Why Thomas More?

I am a day late, but to the internet world: happy feast day of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher! I haven’t posted in ages, but I thought the celebration of this blog’s patron would be a good time to come back.

My friends and I drank and feasted mightily last night in memory of this merry man, and the amount of texts, emails, and Facebook posts I received in honor of the feast was touching. I attribute this sudden widespread knowledge of my love for him to my wedding a month ago. A good family friend painted this incredible copy of Holbein’s Thomas More as a gift for us, and its display at the reception caused a lot of people to ask a lot of questions about who the medieval guy was and why he was hanging out next to all the ribbons and pots and pans and gift cards to Bed, Bath & Beyond.

At a certain point during the reception, my cousin Andrew approached and informed me that he had been explaining to people all night why I loved Thomas More. “What did you say?” I asked him, suddenly aware that I wasn’t quite sure how I myself would have answered. “I told them that you admire him for his rational defense of the Catholic Church when it was under attack in Tudor England. And he wrote Utopia.” That sounded pretty good. “How did you know that?” “It’s wikipedia level knowledge.” Staring into the weeds of More scholarship in the past few months of dissertation research can make me lose sight of big picture points, like “why do you love this guy so much?” I thanked Andrew for reminding me.

I think that’s a great summary not only of why I love him, but of why he’s so important these days. G.K. Chesterton famously said that if More was important in his day and age, he wasn’t half so important as he would be in 100 years. We’re coming close to that mark, and I think these crazy times are proving G.K. to be correct. And not simply because there is a crisis of belief nowadays, though this is true. More’s “rational defense” goes beyond Tudor England, and beyond Catholic doctrine; More gives a rational defense of the harmony between faith and reason, which is ultimately a defense of reason itself, which cannot exist without faith of some kind. All knowledge involves some amount of belief, and More takes this truth and hammers it home to its logical conclusion: that the human longing for truth, philosophy, beauty, and peace are fulfilled in Christ alone, Christ in His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I think I fell in love with More because he was just a normal guy who did an awesome job being himself. As a person who never felt called to religious life myself, More inspired me by his faithful living out of the lay vocation. He was a professional and a family man, and I always knew I’d be a married woman one day and I knew I’d do some kind of work. At the beginning of Utopia More writes a letter to Peter Giles about how difficult it was to find time to write in the midst of the busy duties of his life as a lawyer, father, and husband. I was always struck by the passage where he describes the progress of his day in detail, and how, after a busy day outside the house, he would go out of his way make time to attend to the servants, his children, and his wife as important items of business, since these duties are necessary “unless a man wants to be a stranger in his own home.” I don’t think he’s being crass in talking about spending time with his family like it’s a job. More’s careful diligence in these domestic matters is a virtue in its own right. I think we’d have happier families if we imitated that example.

More gave me hope that a person could live radical holiness and integrity without performing marvelous feats or withdrawing from the world. Holiness does not necessarily mean everyone will battle the devil or enter a cloister. More defended the active life as having a status of its own when the Church was coming out of a time that emphasized contemplation as the highest path to perfection. I loved More because he showed me that normal life infused with supernatural motives was an equally viable path to holiness. I loved More because he had a developed concept of the diversity in people’s temperaments, and how different personalities had different talents, virtues, and gifts to offer the Church. There are as many vocations as there are people. There are also many vices to battle. We each have our own, but More is always confidently reminding us that the manly struggle against these faults is the way to heaven. Do you think we’re going to get to heaven on featherbeds? He’d ask his kids. No: you have to work. You have to labor and struggle to win the prize. But there is always hope of victory because God is a “very tender loving father” who is always ready to assist.

There’s a lot that could be said about his delivery of these ideas, and his rhetoric is its own branch of study. His works read with the down-to-earth affability and accessibility of a middle-English C.S. Lewis, and somehow he could make a profound point about the need for good posture in prayer by using ridiculous images of men picking their noses and cleaning out their fingernails in church. He was famous for his humor, and Shakespeare dramatizes this nicely by having the More in his play crack jokes with his head on the block – and this scene is based on truth. What a guy he must have been to have had the fortitude to make wise cracks in the minutes before his death. This could only have been the fruit of years and years and years of deliberate cultivation of that kind of cheery disposition. He seems to have been pretty sanguine by nature, but I wouldn’t bet for a minute that he didn’t have to make a solid effort to maintain that natural buoyancy in troublesome times. None of his jobs were ever easy. Lots of prayer, and a habit of relying on God always – as my dissertation adviser told me in one of my own discouraged moments.

I think I love More most of all, though, because he’s a faithful friend. He spoke often of friendship, and if you spend enough time with him he’ll teach you the art of being a good friend. He’s certainly taught me a lot, and also done a lot for me: he was always my go-to guy in my times of discerning what to major in, whether to go to grad school, whether to go on to a PhD, who to marry, what to write my dissertation on. He’s never failed when I’ve asked him to put in a word for me with the Big Guy, and he seems to insert himself into my life in all the most important moments. Thanks to the generosity of friends, I brought some pebbles from his cell in the Tower of London up to the altar with me when I said my wedding vows. He really wanted to be there in some way, maybe to remind me that love and marriage (as I am finding out) is a kind of death to yourself, but the reward is amazing.

Here’s to you, More. May you teach us something of your faith, fortitude, humor, devotion, creativity, integrity, learning, audacity, kindness, realism, generosity, and cunning in these days when these virtues are so necessary.

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