A 2020 Spiritual Survival Kit
Events of the past several months had me in a foul mood, at times an almost despairing mood. Just when things seemed to be hitting rock bottom, through God’s grace, through an unlikely series of events, this book fell into my lap:
The Sadness of Christ is Saint Thomas More’s Biblical commentary on the events of the Agony in the Garden through Christ’s capture. He analyzes the proper attitude one must have toward enemies, abandonment, fear, despair and death. Included in the volume are other writings dealing with similar themes. What an uplifting, glorious book it is!
First a little background on Saint Thomas More (1478-1535). More may have been the most intellectually gifted Englishman of his time. His mastery of the law and theology was second to none. Because of his great mind and engaging personality, he rose through the political ranks to become King Henry VIII’s number two. All the while, More appears to have been in many respects just an ordinary guy with a good sense of humor who wanted to live in peace raising his family. It was not to be. When Henry broke from the Catholic Church because it wouldn’t sanction the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, More refused to acknowledge Henry as the supreme authority of the newly created Church of England, instead remaining loyal to the Catholic Church. This decision cost him his head.
While awaiting execution in the Tower of London, More wrote up a storm; the Biblical commentary I mentioned, along with a few other things including A Meditation on Detachment and A Prayer Before Dying. You will be hard pressed to find an example of a person so much able to keep his head, right up to the moment of losing it. Before taking his stand against the king, More was set for life: fame, fortune and power. He had everything to lose, except for one thing — his soul.
Where did More find the faith and courage to sacrifice his life? In The Sadness of Christ, he shows us the way to stay spiritually strong, even when the stars are seemingly aligned against everything we believe in, when it feels as though things can only get worse. See the parallels to today, as More describes what Jesus was up against:
“The persons responsible for sending the crowd after Christ were priests — and not merely that, but princes of the priests — Pharisees, scribes and elders of the people. Here we see that whatever is best by nature turns out in the end to be the worst, once it begins to reverse its direction. Thus Lucifer, created by God as the most eminent among the angels in heaven became the worst of the demons after he yielded to the pride which brought his downfall. So too, not the dregs of the crowd but the elders of the people, the scribes, Pharisees, priests, and high priests, the princes of the priests, whose duty it was to see that justice was done and to promote the affairs of God, these were the very ringleaders in a conspiracy to extinguish the sun of justice and to destroy the only-begotten son of God — to such insane extremes of perversity were they driven by avarice, arrogance, and envy.”
Yep, 500+ years down the road, nothing has changed. So how does More counsel us to confront a world consumed with and consumed by sin? Just as Jesus counseled the Apostles in the Garden — Stay awake! Pray with Me! And yet, despite Jesus repeating this advice three times, the Apostles slept; that is, all except Judas, who remained awake, carrying out his evil plot.
The Apostles did not yet understand. Through prayer we obtain perspective, faith and courage. More talks a lot about priorities in his commentary. Worldly authorities can kill our bodies, but that is the limit of their power. They do not have the power to send our souls to heaven or to hell. And that is really the crux of it. Everything we think, do and say in this world boils down to our attitude toward God. If one believes in heaven and hell, one has in Jesus an infallible, unwavering compass. (This does not by a long shot make discerning the path easy, but it does give a person the ability to know when and how he has gone astray.) Without such belief, avarice, arrogance and envy take over. Prayer and love for Jesus are what keep these sins at bay.
Which brings me to a startling point More raises in A Prayer Before Dying:
“Give me, good Lord, a longing to be with You, not for the avoiding of the calamities of this wretched world, nor so much for the avoiding of the pains of purgatory, nor of the pains of hell either, nor so much for the attaining of the joys of heaven, in respect to my own benefit, but for a genuine love for You.”
Such an important point, a proverbial punch in the face. Faith at its fullest is not being on the right side of an intellectual argument, although it is good to be so positioned. Faith at its fullest is not action driven by fear of punishment or pursuit of reward, although those are not bad things.
Do you have a person in your life you just love to be around? Someone whose company you can enjoy in silence, someone from whom you feel no need to get something in return? That is true love. When you have that kind of love in your life with a person, you know how much strength it gives you. When you have that kind of love for Jesus, you are bulletproof. Having a pure love for Jesus is what More tells us (and himself) to pray for and strive for. It is a lofty goal, but the only one that spares us from confronting the world alone with anger, frustration, and fear, with avarice, arrogance, and envy.
A less lofty goal, but one that seems to me nearly as important to our spiritual survival, is to cultivate relationships of true love with the people in our lives, friends and enemies alike. We should, we must, remove or improve our toxic, soul-crushing human relationships, as well as all those toxic virtual relationships that plague us to spiritual death on social media. Relationships that exploit, manipulate, sow seeds of doubt, fear, and hatred — those are the relationships that lead to worldly despair and spiritual destruction.
Paradoxically, as we deepen our capacity for love of God and neighbor, we acquire a healthy detachment from the world. Let Saint Thomas More explain. Here is A Meditation on Detachment, in full:
Give me Thy grace, good Lord,
To set the world at nought;
To set my mind fast upon Thee,
And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths;
To be content to be solitary;
Not to long for worldly company;
Little and little utterly to cast off the world,
And rid my mind of all the business thereof;
Not to long to hear of any worldly things,
But that the hearing of worldly fantasies
may be to me displeasant;
Gladly to be thinking of God,
Piteously to call for His help;
To lean unto the comfort of God,
Busily to labor to love Him;
To know mine own vility and wretchedness,
To humble and meeken myself
under the mighty hand of God;
To bewail my sins passed;
For the purging of them patiently to suffer adversity;
Gladly to bear my purgatory here;
To be joyful of tribulations;
To walk the narrow way that leadeth to life,
To bear the cross with Christ;
To have the last thing in remembrance,
To have ever afore mine eye
my death that is ever at hand;
To make death no stranger to me,
To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of hell;
To pray for pardon before the judge come,
To have continually in mind the passion
that Christ suffered for me;
For His benefits uncessantly to give Him thanks,
To buy the time again that I before have lost;
To abstain from vain confabulations
To eschew light foolish mirth and gladness;
Recreations not necessary — to cut off;
Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all,
to set the loss at right nought
for the winning of Christ:
To think my most enemies my best friends;
For the brethren of Joseph could never have done
him so much good with their love and favor
as they did him with their malice and hatred.
These minds are more to be desired of every man
than all the treasure of all the princes and kings,
Christian and heathen, were it gathered and
laid together all upon one heap.
Note how More describes the proper attitude toward enemies — return hatred with love. We do not know God’s ways: as the example of Joseph shows us, maybe our enemies are doing us a favor. Certainly our prayers will do them a favor.
I often think these days that there are two choices: Retreat from the world or enter the fray. Both approaches have their pros and cons. And especially now, either approach could lead one to become a martyr. (More, by the way, talks at length in The Sadness of Christ about how to prepare yourself to be, as he was, a reluctant martyr.)
But “fight or flight” is a false dichotomy. The example of More (and of Christ Himself) is that one must do both: Be engaged in the world and detached from it. More specifically, be engaged with the world in ways that cultivate virtue, and detached from the world in ways that cultivate sin. Engaging hatefully only increases the volume of hate in your soul and in the world. Engaging virtuously increases virtue in your soul no matter what, and stands a chance of increasing virtue in the world — perhaps a much better chance than we could possibly realize.
I don’t know if any of this helps, since I am doing a poor job of conveying the power and insight of More’s writing. But I hope you will read the book.
Here are two scenes from A Man for All Seasons, the great 1966 film about More. Paul Scofield won the Oscar for Best Actor … shows you how things have changed in Hollywood. Today he’d be blown away in a tweetstorm.
(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)