Friday, June 19, 2015

St. Thomas More, a father for our season

Anybody who has watched Robert Bolt’s 1966 film A Man for All Seasons is aware of More’s love for his eldest daughter Margaret. The iconic film includes a few well known scenes involving the two of them, the first in which she impresses KingHenry VIII with her fluency in Latin—rare for a woman at that time—and the other where she pleads with More to take Henry’s Oath of Supremacy for the sake of his family.

These scenes have some basis in historical fact. More was very proud of his children’s intellectual accomplishments—especially Margaret’s—and Margaret did visit More during his imprisonment in the Tower of London. Margaret reported in a famous letter called A Dialogue on Conscience that her father teasingly called her “mistress Eve” when she tried to convince him to take the oath.

Meg, as More affectionately called his eldest, was the apple of her father’s eye. It was to Meg that he said in a famous portion of this letter excerpted for the Office of Readings on June 22, More’s feastday: “If [God] permits me to perish for my faults, then I shall serve as praise for his justice.”

But More was intensely devoted to his whole family not just Margaret. He had four children by his first wife, Jane Colt: Margaret, Elisabeth, Cecily, and John. When his young wife died, More quickly married Alice Harpur Middleton, four years his senior, for his children’s sake. Though More and Alice had no children together, Lady Alice had a daughter from her previous marriage, also named Alice, and the couple also assumed the guardianship of Anna Crescare, later married to More’s son John.  Erasmus, the famous humanist and a friend of More’s, marveled at the “kind of natural felicity” that existed in the More household. He praised his friend’s “geniality in the management” and his devotion to “family duties.”

The Family of Sir Thomas More, originally painted by Hans Holbein and repainted by Rowland Lockey. 

More has long been the patron saint of lawyers, and in 2000 John Paul II also made him the patron of statesmen and politicians. I would further propose that St. Thomas More is an excellent role model for fathers to turn to on this, the eve of Fathers’ Day weekend. There is no societal institution more under siege today than the family, and there is plenty of sociological research indicating that fatherhood is suffering the most.

What can we learn about fatherhood from St. Thomas More? How can we achieve the “natural felicity” that Erasmus so marveled at? Here are three lessons:

-       The importance of education in virtue. Despite the intensity of his schedule, More was personally invested in his children’s education. His son and daughters alike worked with private tutors in a variety of liberal arts under More’s close watch, and while he was traveling he would regularly write to his children, expecting their well composed responses. There is a touching poem he wrote his children in which he praises them for their previous letter. “Therefore, turbulent, cherished troop of mine,” he writes in Latin hexameter, “go on to win even more the favor of your father.” But it wasn’t education for education’s sake. Rather, More tells his children that their fine letter is the “result of the way character matured in youth conducts itself.”

-       The primacy of prayer. Having considered the priesthood, More was himself very devout. He built a separate structure near the main house where he would spend every Friday in contemplation and prayer. More’s intense personal example gave moral force to the expectations he had for the rest of the family. William Roper, Margaret’s husband and More’s first biographer, wrote of the family prayers: “[S]o was his guise nightly, before he went to bed, with his wife, children, and household, to go to his chapel and there upon his knees ordinarily to say certain psalms and collects with them.”

-       ‘But God’s first.’ More’s teasing address of Margaret as “Mistress Eve” in the Tower of London contains his final lesson for fathers. More put God before everything, including king and even family. He would take Henry’s oath neither for his own sake nor for Henry’s. Neither would he take the oath for the sake of his family. History records that the family’s property was confiscated after his execution and that Lady Alice died in poverty. More’s advice to Margaret, which he urged that she convey to Lady Alice: “Nothing can come but what God wills.”

St. Thomas More was a man for all seasons, and certainly a father for our particular season when marriage and the family—and especially the institution of fatherhood—has been so weakened. We need fathers like him: men of strong character who care deeply about their children but especially about God and the accomplishment of his holy will.

St. Thomas More, pray for us!

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