Friday, June 22, 2007

"More" About St. Thomas

Ye must understand that, in things touching conscience, every true and good subject is more bound to have respect to his said conscience and to his soul than to any other thing in all the world beside. --Thomas More explaining his decision to die for his faith, in a letter to his daughter Margaret
With my hectic summer schedule, not to mention the fact my illustrious colleague Jim Martorana has written about this great saint, it seems to indicate I should take this blog off. But being a married man named Thomas, with an eldest son named John (whose full name is John Thomas!) I approached the feast day of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More and I knew I just could not sit this one out.

Thomas, "a merry boy" by all accounts, went to work for the dour and un-devout Archbishop of Cantebury, Morton, at the age of thirteen, and so impressed this hard-nosed churchman that he sent More to Oxford a year later. Thomas was already lecturing at the age of nineteen when he met irascible Desiderius Erasmus, and More and this mirthful monk became fast friends for life. For those unfamiliar with his work, Erasmus was sort of a modern-day Fr. Andrew Greeley, with the exception that the mocking monk's humorous criticisms of the Church were always centered on the pompous and un-humble nature of high-ranking clerics and never crossed the line into questioning dogma or doctrine. Undoubtedly, Thomas' friendship with Desiderius was a major reason that he didn't.

As mentioned in the opening, despite attractions to the monastery, Thomas married and, despite attractions to her younger sister, married the plain Jane Colt. Thomas grew to love Jane dearly, but after four years and four children (1 boy, 3 girls) Jane died, and Thomas, already at the height of the legal profession, decided to marry Alice Middleton one month later. He did what was unthinkable in his day educating not only his son but his daughters, cleverly citing the words of St. Augustine and St. Jerome to anyone who cared to argue. His dinner table was not only a splendid feast but a center of great debate, as he invited both the strictly orthodox (John Fisher) and not-so-strict (Erasmus) to dine and speak—as well as many of the poor of the neighborhood. Both nobleman and peasant loved Thomas, and it wasn't long before he caught the eye of England's dashing young King Henry VIII who made More under-sheriff, then knight—and finally Lord Chancellor of England.

That Thomas' friendship with this troubled king ended quite differently than his relationship with John Fisher or Desiderius Erasmus does not change the fact these two larger-than-life companions were once every bit as close. "That great expert in the art of government, his Invincible Majesty, King Henry the Eighth of England," Thomas jokingly referred to Henry in his satirical novel Utopia and Henry laughed louder with Thomas than anyone. But even as king, Henry was to find, just as the title character in Bob Seger's song Beautiful Loser, "you just can't have it all," and he was forced to choose between his friendship with the loyal Thomas or his lust for the siren Anne Boleyn. Lust won.

Obviously, Henry miscalculated on Thomas' devotion to God, thinking that anyone who loved his earthly life as much as More would choose the world, when all it meant to possess the entire kingdom was a mere wink at Henry's quickie divorce to Catherine of Aragon. But Thomas could no more deny the authority of the pope than the less-scholarly-but-just-as-steadfast Bishop John Fisher, and to save face, Henry was forced to not only produce false evidence of treason against More, but martyr Thomas along with John as well.

The great movie about St. Thomas' life is entitled A Man for All Seasons (rent it tonight!) and Thomas was every bit of that—and More. Thomas, despite his leniency as a judge in sentencing heretics, always stood up for what was right just as another Thomas, Bob Thomas, is trying to do today. He was the consummate busy professor who still always found time for his family, showing Tiger Woods and others that the balancing of "work" with daughters and sons can be done. Furthermore, by refusing to deny his faith, he went from the fabulous wealth of lord chancellor to the abject poverty of political prisoner—even when his own wife and children (with the exception of his daughter Margaret, without whose preservation of his letters and court transcripts, A Man for All Seasons could not have been written) urged him to recant so at least they can eat. History now clothes Thomas with the splendid robes of sainthood, but any father who has seen his children hungry—knowing he could feed them by doing something slightly unscrupulous, knows just how hard a decision this truly is. Finally, Thomas' merciful humor, which extended not only to his executioner, "When beheading me, be careful not to harm my beard, for it has done no treason," but even to Henry VIII to whom he spoke after sentencing, "Just as St. Paul persecuted St. Stephen, but be now both saints in heaven, and continue there friends forever, I right heartily pray ... my lordship ... on earth my condemnation ... shall hereafter in heaven merrily meet together in everlasting salvation," is something to be marvelled at. History certainly never records Henry ever repenting, and while his life after Thomas' death seems to indicate no change of heart, we must never give up hope—for Thomas never did. And, as More is one of my heroes, I'd like to think that any friend of this fightingenglishthomas is also a friend of mine.

4 comments :

No More Cinops said...

I wonder if we had all the Catholic in name only Politicians view the film A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.
Would it register with them at any time that being associated with a party that promotes directly and indirectly five absolute evils like abortion, assisted suicide, same-sex marriage etc. and that they are denying their faith in the public sector? They would not have to lose their heads by just being Catholic. Are they that insufficiently grounded in their faith? The can still run as Democrats but pro-life.

Tom O'Toole said...

Dear NMC,
Thanks for the comment. More was a rare man...as is any Dem who dares to go Pro-Life these days. It's not like I'm against minimuum wage or universal health care, but the Devil's stategy, wether Christian denominations or Political parties, is always "Divide and Conquer." Can we change that?

No More Cinops said...

Tom,
Something very serious happened in Massachusetts on June 14th. Speaker Nancy Pelosi persuaded 16 Knights of Columbus legislators not to put the Marriage Amendment on the Nov. 08 ballot, because it could hurt the democratic presidential elections.
This is a calamity. As a K.C. member, I will do everything I can to inform and defeat all CINOP candidates even CINOP Guiliani for the presidential nomination.

Tom O'Toole said...

Dear NMC - That's terrible. Ironically I used to write regularly for Columbia but I guess the current editor just doesn't like my style. So I can only pray about that. Meanwhile I will continue to write where my opinion is accepted and respected. Thanks again for your comments!

God's grace & Mary's prayers - Tom