A Saint in the Family

I once asked a friend who is a direct descendant of a very famous person why she kept quiet about the matter. She gave me a straight look and muttered something about it being ‘rather a lot to live up to’. As we were drinking some very good champagne at the time (even in the Cambridge of the 1970s), and her distinguished forebear was, among other things, a fervent advocate of teetotalism, I saw her point. One wouldn’t want to be compared unfavourably or accused of not living up to his example. It is much the same for those with a saint in the family. It is a great honour, but often a challenging one. I was taught by a descendant of St Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret; joined a community founded, inter alia, by his great-great-grandaughter, Helen, later D. Gertrude More; and for many years lived in a house owned by the Eyston family, who are descended from the saint via Maria Teresa Metcalfe, who married Charles Eyston in 1814 (see here for genealogy). Sadly, I haven’t become holy by association; and when I think of all the Recusant families which found it convenient to conform during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I wonder whether we don’t try to flee the greatness of our ancestors. They were just too good for us.

Fisher and More challenge us today just as they challenged their contemporaries. A couple of years ago I summed it up in this way:

The concept of ‘the right thing to do’ may be beautiful in its simplicity, but it can be devilish hard to work out. I have no doubt that SS John Fisher and Thomas More, whose feast we keep today, were men of great holiness of life but I don’t subscribe to the cult of mindless adulation they are often surrounded by. They are held up as champions of conscience, marriage, papal authority and the like. In an important sense that is true, but historically it is also less than the truth because the questions they considered were complex, susceptible of different answers, and have only gained the precision we give them today because time has allowed us to consider them more fully. If you look at More’s correspondence, you can see him gradually working towards the answer which led him to the scaffold, but it was by no means a foregone conclusion. He ducts and weaves, not in a bad sense, but in the way that a lawyer ducts and weaves through law and precedent, searching for . . . the right thing to do. Fisher, too, though he was of a different temper from More (and slightly nicer to his enemies) came to the conclusion he did after much deliberation.

I honour them both for their courage in accepting the consequences of their deliberations, and hope I might be as brave were I to find myself in a similar situation, . . . but I am left wondering whether we forget too easily the process by which they came to their decision, however: the prayer, the reading, the discussion, the hours of silent pondering. Sometimes people rush in with an answer before a question is fully formulated.

I think today we could ask the prayers of SS John Fisher and Thomas More to help us confront the difficult questions we face and work them out with integrity and courage. As saints, we can claim them as our own; they are indeed part of our spiritual family. But they are not just ‘nice to have around’. We live in a very different world from that of the Tudors, thank goodness, but still a world in which the prevailing ideas of society may conflict with the teaching of the Church. They do so under the appearance of good. Our present equality legislation, for example, has led to some questionable outcomes which many find troubling. Each of us must decide according to conscience — that interior sense of right and wrong — but we must ensure that our conscience is properly informed. That can often mean hard work, and laying aside some good for that which is better. Fisher and More ultimately gave up their own lives for the sake of life eternal. One can’t help being humbled by such courage and faith. May we be blessed with the same in our own day.

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8 thoughts on “A Saint in the Family”

  1. SS Thomas More is allegedly my 13th great grandfather. I say “allegedly” just because human nature is what it is, and few knew that better than Sir Thomas More. Over the years he has given me much to ponder as well as much to honor. Prayer and discernment are of what life should be composed, but I confess to being very thankful to not have lived in Tudor times! I might add that many of my direct line ancestors left the Catholic Church or never came into contact with it, yet a high percentage return or join. It makes me wonder about “genetic memory”.

  2. Here is (part of) a lovely prayer of his, hopefully an antidote to graceless tweets:
    “O Lord,
    give us a mind that is humble, quiet, peaceable,
    patient and charitable,
    and a taste of your Holy Spirit
    in all our thoughts, words and deeds.
    O Lord,
    give us a lively faith, a firm hope, a fervent charity,
    a love of you.
    Take from us all lukewarmness in meditation,
    and all dullness in prayer.
    Give us fervour and delight in thinking of you,
    your grace, and your tender compassion toward us….
    Give us, good Lord,
    the grace to work for
    the things we pray for.
    Amen.”
    (Composed in 1535 at the Tower of London after being condemned to death at Westminster Hall)

  3. As my husband is a descendent of one of the Martyrs of York I can say in all honesty that in our case there is more of an overwhelming sense of gratitude for her sacrifice and steadfast faithfulness to the Catholic Church. Rather than dwelling on the fact we don’t make the mark we feel encouraged to try and try harder to live our faith in practical ways, thankful we live in a society where we are free to do so. As for “genetic memory” as Beverly suggests, I think about this also as the family has returned to the Roman Church over a couple of generations. Informing our consciences has been a lifelong work in progress, living a Christian life in this challenging world quite an adventure.

  4. I wonder if we all investigate our family tree’s, would we all have Saints in them? The answer must be a resounding yes. They might not have been identified with prominent historic events, they may not have even been seen as Saints by those who knew them, but somewhere Jesus’ words spring out at me, regarding doing things in secret, known only to your Father in Heaven.

    Not all Saints’ are martyred in quite such a public fashion as SS Thomas Moore or John Fisher, they have died in wars and violence, where they might be among the many, unnamed or unknown, as do the many thousands who have died in wars in the past century and continue to do to this very day.

    Others will have died safely in their bed, Quietly going to meet their maker as nature finally gives in to God’s grace and releases them to Glory. We know very little of the lives, struggles or decision making of these unknown Saints’ known unto God as the words on the grave of the unknown soldier are inscribed.

    Perhaps we need to acknowledge all of the unnamed, unknown saints alongside those named and given prominence in our public liturgy.

    • You’re right, and the solemnity of All Saints is one of the occasions when we give liturgical expression to this truth. I am quite sure I have known at least two real saints in my life but neither is likely to be canonised. However, it’s not where we come from but where we’re going that matters!

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