let the razors and burning irons be brought in. Cannot He grant me constancy, who not only supported but even preserved from the flames the three children in the furnace?” Under the cutting and burning he never so much as fetched a sigh, and only once pronounced the holy name of Jesus.
In his old age, seeing a surgeon tremble who was going to make a ghastly incision in a great sore in his neck, he said to him: “Cut boldly, your razor cannot exceed the burning irons of the martyrs.” The saint stood the operation of this timorous surgeon without stirring, and as if he had been a stock that had no feeling.
At all public devotions he was the first in the church, and left it the last; he remained there from matins, whilst others returned to their rest, till they came to prime at sunrise.
Humiliations he always embraced with singular satisfaction. The meanest and most loathsome offices, and the most tattered habit were his desire and delight. The beck of any superior was to him as an oracle; even in private conversation he was always ready to yield to the judgment and will of others, and he sought everywhere the lowest place as much as was possible to be done without affectation. When he went about the streets begging alms with a wallet on his back, he often thrust himself into the thickest crowds, and into assemblies of the nobility, that he might meet with derision and contempt. Being one day put in mind, that by appearing loaded with his wallet in a certain public place, he would expose himself to the ridicule of the company, he answered to his companion: “Let us go boldly in quest of scorn. We have done nothing if we have renounced the world only in words. Let us today triumph over it with our sacks and crosses. Nothing is of greater advantage towards gaining a complete victory over ourselves, and the fund of pride which is our greatest obstacle to virtue, than humiliations accepted and borne with cheerfulness and sincere humility. To those which providence daily sends us opportunities of, it is expedient to add some that are voluntary, provided the choice be discreet, and accompanied with heroic dispositions of soul, clear of the least tincture of affectation or hypocrisy.”
Our saint frequently came to beg at the house where he was born, but only stood in the street before the door, crying out: “An alms for God’s sake.” His mother never failed to be exceedingly moved at hearing his voice, and to order the servants to fill his wallet. But he never took more than two loaves, and wishing peace to those who had done him that charity, departed as if he had been some stranger. The storehouse, in which were laid up the provisions of the community for a year, happening to be burned down, St. Laurence hearing a certain brother lament for the loss, said cheerfully: “Why have we embraced and vowed poverty? God has granted us this blessing that we may feel it.” Whilst he was superior, he was one day rashly accused in chapter of having done something against the rule. The saint could have easily confuted the slander, and given a satisfactory account of his conduct; but he rose instantly from his seat, and walking gently, with his eyes cast down, into the middle of the chapter room, there fell on his knees, and begged penance and pardon of the fathers. The sight of his astonishing humility covered the accuser with such confusion and shame, that he threw himself at the saint’s feet, proclaimed him innocent, and loudly condemned himself.
St. Laurence was promoted to the priesthood. Much against his inclination he was chosen general of his Order, which he governed with singular prudence, and extraordinary reputation for sanctity. He reformed its discipline in such a manner as to be afterwards regarded as its founder. By his inflamed entertainments he awakened the tepid, filled the presumptuous with saving fear, raised the pusillanimous to confidence, and quickened the fervor of all. He would receive very few into his Order, and these thoroughly tried, saying, that a state of such perfection and obligations is only for few, and its essential spirit and fervor are scarcely to be maintained in multitudes; yet in these conditions, not in the number of a religious community, its advantages and glory consist. It is not therefore to be wondered at that he was very attentive and rigorous in examining and trying the vocation of postulants. The most sincere and profound humility was the first thing in which he labored to ground his religious disciples, teaching them that it not only purges the soul of all lurking pride, but also that this alone inspires her with true courage and resolution, by teaching her to place her entire confidence in God alone, the only source of her strength. Whence he compared this virtue to a river which is low and still in summer, but loud and high in winter. So, said he, humility is silent in prosperity, never elated or swelled by it; but it is high, magnanimous, and full of joy and invincible courage under adversity. He used to say, that there is nothing in which men more frequently deceive themselves than humility; that few comprehend what it is, and they only truly possess it who, by strenuous endeavors, and an experimental spirit of prayer, have received this virtue by infusion from God. That humility which is required by repeated acts is necessary and preparatory to the other; but this first is always blind and imperfect. Infused humility enlightens the soul in all her views, and makes her clearly see and feel her own miseries and baseness; it gives her perfectly that true science which consists in knowing that God alone is the great All, and that we are nothing.
The saint never ceased to preach to the magistrates and senators in times of war and all public calamities, that, to obtain the divine mercy, and the remedy of all the evils with which they were afflicted, they ought, in the first place, to become perfectly sensible that they were nothing; for, without this disposition of heart they could never hope for the divine assistance. It was a maxim which he frequently repeated, that for a person to pretend to live chaste amid softness, ease, and continual gratifications of sense, is as if a man should undertake to quench fire by throwing fuel upon it. He often put the rich in mind, that they could not be saved but by abundant alms deeds. His discourses consisted more of effective amorous sentiments than of studied thoughts; which sufficiently appears from his works.
Pope Eugenius IV, being perfectly acquainted with the eminent virtue of our saint, obliged him to quit his cloister, and nominated him to the episcopal see of Venice in 1433. The holy man employed all manner of entreaties and artifices to prevent his elevation, and engaged his whole Order to write in the same strain, in the most pressing manner, to his Holiness, but to no effect. When he could no longer oppose the repeated orders of the pope, he acquiesced with many tears; but such was his aversion to pomp and show, that he took possession of his church so privately that his own friends knew nothing of the matter till the ceremony was over. The saint passed that whole night in the church at the foot of the altar, pouring forth his soul before God, with many tears; and he spent in the same manner the night which preceded his consecration. He was a prelate, says Dr. Cave (4), admirable for his sincere piety towards God, the ardor of his zeal for the divine honor, and the excess of his charity to the poor. In this dignity he remitted nothing of the austerities which he had practiced in the cloister.
Though he was bishop of so distinguished a see, in the ordering of his household he consulted only piety and humility. His household consisted only of five persons; he had no plate, making use only of earthen ware; he lay on a scanty straw bed covered with a coarse rag, and wore no clothes but his ordinary purple cassock. His example, his severity to himself, and the affability and mildness with which he treated all others, won everyone’s heart, and effected with ease the most difficult reformations which he introduced both among the laity and clergy. A certain powerful man who was exasperated at a mandate the zealous bishop had published against stage entertainments, called him a scrupulous old monk, and endeavored to stir up the populace against him. Another time, an abandoned wretch reproached him in the public streets as a hypocrite. The saint heard them without changing his countenance, or altering his pace. He was no less unmoved amidst commendations and applause. No sadness or inordinate passions seemed ever to spread their clouds in his soul, and all his actions demonstrated a constant peace and serenity of mind which no words can express. By the very first visitation which he made, the face of his whole diocese was changed. He founded fifteen religious houses, and a great number of churches, and reformed those of all his diocese, especially with regard to the most devout manner of performing the divine office, and the administration of the sacraments. Such was the good order and devotion he established in his cathedral, that it was a model to all Christendom. The number of canons that served it being too small, St. Laurence founded several new canonries in it, and also in many other churches; and he increased the number of parishes in the city of Venice from twenty to thirty.
It is incredible what crowds every day resorted to the holy bishop’s palace for advice, comfort, or alms; his gate, pantry, and coffers were always open to the poor. He gave alms more willingly in bread and clothes than in money, which might be ill spent; when he gave money it was always in small sums. He employed pious matrons to find out and relieve the bashful poor, or persons of family in decayed circumstances. No man ever had a greater contempt of money than our saint.
The popes held St. Laurence in great veneration. Eugenius IV, having ordered our holy bishop to give him a meeting once at Bologna, saluted him in these words: “Welcome the ornament of bishops.” His successor, Nicholas V, earnestly sought an opportunity of giving him some singular token of his particular esteem; when Dominic Michelli, patriarch of Grado, happened to die in 1451, his holiness, barely in consideration of the saint, transferred the patriarchal dignity to the see of Venice. The senate, always jealous of its prerogatives and liberty above all other states in the world, formed great difficulties lest such an authority should in any cases trespass upon their jurisdiction. Whilst this affair was debated in the senate house, St. Laurence repaired thither, and, being admitted, humbly declared his sincere and earnest desire of rather resigning a charge for which he was most unfit, and which he had borne against his will eighteen years, than to feel his burden increased by this additional dignity. His humility and charity so strongly affected the whole senate, that the Doge himself was not able to refrain from tears, and cried out to the saint, conjuring him not to entertain such a thought, or to raise any obstacle to the pope’s decree, which was expedient to the church, and most honorable to their country. In this he was seconded by the whole house, and the ceremony of the installation of the new patriarch was celebrated with great joy by the whole city.
St. Laurence never, on his own account, made any one wait to speak to him, but immediately interrupted his writing, studies, or prayers to give admittance to others, whether rich or poor; and received all persons who addressed themselves to him with so much sweetness and charity, comforted and exhorted them in so heavenly a manner, and appeared in his conversation so perfectly exempt from all inordinate passions, that he scarcely seemed clothed with human flesh, infected with the corruption of our first parent. Every one looked upon him as if he had been an angel living on earth. His advice was always satisfactory and healing to the various distempers of the human mind; and such was the universal opinion of his virtue, prudence, penetration, and judgment, that causes decided by him were never admitted to a second hearing at Rome; but in all appeals his sentence was forthwith confirmed. Grounded in the most sincere and perfect contempt of himself, he seemed insensible and dead to the flattering temptation of human applause; which appeared to have no other effect upon him than to make him more profoundly to humble himself in his own soul, and before both God and men. When he was not able to refrain his tears, which proceeded from the tenderness and vehemence of the divine love, and from the wonderful spirit of compunction with which he was endowed, he used to accuse himself of weakness and too tender and compassionate a disposition of mind. But these he freely indulged at his private devotions, and by them he purified his affections more and more from earthly things, and moved the divine mercy to shower down the greatest blessings on others.
The republic was at that time shaken with violent storms, and threatened with great dangers. A holy hermit, who had served God with great fervor above thirty years in the isle of Corfu, assured a Venetian nobleman, as if it were from a divine revelation, that the city and republic of Venice had been preserved by the prayers of the good bishop.
St. Laurence was seventy-four years old when he wrote his last work, entitled The Degrees of Perfection; he had just finished it when he was seized with a sharp fever. In his illness his servants prepared a bed for him; at which the true imitator of Christ was troubled, and said: “Are you laying a feather bed for me? No: that shall not be. My Lord was stretched on a hard and painful tree. Do not you remember that St. Martin said, in his agony, that a Christian ought to die on sackcloth and ashes?” Nor could he be contented till he was laid on his straw. He forbade his friends to weep for him, and often cried out, in raptures of joy: “Behold the Spouse; let us go forth and meet him.” He added, with his eyes lifted up to heaven: “Good Jesus, behold I come.” At other times, weighing the divine judgments, he expressed sentiments of holy fear. One saying to him that he might go joyfully to his crown, he was much disturbed, and said: “The crown is for valiant soldiers; not for base cowards, such as I am.” So great was his poverty that he had no temporal goods to dispose of, and he made his testament only to exhort in it all men to virtue, and to order that his body should be buried without pomp, as a private religious man would be, in his convent of St. George; though this clause was set aside by the senate after his death. During the two days that he survived, after receiving extreme unction, the whole city came in turns, according to their different ranks, to receive his blessing. The saint would have even the beggars admitted, and gave to each class some short pathetic instruction. Seeing one Marcellus, a very pious young nobleman, who was his favorite disciple, weep most bitterly, he comforted him, giving him the following assurance: “I go before, but you will shortly follow me. Next Easter we shall again meet in mutual embraces.” Marcellus fell sick in the beginning of Lent, and was buried in Easter week. St. Laurence, closing his eyes, calmly expired on the 8th of January, in the year 1455, being seventy-four years old, having been honored with the episcopal dignity twenty-two years, and four with that of patriarch. During the contestation about the place of his burial, his body was preserved entire, without the least ill savor or sign of corruption, sixty-seven days, and interred, according to a decree of the senate, on the 17th of March. The ceremony of his beatification was performed by Clement VII in 1524, and that of his canonization by Alexander VIII in 1690. His festival is kept on the 5th of September, the day on which he was consecrated bishop.
With St. Laurence Justinian, we must first labor strenuously in sanctifying our own souls before we can hope to preach to others with much fruit. Only he can inspire into others the perfect sentiments of Christian virtue, and instruct others well in the great practical truths of religion, who has learned them by experience, and whose heart is penetrated with them. The pastoral obligation is of great extent; it is not confined to those who are charged with the ministry of the word, and the distribution of the sacraments; it regards not only pastors of souls; every king is, in some degree, a pastor to his whole kingdom; and every parent and master to those who are under their care. He will be accountable to God for the loss of their souls, who is not, in a qualified sense, an apostle or pastor to all that are under his charge.
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