12TH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
St. Thomas More has long had a special place in my personal devotions. He was such a great example of a Catholic layman who was a very holy man while living his life in the world as a great scholar and a holder of high political offices. His holiness cost him his life, but to the end he gave great example by being obedient to his evil monarch who was his true executioner. On the scaffold, St. Thomas even forgave the poor man who was about to take his life, and he did so, as he said, “right readily,” and he even comforted him by telling him not to be fearful, because his action was sending him to God.
How sharply this behavior of the saint contrasted with that of his predecessor as Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, who is reported to have died in terror of his soul, or with the pathetic death of Henry VIII, suffering from a great mental deterioration, and whose last words were “All is lost! Monks! Monks!, Monks!” which may well have meant he was tortured by the memory of his dissolution of the monasteries. Yet St. Thomas More went to his execution with great bravery and good spirits, convinced that, in the final reckoning, this monstrous crime against his life would result in a great blessing, for it would simply shorten the time he would have to wait to see, at last, His beloved God face to face.
This is the attitude of true Christian faith, and it is seen not only in the history of our martyrs, but in all men and women of deep faith, a faith enabling them to see their life in this world truthfully and clearly and as a preparation for the real happiness they were created for, the happiness that can only be found only in God. Those who possess such faith cannot be intimidated by the world, and so they do not live in fear of whatever the world can do to them, or threaten them with, for they, like their Divine Master only live in the world, but are not of the world. Their true homeland is not England or France or China or the United States, but Heaven – and they long for their true homeland with such great desire that nothing can make them cling to this world, and nothing can make them live in fear in this world.
Surely, it is this very attitude that Jesus teaches his disciples in today’s Gospel, a lesson that St. Thomas More would gladly learn and live by 1500 years later. “Fear no one” said Jesus. Do not let men intimidate you. And so even a brutal tyrant like Henry VIII could not intimidate a Thomas More to violate his conscience and abandon his Catholic faith by denying that the Successor of St. Peter is head of Christ’s Church in this world. “Do not fear those who deprive the body of life, but cannot destroy the soul,” said Jesus. Ans so, the brutal Henry could destroy Thomas More’s bodily life, but he could not touch his soul. Only Thomas More could harm his own soul by denying his faith, and St. Thomas knew that only God could send him to Hell for denying his faith. So he did not yield his soul to Henry, who could only send him to the executioner and take away his bodily life. St. Thomas only feared God who could take away the life of Grace and send both his body and soul to Hell.
Now this is not speculation, for we know that St. Thomas More thought this way. We still have a letter sent to his daughter from Prison, in which he speaks of this salutary fear of God and his fear of the possibility that he might betray God and lose his soul. But at the same time the great saint speaks of his love of God and his trust in God’s mercy, based not on his merits, but on the merits of His Redeemer. He writes this:
“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… I know this well, that without my own fault he will not let me be lost … and if he permits me to perish for my own 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 rather serve to commend his mercy. And therefore my good daughter, do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world.”
This is the beautiful attitude of the true Christian, the courage which comes from faith. The Christian’s lack of fear is not based simply upon his or her own natural courage and strength. St Thomas More was realistic and recognized that he could easily collapse if left to his own natural courage. But Thomas More’s faith supplied him with great courage and hope. It did this, first of all by enabling him to see and hold firmly to a proper scale of values in this world, which in turn gave him a deep conviction that this world is in no way equal to Heaven and that a man’s physical life is not the highest form of life. The highest life for man is rather the life of grace, God’s life. Unless we value the life of Grace far more than our physical life, then under such duress we will inevitably live in fear, be always subject to intimidation, become slaves of the world and its terrors.
Moreover, St. Thomas’ lack of fear at the end is not based upon his own merits or on some presumption that God owed him heaven in some way. The saint mentions his own merits, but does not base his hope on these merits of his, but on the merits of His redeemer, for without Christ’s merits we would have no possibility of having any merits before God. Rather, Thomas More’s hope and trust are based upon God’s mercy, even if he has some merits of his own, for he knows that even his merits are themselves the result of God’s grace and the divine mercy which gave us Jesus Christ for our salvation. Because our Catholic notion of personal merits is grounded in Christ’s merits, we always look to God’s mercy for our salvation, and it is this that makes us confident, that if we truly try to serve God and obey God, he will forgive our sins and take us to Himself to show the greatness of his tender mercy.
On the other hand, we can also learn from this great saint’s faith, that our trust in God’s mercy in no way implies that we can live however we choose and do whatever we want to in this life, and assume that in the end, even without our repentance, God’s mercy will save us. That is precisely the deadly sin of presumption, and it is a very wide spread sin in our world today. That is not the attitude of St. Thomas More or any other saint. His whole attitude is one of trust based upon God’s mercy, but also presumes his own deep repentance for his sins. That is why this great statesman frequented confession and why he asked for this sacrament of mercy just prior to his execution. He trusted in God’s mercy absolutely, but his faith taught him that God’s mercy operates only where repentance motivates us to seek it, and where we are willing to make use of the means God has ordained to dispense this mercy, which includes confession and absolution of sins.
We cannot willingly ignore these necessary means for receiving His mercy and expect mercy, for neglecting the means chosen by God to dispense his mercy shows that we lack true repentance, and it could only be presumption form us to trust in God’s mercy in this way. It would be like trusting a doctor can heal us, but refusing to take the medicine he says is necessary to be healed!
Finally, not only does this attitude of faith, which values the life of Grace more than physical life, heaven more than earth, God more than anything or anyone else, including self, enable us to be free from fear of death, free from intimidation by the threat of death, but faith liberates our whole life, period. More wrote from prison that even his imprisonment had actually turned out to be a blessing. For years he had been a busy minister of state, and now he had more time to spend on caring for his own soul; indeed, he wrote a great spiritual work in prison. In that same letter to his daughter, St. Thomas writs these beautiful words:
… as yet he has taken nothing from me but my liberty. In doing this His Majesty has done me such a great good with respect to spiritual profit that I trust that among all the great benefits he has heaped so abundantly upon me [in the past] I count my imprisonment the very greatest.”
St. Thomas More, like us, had a natural fear of death, and he hoped to live longer, especially for the sake of his family whom he loved next to God. But he loved God above all, and he saw in this misfortune in worldly terms, a great blessing for his soul, for it enabled him to suffer with Christ and make up for his past sins, draw closer to God, and be more prepared for Heaven. He deeply believed what Jesus said in today’s Gospel, that “whoever acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” He totally trusted these words of Jesus, and they conquered his natural fear and made it impossible for an earthly king to intimidate him into denying what Christ taught about the Church, which would have resulted in him being disowned by Christ. We must pray for the same deep faith, and then we too will at last be free, free from fear of men, free from sin, free in our whole life in this world, and free forever with God in the next. Amen.