Jay Anderson has an excellent post on St. Thomas More, today being his feast day along with fellow English martyr St. John Fisher.
On this day I always love to read the letter he wrote to his daughter Margaret from prison that is included in today’s Office of Reading in the Liturgy of the Hours. Most of the versions of this letter I found on the internet were truncated in parts and the following version is the same one found in the office.
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.
This letter always gets to me and it reminds me of the series of letters that St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote on his way to be executed in Rome.
It was said of Thomas More by his friend Erasmus "it might seem that jesting was the main object of his life" when he wrote to Ulrich von Hutten. That he was also a jester only makes me love him more. I don’t know the accuracy of the following, but it would not surprise me if true.
After stumbling on the scaffold steps, runs one story, More told the executioner that he could use a hand when going up–but could manage for himself when coming down. Moving aside his long beard as he positioned his head on the block, says another tale, More explained that it had grown since his indictment and so had to be innocent.
I re-read Thomas More’s Utopia earlier this month which ably displays his humor and wit and is I think is a form of satire much like what Jonathan Swift would later excel at.
I wonder, what translation of “Utopia” did you read? I read a version of it once by a scholar who turned it into a pro-communism manifesto. I can’t remember his name.
Thanks for this post Jeff. It comes as a timely help in standing up again. St Thomas More, that Man For All Seasons, is much needed as a model for us today.
I especially lean on:
“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.”
The most touching scene in A Man for All Seasons occurs when More meets his wife and daughter in The Tower. How he loved his family, with whom he could have been reunited had he caved like so many others and told — lived –a “small” lie. What a man.
I note that some aspects of Utopia could be interpreted as somewhat communistic, but while Sir Thomas More describes this society, he doesn’t necessarily endorse it. I think he is exploring what man maybe could accomplish in society without greed, but also without Revealation and certainly he draws on Plato’s ‘Republic’. Some people think he is describing a perfect world-and that was not his point.
And yes, the letters to Margaret. My oldest daughter and I did a skit on those one year when we celebrated this feast.
Cheers to a great saints feast.
My favorite line from the “Man for All Seasons” movie about More (which I devoutly hope is historically supported) is his exchange with Richard Rich, whose perjury sealed More’s death sentence and gained Rich the governor-generalship of Wales:
“You know, our Lord said, ;What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ [Pause, reflectively] The whole world.
[Longer pause, wonderingly] But – for WALES?”
P.S. I have been spreading More’s name among my separated brethren. Especially effective is his prayer for his friends and enemies just before his execution: “Pray for me as I for thee that we may meet in Heaven merrily.”
I always loved the Utopia, but it is important to remember it was written by a man who was both a master of several languages and misdirection. He uses multilingual puns and a framed narrative to distance himself from what is said in his own book, and ultimately it is nearly impossible to tell what he really meant in that book. His ambiguity and misdirections therefore enable many to read this book as a proto communist statement, because there are moments which seem to tend that way. But the readers of the time would have immediately recognized the model for his ideal society as a monastery.
My copy has a wonderful gloss for the opening section, when Raphael Hythloday (trans: “Babbler of nonsense”) explains why he won’t participate in government because of all the corruption which he then outlines. The gloss runs, in essence: ‘for a Catholic Saint, More knew every dirty trick in the book.’
More employed his elaborate puns and games in part because it would have been fatal to him to have written such a book ‘seriously’ and baldly. That is, he would have offended many in the English government had he said the best government he knew was very different from the English.
A final note, the book set off a literary craze and made More the most famous man of English letters, (among his fans were a few bishops who wrote to More asking him to make them the bishop of Utopia) which was an important factor in his death. A man of lesser noteriety would have not been noticed in his silence.
“I note that some aspects of Utopia could be interpreted as somewhat communistic, but while Sir Thomas More describes this society, he doesn’t necessarily endorse it. I think he is exploring what man maybe could accomplish in society without greed, but also without Revealation and certainly he draws on Plato’s ‘Republic’. Some people think he is describing a perfect world-and that was not his point.”
I read in his biography that the word “Utopia” actually means “nowhere” in a certain language (I forgot).
Utopia is one of More’s many puns. U-topia means, in Greek, “no place”. But “u” as “no” is homophonic with “eu” which means “good”. So the title means both “good place” and “no place.” Or perhaps More was saying “the good place is nowhere to be found.”
Also, in the story he calls himself by the Latin version of his name, Morus, which in Greek is the word for “fool”.
An incredible man, one for us all to emulate.
I especially like his Prayer from Prison, where among other things, he asks “Give me Your grace, good Lord . . . to think my greatest enemies my best friends; for the brothers of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred.”