There is a story told about St. Lawrence, perhaps only a legend, which merits retelling.
Lawrence, so the story goes, was the deacon in small community during the third century, a time when Christians were being persecuted and martyred. One day, word came from the local civic authority that the government was going to confiscate church properties and that it was coming round to collect anything that Lawrence’s small community had which was of value. An edict was given to Lawrence stating that, on a certain day designated, he was to have all the “treasures of the church” readied so that the soldiers could come and pick them up.
When the day arrived, the local authorities, complete with their military support, arrived at the door of Lawrence’s house. Lawrence, however, had read their decree in a way quite other than they had anticipated. He had assembled there, by his house, all the poor, the lame, the sick, the blind, the weak, the aged, the children, and the outcasts. The commandant announced: “We are here to pick up the treasures of the church! We command you: Hand them over!”
Lawrence, on his part, calmly pointed to the group he had assembled and said: “Here they are! Take them! These are the treasures of the church!”
The commandant was neither amused nor understanding: “We are not here to play games. We have come to pick up the treasures of the church! Hand them over under the pain of death!”
Lawrence again pointed to the group he had gathered and said: “You asked for the treasures of the church. These are our true treasures. Lying on the ground here is an old gunnysack filled with vessels and candlesticks. Some of these are made of silver, gold, and bronze. These you can gladly have. They are not of much value to us. But they are not what you asked for. The decree you sent to me said that you wanted to collect our treasures so I assembled them, these people, here for you.”
We need, regularly, to recount this story, not just because our age is in danger decertifying, right out of existence, those who are not strong and healthy, but also because, under the influence of our culture, we are in danger of creating an ecclesiology that mirrors the blind bias of our age.
For example: Many of us are getting ever more discouraged as, each year, the church is losing more and more of the young, the successful, the talented, and those others that our age and culture precisely considers as “golden.” Who’s left in the churches? The old, the weak, the psychologically unstable, and those with less choices and less place in the culture. As a rather cynical friend of mine puts it: “Here and there, among the very old, the very young, and those who don’t have much going in their lives, the church can still spin its magic! But it doesn’t have much attraction for those who actually have a life!”
In Western culture, put as a simple statement of fact, he is, more than I would like to admit, correct. As a gross over-generalization, with many exceptions of course, that is what is happening. Sociologists of religion verify that. Statistics which tell us who is attending church and who is taking its doctrines and teachings seriously show, precisely, that where the church is weakest is in drawing people who are talented—artistically, athletically, scientifically, intellectually, and otherwise. We don’t draw so easily what is gold, silver, or bronze (in the eyes of the world). The church, as my cynical friend puts it, must spin its magic elsewhere.
But we must be careful to interpret this properly. We can, and often times do, look at this and conclude that there is something terribly wrong with the church. Contemporary critics accuse us of peddling a “god of the gaps,” that is, of having a church that can draw people only when they feel certain inadequacies, gaps, in their lives. Religion, they claim, offers little to the healthy, talented, and the strong. Hence, as another cynic once put it, the church is left in the absurd position of trying to teach happy people to be unhappy so that it has some power over them!’
But there is another view, that of Lawrence: In the very old and the very young and in those who are marginalized through illness, poverty, or other kinds of unattractiveness, in those who are not seen as gold or silver in our culture, the church, more than ever, is full of treasure.
Fr. Ron Rolheiser