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still witnessing

By Diogenes (articles ) | Oct 19, 2005

Fr. Ronald Knox, addressing an audience gathered at the London home of Thomas More on the anniversary of his martyrdom, spoke about the uncanny power of times and places and things to make the past vividly present to us:

There is, I think, a healthy kind of paganism lying very near to the roots of this odd compost, human nature, which we shall certainly never get rid of, however much the rationalists try to argue with us, however much the moralists denounce us; a kind of paganism which insists that mute and material things have the power to carry spiritual influences. If I should be invited to go and stay at a country house in which a baronet shot himself, to sleep in the same room in which he shot himself, on the very anniversary of the day on which he shot himself, wearing the same pyjamas which the baronet was wearing when he shot himself, it is an odd circumstance, but I shall not find it easy to get to sleep. The rationalist assures me that the room to-night is the same rooms as it was last night, that it is no different, considered in itself, from any other room in the house; and that the pyjamas are still in good condition. That is all quite true. And the moralist assures me that it is very wrong of me not to go to sleep; it argues that I have a superstitious nature, and that it is a very degraded thing to have a superstitious nature. But all their well meant efforts are unavailing, once they have put the light out. At any other time the confidences of the rationalist and the moralist would have the power to send me to sleep immediately. But they cannot send me to sleep in the baronet's bed, on the anniversary of the baronet's death, in the baronet's pyjamas. [R.A. Knox, "The Charge of Religious Intolerance," in The Fame of Blessed Thomas More, London, 1929]

I was put in mind of this passage when reading Rich Leonardi's account of his recent visit to Tyburn and the Tower, from which we see that the past -- at least versions thereof -- is still very much present to the natives. An excerpt:

We were given a 90 minute tour of the cell, the chapel where St. Thomas' body was first deposited, and then the crypt tomb where it now rests. Our gaoler shared many details of St. Thomas' life. Milk Street, on which the boyhood homes of both Thomas More and Thomas a Becket were located, is just off Tower Hill. Young More likely snuck away from his mum to watch a beheading or two.

Interestingly, this year's gaoler posed the same question to us that his peer did last year: "The Pope had granted many divorces before, why wouldn't he give one to Henry [VIII]?" You got the sense that this is a stock question to spring on every visitor. I took the bait and explained the difference between a divorce and an annulment; it didn't seem to register.

It registered with St. Thomas.

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