St. Leo the Great

 Pope St. Leo I (The Great), 35" x 60," Oil on Panel, by Melissa Carmon

Pope St. Leo I (The Great), 35" x 60," Oil on Panel, by Melissa Carmon

First part.  When he met with Attila the Hun, rescued Italy, and saved the city

Saint Leo

Man with a lion heart, and yet
for Peace
Saint Leo,
your sun is shining on us

Man of war, man of blood whose very
hair smelled of blood
The man who drank the blood of

Met face to face with a man of washed
a man of early morning rising
a man whose hours, divided by
Private Prayers
who was only then beginning

On a plain you met
and the man of blood wept
for that is what it means to turn— 
to turn aside from all that pillaging
to leave the watching world behind you.

To turn aside from the long
forked path, to leave untouched
those glistening grape vines
those green hills rising like bread loaves
Their gentle curves stretching into
the blue distance
Those wine cellars.
And Italy lay before you like a rich robe.

But a man of peace may save a city.

Attila of the bent road
The earth could not hold you
could not satisfy you
whether you were too big for it
or whether it spat you out
we could not tell

But God, the patient God, who
handles hell-bent men with steady eye
and patient hand
arranged a meeting for you
with a lion heart. 

And what did you tell your war-hungry men
Hungry for the bottoms of what mankind’s stomach
cant’t hold, looking off into the blue green distance? 

In a moment of true strength
You stayed your hand. 



Second part, after the Ransack of Rome by the Vandal King, Genseric

Saint Leo, 
the roof is falling
the grey timbers are
cracking the
wood folds in like paper

Saint Leo
Europe is groaning
the Roman roads like
beams the riders cut
one from another the seams
are ragged
we are ripped and there is
no one, no one to help

the round mound of rubbish
the cold courtrooms are bare
and beyond the last house a
baby is crying

the soft curves of women have
been pierced, and for
the men— to their disgrace, they
lay dying.

Saint Leo
man who mends
You did not leave the grey timbers
Saint Leo
man who sends
for help from afar

And says, "Build a mosaic in the ceiling,"
You have given the four walls of the earth a new sky
—a gift from an empress. 

In the grey dawn, 
the children’s children of forty generations
have you to thank for saving
St. Peter’s
All the old and beautiful domes of antiquity, 
still rise
to greet the morning sun


Historical Background: 

Pope St. Leo the Great was extremely gifted in diplomacy.  Perhaps his most famous interaction was with Attila the Hun, who was sacking Italy.  No one knows what happened in that crucial meeting in the Hun's camp on the shores of Lake Garda, but Attila suddenly withdrew his campaign of devastation.  Later, the Pope was not able to prevent the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455, but in the midst of the pillaging, he met with the invaders and their leaders and was able to mitigate the extent of the damage.  He persuaded them not to burn the city, and as a result, many lives were saved, and several notable ancient landmarks were spared.  His ongoing work toward restoration was unflagging, even though the damage done to Rome was severe during this period of extreme crisis.

Melissa Carmon