Saturday, July 18, 2015

St. Thomas More on How a Christian Responds to Suffering

In the Introduction to this edition of A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation from Scepter Publishers, Gerard Wegemer comments that this English masterpiece of Thomas More is less well known than his famous Latin work, Utopia. That's because Utopia has been translated from Latin into accessible English while this Dialogue's Renaissance era English has been an obstacle. So this "translation" into modern English by Mary Gottschalk is very helpful, as are the indices, outline, and other supporting material.

There are two good reasons for reading this book:

First, because of its content and purpose: explaining how Christians should respond to trials, suffering, poverty, and even persecution. Uncle Anthony helps his nephew Vincent deal with his fears of suffering in the course of the Turkish invasion of Hungary. While he is on his sickbed, he counsels the younger man on facing those fears by relying on his faith in Jesus Christ. Anthony and Vincent discuss many aspects of life on earth: poverty, riches, ambition, power, charity, the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and hell), purgatory, repentance, torture, imprisonment, etc. In every situation, Anthony reminds Vincent that our time here on earth is short and that what really matters is how we prepare for the life to come. Blessed John Henry Newman offers a famous summary of what Anthony tells Vincent: "Life is short; death is certain; and the world to come is everlasting." Ever tribulation we may suffer should be considered in the context of eternal life. We have to imitate the early Christians as described in the Letter to Diognetus:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. . . . 
We all face tribulation: my brother and sister and I have been helping our elderly mother settle into a nursing home. The transition may have been easier for her than it has been for us; a little thing like cancelling her phone service and eliminating our parents' home phone number for the past 56 years and more is troubling to us--and there are bigger things to come with the dissolution of our family home. But as I've read this dialogue, I'm reminded that these little burdens, oppressive as they might seem to us, are nothing compared to the joys of the life to come. Our bearing them with patience and fortitude prepares us for those joys, detaches us from our life here on earth, and reminds us that we have no lasting city here on earth. Much as we love our life, love all our family and friends, love the earth and nature, our true and first love must be for God--He loved us first, He wants what is best for us; we should and must trust Him.

Second, because reading this dialogue, which Gerard Wegemer calls one of More's greatest works in the introduction, helps the reader appreciate the wit and wisdom of Thomas More. Throughout the text, he demonstrates his knowledge of Scripture and the teaching of the Church. He also displays great experience both in secular life and in the spiritual life, understanding the realities of public life and the depths of private life. More knows the weaknesses of humanity: one example is his description of sinners kept awake by the thought of their sins and the need to amend their lives. Finally, they turn over their pillows, plump them up a little, get comfortable, and go back to sleep! More is also aware of the pitfalls of power and influence; no matter how much power and control a statesman may achieve, unless he is the monarch, there will be someone else who tells him what to do and how. Even as he fulfills his ambition to achieve higher and higher rank, he still encounters setbacks and tribulations. 

By using the dialogue form, writing a fictional conversation between two characters, More thoroughly explores the themes of suffering and comfort. He also displays his humor through funny stories about people, like the nun who talks so much that her visiting brother can't get a word in; or the doctor who can cure others but not himself; or the prisoner who notes the incongruity of a visitor who locks herself in every night in her own house being upset that he is locked in his cell every night, or the man who plans to please him self during his life, planning to say words of repentance at the last moment to safe himself: his last words are "Well, I'll be damned", etc.

If we read this dialogue for its autobiographical insight, it shows us that Thomas More--just as he did in The Sadness of Christ and just as he told Cromwell and his daughter Meg--was distancing himself from worldly cares and preparing for death. He was thinking about Jesus in His Passion and how he should imitate his Savior. Many of the anecdotes are about his family, including his wife Alice and adopted ward, Meg Giggs, so he was thinking about them too.

Highly recommended. Scepter only has a few copies left, so order today!

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