Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: "The Sadness of Christ" by St. Thomas More

Last Saturday, I finished reading St Thomas More's De Tristitia Christi, in the English translation included in the Vintage Spiritual Classics edition of this work, his last prayers and letters from the Tower, and other works. It seems appropriate to post a review of this work on Holy Thursday, since it was after the Last Supper, with His institution of the Eucharist and the Priesthood, that Jesus went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. Also, it was on April 17, 1534 that Sir Thomas More, Knight, the former Chancellor of England, was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Although I read The Sadness of Christ primarily as a Lenten devotion, I also began to learn more about St. Thomas More in his last months: his devotion to Jesus Christ; his knowledge of Scripture and the Fathers of the Church; his obvious deep reading of the Holy Bible and practice in exegesis; his deep concern for the Church; and  most of all, his recognition of his own sinfulness and failure, and his preparation for death. I mentioned last month that I found an article with the thesis that More prepared for martyrdom by writing De Tristitia Christi, just as he deal with the issues of trouble and conflict in the Dialogue of Comfort--writing both for himself and those who would face the same crisis after him.

Although he knew, as he states in The Sadness of Christ, that no martyr had ever faced or suffered the agonies and the tortures Jesus was to face and that Jesus knew he was to face while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, More was facing a terrible execution (until Henry VIII commuted it to beheading) if/when found guilty of treason. He had seen the Carthusian Priors, Father Richard Reynolds and Father John Haile taken from the Tower and knew they faced being drawn through the streets, hung until barely conscious, eviscerated while alive, and then quartered and beheaded. When they went as bridegrooms to their wedding day, he told his daughter that God knew he was not ready to die ("Whereas thy silly father, Meg, that like a most wicked caitiff hath passed the whole course of his miserable life most sinfully, God, thinking him not worthy so soon to come to that eternal felicity, leaving him here yet still in the world, further to be plagued and turmoiled with misery.") So from that date of May 4, 1535 to his own execution on July 6, 1535, he faced even greater preparations for his own death.

Even as he devoted himself to meditating on the Agony in the Garden, with the drama of Jesus's three prayers to His Father to let the cup of suffering pass by, the sleeping Apostles neglecting His vigil, and the betrayal of Judas, More was thinking of his own day. He compares the sleeping Apostles to their negligent successors, the Bishops, in the midst of the attacks on the Church and  at the same time he contrasts the negligence of the Apostles to the activity and decision of Judas, betraying Jesus and turning Him over to the Sanhedrin. He was as much concerned by the betrayal of Jesus in the 16th century as he was Judas' betraying kiss that first Holy Thursday night. He was concerned about the growing disbelief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and also about those "autodidacts" who interpreted Scripture on their own authority, not based on the teaching and Tradition of the universal Catholic Church.

For his part, More examines the Gospel passages describing Christ's agony in the garden using the four senses of Scripture: literal, moral, spiritual, and eschatological. He applies their lessons to our acceptance of the doctrine of the Incarnation, to how we must be prepared to suffer and die when facing martyrdom, to our prayer life whether waking or sleeping, and to the life to come. It's fascinating how many paragraphs he dedicates to the mystery of the young man who flees the Garden, leaving his garment behind. He examines the moral implications of running away, whether to avoid danger or to avoid the near occasion of sin.

The Center for Thomas More Studies is going to host a seminar on "The Theology of Thomas More's Tower Works" in November this year. I will be interested in seeing what conclusions are reached by the academics gathered in Irvine, Texas. I am not a theologian, but as I read The Sadness of Christ, I recognized again what a faithful and devout Catholic Thomas More was, how diligently he studied and tried to live his faith, how concerned he was with doing God's will and preparing to do God's will, and how much he loved Jesus. As he prepared to suffer and die, More left a testament and example for others, both in his written work and in his life.

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