On July 6, 1535 Thomas More, lawyer, devout Christian and intense family man, Lord High Chancellor of England, was beheaded at the order of King Henry VIII, his friend from childhood. Thomas loved life, paid close attention to the education of his son and daughters, and filled his house with music and art and interesting visitors. He considered entering a religious community but chose instead to live a secular life infused with his faith and spiritual practices. He had a constant sense of humor, was always punning, and, according to his close friend, the famous humanistic philosopher Erasmus, was a model of warm friendship.
He fell out of favor with the king when Henry decided to set up his own church, breaking with Rome, mainly so he could divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn. We have letters that Thomas wrote from his stark prison room in the Tower of London, especially to his daughter Margaret, an intelligent and loving woman who wrote to him, begging him to reconsider his decision not to agree to Henry’s wishes. Margaret was Thomas’s worst tempter because he loved and admired her so much, but he held his ground.
Biographers are divided about the extent of More’s harsh treatment of unbelievers. It appears to me that he did, in fact, have the extreme values of someone too devoted to his religion. I don’t know the answer to this riddle, but I still admire him for his life and ultimate choice.
When I think of those months in prison when Thomas feared the horrendous torture he might have to face and the love of his family, I imagine the whole of culture balanced on a fulcrum. On one side lay the secular world we know today, and on the other, not just Christianity but a deeply spiritual way of life. I picture Thomas foreseeing the world that we have inherited from that time, a world where we only take seriously knowledge that has come to us through physical measurements and literal observation. We no longer live with in the presence of invisible realities too subtle for a materialistic mind to grasp.
So, on July 6th, each year I celebrate and thank Thomas More, whose interests in life were eerily much like my own, as my ideal for choosing a living, truly spiritual existence over an empirical, dead world. He stuck to his values under great fear and distress and over the pleading of his much loved daughter and family. At the place of execution it is said he told the man wielding the blade not to cut into his beard, which apparently was quite long at that point, because it was not guilty of treason.
We are each faced with the same choice in our own lives. Will we succumb to the easy appeal of a materialistic life, or will we choose a world full of beauty and spiritual vitality? Could we give up all the joys of life for that one essential orientation in the world, a life of spiritual depth and enchantment?