Today, June 22, is the feast day for St. Thomas More, “the King’s good servant, but God’s first,” who is my patron saint in confirmation, the patron saint of lawyers and statesmen, and the patron in baptism for our first son. In other words, St. Thomas More is important in our house, as an exemplar for how to persevere in the cause for religious liberty, and for steadfast Catholic faithfulness in a culture that is awash in relativism. And, he’s English.
Recently I was able to lay hands on a copy of the out of print book published by Yale University Press entitled Thomas More’s Prayer Book: A Facsimile Reproduction of the Annotated Pages (1969). This book is a treasure. Not only does it contain a facsimile of every (surviving) page from More’s breviary which he used to pray the office while imprisoned in the Tower of London prior to his martyrdom, but it is also annotated by a rather expanded scholarly introduction, and contains for its final section a transcription and translation of More’s notations in the margins of his prayer book.
The Introduction explains that More’s prayer book is actually two books bound together — a liturgical psalter and book of hours — dating from sometime between 1530 and 1540. The text is in Latin, and the printing includes a series of fine woodcuts of various scenes that illuminate the pages, and which are well reproduced (and beautiful).
Short of making the necessary arrangements to view the original breviary (which I believe is still in the possession of Yale University), the facsimile pages provide a very tangible connection with the saint. His notes are shown throughout the book, and he composed a prayer in paired lines above and below the pages in the book of hours, sometimes referred to as More’s “Godly Meditation“:
Give me thy grace, good Lord,
To set the world at nought;
To set my mind fast upon thee,
And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths;
To be content to be solitary;
Not to long for worldly company;
Little and little utterly to cast off the world,
And rid my mind of all the business thereof;
Not to long to hear of any worldly things,
But that the hearing of worldly phantasies may be to me displeasant;
Gladly to be thinking of God,
Piteously to call for his help;
To lean unto the comfort of God,
Busily to labor to love him;
To know mine own vility [vileness] and wretchedness,
To humble and meeken myself under the mighty hand of God;
To bewail my sins passed;
For the purging of them patiently to suffer adversity;
Gladly to bear my purgatory here;
To be joyful in tribulations;
To walk the narrow way that leadeth to life,
To bear the cross with Christ;
To have the last thing in remembrance,
To have ever afore mine eye my death that is ever at hand;
To make death no stranger to me,
To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of hell;
To pray for pardon before the judge come,
To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me;
For his benefits uncessantly to give him thanks,
To buy the time again that I before have lost;
To abstain from vain confabulations,
To eschew light foolish mirth and gladness;
Recreations not necessary — to cut off;
Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss at right nought for the winning of Christ;
To think my most enemies by best friends;
For the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred.
These minds [thoughts] are more to be desired of every man than all the treasure
of all the princes and kings, christian and heathen, were it gathered and laid together all upon one heap.
More composed his Godly Meditation in English, but most of More’s writings in the margins of the psalter of his prayer book are in Latin, and brief, but valuable too.
For example, alongside Psalm 70:6 (“Thou hast upheld me from birth, thou hast guarded me ever since I left my mother’s womb; ever in thee was my trust”), More writes, “in tribulation with disgrace” and at verse 9 (“Do not cast me off now, in my old age; slowly my strength ebbs, do not thou forsake me.”) he writes, “senectus segnis est / old age is sluggish”. We get, in addition to More’s piety, a glimpse of his sense of humor as well.
Throughout the psalter we are invited to spy the mind and soul of More, and his favorite references to certain psalms for specific prayers or prayer intentions. At Psalm 41, which begins “O God, my whole soul longs for thee, as a deer for running water…”, More writes, “Happy the man who can say this from his soul.” He also notes psalms useful pro rege, or “for the king,” who in More’s case, was the same king who had him imprisoned there in the Tower.
There are entries on facing tribulation and false accusation, specific prayers against the torment of demons, dealing with scruples in confession, having faith, hope and trust, and an array of others. I find these notations so valuable, that I’ve undertaken to systematically begin inserting them into my own breviary as I pray it each day, so that I am not far from my patron as he prayed the same psalms that we pray today.
When we consider martyrs, we are frequently presented an image of a person with unquenchable faith, by which the faithful (but unsaintly) people of God are somewhat challenged, because we do not recognize such capacity for martyrdom in ourselves. We are fearful and suspicious that our faith will not carry us through any such final test.
Anecdotally, we know that St. Thomas More was willing to die for Christ, but afraid that his human weakness, suffering under pain, would break him (“…that I wot well my lewdness hath been such that I know myself well worthy that God should let me slip, yet can I not but trust in His merciful goodness that… if I shall suffer, His grace shall give me the strength to take it patiently…”). We too, can benefit from seeing the struggle that accompanies such a path to Heaven.
Without a doubt, St. Thomas More’s prayer book belonged to a saint, but an entirely fallible human one, who struggled under much the same types of oppressions, who feared for his well-being and his family, but surrendered these fears to God through earnest prayer. I am comforted to think that as he suffered, he continued his prayers for the king and the system that unjustly accused and martyred him, as he no doubt continues to do today as the fight continues here on earth. We would do well to follow his example in much the same way.