Thomas More: The Merry Saint

Thomas More: The Merry Saint
Paul Thigpen

This is the introduction from my book Be Merry in God: 60 reflections From the Writings of Saint Thomas More (Servant, 1999).

© 1999 by Paul Thigpen

The gold chain around Sir Thomas More's neck testified publicly to his rank and wealth as one of England's most prominent statesmen. But beneath the chain, closer to his heart, lay a silent witness to a far higher vocation, a far richer treasure: Under the ruffles of Renaissance finery he wore a hair shirt next to his skin. Endured as a secret penance — for years, not even More's wife knew he wore it — that scratchy garment of animal hair scrubbed his soul and kept him from becoming too comfortable in a life that was as fragile as it was fraught with temptations.

The mighty Lord Chancellor of England behaving like an ascetic monk: What do we make of such a paradox? Perhaps Jesus' words on the night He was betrayed offer us a clue to understanding such a man. The Lord prayed in that terrible hour in Gethsemane — a prayer More himself carefully pondered — that His disciples would be able to remain in the world without being of the world (see John 17:11-19). Early in life More had considered becoming a Carthusian, withdrawn from public life in the sweet labor of contemplation; but he concluded that his vocation lay elsewhere. When we consider the remarkable gifts that he was later to employ on behalf of the Church and his country, we can only agree that his discernment was correct. More's intellectual brilliance, moral integrity and religious faith were desperately needed in the tumultuous world of Renaissance and Reformation. But that world did not own him; he belonged to another. Each prick of the hair shirt reminded him of that truth.

No doubt More faced ample worldly enticements. Born in London in 1478, the son of a lawyer and judge, he became acquainted early on with the perks of public service, and as a young page in the household of the archbishop of Canterbury he observed up close the pleasures that wealth and status could afford. After schooling at Oxford and the study of law at Lincoln's Inn, he was admitted to the bar in 1501 and embarked on an illustrious career that would be the envy of any politician.

More entered Parliament in 1504 and became undersheriff of London in 1510. Having tutored little prince Henry, he was a favorite of the court once the young man took the throne. The king sent More as ambassador to France and Flanders, appointed him to the Royal Council in 1517, and knighted him in 1521. He was chosen speaker of the House of Commons in 1523, became High Steward of Cambridge in 1525, and four years later was appointed by the king as Lord Chancellor — one of the most powerful offices in the realm.

Though he could hardly be called extravagant, for most of his adult life More enjoyed the lifestyle of a man of some means: He owned multiple homes, barns and lands; employed live-in servants and private tutors for his children; and collected exotic animals and artifacts as a hobby. His fine education and intellect afforded him as well what were in his day the quite rare pleasures of scholarship. His home was a center of Renaissance culture in England, and he himself was known throughout Europe as one of the leading scholars and intellectual figures of his day, translating Lucian from the Latin and writing poetry, history, political philosophy, religious treatises, devotional books and prayers.

Status and wealth, power and fame: More had them all. He stood undeniably in the world. So how could such a "worldly" man have become a saint? How did he avoid being of the world — or perhaps we should ask, how did he maintain a firm allegiance to the world to come?

We find in this man's life no single or easy strategy for becoming a saint. Yet we can see a pattern in his words and in his deeds: Through one means or another, More continually exposed the shadowy nature of this world by turning upon it the brilliant light of eternity. He was able to maintain persistently his allegiance to the world to come in large measure because that world was incessantly before his eyes, more real to him in many ways than the worldly temptations that surrounded him. Such a vision prompted him, for example, to have his own tomb built and his epitaph engraved in the prime of his life–a stark reminder of his own mortality.

Other illustrations of this wise perspective abound throughout his life. No doubt the daily routine of a household as large, as wealthy and as prominent as his included a thousand distractions from spiritual priorities. Yet More found ways to focus on what was most important: He led his family and servants each evening in their prayers together. He had Scripture and scriptural commentaries read aloud at mealtimes, followed by family discussion of the texts. He devoted his Fridays to prayer and study. And he insisted that no business would ever keep the household from church on Sundays and other days when they were obliged to be at Mass. Once while in church he even refused to answer the king's summons until the Mass was over — making it clear Whose command took priority.

The hair shirt was only one element of More's personal austerities. He was known to discipline himself with other, equally private, penances, such as sleeping on planks with a log for a pillow (and allowing himself only four or five hours of sleep a night). He dressed as simply as possible when his public duties did not require otherwise–he was not fond of that gold chain, nor the ruffled shirts–and when he did have to be decked out in finery, he wore it with such carelessness that his family was embarrassed and his acquaintances joked about his appearance. Though he spread many a banquet for family and friends, he often turned down delicacies at the table for himself. The forms of gambling so popular among his wealthy contemporaries he banished from his home.

One sad incident recorded in his correspondence reflects how lightly he held his possessions. Fire one day consumed his barns, and the grain that filled them, while he was out of town on business. When he received from his distraught wife a letter telling him of the terrible misfortune, his letter of reply showed no tinge of self-pity or bitterness. "Be of good cheer," he told her, "and take all the household with you to church, where you should thank God: both for what He has given us and for what He has left us. … I pray you: With the children and with all the household, be merry in God." (1) With an eye on eternity, More could own barns, and grains, and everything else without their owning him.

Those who were close to More often learned a lesson or two from him in this regard. Anne Cresacre, his daughter-in-law, once begged him to buy her a string of pearls. Hoping to remind her of the vanity of such costly trinkets, he gave her instead a string of white peas. The strategy worked, and she longed for expensive jewelry no more.

More's focus on spiritual values rather than transient possessions was evidenced as well by his persistent works of mercy and justice. The poor were frequently invited to his table, and he established an almshouse to share his wealth. He gave litigants free advice about how to resolve their differences without his services; he always refused gifts from those who might try to buy his influence.

The allurements of power and status were similarly repulsed by More's conviction that life is fragile, a conviction clearly reflected in a brief exchange he once had with his son-in-law (and later biographer), William Roper. One evening King Henry dropped in unexpectedly for dinner at More's home at Chelsea. After a fine time of merriment, His Majesty walked with his host in the garden for about an hour with his arm around the older man's neck. After the king had left for home, Roper was exuberant about the evening, remarking to More that he had rarely seen Henry favor anyone in that way.

More agreed, but added soberly, "Even so, I have no cause to be proud of it. For if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go." (2)

The saint's last public words, uttered on the scaffold in 1535 when Henry had in fact decided to exchange More's head for political advantage, sum up well the kind of vision he had maintained for a lifetime: "I die the king's servant," he reminded his listeners, "but God's first." The king's servant — in the world. But God's first — not of the world. (3)

Like his deeds, More's writings are saturated with this sharply focused view of the life to come. The somber treatise on The Last Things, for example, centers on the "four last things" of classical Catholic theology: death, judgment, hell and heaven. More shows how a serious consideration of our ultimate destiny can serve as effective "medicine" to cure spiritual sickness. The traditional "deadly sins" are analyzed carefully here; More seems to have known from personal experience how powerfully these sins can grip a soul. Nevertheless, as he insisted, we need only remember how fleeting are those things that serve as the occasions for our pride or envy, our avarice or gluttony, to break their hold on us. And recalling that we will one day give a full account for our deeds can chasten the way we live today.

This book, perhaps his most sobering, may seem at times like the grim reflections of a man on his deathbed, where most people at last (if ever) take their mortality seriously. Yet it came from his pen when he was near the height of his rise to power and prestige in the king's service. No matter how alluring the gold and the glory, the wine, women and song of Henry's court, More was able to keep his distance by taking the long view of things. The worms, he never tired of repeating, will one day have it all.

If such were his thoughts in the prime of life, how grave must they have been when at last his integrity brought him into conflict with his old friend Henry. More was imprisoned and threatened with the traitor's horrible form of execution — disembowelment — for refusing to recognize the king's claim that he could declare himself the supreme head of the church in England. For fifteen months he languished in the shadow of the scaffold, and in those terrible days he wrote some of his finest works: his treatises To Receive the Blessed Body of Our Lord, On the Sadness of Christ, and On the Passion; his Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation; and his collection of final instructions, meditations and prayers.

Even so, compared to The Last Things, there is at times a freedom, even a lightness, in these last works — the Dialogue, for example, is filled with "merry tales." Yet this quality in itself bears testimony to his convictions about eternity. Once the die was cast, the career crucified, the world and all its enticements surrendered, More was able to soar merrily above the horrors of the moment to behold the promise of glory that awaited him if only he could persevere to the end.

Such lightness, though a recurrent theme throughout More's life, startled his contemporaries — as it does ours — when it appeared one last bright time as the saint joked with his executioners. Weary and stumbling from long ill treatment, and with his hands tied behind his back, he feared that he might not be able to negotiate the shaky steps up to the scaffold to be beheaded. So he turned to the lieutenant beside him and quipped, "I pray you, see me safely up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself." Once he had laid his head on the block, he asked the executioner to wait while he moved aside his beard, which had grown long and scraggly during his imprisonment. After all, he observed dryly, his beard had never committed any treason! (4)

It was only the last of many jests from a man who had persistently taken his own advice to "be merry in God." For More was from his early days a first-class joker. As a boy he once wrote a stand-up comedy routine to be recited as a welcome to the guests at a feast. His youthful Latin compositions play on the fact that his name in Greek, Moros, means fool, and they sparkle with wit: "If your feet were as light as your head," one noted, "you could outrun a hare!" (5)

As an adult he became famous well beyond England for his practical jokes, such as "medicating" the food of guests — with what kind of surprises, we can only speculate with glee. Even his formal treatises include a number of funny stories whose good humor can still draw laughter nearly five centuries later. And though he may have taught his children that "virtue and learning are meat" while "play is only the sauce," the children well knew that he considered the spice of the sauce indispensable. (6)

Is it any wonder that such a man's household included a live-in professional jester and a pet monkey?

Here again, More presents us with a paradox: How could the author of The Sadness of Christ, the man who wrote so much about the deadly sins, about death, judgment and hell, be at the same time such a "merry saint"?

Perhaps we need to reconsider the relations between hope and humor. Someone once said that God has given us hope to encourage us about what we can one day become, and humor to console us for what we are now. Laughter is, after all, our response to the gap between what is and what should be. So a finely tuned sense of humor is often the distinguishing mark of clear vision — the kind that sees this life sharply with all its incongruities, yet sees as well the possibilities and implications that lie hidden beneath the surface. Thomas More had such a vision.

The key here, it seems, lies in those last two words of the saint's exhortation: "Be merry in God." Without God — without the hope of another world beyond this one, for which this one is longing — there could be no true merriment. There could be only the shallow giggle of flippancy, or the hollow mockery of the cynic. To be truly merry is to live lightly in this world, to be unburdened with cares about things that are quickly passing away. In a sense, we might say that for those who take God and His will with appropriate seriousness, nothing else need be taken seriously. To be in the world but not of the world is, among other things, to laugh at the world.

And so Saint Thomas More, enduring the ordinary trials we all suffer, and a few more extraordinary ones beside, remained merry for a lifetime, and he called all those around him to merriment as well. Even in his last letter on the eve of his execution, the words ring like the crescendo of a musical refrain that has sounded through all his correspondence: "Be merry in God!" When you lose a loved one, be merry. When the barns burn, be merry. When your career is shattered, when your friends betray you, when you end up in prison, when death stares you in the face — "Be merry in God!" Today's tears, he reminds us all, can water the soil of our souls, and one day "we will have in heaven a merry, laughing harvest forever!" (6)

After all: We must never forget that heaven is the last of "the four last things."

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1. Letter to Lady Alice More, Woodstock, 3 Sept <1529>.
2. William Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More, in volume 36 of The Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910, p. 102.
3. R. W. Chambers, Thomas More. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1958, p. 349.
4. Chambers, pp. 41, 347.
5. Chambers, p. 90.
6. Roper, p. 104.