St. John Houghton was the first of the Carthusian martyrs who suffered under Henry VIII, and he was the first of the Catholic martyrs who suffered under the Tudors and Stuarts. Dom David Knowles praises Houghton in his Saints and Scholars: Twenty-Five Medieval Portraits, noting how as the prior of the Charterhouse in London, he formed his community in constancy, fidelity, and particularly, love of the liturgy and liturgical prayer.
It was through the liturgy, specifically a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, that Houghton decided that he could not accept Henry VIII's efforts to name himself the Vicar of Christ in England. Houghton and the monks fasted and prayed three days and then gathered to celebrate Mass. When Father Houghton elevated the Host, he felt the Holy Spirit's call to remain united with the universal Church, and refuse the Supremacy Oath. As Vincent Cardinal Nichols stated in a 2011 sermon at an evening prayer service offered at the Charterhouse in 2011 when reflecting on this outpouring of the Holy Spirit and where it led them:
It is so fitting that we are reminded of that outpouring of the Holy Spirit during this season of Eastertide. For Our Lord‟s Passion, Death and Resurrection is also the time of the new coming of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus had promised in the Upper Room where he kept his Passover with the Twelve. Jesus, the Christ, consecrated by the Father with the anointing of the Holy Spirit, gave up his spirit on the cross so that risen he may bestow it upon his Apostles. “Receive the Holy Spirit”, he says. Then, just as he himself was sent, so he calls the Apostles to be ministers of, and witnesses to, that peace and reconciliation which are the fruits of the new creation inaugurated by his death and resurrection. This apostolic mission is given its definitive manifestation on the day of Pentecost. Full of the strength of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles go out to fulfil faithfully their vocation, even though in so doing they encountered suffering and death.
That same Holy Spirit came upon the Carthusian martyrs whom we commemorate today. The gift of the Holy Spirit moved them to be reconciled with God and with one another. That soft murmur carried sweetly and strongly, to their inner ear, the very word of God: “Fear not: for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name; you are mine”; I will be with you through river and fire to bring you to the glory for which I have created you. Yes, a gentle breath convincing them utterly that the fiery trial ahead would make them nothing less than partakers in Christ‟s sufferings - thus something in which to rejoice! And it was “the spirit of glory and of God” resting upon them which enabled this brave brotherhood to believe unswervingly that “when [Christ‟s] glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” The sound from Heaven heard just after the consecration of the Mass was indeed the promise of future glory: a sure hope on which to draw during their courageous witness to the truth of God and His holy Church.
The painting, which shows St. John Houghton offering his heart to Jesus, is by Francisco de Zurbarán, who fulfilled several commissions for the Carthusians. Houghton's last words were "Jesus, Jesus, what will you do with my heart?" before the executioner cut it out of his chest.
St. John Houghton, pray for us!