St. Thomas More’s razor-sharp “Dialogue of Comfort”
I feel privileged to have read another book written by St. Thomas More while he was in the Tower of London awaiting execution: A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation (see my comments last November on The Sadness of Christ). More remained extraordinarily calm under fire for his refusal to approve King Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon or to acknowledge the King as “head of the Church in England”. Moreover, when it comes to his Tower writings, Sir Thomas was not only innocent as a dove but wise as a serpent—and perhaps sharper than a serpent’s tooth.
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The Dialogue of Comfort is presented as just that, a dialogue between an uncle, Anthony, who is nearing death, and his nephew, Vincent, who greatly fears the Turks will invade their native Hungary. Vincent is hoping that Uncle Anthony can give him sound words of comfort that will help him to be true to Christ in the coming upheaval and persecution. Accordingly, the Dialogue discusses all of the goods which may disappear under the Turks, from prosperity to life itself, and Anthony offers ways of looking at each of them which we can use to keep these losses in perspective, especially as compared with eternal happiness with God.
Throughout the text, More draws on the discussions he has had in the Tower with his wife Alice and his daughter Meg, when they visited him in sore need of comfort for his impending loss. He also peppers the discussion with practical wisdom about how incompletely we appreciate so many things here on earth, and with humorous stories which illustrate how foolish we can be in our attachments. For example, he tells of a man who relies on his ability to ask forgiveness of God with his last few words, rather than striving to amend his life. Riding across a slippery bridge, his horse loses its footing. As horse and rider plunge over the edge into the dangerous waters below, he cries out his few last words, “Well I’ll be damned!”
There is, of course, great spiritual wisdom in More’s Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, but its sharp cleverness consists in More writing of the need for comfort in the event of the Turks’ invasion of Hungary while he was being deprived of the exact same things—the Church, prosperity, status, liberty, health and life itself—by a reputedly Catholic king in England. The evil perpetrated by Henry VIII is so astonishingly abrupt and obvious that the mind boggles that so many in England can remain outside the Church when they reflect on the historical events that led them to become Protestants.
The nature of imprisonment
More’s response (for Anthony is clearly More) to his fictitious nephew’s fear of imprisonment is particularly clever and genuinely deep. He patiently brings Vincent to grasp his point that it is really how we look at our prison that is the chief determinant of how much we suffer there. He gives some examples of the nobility being imprisoned under conditions that are delightful in comparison with the normal circumstances of the lower classes, and he notes the many ways in which so many people seem to be imprisoned by their material, physical, mental and moral circumstances.
But most interesting of all is his proof that every single man, woman and child on earth is imprisoned there by God Himself, and cannot escape that prison except through death. Each of us, then, lives under a judgment, and yet we constantly convince ourselves that we are free and happy and, yes, in charge of our own lives. Referring to a wealthy and powerful man condemned to death but imprisoned on a beautiful estate, with complete liberty to enjoy all its benefits, More continues the dialogue:
ANTHONY: Now, nephew Vincent, what would you consider this man? A prisoner, because he is being kept for execution? Or not a prisoner, because he is in the meantime being so favorably treated, allowed to do everything he wants except escape? I ask you, now, not to be hasty in your answer, but to consider all this carefully. I do not want you to grant anything in haste, and then later, at your leisure, regret it and think you’ve been deceived.
VINCENT: No, by my word, Uncle, in my mind this thing needs no study at all. This man is, for all the favor shown him and all the liberty lent him, still condemned to death and being kept for that reason, and kept under such surveillance that he cannot possibly escape. He therefore is, quite obviously, still a prisoner.
Indeed, one person might despair of such a magnanimous imprisonment, while another might be fully recollected, in constant conversation with God, and quite content in a small cell.
Suffering and contentment
Surely it would be impossible to argue that St. Thomas More did not suffer during his imprisonment. In an effort to crack him, as if the discomforts of his Tower cell were not enough, his books were taken away, and also his writing implements. He was reduced to writing with bits of charcoal on what scraps of paper he could find or conceal. There can be little question that he wrote The Sadness of Christ, A Treatise on the Passion, and A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation at least in part to present all of these meditations and arguments to himself, for his own spiritual comfort.
Yet the calmness and genuine concern for others which Sir Thomas displayed throughout his imprisonment and even up to the moment of death testify to the effectiveness of his own remedy. Fortuitously, Americans in the mid-Atlantic region have a signal opportunity to be inspired by an extensive exhibit on Thomas More which is on loan from the Stonyhurst College Collections in England, until March 31st at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, DC. It was there during the Christmas holidays that I was reminded of the prophetic words of G. K Chesterton, written in A Turning Point in History back in 1929:
Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time. He may come to be counted the greatest Englishman, or at least the greatest historical character in English history. For he was above all things historic; he represented at once a type, a turning point and an ultimate destiny. If there had not happened to be that particular man at that particular moment, the whole of history would have been different.
Once Lord High Chancellor of the Realm, More died “the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” His true public path to glory began with his beatification by Pope Leo XIII in 1888, but he was not canonized by Pius XI until 1935, shortly before Chesterton’s death. In 2000, Pope St. John Paul II declared him patron of statesman and politicians.
St. Thomas More, pray for us.
For the edition/translation I read, and other books by Thomas More, see The Thomas More section of Scepter Publishers, or shop Amazon below.
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