Taking a Principled Stand

The feast of SS John Fisher and Thomas More always invites some reflection on the meaning of conscience and the cost of following it. Too often that ends in a more or less superficial recognition that they paid with their lives for opposing the king’s will and that was a Good Thing because they were on the side of truth and right. I happen to believe that they were on the side of truth and right, but even a little knowledge of Tudor history will soon show how complex was ‘the king’s matter’ (Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon) and the changes in relations between Church and State signified by Henry’s adoption of the title Supreme Head of the Church of England. We look at the result and forget the process that led to it. Had I lived in those days, for example, I am quite sure I would have agonised as much as Fisher and More about the right thing to do and only gradually come to see the course I should follow. There the similarity ends, for I would never have had the courage to endure what they endured: the loneliness, the disgrace, imprisonment and execution.

Note I put loneliness and disgrace ahead of the sufferings Fisher and More experienced in the Tower and in the manner of their death. I think we often forget that taking a principled stand about something rarely looks principled at the time. It is frequently mocked by others, attributed to selfishness or stupidity, even reviled as being unpatriotic or disloyal. One’s closest family or friends fail to understand and urge another, safer course. Worst of all, one is not absolutely sure oneself. More’s letters from the Tower show his growing awareness that no compromise would be possible, but he clearly felt the force of the objections voiced by his family. For Fisher, it was an even lonelier process, although he was much more direct than More, declaring early on that he was prepared to die, like John the Baptist, in defence of the marriage bond between Henry and Katherine. Not all the bishops agreed with him by any means, and his closest living relative, his sister Elizabeth, a nun, was unable to visit him. To the very end he was not allowed the ministrations of a priest, and when his body was was buried (his head was thrown in the Thames), not a single funeral prayer was said. One can only speculate what went through his mind and wonder at his ability to hold firm.

Today there are many who experience in their own way the cost of being true to their conscience. They are not necessarily universally admired. There may even be some we ourselves condemn because we do not know all the facts or make our judgements on hearsay and what we find on Social Media. That is a sobering thought. Sobering, too, is the realisation that we may be called upon to make a stand one day. It may be in the first flush of youth, when everything seems so promising; in mature middle age, when the promise is largely fulfilled, all looks glorious and the cost unbearable; or when we are old and frail and it would be much easier just to give way and seek some means of escape. We cannot tell, we can only trust that grace will be given when we need. St Thomas More assured his daughter that he was ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. We know he was. Who knows what we are capable of but the Lord?

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The Importance of Fairness

You were probably expecting me to write something about conscience, given that today we celebrate SS John Fisher and Thomas More, but I’ve already done that more than once and I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly written about fairness.

Fairness isn’t a spectacular quality. It doesn’t usually involve huge sacrifices or dramatic gestures. It isn’t listed as a virtue or lauded as a must-have quality, yet fairness and ‘fair play’ are immensely attractive, especially to those who are more vulnerable. It tacitly reasserts individual value, our worth as human beings despite the accidents of class or wealth or whatever arbitrary measurement society applies. To be fair is to try to enter into the thoughts and feelings of others, to seek compromise where compromise is possible, to have a care for justice, equity and the rest. It is one of the qualities the Rule of St Benedict mentions again and again in connection with the abbot: he is to do all things with prudence and fairness. It allows communities to flourish, as well as individuals.

We seem to be born with an innate sense of fairness — at least as it affects ourselves. How often does sibling rivalry lead to the cry, ‘It isn’t fair!’? We also see in childhood the positive aspects of fairness, with children instinctively sharing and being troubled if one has less than another. As we grow older, some of us keep that sense of fairness, others of us lose it or allow it to be overlain by self-interest. Fairness becomes a bit trickier, a bit less important in a world where ‘dog eats dog’ is the mantra of many supposedly successful people. We can even despise fairness as weakness.

I think John Fisher was a fair man, always ready to listen to others and consider their arguments. I don’t think Thomas More started out as a fair man — he was too much of his time to be ‘nice’ to heretics, for example, and the language of his controversies is distinctly unpleasant — but I think he became one. Neither wanted to be a martyr. Both tried to find ways of accommodating the king, but when they failed, they accepted the consequences with a courage most of us find heroic. If More was unfair to anyone in his last days, it was to his family, as Dame Alice complained. And that is the great problem with fairness. It comes at a price; but it is surely one we ought all to be willing to pay.

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Getting Our Priorities Right

The anniversary of the death of D. Gertrude More, about whom you can read in this blog (please do a search in the sidebar) or its predecessor (please follow this link) is as good a day as any for reflecting on our priorities. What are they?

God comes first, of course; but what do we mean by that? The whole of Benedictine life is ordered towards the search for God. Prayer, liturgy and observance, every detail from lectio divina to the ups and downs of community life, the clothes we wear and the buildings we live in, is meant to lead us closer to God. A splendid liturgy may give us wonderful feelings about God but they tend to disappear when faced with a mound of washing-up or half a dozen loos to clean. Yet singing the praises of God in choir and doing more mundane tasks outside are all part and parcel of monastic life. They are all equally part of our search for God, the only difference being that, although we may postpone, say, the washing-up for a while, nothing may come before prayer. Prayer is the search for God neat and undiluted, whether it be the common prayer of the Divine Office or the more private contemplative prayer of the individual.

There is a catch, however. Even St Benedict, who exhorts us to prefer nothing to the work of God, makes one very important exception. He tells us that care of the sick should come before everything else. Forests have been felled and gallons of ink expended in an effort to try to reconcile these two seeming contradictions. Personally, I don’t think there is a contradiction. St Benedict was a sensible man, with a sensible approach to the problems of everyday life. If someone is really sick, we honour God best by serving him/her rather than by abandoning them while we fulfil our alloted service in choir. The problem comes when we find endless tasks that are to be preferred to prayer; when we use people and things as an excuse for not praying; because then we are putting ourselves first, rather than God; and the tragedy is, we often misuse good things in this way.

Well-meaning people sometimes look around and note all the great problems in the world and ask what contemplatives are doing about them. They rarely stop for an answer. No one who seriously tries to pray can be indifferent to the sufferings of others, to the injustices many labour under, to the sheer horror of poverty, war and disease. Most will quietly do what they can. Monastic communities give money/help where they can, write letters, try to influence others for good, but the most powerful thing they can do is to intercede with God. If one doesn’t believe in God, or if one only half-believes in God, that won’t make much sense. Prayer for such people is essentially a waste of time — something to get through, the spiritual equivalent of a quick cup of coffee before the real work of the day begins. For a Benedictine, by contrast, it is life itself, our meaning , our purpose; and unlike that quick cup of coffee, it is something that carries us over from this life to the next.

D. Gertrude More was, at one level, an obscure seventeenth century nun whom history has overlooked in favour of her distinguished ancestor St Thomas More. Yet to those who know her she is at least as important as he. She never did anything very ‘important’; never held any major office in community or had any overt influence on the events of her day. But, when she died at the early age of twenty-eight, she was already accounted a saint — not the plaster-of-paris type of treacley sentimentality but the adamantine type of steely determination. She was funny; she was clever; as a novice she was outrageous; but she knew exactly what her priorities were. One day we may discover how much she achieved through her fidelity and generosity of spirit.

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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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Making Prayer a Simple Matter

D. Gertrude More
D. Gertrude More

On this day in 1633, at the early age of twenty-eight, died D. Gertrude More, great-great granddaughter of St Thomas More and one of the nine founding members of the community at Cambrai. Her story is an interesting one because she is exactly the kind of person who ought to become a nun but who is considered by people outside the cloister ‘too lively’. She was indeed lively and high-spirited, but the liveliness and high-spiritedness were accompanied by a truthfulness and seriousness of purpose that were a measure of her intellectual and spiritual stature.

Her novitiate was not without its ups and downs. She was forever flaunting authority. Any mischief tended to have young Sr Gertrude at its centre, and she definitely took against the solemn Fr Augustine Baker who came as Vicarius to help the young Cambrai community grow in prayer. In fact, she was strongly tempted to abandon monastic life altogether but Fr Augustine showed her how to pray; a conversion followed and the rest, as they say, is history. Her holiness of life made an impression on those who knew her and today she is revered as one of the Stanbrook community’s uncanonised saints. Fr Augustine wrote a life of her in two volumes, with copious quotations from her own writing, including her far too fluent doggerel. If you are interested, you can read it online here: http://bit.ly/aklx3h.

But why am I writing about her under the heading of ‘simple prayer’? Partly, of course, it is because anyone who tries to pray will discover that prayer becomes simpler as time goes on. Words fall away and the silence and emptiness that remain are charged with God. So it was with D. Gertrude. She understood very well the simplest of all truths about prayer: we must pray as the people we are, not as the people we aren’t. Hers was an affectionate nature, and she used her affections to come closer to God. Not for her the composition of time and place and imaginative insertion into the events of the gospel. There was only ‘the sharp dart of longing love’ but it was enough. That she should have learned that in her comparatively short life is an encouragement to the rest of us. Can it be so hard to follow where she has led?

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The Right Thing to Do

It is almost impossible to talk about ‘the right thing to do’ without sounding like a politician. The phrase has been used and abused so often that it has become virtually meaningless. That is a pity, because there is nothing else that conveys the idea behind it so simply and beautifully.

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. I am still 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. We have seen something of that in recent discussion of marriage in this country. If we peep over the ecumenical fence, we can see our Anglican brethren tearing themselves in different directions over questions some of us find too perplexing for an answer yet.

Today is a good day to pray for all who have difficult decisions to make, who are keen to do the right thing because it is the right thing and nothing less will do. May SS John and Thomas pray for us all.

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Saints John Fisher and Thomas More

I feel a sense of connectedness to these two saints that I don’t feel to many others of the period. First, there is Fisher: a Cambridge man of course, of ascetic mind and temper, but fond of his sister (a nun) and capable of gentle humour. The cane he used on his walk to the scaffold is kept over the way at Hendred House, and when I first held it I was struck by how small he must have been. Somehow, one always expects giants of the faith to be giants physically. Then there is More, with his quicksilver mind and delight in his family, a more complex character than Fisher. His drinking cup is kept at Hendred House as a family relic, but we claim a small association of our own as the community at Cambrai from which we are ultimately descended had among its founders D. Gertrude (Helen) More, his great-great-granddaughter.

Today, many claim Fisher and More as their own, ignoring the inconvenient truth that they died upholding the primacy of Rome over the English Church. It is a sobering thought that these two saints were clear where we are often confused. They challenge us today, not least in their understanding of the universalism of the Church. May Saints John and Thomas pray for us all.

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