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The King's Good Servant But God's First, The life and writings of Saint Thomas More. (Book Review).

James Monti, The King's Good Servant But God's First, The life and writings of Saint Thomas More, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 497 pages, 1997, soft cover, $31.93 Cdn.

James Monti tells us he intends "to present a new portrait of Thomas More in the light of his writings." His book is an exposition of More's daily living the Catholic faith, and this exposition examines the roots and expressions of Saint Thomas' spirituality: his consciousness of the mystery of man's mortality, his pervasive devotion to the Passion of Christ, and his deep love for the Holy Eucharist. That love and his spiritual reading led him to realize the necessity of conforming himself to Christ.

Monti shows that, from his earliest published work, Thomas's spiritual development was of a piece, that he did not, as his critics claim, develop in age beliefs and practices which contradicted the beliefs and practices of his youth. Monti shows "Four last things" (death, judgment, heaven, hell, to be one of the finest examples of spiritual writing extant.

The King's Good Servant But God's First, is well footnoted, is fully indexed, and has an extensive bibliography. Coherent writing allows unobstructed reading, enhanced by relevant quotations from the Yale edition of the Complete Works of Saint Thomas More (fifteen volumes). More's English is rendered closer to modern English by very slight modifications. Monti refers extensively to the five earliest biographies of Saint Thomas, written by men who knew More himself or members of his circle, and he incorporates the recent findings of Tudor and Reformation scholars. The book contains photographs, and two portraits of the King and his good servant, both men at forty-nine years of age, grace the book's cover. One can look at them for a long time.

Like Caesar's Gaul, the book is divided into three parts.

"Part one--The Journey to God Begins" tells of his parents' home, his Oxford education, his study of law at the Inns of Court during his residence at the London Charterhouse. Throughout his life, he exercised in his daily routine the penitential practices which he had adopted at the Charterhouse. Mont recounts his study of the Fathers of the Church; his availing himself of the spiritual direction of one of the foremost humanist scholars of the age, John Colet, dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral; his happy family life, and his enduring friendships.

Part one ends with an excellent synopsis of the intellectual, political, and ecclesiastical life of pre-reformation Europe which corrects the canard of the widespread corruption of the Church on the eve of the Protestant Revolt. On a diplomatic mission to Bruges, More wrote Utopia to amuse his friends, but Utopia is also a sharp criticism of the failure of Christian Europe to match the Utopians, who have only reason to guide them.

In Part two--"The Battle for the Soul of England," Monti lets us see the Protestant Revolt from its beginning with the eyes of the gifted, balanced, humanist scholar, the Catholic apologist, the member of Parliament, statesman, and Lord Chancellor of England who wrote from "the reasoned ardor of his Catholic convictions."

More answered Luther, but it was in 1528 that Thomas More came into direct confrontation with the theological father of the Protestant Revolt in England, William Tyndale. More's Dialogue Concerning Heresies exposed Tyndale. Tyndale's Answer unto Sir Thomas More's Dialogue occasioned Saint Thomas' magnificent Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, a complete exposure of heresies and a comprehensive defence of the Catholic faith.

Rather than analyzing each of Saint Thomas' nine apologetical works, Monti synthesizes More's thoughts on various issues. Saint Thomas shows that the Church has preserved her unity throughout the ages, that the sum total of the Christian creed consists both of what is contained in the Scriptures and what is preserved through the oral tradition of the Church, that Christ established the seven sacraments and gave them to the Church, that the existence of Purgatory is proven by several passages in Scripture, and that such traditional practices as the use of relics, holy images, and the crucifix; pilgrimages; the veneration of the saints (particularly Our Lady); prayer; fasting; almsgiving; and religious life are reasonable and efficacious.

Tyndale's use of a novel vocabulary to suit his heretical theology ("seniors" for "priests;" "favour" for "grace") exasperated More, but he had fun exploding Tyndale's demand for women priests. Women, Tyndale complains, are in "miserable servitude.. because men will not suffer them to say Mass." Heard that recently? He had forgotten Thomas Mores' firmly advocating the education of women. His daughters were among the most highly educated women in sixteenth century Europe.

Part three--"Love Strong as Death: The Final Battle" deals with Henry VIII's making himself head of the Anglican church and the consequent destruction of the unity of Christendom.

With his imprisonment in the Tower on April 17, 1534, for his refusal to take the oath to the Act of Succession, More's life came full circle, from the confines of a cell with the Carthusians thirty years before to his cell in the Tower of London, each entered under different circumstances for the service of God. All his life, he had been preparing himself for his imprisonment and his martyrdom.

More's two masterpieces are the Tower works, A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation and De Tristitia Christi (The Sadness of Christ). The dialogue in A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation is between an old man (Anthony) who comforts his nephew (Vincent) in his fear of a Moslem invasion of Hungary, and the dialogue represents More (Anthony) comforting his family (Vincent) in their fear and suffering. The dialogue explores a great irony and paradox; it is in suffering, accepted as a gift from God, that we gain through meditating on the passion and death of Our Lord the greatest spiritual benefit and comfort. More counsels those who suffer temptation, and towards the end of the book, he considers the most dangerous situation: persecution for the faith, which, as Monti paraphrases More, "brings upon us at the same time both the allure of ease and comfort if we renounce our faith, and the dread of torture and death if we remain steadfast in our religion." Anthony counsels Vincent that Our Lord will save us from torture and death, or He will give us the strength to bear these sufferings for Him for which we will gain eternal life. Saint Thomas' notations in his prayer book, the Book of Hours, reveal his fears, hopes, thoughts, and inner struggles throughout his fourteen and a half months imprisonment. De Tristitia Christi reflects on those sufferings.

In 1963, in the reliquary closet of the Chapel of the Relics in the Royal College and Seminary of Corpus Christi in Valencia, Spain, the scholar Geoffrey Bullough discovered the holograph manuscript of De Tristitia Christi. The discovery was amazing, but the story of its journey to Valencia is enthralling.

The work begins with the conclusion of the Last Supper, and we encounter the major theme--the idea of watching with Our Lord through the night. Saint Thomas' mastery of vocabulary and sentence structure achieves a dramatic intensity in bringing before us the depth of the Passion of Our Lord in Gethsemane. More then reflects on the bishops of England in his account of Our Lord's finding the Apostles sleeping. The silence of the bishops and of others is a denial of Christ.

The Treasons Act (December 1534) established death by hanging, disembowelling, and dismemberment as the penalty for denying any title of the king. With serene humour, More continued to frustrate the commissioners examining him in their increasing attempts to entrap him.

On July 1, 1535, in Westminster Hall, a jury, terrorized by Cromwell, convicted Saint Thomas on the perjury of Richard Rich. His charity to his judges far exceeded his accurate denouncing of the accusation and the sentence. His words "though your Lordships have now here on earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet, to our everlasting salvation" are repeated in his hope-filled words of loving comfort to his daughter, written in charcoal (his books and writing materials had been confiscated) on the eve of his martyrdom: "Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends that we may merrily meet in heaven."

Monti makes us see the high, clear action of the morning of July 6, 1935. On hearing Henry had changed the sentence to beheading, More joked with his jailer, "God forbid the king should use any more such mercy unto any of my friends...." On the progress up Tower Hill, he carried a small red cross. He asked help up the scaffold, but stated he could shift for himself coming down. On the scaffold, he rejected the customary hypocrisy of praising the king's just sentence. He proclaimed his innocence. To strengthen the people, he assured them he died in and for the Catholic Church, he prayed that Henry be given good counsellors, he asked the prayers of the people as he would pray for them. After his private prayers, his head was struck off.

Monti concludes his book with the significant "Epilogue: The Aftermath." Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More were canonized by Pope Plus XI in 1935. On May 19, 1982, Pope John Paul spoke of Saint John and Saint Thomas in Westminster Cathedral.

Germain Marc'hadour, a pre-eminent More scholar, wrote in 1962 of our facing what Saint Thomas faced, the reconciling of our loyalty to the state with our loyalty to God and the necessary consequences of our choice for God. In 1929, Chesterton prophesied: "Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death...but is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years' time." Monti's excellent biography and the increasing number of scholarly publications on the life and work of Saint Thomas are helping to bring that prophecy to its fulfilment.
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Author:Loughran, Hugh F.
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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