July 2010 – Beautiful Lives VII

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

July 2010

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

The question that often arises regarding Franciscan spirituality is how a person can live in a world that is often defined and regulated by money. Perhaps more fundamentally, can a person with a sizeable personal fortune be an authentic Franciscan? Certainly, the question does not apply to members of the religious orders founded by Saint Francis of Assisi—the Franciscans, the Capuchins, the Conventuals, the Poor Clares, or even the members of the Third Order Regular, such as the Friars of the Atonement or the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. But it does apply to the thousands of people who are professed members of the Secular Franciscan Order as well as to the legions of people who are favourably disposed to the spirituality of Saint Francis. Fortunately we have a number of examples from which to draw. My favourite is the beautiful life of Saint Thomas More (1478-1535).

Early on, Saint Thomas is said to have considered the life of the Carthusians and that of the Observant Franciscans, both reputed for the severity of their rule. In both cases, it was judged that this was not his true vocation. He embraced the spirituality of Saint Francis, nonetheless, by becoming a Tertiary, a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, known today as a Secular Franciscan. He maintained a pious life, as he had from childhood, attending mass daily. He is said to have devoted Fridays to spiritual recollection.

According to an online anthology of English literature, Saint Thomas was born in Milk Street, London on February 7, 1478, son of Sir John More, a prominent judge. He was educated at Saint Anthony’s School in London. As a youth he served as a page in the household of Archbishop Morton, who anticipated More would become a “marvellous man.” More went on to study at Oxford, during which time, he wrote comedies and studied Greek and Latin literature. One of his first works was an English translation of a Latin biography of the Italian humanist Pico della Mirandola. During his life, he produced a variety of works, including poems and various defences of Catholic doctrine. His most often noted writing, however, is Utopia, which includes references to government, learning, marriage, afterlife and religion in an idealized setting.

Saint Thomas was a prominent figure in a pivotal moment of English history but what stands out for us today is that he was a man of solid faith, resilient hope and grounded love. During the years of the Reformation, he was a man of great power and possession, first as a successful lawyer. Then he became attached to the royal court of King Henry VIII, finally being appointed Lord High Chancellor, the equivalent of the office of Prime Minister. Publicly he enjoyed the reputation of an honest and just person; privately, he was known as a prayerful man, a faithful friend and a caring family man, never compromising truth for expediency or personal satisfaction.

Attendance at daily mass was a key part of his private life. Apparently he was once criticised for this as it was supposedly unfitting for a lay person with so many distractions to receive communion so frequently. His response was characteristically wise and witty: “You are advancing the very reasons for the need of frequent holy Communion. If I am distracted, holy Communion helps me to become recollected. If opportunities are offered time me each day to offend my God, I arm myself anew each day for the combat by the reception of the Eucharist. If I am in special need of light and prudence in order to discharge my burdensome duties, I draw nigh to my Saviour and seek counsel and light from him.”

Thomas More was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935.

Man’s folly has enhanced the value of gold and silver because of their scarcity; whereas nature, like a kind parent, has freely given us the best things, such as air, earth, and water, but has hidden from us those which are vain and useless.

Saint Thomas More, Utopia

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There is perhaps nothing more emblematic of the detachment of Saint Thomas More in relation to wealth as his willingness to cede his life in the name of a higher value. In this regard, it must be understood that Saint Thomas was not only knowledgeable of doctrine but also astute in the ways of the world. For instance, in Utopia, he noted, “What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can.” This reveals the wisdom of someone who is steeped in the affairs of the world while mindful of the exigencies of the Gospel. That is why his is such an important life for us to consider, a sign of hope in an age of radicalism.

One of my all-time favourite movies is A Man for All Seasons, produced in 1966 with an awesome cast, including Paul Scoffield, Orson Well, Susannah York and John Hurt. It is a masterful study of pragmatic piety, ethical argumentation and human frailty masquerading as personal and national honour and courage. It also is, in my humble option, one of the most telling accounts of genuine martyrdom. It stands apart from the syrupy hagiography that too often passes as a worthy tribute to sainthood attained by the shedding of blood in the name of truth as a martyr.

Martyr is a harsh word. It strikes fear in those of us who can imagine a time, perhaps not so remote, and a place, not so distant, when there is no time for equivocation, no space for hypocrisy. A person must cast a decisive vote and suffer the consequences. We often misuse the word. We use it to signify self-sacrifice that is inordinate, sometimes pathological, or victimization, real or imagined. Its true meaning is rather simpler.

According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, the Greek word martus signifies a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal observation. It is in this sense that the term first appears in Christian literature; the Apostles were “witnesses” of all that they had observed in the public life of Christ, as well as of all they had learned from “His teaching in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Soon enough, the word is reserved to describe “witnesses” who give an account of what they believe to be the truth at the risk of being killed.

Such was the case of Saint Thomas. He refused to swear to the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy, and was committed to the Tower of London. As a result, he was charged with treason and beheaded alongside Bishop Fisher on July 6, 1535.

Saint Thomas had great wealth and power. His was a life of prestige and privilege. Yet these were for him but the instruments of his vocation. He was ordained to a life of leadership, both socially and morally. He ascended to a political role that allowed him to apply to the best of his abilities religious beliefs to daily life in an overwhelmingly secular environment. In his case, and in the case of all persons who are focused on value, power accords the opportunity to affect the lives of thousands if not millions of people by impressing upon them the meaning of a life and death that is animated by a profound love and a resolute quest of truth.

Generally, clinging to wealth and power is a sign of the insecurity that lurks within each of us. It is a rare person who can dismiss this deeply ingrained impulse and virtually disregard the judgement of others regardless of stage of life or circumstance. Saint Thomas More was such a man.

I do not care very much what men say of me, provided that God approves of me.

Saint Thomas More in a letter to Erasmus

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What is the lesson that we are to learn from the life of Saint Thomas regarding the evangelical counsel of poverty in the reality of secular lives that require the legitimate use of possessions, prestige and power? The answer is simple in theory and difficult in practice. We are not to fear or abuse money or property that can serve the greater good, nor are we to love them as something to hoard or hinder the development of loving relationships.

It is the love of money that is the source of much sin and suffering, not inanimate coinage. Currency, by definition, is not an end but a means, which can be either constructive or destructive. The purity of our intentions and the ethics of our behaviour matter far more than balances and portfolios. It is often said that if we could hold God’s gifts with an open hand instead of a closed fist, the world be a better place. If we could see what we receive as something to share, we would have more peace and joy. Saint Thomas understood that this applies to everything, even life itself.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.

Luke 17: 33

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May the good Lord guide you to meditate on the beautiful lives of wise and courageous people such as Saint Thomas More. May the Holy Spirit assist you in following in the footsteps of Jesus, perfect image of the Father’s love.

Fraternally in joy and hope


crib and cross Franciscan Ministries