It’s hard to say how many times I’ve seen it, but this time it struck me. It was a scene from A Man For All Seasons. I watched it, paused, rewound and watched it again. Thomas More had just returned from a long night on a boat. The Lord Chancellor Cardinal Woolsey summoned this Catholic lawyer, scholar and friend of the King late on the day before to inconvenience him and concentrate his mind. The purpose of the call was to enlist, if not pressure, him into supporting King Henry VIII’s intent to dissolve his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon in favor of his mistress Anne Boleyn. Both King and Cardinal hoped to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the upright Sir Thomas More and ultimately the eyes of the Catholic Church which was unmoving in granting an annulment to the King. It was a naked move of power politics on the part of the Lord Chancellor. And this was not lost on Thomas More. Nor was it acquiesced to.
Returning home early the next morning, Thomas carried a silver chalice. It had been forced into his hand by a petitioner outside the Lord Chancellor’s office. Knowing the legal authority and influence Thomas More possessed, the petitioner sought to bribe him to consider his legal case “favorably”. Being inundated with people and papers as he walked the halls, More knew little of what he received in his hands until after he was removed from the scene. On the boat ride home, he threw the valuable chalice in the water only for it to be quickly recovered from a flustered oarsman. Alas, Thomas grimaced. It was not right to keep it. He would need to be rid of this burden in some other way.
Enter Richard Rich. Rich was a hanger-on. He spent his time ingratiating himself to More and his friends hoping for advancement and all that accompanies it. Wealth. Honor. Power. Pleasure. All of this could be his, or so he thought, if only he was granted a recommendation for the right post by the right person. As Thomas disembarked from his boat early that morning, Richard Rich shook himself awake from his sleepy, slumped posture against a wall near the dock. He had waited all night for Thomas’ return. It wasn’t an act of altruism for a friend, but sheer interest for himself. When Thomas had left the evening before, Rich was inquiring about a post. Now that Thomas had returned, he would ask him once again.
More: Have you been here all night?
Rich: Yes. You said there was a post?
More: Yes. I’ll offer you a post with a house, a servant and 50 pounds a year
Rich: What post?
More: At the new school.
Rich: A teacher!
More: Richard, no one’s going to give you a place at court.
Rich: Master Cromwell says he’ll do something for me.
More: Cromwell? Well, if you know Cromwell, you don’t need my help.
Rich: Sir Thomas? If only you knew how much, much rather, I had your help than his.
More: Not to a place at court.
Rich: Why not?
More: Look (showing the silver chalice).
Rich: What is it?
More: It’s a bribe! “I am the gift of Averil Machin.” And Averil Machin has a lawsuit in the Court of Requests. Italian Silver. Take it. No joke.
Rich: Thank you.
More: What will you do with it?
Rich: Sell it.
More: And buy what?
Rich: A decent gown!
More: But Richard, that’s a little bribe. At court they offer you all sorts of things, home, manor houses, coats of arms. A man should go where he won’t be tempted. Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher. Perhaps a great one.
Rich: If I was, who would know it?
More: You! Your pupils. Your friends. God. Not a bad public, that. And a quiet life.
Rich: You say that. You come from talking with the Cardinal.
More: Yes, talking with the Cardinal. It’s eating your heart out, isn’t it? The high affairs of state…[Richard], be a teacher.
As Thomas dismissed Richard, he warned him against the temptations and traps of chasing worldly rewards and the inherent risks for a vulnerable man of questionable principles. It was advice that was as old as time. And well worth following. After all, the faithful Thomas More was simply reinforcing the wisdom of Jesus Christ when He said,
“What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
But, notwithstanding the wisdom of the Lord and Thomas More, Richard Rich would sniff and disregard such warnings. He felt he knew a better way. Yes. Of course. A better way. And the consequences would be terrible for both himself and Thomas More. Terrible.
In his series and book, Catholicism, Father Robert Barron eloquently spoke to the insecure temptation to which we all, not least Richard Rich, are subject.
“One of the most fundamental problems in the spiritual order is that we sense within ourselves the hunger for God, but we attempt to satisfy it with some created good that is less than God. Thomas Aquinas said that the four typical substitutes for God are wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. Sensing the void within, we attempt to fill it up with some combination of these four things, but only by emptying out the self in love can we make the space for God to fill us…
When we try to satisfy the hunger for God with something less than God, we will naturally be frustrated, and then in our frustration, we will convince ourselves that we need more of that finite good, so we will struggle to achieve it, only to find ourselves again, necessarily, dissatisfied. At this point, a sort of spiritual panic sets in, and we can find ourselves turning obsessively around this creaturely good that can never in principle make us happy.”
In effect, we are all in relentless pursuit of God. Only we often don’t know it. We crave to fill this longing for the eternal. And yet we chase and settle for sad, empty surrogates for God. Richard Rich is handed a defiled silver chalice from an honorable man who will not keep it. Instead of learning from Thomas More’s noble discretion, Richard Rich clutches the chalice and sees it as a means to ignoble ends. Honor. Wealth. Power. Pleasure. In this small act, Thomas More sees portents of greater iniquity in the future of Richard Rich. Indeed. Much greater iniquity.
Before long, Thomas More would sit wearily in a courtroom trying to save his life. Accused of high treason for not assenting to the marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Thomas More was to be made into an example. After months in the Tower of London, tired, weak and malnurtured, More held hope that within the bounds of the law and the respect for conscience, he could not be put to death for that which he was being accused. Unless. Unless conscience were disregarded and the law manipulated. And a malleable stooge was found. Once again, enter Richard Rich, adorned with ornaments of state and willing to present damning testimony to More’s guilt. Lies would be offered by Rich which all wanted to hear and More was helpless to rebut. But as Richard Rich finished his perjured testimony, Thomas More speaks up for himself. Stopping Rich as he steps down from testifying, More gives him a leveling glance.
More: I have one question to ask the witness. (Rich stops) That’s a chain of office you are wearing. (Reluctantly Rich faces him) May I see it? (Rich is motioned to approach while More examines the medallion) The red dragon. What’s this?
Lord Chancellor Cromwell: Sir Richard is appointed the Attorney-General for Wales.
More: (Looking into Rich’s face with pain and amusement) For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…But for Wales?
St. Thomas More, as we all know, would lose his head. And Richard Rich seemed to lose his soul. And how did he lose it? Quite simply. Quite simply indeed. By chasing the surrogates for God.