St Thomas More
Born: February 7, 1477 in London to John and Agnes More
Died: executed July 6, 1535, aged 57, London
Beatified: 29 December 1886 by Pope Leo XIII
Canonized: 19 May, 1935 by Pope Pius XI
Feast Day: 22 June (date of St John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester’s execution 2 weeks before More)
Patronage: Adopted Children, Difficult marriages Lawyers, Civil Servants, Politicians,
Attributes: dressed in the robe of the Chancellor of England, wearing the Collar of Esses, axe
How do we make friends with a saint? I think it is helpful to begin by seeing him in conversation with his earthly friends. But be warned, time spent with Thomas More will not leave you unchanged. He was executed by King Henry VIII of England, only 6 years after Henry appointed him head of the judiciary, for refusing to name the King head of the Church in England. When Pope Clement VII refused Henry’s request for the annulment of his first marriage to his brother’s widow, because she did not bear him an heir, Henry betrayed the Magna Carta and his Coronation Oath to respect the immunity of the Church and seized the legal authority to grant the annulment himself with the Act of Supremacy 1531. More would not betray his conscience’s conviction that Christ appointed only Peter, and his successors the bishops of Rome, as vicarious head of the church. More lost his office, his freedom, and finally his life. If you’d like to refresh your memory on St Thomas’ conflict with King Henry VIII, these endnotes link to brief[i] and more comprehensive[ii] biographies.
And now for the risky venture of listening in on St Thomas’ conversations with his friends! I recommend the movie ‘A Man for All Seasons’[iii] and a collection of his letters ‘For All Seasons’[iv] to hear his wise and witty voice. In the movie, St Thomas calls his friend by his surname: Howard (H in the script excerpts below) and is called Thomas (T) by him. Here is their first conversation:
Thomas More (T) and Thomas Howard (H), Duke of Norfolk
(A Man for All Seasons1 1:20)
H: Thomas you’re dangerous to know
T: Then don’t know me
H: I don’t know you!
T: I mean as a friend
H: I am your friend, I wish I wasn’t, but I am!
T: What’s to be done then?
H: Give in!
T: I can’t give in Howard. Our friendship is more mutable than that.
H: The one fixed point in a world of turning friendship is that Thomas More will not give in!
T: To me it has to be, and that’s my self. Affection goes as deep in me as you I think. But only God is love right through Howard. And that’s my ‘self’.
I am struck that St Thomas identifies his core identity with his freedom to choose. According to the Oxford English Dictionary More was the first English author to use the word integrity.[v] In this scene, we see St Thomas making key choices: he has chosen Howard as a friend and values his affection. But he will give his friend the freedom to leave the relationship, because he values integrity in his friendship with God even more deeply. His friend tries to sow doubt, pricking St Thomas’ conscience by attributing his choice to oppose King Henry’s authority over the Church to pride:
H: and who are you? A lawyer and a lawyer’s son. We’re supposed to be the proud ones, the arrogant ones and we’ve all given in. Why must you stand out? God damn it man! It’s disproportionate! You’ll break my heart!
T: No one is safe Howard, you have a son. We’ll end our friendship now.
H: For friendship’s sake?
T: Norfolk, you’re a fool
H: You can’t place a quarrel Thomas, you haven’t the style
St Thomas honours his friend’s choice to stay in the relationship by challenging him in turn to refine his conscience. ‘The education of the conscience is a lifelong task’[vi] and one that true friends will share, sharpening each other as iron sharpens iron.
T: Hear me out: You and your class have ‘given in’ as your rightly call it because the religion of this country means nothing to you one way or the other!
H: Well that’s a foolish saying for a start! The nobility of England….
T: The nobility of England, my Lord, would have snored through the Sermon on the Mount! But you’ll labour like scholars over a bulldog’s pedigree!
H: An artificial quarrel’s not a quarrel!
T: We’ve had a quarrel since the day we met. Our friendship was mere sloth.
Sloth in friendship: it is so much easier to drift on calm waters of agreement than to risk the rapids of new and difficult moral questions. Running white water will build strength and forge trust, but at the cost of comfort and even safety. The conversation between the friends takes on a dangerous edge at this point, as they try to navigate the deadly political current.
H: Oh you can be cruel when you’ve a mind to be, but I’ve always known that.
T: What do you value in your bulldogs? Gripping is it not? Eh? It’s their nature? Is that why you breed them? And so, with men. I will not give in because I oppose it, not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do, I! Is there in the midst of all this muscle (poking Howards chest) no single sinew that serves no appetite of Norfolk’s, but is just Norfolk? There is! give that some exercise my Lord!
T: Because as you stand you’ll go before your maker ill conditioned
H: Now steady Thomas!
T: And you’ll think that somewhere, back along your pedigree a bitch got over the wall! (Howard attempts to strike St Thomas and the scene ends)
Despite their conflict, Howard still tries to win his friend’s freedom from the Tower of London months later in a hearing held in the middle of the night.
(A Man for All Seasons, 1:31)
H: Oh confound all this, I’m not a scholar! I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it Thomas! Look at these names! Why can’t you do as I did and come with us for fellowship? Will you come with me, for fellowship?
T: And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
St Thomas’ patience with his friend is heroic. He had tried and failed to share his point of view and so St Thomas truly credits Howard with acting according to his conscience. There is no malice between them. I am challenged to be as generous and faithful in my friendships, and to let St Thomas challenge me to grow, relying on the infinite patience and mercy of our heavenly Father. St Thomas More, pray for us!
[i] Mark Shea, “St Thomas More”; available from http://www.mark-shea.com/more.html; Internet; accessed 9 May 2018
[ii] Catholic Encyclopedia, “St Thomas More”; available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14689c.htm; Internet; accessed 9 May 2018
[iii] A Man for All Seasons, 1966 film, directed by Fred Zinneman, screenplay by Robert Bolt, based on A Man for All Seasons, 1960 play by Robert Bolt
[iv] Stephen Smith, ed., For All Seasons: Selected letters of Thomas More (New York: Scepter Publishers, Inc. 2012)
[v] ibid, p 58
[vi] Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1784