Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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September 14, 2000
Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

«The lives of the saints, their struggles and heroism, have always produced positive effects in the hearts of the Christian faithful who, today, have special need of the heroic example of the saints in their self-dedication to the love of God and, through God, to others» (The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, Congregation for the Clergy, March 19, 1999). The example of the martyrs is particularly enlightening, as Pope Pius XI recalled during the canonization of St. Thomas More: «If all of us are not called to shed our blood in the defense of the divine laws, each of us must, nonetheless, by the exercise of evangelical self-abnegation, Christian mortification of the senses, and the laborious pursuit of virtue, 'be martyrs in desire, in order to be able to join them in their heavenly reward,' according to the expressive words of St. Basil» (May 19, 1935).

Thomas More was born in London on February 6, 1477. He received from his parents a severe and scrupulous upbringing, which he responded to docilely, showing himself to be obedient and pleasant. At a young age, he was placed in St. Anthony's School in London. On the threshold of adolescence, he was received, at his father's request, into the house of Cardinal Morton, the archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor to the King of England (the first dignitary of the State, after the King.) He charmed the prelate and his guests during social gatherings with a gift for improvisation which denoted a keen sense of observation.

At the age of 14, Thomas left to pursue his studies at Oxford. Schooled by outstanding professors, he progressed quickly, particularly in his knowledge of Greek and Latin, which allowed him to read the works of the Fathers of the Church in the original text. He devoted himself equally to studying French, history, geometry, mathematics, and music. After two years, his father, who was a lawyer, called him back to London to study law there. In 1501, Thomas himself was called to the bar. He lived at the Carthusian monastery in London for four years, living life half as a religious, half as a layperson, regularly taking part in the monks' exercises, and introducing himself to spirituality. As a result, he retained a great zeal for prayer and penitence the rest of his life. In his work as a lawyer, all thought of greed was foreign to him. He harmonized the rights of the strictest justice with those of the kindest charity. In 1504, at the age of 27, he was elected to Parliament.

In the same year, he married Joanna Colt, a young woman of gentle and simple manners. Three daughters were born of their union: Margaret, Cecilia, Elizabeth, and a son, John. Thomas led a simple life. He was affable and loved to tease without wounding. The year of his marriage, he received into his home Erasmus of Rotterdam, a canon regular of Saint Augustine and perhaps the greatest scholar of his time. The two men were united in the same ideal of humanism.

An attentive husband

In 1511, Thomas mourned the loss of his wife. He soon felt the need to give his children another mother, and so wedded Alice Middleton, the widow of a London merchant and mother of a ten-year-old daughter. Alice, who was Thomas' senior by seven years, was a good head of the household and a vigilant mother of the family. According to Erasmus, her husband «showed her such attentions and kindness as if she were a very young woman of the most exquisite beauty. He led her by caresses and kind words… What could she refuse him? Imagine, then, that this woman, already past middle age, began without any natural inclination and with great perseverance to learn to play the zither, the harp and the flute, each day practicing the exercise that her husband set for her.» Towards the year 1524, the More family settled in Chelsea, near London, in an immense, beautiful house which included a private chapel and a library. They never failed to pray as a family, at least every morning. During meals, a passage was read from the Bible, whose hidden meaning Thomas explained. Then he would propose a less serious topic of conversation, and all would thoroughly enjoy themselves.

Thomas supervised his children in the study of arts and sciences. However, what good would they derive from Latin and Greek if this knowledge ended up filling them with pride? Therefore he asked their teachers to lead them towards humility; thus they would not be «eager to acquire the treasures of knowledge unless to apply them to the defense of truth and to the glory of the Almighty.» Thomas was prepared to do anything towards that end: «Rather than suffer my children to devote themselves to idleness,» he wrote to his daughter Margaret, «I would not hesitate, as much as my fortune might feel the effects of it, to abandon the court and my affairs to occupy myself solely with all of you, most of all with you, my dear Margaret whom I love so much.» Indeed, Margaret was Thomas' favorite child. He kept on his person the letters carefully composed in Latin that she sent him. His tenderness for all his family also manifested itself in the gifts he brought them from his journeys: cakes, fruit, beautiful fabrics…

The cordial welcome of the Mores led their house to be nicknamed the «home of the Muses,» that of «all the virtues» and of «all the forms of charity.» Thomas' charity was boundless, to which his frequent and plentiful alms bore witness. He had the habit of going to the most deserted places at night, so as to meet and help the ashamed poor there. He often received at his table the peasants of the vicinity, gaily and with familiarity. He founded a hospice in which his step-daughter, Margaret Giggs, served as nurse. He had profound faith in Providence. Having just learned one day that his barns had burned down, he gave his wife three instructions: «Gather the household to thank God; see to it that none of the neighbors suffers as a result of the disaster; do not dismiss a single servant before finding him another employer.»

Why so many candles?

But Thomas distinguished himself above all by his continuous intimacy with Christ. To someone who laughed at popular devotions, saying, «Is it that God and His saints don't see well enough that you always have to surround them with candles!», he replied, «Did not Christ say that Mary Magdalene would be honored for having poured perfume on His body? One could at the same time ask, 'What good could this oil do on Christ's head?' The example of this holy woman and the words of our Saviour teach us that God takes pleasure in seeing the ardent fervor of the heart's devotion boil and pour out; He loves for people to serve Him with all the good He has given them.» From the contemplation of Our Lord, Thomas elevated himself to identification with Him, and he emphasized Christ's influence on the entire human race. This presence of the Man-God in the world was the basis of Thomas' fundamental optimism, his love of nature, his understanding of human weakness, his apostolic drive, his unshakable confidence in Christianity, and his sense of humor as well. Nowhere in this world did he see definitive evil, and he strove to see the positive side of all events.

By his virtues, his knowledge, and the works in which he defended the faith and religion against the Protestant innovators, Thomas acquired the esteem of all, and particularly that of King Henry VIII. His services were also appealed to in public affairs. In 1515, he was one of the ambassadors sent to Flanders, where he took advantage of his free time to write Utopia; two years later, he was in France on another official mission. In 1518, he was a member of the King's Private Council, then in 1525, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and finally, in October 1529, to the satisfaction of the entire kingdom, he was named Lord Chancellor of England. The more he found himself elevated in dignity, authority, or honor, the more he appeared superior to all by his modesty, the probity of his character, his patience, and his always humane opinions which made him look at the positive side of things, to which the following anecdote testifies. When a prisoner had escaped after breaking open his jail's doors, the Chancellor had the jailer called before him, more dead than alive. He ordered him severely to see to it that the damage was promptly and securely repaired, «so that,» he added in a gentler tone, «if the fugitive has the urge to come back, it will be impossible for him to break open the prison doors to return!»

Dangerous lassitude

King Henry VIII acted as a faithful husband during the first ten years of his reign. But after that, weary of his spouse, Catherine of Aragon, who had given him nothing but a child, Mary Tudor, he looked for another wife. In 1522, a fifteen-year-old girl named Anne Boleyn arrived at the English court. Although not greatly attractive, Anne aroused a violent passion in the King. She skillfully applied herself to goading on Henry's lust, while at the same time refusing to yield to his desires as long as he was not married to her. She had behind her a party composed of her family and other nobles motivated by various interests.

Henry VIII had married Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his older brother, thanks to a legitimate dispensation granted by Pope Julius II. Seeking a way to repudiate her, Henry VIII questioned the validity of his marriage and believed his doubt could be founded on a text from the Bible (Lev 18:16). Questioned on this point by the King, Thomas apologized, pleading his incompetence to give a decision on a subject concerning canon law. The King then ordered him to study the matter with several theologians; having done that, Thomas replied, «Sire, none of the theologians whom I have consulted can give you independent counsel. But I know advisors who will speak fearlessly to Your Majesty: they are Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, and other Fathers of the Church. This is the conclusion I have drawn from their writings: 'No Christian man may wed another woman during the lifetime of the first woman.'» This was to affirm that the marriage with Catherine was valid. The case was taken to Rome. The Pope would wait until 1534 before declaring Henry's marriage with Catherine to be valid. But More at that time was no longer in the government—on May 16, 1532, he resigned from his post as Chancellor to avoid having to act against the laws of God and the Church, which the Bishops of the kingdom (John Fisher excepted) had sacrificed to the royal authority.

Fidelity or high treason?

At the beginning of 1533, Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn, who was crowned on June 1. In order to give a more solemn sanction to his divorce, Henry wished that princess Mary Tudor be disinherited of all her rights; in revenge, Elizabeth, whom Anne had just given birth to, would be proclaimed the sole and legitimate heiress of the crown of England. Parliament submitted to the King and, on March 30, 1534, approved an «Act of Succession» in this regard. All the subjects of the Kingdom were to take an oath to observe the new law in its entirety. The oath was preceded by a preamble in which the authority of the Supreme Pontiff was formally rejected. Bishops, canons, priests, religious, schoolteachers and professors, the personnel of hospitals and religious organizations submitted and recognized the King as their sole spiritual leader, thus consummating the separation with Rome. John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, Thomas More and several priests and monks refused to take the oath. It would cost them their lives.

Thomas told about his appearance for taking the oath in a letter to his daughter: «When I had arrived at Lambeth, where the royal commission was gathered… I asked that they communicate to me the text of the oath they demanded… After having read it attentively and examining it at length… I declared, in all sincerity of conscience that, without refusing my oath to the succession in itself, I could not consent to taking this oath such as it had been formulated, without exposing my soul to eternal damnation. When I had finished, the Lord Chancellor of the kingdom spoke, and declared that those present were terribly distressed to hear me express myself thus; that I was the first among all the subjects of His Majesty who had refused to take the oath he demanded… I was presented with a voluminous list of adherents… but I declared again that my resolution, far from having changed, was unshakable.»

The responsibility for my soul

For Thomas, faithfulness to the testimony of his conscience was necessary for eternal salvation. «Certain individuals believe that, if they speak in one manner and think in another, God will have greater attention to their heart than to their lips,» he wrote to his daughter Margaret. «As for me, I cannot act like them in such an important matter—I would not fail to take the oath if my conscience told me to do it, even if the others refused to; and just the same, I would not take it against my conscience, even if everyone subscribed to it.» The inalienable character of the conscience does not mean that its injunctions are imposed blindly, Thomas likewise explained. Each person must form his conscience by study and the advice of learned individuals, for the conscience must be regulated by objective truth (cf. Encyclical Veritatis splendor, August 6, 1993). Before reaching the conclusion which imposed itself on his conscience, Thomas compelled himself to a considerable amount of work. Nevertheless, he recognized that the Church's authority prevailed over his own conclusions. But human authorities could do nothing against a right and certain conscience: «It is I alone who carry responsibility for my soul,» he affirmed. Thus, against the false accusations made against him, against the false witnesses, against the King's abuse of authority, against the depravity of moral sense which called «white what is black and good what is evil,» his conscience resisted even to death.

Painful renunciations

The attitude of Thomas More is a light for our times. Pope John Paul II maintains that in the case of laws such as those which claim to legitimize abortion or euthanasia, «There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29)… The passing of unjust laws often raises difficult problems of conscience for morally upright people… Sometimes the choices which have to be made are difficult; they may require the sacrifice of prestigious professional positions or the relinquishing of reasonable hopes of career advancement… Christians, like all people of good will, are called upon under grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God's law… Each individual in fact has moral responsibility for the acts which he personally performs; no one can be exempted from this responsibility, and on the basis of it everyone will be judged by God Himself» (Encyclical Evangelium vitæ, March 25, 1995, no. 73-74).

On April 17, 1534 Thomas was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He used the time of his detention to prepare himself for death by the composition of remarkable works of devotion. Already in an unfinished work of 1522, The Four Last Things, he had highlighted the benefit of thinking about death: if a remedy for all ills were sold at the market, he explained, men would do the impossible in order to procure it. However, this remedy exists, and is called «thinking about death.» But alas, few indeed have recourse to it. The meditation of the last things alone can set their judgment aright.

Reversal of values

This meditation presupposes faith. Faith, explains Thomas, reverses the sense of values commonly admitted by men; it tells us that the Holy Trinity in its entirety resides in the soul in a state of grace, even during time of trial; that our enemies are the friends who do us the greatest good; that thankfulness must go less from the prisoner to the visitor than from the benefactor to the unfortunate one. Above all else, faith uncovers the supernatural value of suffering. It teaches us to turn the illness itself into a cure. For Thomas, all our tribulations exist in order to arouse in us the desire to be consoled by God. However, they also help us purify ourselves of our past sins, and they preserve us from sins in the future, diminishing the sufferings of purgatory and increasing the final reward of Heaven. «Whoever meditates these truths and keeps them in mind… will evaluate with patience the price of the trial, will find that the price is great and soon will consider himself privileged, … his joy will greatly diminish his sorrow and will prevent him from seeking vain consolations elsewhere» (A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation). Such words, written in the very depths of trial, are not vain talk. The supernatural joy that God gave Thomas in prison gave him serenity and developed his natural sense of humor. One day when the commanding officer of the Tower politely excused himself for the frugality of his everyday fare, the former Lord Chancellor answered him, «If one of us is not satisfied with his fare, he can go search for another place to stay!»

July 1, 1535, Thomas was condemned to death for high treason. His judges asked him if he wished to add anything. «I have few things to say, but this: the blessed Apostle Paul was present and consenting to the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Now both of them are saints in Heaven. Although you have approved my condemnation, I will fervently pray that you and I might find ourselves together again in Heaven. I likewise wish that God Almighty might preserve and defend His Majesty the King, and send him good counsel.» A last assault came to test the prisoner's steadfastness. His wife visited and told him, «Do you want to abandon my miserable family and me? Do you want to give up this life in the family household, which you used to love so much?»—«How many years, my dear Alice, do you think I can still enjoy these earthly pleasures that you depict with such persuasive eloquence?»—«Twenty years, at least, if it please God.»—«My dearest wife, you are not a shrewd merchant—what is twenty years in comparison with a blessed eternity?»

«This one has committed no treason!»

On July 6, he was led to the place of execution. The ladder that led to the scaffold was in very poor shape and Thomas needed the hand of the lieutenant to climb it. «I beg you,» he said, «help me get up there. To get down, I'll manage!» Since the King had asked him to be sober in speech in the final moment, he simply said, «I die a good subject to the King, but to God first!» While he kneeled on the scaffold, his lips prayed, «Have pity on me, my God!» He embraced the executioner and told him, «I have a very short neck; pay attention not to hit askew. It is for your honor!» He blindfolded his eyes himself. The executioner already had his ax in hand. «Just a moment,» Thomas told him while freeing his beard, «this one has committed no treason!» The head fell on the first blow. Thomas was in Heaven for eternity.

In the example of Saint Thomas More, let us accept losing all so as to gain Christ, becoming similar to Him in death, and thus attaining resurrection with Him (cf. Phil 3:8-11). We ask St. Joseph for this grace for you and all those dear to you.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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