Saint Thomas More (1478-1535)

February 7 (the anniversary of his birth)

It was the stubble.  That, more than anything, drew me to Saint Thomas More when I was young.  Of course, I had seen the film version of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, and I enjoyed it.  You are a bad fellow if you don’t like Paul Scofield as More.  When I was in college and studied Tudor history, I read the play and Utopia and William Roper’s Life and much more.   But it was Holbein’s third attempt—the surviving portrait of Thomas More—that won me to him.  There are the eyes, yes: one filled with mirth and one with austerity, together presenting a harmonious Catholic vision.  Beneath the eyes is the dark coloration of skin that marks a middle-aged man who works hard and faces anxiety.   So, too, the wrinkles and crows’ feet.  There is laughter there and the burden of office.  The lines that cross the upper arch of the nose—that comes from much reading, and a face that could play its part— solemn or jesting as the season demanded.

But it is the stubble that won me.  Flecked with grey, it gives a certain earned grace to More’s face.  Hans Holbein the Younger did not have to include it, but he saw something in it.  Holbein had made several preliminary sketches of More.  The first one left him looking like an angel just stepping out from a barber’s shop, or perhaps never in need of a barber.  The second places revealing details in just the right place: on the eyes and the chin.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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The final portrait of 1527 shows that More had already achieved a certain virtue.  More’s face shows a man careful and troubled about many things, but also a face that has not forgotten “but one thing is necessary,” as we read in Luke 10:41-42 and the lives of the saints—all of them.

How did More win that face?  Well, on the natural level, by having a hard-charging and loving father who saw to it that Thomas was educated well and fearlessly. Take a good look at the family sketch that Holbein made.  You will see Sir John More near his son’s side.  Sir John was a rock of old English Christendom and not one to suffer fools.  That fearless equilibrium was handed down to his son.  Thomas More, at the end of his days, was one of a handful of souls strong enough to stand up to the king and his over-thrusting, rough wooing of England, Mary’s Bower.  Like St. John Fisher, More was a well-educated humanist.  Greek learning, fluency in Classical Latin, breadth of reading in secular and sacred authors — thanks to his father’s encouragement, all that was More’s.  In early sixteenth-century England such learning distinguished More from many of his contemporaries who could find little that held a balance between the new learning of humanism and the conservative old ways.  Ironically, the land later to be associated with moderation and a religious “middle way” was too often guided by imbalanced men.

Though More was quick to rebuff or lampoon priggish and shallow defenders of anything, he did not mock the past of Christendom or Scholasticism or any of the hoary traditions of his countrymen — quite the contrary.  Even those things he could not himself embrace, he noted with affection and good humor.  That some good folk thought God heard their prayers better from the north side of St. Paul’s than the south amused him.  He did not think it worth sacking a side altar or obliterating the tradition from communal memory (like many an English divine a generation or two later).  An enduring culture is organic and the product of a balance between intellectual and folk traditions.  Each one nurtures the other, if there is something to hold the balance.

In this hour, at this moment in our own Nation’s history, men are mentioning More and speaking of the cause of conscience.  Daily talk of persecution increases.  “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr.” These words of Francis Cardinal George from 2010 are increasingly described as a prophecy and have been cited by conservative and liberal commentators weighing the fate of Catholicism in the modern world.  More leaps to mind because of his particular death.  Yet if we are to understand what cast of mind and strength of character stood behind the “man for all seasons,” we would do well to spend a few minutes with young More, the More who prepared himself to be merely a good Catholic and in so doing fashioned the stuff that would endure persecution and receive the crown of immortality.

A Lawyer and Statesman Formed by  Carthusians

The young More’s patience and deliberation in the midst of a changing world and under the prompting pride of a well-placed father are remarkable.  After enjoying an Oxford education and accelerating towards a promising legal and political career, More steadied the flow of his own life and spent four years in the Carthusian Charterhouse of London.  Here he pursued the study and practice of the law, while following as closely as he could the rules of the Carthusians.  For four years More rose at about 2 a.m. and passed the first several hours in contemplative and communal prayer.  More admired the monks’ chanting of the Divine Office, but the fullness of the Office and the singing of it were viewed as too much for a man still engaged in the temporal order.  More constructed his own abbreviated form of the Liturgy of the Hours, which he recited in the morning and then again in the evening.  More loved music, but perhaps not the way he sang: he spoke or intoned his psalms.

During the time he associated himself with the Carthusians, he was called to the bar, practiced law at Westminster, was elected to Parliament, translated the Latin Life of Pico della Mirandola, studied and lectured on Saint Augustine’s City of God, learned Greek, and made a final determination to live his days as a married layman.

For More, a balance was found between living in the Carthusian tradition while engaging the world.  And when he left the Charterhouse to build a career and establish a family he took with him habits and instincts which we may ascribe to the Carthusians—by inspiration and purification.  His love of contemplative prayer and the rhythm of liturgical life are obvious, but perhaps less so are an enlarged wonder for gardens, a realistic sense of human nature and the place of wealth, and a clearer understanding of the papacy and the spiritual unity of Christendom.  All these can be ascribed to his time at the Charterhouse—and it is no surprise that around his final days there he lectured on the City of God, a work dedicated to explaining true peace and a way of being Christian in the face of a world that at once needed redemption and tried to seduce its redeemers.  More knew and took much of Augustine to heart, especially his thought in the City of God; indeed, St. Augustine would become one of the most quoted authors in More’s works.

The experiment at the Charterhouse was one of More’s greatest successes; it gave him an abiding, inner world in which to find solace in the face of daily pressures and later doubts.  He always remembered the Carthusian community with love.  We should too.  The entire Charterhouse community was murdered by Henry VIII and his agents—three, including the prior, in the days before More’s own execution, and the remaining 15 between 1535 and 1540.  Though Carthusians, they kept themselves informed of the world’s affairs and were viewed by many as wise counselors — or, by those whose passions demanded a compliant clergy, as dangerous provocateurs.

One of More’s biographers has commented that More’s children became for him his Liturgy of the Hours.  And there is truth to that.  More left the Charterhouse as a young man and quickly married.  He had clarity on the matter of his vocation and part of that clarity was a profound joyfulness in the miracle of life.  He would write—to the shock of some—that he found the miracle of a child’s creation and birth to be a marvel equal to the resurrection of a dead man.  More’s determination to live a layman’s life was made with the counsel of Carthusian monks and in a religious house dedicated to Our Lady of the Annunciation. What could be a better illustration of the rich paradoxical nature of life?

More would have four of his own children by his first wife, Jane.  Lady Alice, his second wife, was older and they had no children together.  His grandchildren numbered at least 21, a third of whom he lived to see born.  No doubt we can attribute some of the lines beneath his eyes and what appears a hasty morning shave to these blessings.  More was a busy man.  Yet it would be wrong to attribute to Thomas More the modern spirituality that says confidently “my work is my prayer, I consecrate my work to God.”  That was not enough to make a saint.

More continued throughout his life to rise early, perhaps close to the 2 a.m. of his Carthusian mentors.  When he finally could afford it, he constructed a private chapel.   He continued to pray a modified Liturgy of the Hours.  Each and every day ended with the More family gathered together praying a litany of the Church and the Seven Penitential Psalm—6, 31, 37 (38), 50 (51), 101 (102), 129 (130), 142 (143).  In his last days More lived in and through the Psalms, recommending (in his Dialogue of Comfort) the Psalter as a source of daily guidance and maxims.  One of his final works was to pen into his own copy of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin the famous “Psalm of Thomas More,” whose lines begin “Give me Thy grace, good Lord/to set the world at naught.”  It is a kind of Summa of the Penitential Psalms and a deeply personal testimony to the love of Christ found in detachment.

From his early adulthood More had the Penitential Psalms engraved in his memory.  They formed an inner core of his spiritual life.  The conclusion the final Psalm of this group—Domine, Exaudi, or Psalm 142—must have been on his mind and lips as he approached the scaffold of his martyrdom:

Thy good spirit shall lead me into the right land…for I am Thy servant.

The face of the future martyr that we see in the Holbein portrait was not shadowed and lined and marked with stubble merely because of the world’s weight.  There was that, to be sure.  St. Thomas More worried about his married life, his children, his finances.  He suffered like any man under the strain of his own ambition and temptations; as life went on, the burden and loneliness and doubt only increased.  No, the face that we see in that portrait was worn more from early rising and long imitation of his true King, Whom he found in Scripture and the Fathers, Whose past servants were celebrated at the shrines and in the common feasts of Christendom, and Whose messages he read in the wonder of the created order.  The whole of this life heralded another.  In More’s portrait, he does not look straight out or vaguely to the side of the viewer like most contemporary paintings (like those, for example of Henry VIII).  Rather, More’s eyes are set and focused, and something shines in them.  His face is the face of man who has traveled much and has a stage still before him.  It is a face looking towards another destination, his home, a city beyond London, a city of which glorious things are said.  His face is the face of a man who knows that if he can just keep the difficult balance a while longer, he will have some peace.

Thomas More was born on the first Friday after the Feast of the Purification—just beyond Christmastide and not yet into Lent, but in the ordinary time in between.  He was executed on July 6 and his feast has been variously observed in the days between late June and early July—again in the midst of ordinary time, balanced in the middle of the year.


  • William Edmund Fahey

    Dr. Fahey is president and fellow of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hamphsire.

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