More or Less

Ed. Note: Yesterday was the Feast of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, Martyrs, and the first day of Fortnight for Freedom as called for by the U.S. Bishops in response to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring religious institutions to pay for contraceptive drugs and services through insurance health coverage.

Before the bells struck nine times on the morning on July 6, 1535, a man renowned for his talent in philosophy, law, politics and even theology, stood before a crowd, seconds away from the most important speech of his life.

Those who had gathered weren’t there to hear a lecture on metaphysics, divine grace or a keystone legal principle. Nor were they there to hear a speech which sought to guide the ship of state on a prudential course of action.   Rather, they were there to see this philosopher-lawyer-politician-theologian lose his head over a single idea.

By the world’s reckoning, it was a cheap price for one’s life.

But it was an idea which would touch on all these disciplines which not only defined his public life but perhaps even prepared his life, public and otherwise, for this one moment on his final rostrum.

 This condemned man was none other than Sir Thomas More, until recently the Chancellor of England (a post only second to the king himself), a close friend of King Henry VIII, a welcomed guest of royal and legal courts alike, and one of the most brilliant minds of his day not only in England but in all of Europe.

But, having been stripped of honors and wealth alike, this late medieval celebrity would soon be known by a different, more exulted title – St. Thomas More, Martyr.

As he stood before the crowd, perhaps he took some comfort in the fact that he was abandoned by all but his family and closest friends. It would have to have been a consolation. After all, did not his master and savior have at least that much as he clung to his last labored breaths, hanging from the midday cross outside the gates of another famous city far to the east of London?

Of course, More’s fine mind would have made the proper distinctions: Christ was without sin and therefore died in complete innocence. He, More, while guiltless in this particular case, was as flawed as any man born of original sin.

No matter, though – for he knew that even that primal flaw – the same shared by every king and pauper, nobleman and commoner, all the players on the stage of history – had been provided a remedy through the blood and mercy that God spilled on that other hill far east of London’s time and place, more than 1,500 years ago – that same blood and mercy which, with the fall of the executioner’s axe blade would come, he prayed, to his assistance now that the hour of his death was upon him.

Nor did he ever lose the calm which stood as testament to the easy commerce of faith and reason within his mind and soul.  Even  Joseph Addison, not the first but perhaps one of the best to reside over Caesar’s inkwell, willingly renders unto Christ what was Christ’s: he would have willingly agreed with the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911) which declared that “no martyr ever surpassed [More] in fortitude.” 

Indeed, as he notes in the retrospective Spectator, Addison observes, “that innocent mirth which had been so conspicuous in [More’s] life, did not forsake him to the last . . .his death was of a piece with his life. There was nothing in it new, forced or affected. He did not look upon the severing of his head from his body as a circumstance that ought to produce any change in the disposition of his mind“.

 As he stood there before the crowd – it was a brief interim between his ascending the scaffold and his head making the return trip – even then, he was not without mirth (“I pray you, I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant,” he was heard to say, “see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself!”). Perhaps as he stood there, though, he thought for a split second of that other Thomas who stood at the noonday of the medieval age and on the edge of a more peaceful yet equally joyful death.

Already the medieval age had been in full decline with the “new learning” that More, his friend and fellow mega-scholar Erasmus and even King Henry had helped popularize. In many ways, the medieval age, already in its twilight, would meet its midnight with More’s death.

And perhaps in thinking of Aquinas, More also thought about the mystic-philosopher’s final revelation, that all the wealth and wisdom of the world is “like straw” compared to the vista of heaven’s riches that was permitted to him in his own final days.

The philosopher in More could as ably distinguish the chaff of accidents from the essential wheat of being which Aquinas had gleaned to the benefit of Church and history.  After all, weren’t More’s own final words the same notion uttered by Aquinas, only reset – like the lines of block type in that contraption already become popular in More’s day, the printing press – in his own field of expertise, the political order?

For all his devoted service to secular thrones and powers of England, this servant recognized that his earthly duties were no more than straw compared to his obeisance to the true throne and only power that rules all nations.

Standing on the sill of heaven itself, awaiting the fall of the blade which would separate his head from his body, More would see his earthly pilgrimage come to an end.

And what, to get to the bottom of it, washis crime?

The particulars matter greatly – and give the bracing pulse and beat to historian and playwright alike. But for our purposes, suffice it to say that More’s crime was part of the same drama that governments and secular leaders had rehearsed on countless saints before and since Sir Thomas ascended the scaffold, More’s last place on earth – which he no doubt saw as a mere stepping stone to God’s mercy and a bitter yet brief prelude to the sweet hope of heaven.

A prominent wooden gantry, solidly built and firmly set in the middle of the square served as the stage on which More and his executioner played the only two roles necessary in this drama.

It’s only action was the fall of an ax (or in other variations – the drop of a trap door to allow the law of gravity to make its final ruling, the fixing of flesh by steel to wood, the slow mutiny of the human body itself tortured in extremis).

Yet after the blade’s fall, expert and precise, its sound reverberates like a song through the centuries even to our own time.

And leave it to More to add words to the song.

Before genuflecting to the chopping block, More’s final speech, the shortest of his life, also rang out across the square that day – his last day on earth and first in heaven.

“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first!”

Perhaps more effectively than any other words written or spoken by Thomas More, these last words stand as a eviscerating critique of those who would subordinate the individual conscience (formed by its adherence to the teachings of the one, true and apostolic Church) to the corporate wishes or collective whims of any earthly power.

These words defy and refute the worldly and misguided motives of history’s politicians who have allowed for an unholy space within the conscience to accommodate a law or laws reprehensible to God and nature and evacuate justice and mercy, truth and righteousness  – even (as Thomas More himself might say with his famous sense of humor – in turns bawdy and scatological) as a harlot would accommodate her customers by evacuating her bowels.

Comments

  1. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    Concise but ample, JOB — like the saint’s own last words. The ickiness of the last paragraph stands out by contrast to the loveliness of what precedes it. That’s by design, no doubt.

    See also the extract from one of More’s prison letters, which the Church in her wisdom included in the Office of Readings for the feast:

    Although I know well, Margaret, that because of my past wickedness I deserve to be abandoned by God,I cannot but trust in his merciful goodness. His grace has strengthened me until now and made me content to lose goods, land,and life as well,rather than to swear against my conscience. God’s grace has given the king a gracious frame of mind toward me, so that as yet he has taken from me nothing but my liberty. In doing this His Majesty has done me such great good with respect to spiritual profit that I trust that among all the great benefits he has heaped so abundantly upon me I count my imprisonment the very greatest. I cannot, therefore,mistrust the grace of God. Either he shall keep the king in that gracious frame of mind to continue to do me no harm, or else, if it be his pleasure that for my other sins I suffer in this case as I shall not deserve,then his grace shall give me the strength to bear it patiently,and perhaps even gladly. By the merits of his bitter passion joined to mine and far surpassing in merit for me all that I can suffer myself, his bounteous goodness shall release me from the pains of purgatory and shall increase my reward in heaven besides. I will not mistrust him, Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how Saint Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith,and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to him for help. And then I trust he shall place his holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning. And if he permits me to play Saint Peter further and to fall to the ground and to swear and forswear, may God our Lord in his tender mercy keep me from this, and let me lose if it so happen,and never win thereby! Still, if this should happen, afterward I trust that in his goodness he will look on me with pity as he did upon Saint Peter, and make me stand up again and confess the truth of my conscience afresh and endure here the shame and harm of my own fault. And finally, Margaret, I know this well: that without my fault he will not let me be lost. I shall,therefore, with good hope commit myself wholly to him. And if he permits me to perish for my faults, then I shall serve as praise for his justice. But in good faith, Meg, I trust that his tender pity shall keep my poor soul safe and make me commend his mercy. And, therefore, my own good daughter, do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be,however bad it may seem,it shall indeed be the best.

    • You are right to say it was intentional – but have you ever read any of his back and forth (I can’t really call it “correspondence” – that would give it a suggested warmth of affection that was never there) with Luther. My closing image used to describe certain politicians who will remain unnamed is tame compared to More’s uninhibited use of the bawdy and bodily to make his points against the German heretic.

      JOB

      • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

        Indeed! Revolting images, even more revolting reality.

        I knew of More’s Luther-letters by reputation, eventually flipped or scrolled through a copy, and quickly found that I couldn’t stomach, erm, more. But I might have just eaten.

  2. We played Man for All Seasons yesterday and it’s a great movie. It’s interesting to me that Paul Johnson, a Liberal Catholic, thinks that More should have compromised to save the English Church. I don’t think anything good would have come from that. The movie makes him out to be a bit of an opinionated fuss budget which probably wasn’t the case based on his writings. One question which the movie raised for me was whether he should have attended the marriage to Anne without giving in on the point of law and the Church’s authority.

    Would anyone reading go the a gay wedding ceremony if it was your boss?

    That must be the beauty part of having a bishop for a boss.

    • Oh, my present and past bishop-bosses excepted, there are plenty of occasions I imagine for Catholics to face-palm the goings-on of bishops.

      That is a good question you ask. It’s somewhat moot, if I have my timetable right and given that he’d been hanging out in the tower and hadn’t had a good shower in a long time – not exactly up for attending a wedding, I would presume.

      I think one has to ask whether the public celebration of fornication is worthy of attendance, yes?

      (Which is why a Catholic going to a Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, etc. wedding is not necessarily a scandal – marriage is the proper context for sex (unless of course one or both spouses to be have been married before…))

      And yes Paul Johnson ought to be ignored when it comes to things Catholic. He also thinks, if I’m not mistaken, that priests ought to be married.

      Unfortunately, more often than not, the heresies in the west stem from odd views of human sexuality. We’re definitely the bestial yin to the Eastern Church’s angelistic yang…

    • Jonathan Potter says
      • It was bothering me that I couldn’t figure out who and where my funny was used first – and best.

        Thanks for the tie-in. Clearly we are all synapses of the great Kollektiv Korrektiv Kerebellar Kortex…

        JOB

  3. That was really splendid JOB, thanks.

  4. Churchill says

    That was unpleasant, although More is guilty of the greater sin, is he, in his final words?

  5. Churchill says

    Sometimes, when you hear music, you are amazed at what man can do; other times, we seem like vulgar tourists.

  6. Thanks JOB.

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