Thursday, June 22, 2017

Thomas More

Today is the feast day of Thomas More, my confirmation saint.
Thomas More is perhaps one of the hardest saints to actually convey to modern Americans, both Protestant and Catholic. In his own day, in his own society, he was a legend even while alive--and in death, his name, smeared and blackened by all his triumphant enemies, lived on in honor, the lost promise of a better world. Yet the world he lived in and the world he worked for are alike foreign to those who live today.
For we live in the world that was built on his defeat--the world that could only exist if he were crushed out of existence, removed from the world. His lifeless body, and his head impaled on the Traitor's Gate, are alike fitting symbols of our civilization.
Thomas More lived during one of the turning points of Christian civilization. During his lifetime, the world of Christendom turned and turned and turned again, engulfed in massive and uncontrollable change. The printing press was spreading knowledge and lies alike like wildfire--unprecedentedly prosperous societies were beginning to see the perils and possibilities of that wealth--newly strong and centralized governments were testing their limits and their power--national feeling and loyalty was rising--religious fervor was reaching its height on the backs of a newly sophisticated and informed laity--discontent among the poor was becoming ever more real and dangerous. In this, Thomas More was very far from a reactionary, or even a conservative--he was one of those on the forefront of change, one of those who worked tirelessly to build a new, better future, unlike all that had come before. In himself, in his words and his writings and his deeds alike, he embodied one path forward, one solution to the ills and challenges of his age.
This was recognized by his peers, each in their own way: Erasmus frankly worshiped him, his family, his way of life, as the humanist's dream. Henry VIII saw his utility as an advisor and governor as plain as day, and made use of it for his own ends--and when the King turned from hero of humanism and Catholicism to its bitter persecutor, he saw just as plainly the danger of Thomas More as his enemy. Even after his death, the wily Emperor Charles V emphatically declared that he would rather have lost the third largest city in the Empire than give up such a giver of counsel. When the Catholic Bishops of England wished to respond in print to William Tyndale's raving pamphlets, they sought as their champion not a recognized religious scholar, a priest or monk or bishop, but this overburdened layman, statesman, and father. The common people of England revered him long after his death as a contradiction--the only honest statesman and judge, the friend of the poor and the oppressed. These examples could be easily multiplied.
But who was Thomas More, and what was the vision he embodied? Put simply, it was Christendom--Christendom one people, one nation, made up equally of Italians and Englishmen and French and Hungarians, and all others who confessed the name of Christ--it was an educated, pious laity, male and female, embodying in themselves the best of the monastic virtues, and bound by a thousand ties to one another and the institutional Church--it was the revival of scholarship and learning in all of Europe, a learning aimed at the cultivation of virtue as much as the increase of knowledge--it was justice for the poor, their defense against the rapacity of the powerful and the greed of the rich--it was a sense of humor, an earthy realism and dignity in marriage and children and celibacy alike, a richly embodied and human life in which the human and the divine lived together in close contact, with God always having the primacy. It was humanism--in the truest sense of the word.
Of course it failed--or rather, it was murdered, all across Europe, over many painful centuries. Thomas More saw the great disaster as it happened, with a burning clarity, and fought it with all his strength. He hated Protestantism with a fury greater than anyone in Europe at his time--for he saw in it, quite rightly, the seeds of ultimate betrayal and defeat of everything in which he believed, everything for which he had lived and fought. The breaking up of the one body of Christendom into warring nations and tribes and races and factions, divided by religious adherence and private judgment and tribal loyalty--the plunging of the life of the laity into a chaos of divided loyalties and private interpretations, void of the monastic virtues and all asceticism save that of ambition--the breaking of the precious link between knowledge and virtue and faith, the triumph of mere technical skill, of the boorish, prideful scholar unbound by any loyalty save to himself, defining life and cosmos and bringing forth wars and schisms based on his own private gloss on Romans--the successful revolution of the rich over the poor, the victory of endless rapacity over settled life, and the gradual destruction of every institution and every refuge of the weak--the triumph of self-seriousness and dull self-importance, the plunging of humanity into the hellish wasteland left by the reinforcing terrors of Puritan dread of the body and hedonist indulgence of it, the breaking of the fragile bond uniting the human and the divine. All this he saw with painful clarity--and he saw truly.
Of course, he lost the battle--lost it totally, without hope of recovery. In the end, he was hounded to his death by all the people and institutions in which he had seen the seeds of a better tomorrow--butchered like a criminal by the people and the King he had served so well and so faithfully.
When he died, few people, if any, really understood this death--for on the face of it, he died merely for a strict adherence to the doctrine of Papal primacy. When Thomas More died, the people of England, from the top on down, were still fervently Catholic--indeed, they were among the most pious in Europe, all but immune to the charms of Protestantism; and they would remain so for decades to come. Still, it is likely that few, if any, of these really understood why Thomas More had to die. After all, squabbles between Pope and King were among the basic stuff of Medieval life; people were used to the idea of the two falling out, and equally used to them coming back together in the end. They were realists, and the painful idealism of Thomas More must have seemed like inflexible madness, or at least pious stupidity.
In the end, though, they were far less happy than he. They bent their necks to a burdensome imposition by the government, expecting full well that all would soon return to normal--and instead had the agony of watching their religious and communal life mutilated, plundered, banned, and tortured for come. They did not recognize the times in which they lived--they did not see what Thomas More had seen. For it, they suffered worse than almost any people in history have suffered.
Still, even for the humanists, the scholars and thinkers across Europe for whom Thomas More had been a hero and a model, his death was not widely understood. Worse, it was incongruous. He was Thomas More, the humorous, ironic jester and reformer--a man of his world and of his day, a statesman and a lawyer and an impeccable writer of Ciceronian Latin. He was no saint, and no martyr--far from it. His death as part of a petty squabble over a royal annulment was at best a meaningless accident, at worst an unforgivable embarrassment.
Still, these humanists too would live to see the death of their dreams--and what they did not know of Thomas More was much more important than what they did know. They did not see the hairshirt hidden beneath his rich robes--they did not see him, late at night in his chapel alone, scourging himself with a rope for the sins of the world--or down on his knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament, for as long as any woman in his neighborhood remained in labor, not rising until the child was born. They did not know the burning flame of faith in the Cross that defined the deepest, most intimate part of his existence. It was this--his trust in the the failure and shame and torment of God in the flesh--and not any faith in the future, or learning, or society, that inspired his deeds.
So in the end, Thomas More went to the scaffold merrily, joking with his guards and the executioner, full of joy as always at the humble dwelling of God with man. He died, in every earthly sense, a failure--yet he died full of confidence and peace.
This confidence was not in the victory of his cause on earth--far from it. It was a confidence precisely in defeat, in failure, in ultimate loss in the face of history. It was this that made him free, and those who killed him pitiable slaves.
His God was the Crucified Christ--theirs some passing idol of this world. Thus, he was happy until the end, victorious even in defeat and death. He is happy still.
Saint Thomas More, pray for us.

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