On Comfort and Tribulation

St. Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation is a classic of prison literature. Arrested in 1534, More wrote his Dialogue while in the Tower of London during that same year, as he awaited his trial and execution the following summer. More’s book deserves attention this Holy Week as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, as its teachings may help faithful Catholics ponder the spiritual aspects of our present crisis.

More defines tribulation “as any interruption of well-being” (or “prosperity,” which he calls “just another word for well-being”). As such, tribulation is “nothing other than some kind of grief—either a bodily pain or some mental affliction.” More goes on to say that, “Since tribulation is not only every such pang as pains the body, but also every trouble that grieves the mind, many good persons have many tribulations that not everyone knows about, and consequently their well-being is interrupted without other people being aware of it.” Here, More also includes the experience of temptation as “a great inward trouble” and a “secret grief” in a person’s heart.

Such a sense of tribulation already suggests the Dialogue’s usefulness. More would urge us to consider all the “interruptions in well-being” that are underway at this time, whether here or abroad, and those “many good persons” who suffer alone and unbeknownst to us with troubles that grieve their minds. From homeless people to those who feel trapped in their own homes, More would challenge us to expand our idea of tribulation to include those who secretly suffer alongside us, or those who suffer far away, to those who suffer worse or even less than we do, including all who struggle with anxiety, faults, sins, and bad habits. Tribulations abound and call for our compassion and prayers.

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So, too, More’s Dialogue can help us examine our own responses to these unexpected times of hardship. Tribulations “test people’s hearts,” More writes, “and make them know their own dispositions.” Adversity reveals what a person truly cares about in addition to staging ascetical and internal conflicts of desire. As a result, tribulations can be the means of transforming our interior natures by reordering our loves to God—or, conversely, tribulation will be the means of pulling us away from his grace.

Indeed, our own thoughts and feelings about tribulation, More would suggest, are grounds of spiritual combat. More invokes St. Peter’s image of the devil who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” before explaining how people are tempted:

The devil takes careful note of the state and condition that every person is in. This has to do not only with external things (such as lands, possessions, goods, authority, reputation, and worldly favor or disfavor), but also with those inner qualities and circumstances (health or sickness, good or bad moods, and so forth) that render people lighthearted or sluggish, stronghearted or faint and feeble of spirit, bold and hardy or timid and fearful of disposition. And according to whatever way these things provide him material for his temptations, he adapts the manner of his tempting.

Though any temperament and situation offer an opportunity for demonic attack, More’s special concern during tribulation is for those susceptible to fear. Of these, the devil will not cease casting “into their minds such frightening ideas that without help from God they can never cast them out of their hearts.” These “frightening ideas” are part of what More calls the “terror of the night,” a kind of temptation designed for those who succumb to “faintheartedness.”

More explains the consequences of losing our nerve. First, tribulation combines with fear to make us impatient with our lives, and this leads to what More calls a “perverse state of mind” that grows “intractably stubborn and angry towards God.” Such an attitude risks falling into blasphemous rebellion. The fault of faintheartedness also “prevents people from doing many good things which, if they acquired a strong spirit by trusting in God’s help, they would be able to do.” More believes that the devil puts fearful thoughts into our imagination, but we need to “cast away those cowardly notions” and instead ponder that “man in the Gospel who stored up his talent and left it unused and thereby utterly lost it.” After all, the reason why he did not develop his talent was fear.

So, More would have us ask ourselves how the tribulations of pandemic are being tailored into temptations perfectly suited to our own faults or characters. To awaken the self-knowledge of his readers, the Dialogue describes “two kinds of folk that are in tribulation and sorrow”: those who seek comfort, and those who do not. It may seem strange to us that people wouldn’t seek any comfort in relief of suffering, but More explains how such cases come about because of difficult times.

First, tribulation tempts people into despondency. Some are so “drowned in sorrow that they fall into an indifferent, deadly dullness, such that they don’t care and almost don’t think about anything anymore than if lay in a stupor.” More worries that this state “can go so far” that a person’s “intelligence and memory will wear away and even totally fall away.” Such dispiritedness, if not corrected, becomes the deadly sin of sloth.

Others reject any encouragement because “in their tribulation (be it loss or illness) they are so grouchy, so irritable, and so far out of all patience that it does no good for anyone to say anything to them.” More calls this group “furiously impatient” and alerts us that a habit of such behavior hazards “a calamitously high branch of the mortal sin of anger.” As with despondency, indignation springs from the loss of hope.

Still others seek comfort not in God but in worldly pleasures. Of this approach to suffering, More writes: “God will, on account of that foul fault, allow our tribulations to grow so great that all the pleasures of this world will never bear us up.” Indeed, anyone who seeks after “rest and ease, entertainment, pleasure, well-being, and bliss,” More warns, is a like a “foolish fellow” on his way home, “where he would be well-off and happy,” but instead stops on the way for the “pleasure of beer,” never leaves, and then “dies in a stable.”

At last, More turns to those “who desire and long to be comforted by God.” These will receive comfort straightaway because their attitude alone is likely to bring divine assistance. He explains why:

In the first place, they see themselves seeking for their comfort where they cannot fail to find it. For God both can and will give them comfort. He can because he is almighty; he will because he is all good and has himself made the promise, “Ask, and you will receive” (John 16:24). Whoever has faith (which you must have in order to get comfort) cannot doubt but that God will definitely keep his promise. And therefore these people have great reason to be of good cheer.

More hastens to add that these people will “leave it to God to decide how they be comforted, and who hold themselves content with whatever way he chooses.” God may diminish the tribulation or give spiritual consolation in the midst of crisis. No matter the divine response, people who pray with such trust should know that God delights in their abandonment to his fatherly care.

More’s taxonomy of responses to tribulation may function as our own examination of conscience. Are we—or one of our children or relatives, or a spouse, or a friend—inclined towards despondency, anger, or worldly pleasure as a reaction to sickness, isolation, or “shelter in place” orders? Lock-down alone might inspire one, two, or all three responses. But, if so, what are the first spiritual steps in helping ourselves or others? What if the sacraments are unavailable where we live, as they may not have been available to an imprisoned More? It seems like a cruel contradiction to urge faithful Catholics to intensify their devotion during days of Lent but to do so without the Holy Mass.

Here again, the Dialogue’s recommendations about how to pray may prove most valuable to us. To begin, More recommends that we find “some secret, solitary place,” and there imagine we are actually leaving this world and giving account of our life to God. Neither of these were difficult for More in the Tower as he awaited Henry’s next move, but the need for silent self-examination—time alone in prayer—was a lifelong practice. In such times of prayer, we should confess our sins and temptations, call to mind the benefits we have received, and give humble and heartfelt thanks for each individual blessing. We should “boldly pray” for, and not assume, the salvation of our soul. We should pray for an increase in faith, hope, charity, and every virtue “that will serve toward getting us to heaven.” Petitionary prayers shouldn’t dictate the sort of comforts we want to receive because “so blind are we mortals, so unaware of what will happen, so unsure even of what frame of mind we ourselves will be in tomorrow, that God could hardly do anything worse to us than to grant us in this world our own foolish wishes.” Instead, those in search of comfort should pray for spiritual gifts—not pleasure, or the avoidance of suffering.

To pray for spiritual gifts is something More emphasizes in places that might surprise readers. When he writes about “the tribulations that we know perfectly well we brought on ourselves by something we did, such as when we get sick after gluttonous feasting,” More recommends that we pray to God that “he not only be so merciful to us as to take our present tribulation as a substitution for pain in purgatory, but also be so gracious to us as to take our patient bearing of it as grounds for merit and reward in heaven!” God will grant this petition, More assures us—“I do not doubt it in the least,” he writes—because of God’s supreme generosity. Yet More’s other important point is that we need to pray through our failings rather than let our failings take us away from prayer.

In prayer, all tribulation will be redescribed and reimagined as “a gracious gift from God, a gift that he specially gives his special friends,” echoing Scripture. So, too, uninterrupted prosperity can be dangerous to our salvation. If God doesn’t send a cross, people will need to seek one out through penance; tribulation can purge us from our past sins or preserve us from sins we otherwise would have committed. What’s more, adversity teaches us detachment from the world and incites us to draw closer to God, and trials can diminish our purgatorial pains or increase our reward in heaven.

The way of the cross was the path of our Savior and his disciples, and the thing without which no one can get into heaven. If we remember these things, More concludes, we shall not “murmur or complain in a time of tribulation” but “grow in goodness” and even thank God for our plight.

Image: The Meeting of Sir Thomas More with His Daughter After His Sentence of Death by William Frederick Yeames


  • Travis Curtright

    Dr. Travis Curtright is Professor of Humanities and Literature at Ave Maria University. Dr. Curtright is also editor of the journal Moreana: Thomas More and Renaissance Studies.

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