It’s the time of year when we think about fire in the sky. That could be fireworks or lightning — or some other celestial event. While there are fireworks associated with saints — such as the whirling St. Catherine’s Wheel — there is also a saintly tie to a meteor shower seen in summer.
Anytime between July 17 and Aug. 24, you can see meteors associated with the Perseid Meteor Shower. While these meteors have been noted in historical records dating back to before the time of Christ, St. Lawrence has been tied to them for centuries. His feast day falls during the peak of the meteor display, on Aug. 10.
The Perseid Meteor Shower, named for the constellation Perseus, which is a focal point for the display, comes to us courtesy of the Swift-Tuttle Comet, formally discovered in 1862. This comet orbits the sun in a 133-year cycle, but the earth passes through the debris of its tail every year in July and August. The association with St. Lawrence has given the meteor shower its saintly name, “St. Lawrence’s Tears.”
St. Lawrence was a deacon of the church at Rome during the third-century persecution of Christians under the emperor Valerian. As deacon of Rome, Lawrence (or Laurence or Lorenzo) was responsible for the material goods of the local church. He was the church treasurer.
When his pope, Sixtus II, was martyred on Aug. 6, 258, Lawrence became responsible for the church and its possessions. (Pope Dionysus was not elected until July of the following year.)
Lawrence was ordered by Roman officials to surrender the treasure of the church to the state. So, Lawrence brought to the officials the poor people of Rome. When questioned, he said they, these poor people, were the treasure of the church and that any material wealth of the church went to feed and clothe them. Knowing his certain fate, Lawrence had already given away the church’s wealth to these poor.
Lawrence was sentenced to death and was burned to death on a large grid iron.
Legend says that Lawrence joked with his executioners, telling them that they should turn him over, since he “was done on this side.” This purported remark earned him the title of patron saint for chefs, cooks and comedians.
Catholic News Agency, writing about the meteor shower in 2017, noted that Italian folklore says the fiery bits seen in the night sky during a meteor shower “are representative of the coals that killed St. Lawrence, and some traditions hold that if one waters a basil plant and sets it out on the night of the meteor shower, they will find coal chips underneath the plant the next day from St. Lawrence’s tears.”
Astronomer Christopher Graney, a physicist writing for the Vatican Observatory’s website two years ago about the Tears of St. Lawrence, noted that tradition of the Tears of St. Lawrence. However, he said, what causes the meteors are “particles of debris that are strewn along the orbit of a comet — particles that enter the Earth’s atmosphere and are heated to glowing by reason of their rapid motion through the air and the resulting air friction. Earth, circling the sun annually, passes through the cometary debris stream every August, and thus the meteor shower. The Perseid meteors are indeed an atmospheric phenomenon, and they are indeed fiery falling things.”
And there are also traditions associated with lightning and St. Barbara, as well as St. Erasmus (St. Elmo’s fire).
So it’s OK to call them “shooting stars.” And whether your fire in the sky is from pyrotechnics or comet debris, they can serve to remind you of those who have gone before us to the light of heaven.