“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
– St. Thomas More
Last Sunday was Valentine’s Day. Okay, not quite, but it was the day I could “redeem” my Valentine’s Day gift from my wife. And what a gift it was. My wife had surprised me with theater tickets to Minneapolis’ intimate Open Window Theater to see Robert Bolt’s brilliant play about St. Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons. And as previous posts may indicate (see here and here), I am a big fan.
The first sign that this would be a good experience came as we drove up to the small, yet congested parking lot of the playhouse on the outskirts of downtown Minneapolis. Upon our arrival, we were met by no less than three helpful employees seeking to direct us to the best parking, “plug” our meter and cheerfully welcome us to the theater. Next, as we entered the foyer outside the stage area, we encountered smiling elder patrons, eager high school students, several priests and seminarians. To top it off, this antechamber was tastefully designed with inviting old furniture, walls adorned with portraits of Catholic saints and luminaries, and artfully arranged books including the works of G.K. Chesterton. Okay, Open Window Theater. You had me at “Hello”.
And then there was the production. It was magnificent. In short order, the play would unfold splendidly as it had each time I had seen or read it before. We met an affable, yet increasingly cornered More, a rugged, yet beleaguered Alice, an exasperated King Henry VIII, a cunning, vindictive Cromwell, and a self-serving, treacherous Richard Rich. The spartan stage lay immediately in front of us with large blocks forming two steps at all corners of the stage. Up and down the actors climbed these blocks as they came and went from the scene. Their physical rising and falling almost mirrored the vicissitudes of their character’s fortunes. With no small irony, the flat ground under the collective actors’ feet was checkered like a chess board. While the greatest match was undoubtedly played by St. Thomas More, he was nonetheless tragically checkmated by those running afoul of the rules. The play was at once witty and playful, while being simultaneously wise and thoughtful. In sum, it was a brilliant tale poignantly told.
And so the play ended. The lights came on, bows were taken and the applause tapered off. The post-play buzz slowly muted as people shuffled this way and that to exit the theater. My wife and I sat for just a bit longer. The story we had just witnessed was quite familiar to me. Yes, it was. And yet. And yet there was something significant about watching a play about this particular man at this specific time of year. And then it dawned on me: St. Thomas More’s life is a story of Lent.
Thomas More was a brilliant lawyer, humanist and devout Catholic. He held positions of great rank and import, authored numerous books, and counted the celebrated European humanist, Erasmus and the charismatic King of England, Henry VIII among his friends. More would rise quickly to various judicial and political posts due, in equal part, to his scintillating intellect and his unimpeachable integrity. In time, he would accede to the post of Lord Chancellor to aid his friend and Sovereign, King Henry VIII, in the wise and judicious administration of the state. However, the timing would prove inauspicious as the deeply Catholic Thomas More found himself struggling against the currents of a Europe afire with the Protestant Reformation and a King adrift from the Catholic Church. The King sought spiritually convenient arguments to circumvent his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon in favor of an illicit relationship with the young Anne Boleyn. But that is not all the King wanted. He wanted Thomas More to agree with him. It was something Thomas More simply could not do.
And so would begin Thomas More’s Lenten journey of suffering in the wilderness.
It would begin when Thomas More stripped himself of the highest professional honor he had ever attained. Ostensibly, his resignation was based on medical concerns, but it was fully influenced by pressure to recognize the King, and not the Pope, as Supreme Head of the Church of England. In stripping himself of this title, More would lose status, income and influence. He would find himself increasingly on guard to keep his integrity intact, his discipleship to God and the Church whole and his devotion to his Sovereign inoffensive. But inoffensive would not be good enough. As the King’s blatant rejection of the Church, self-granted annulment and marriage to Anne Boleyn ensued, Thomas More’s absence from the coronation festivities, the pinnacle of the King’s revolt, was conspicuous. Privately, More said,
“It lieth not in my power but that they may devour me. But God, being my good Lord, I will provide that they shall never deflower me!”
Not that they wouldn’t try. Next, Thomas More would be stripped of his pride. The King’s minions would harass him with rude interrogations about writings and associations. Their reasoning was weak and their methods were coarse. But More would politely yet firmly inform them of his innocence and intentions. Not easily bullied, More warned,
“My lords, these terrors be arguments for children and not for me.”
Before long, the inevitable would occur. Thomas More would refuse to swear an oath affirming the King’s supremacy of the Church of England. And the King would pronounce his wrath. Thomas More would be stripped of his liberty. Sent to the Tower of London to live in dank, foul conditions and await certain horrible death, it was a time of deep prayer and suffering for Thomas More. Arguably, it was also a time of his greatest writing which focused deeply on the Passion of Christ. Health problems, fear and loneliness notwithstanding, his greatest pain came at the separation from his dear and loving family. But to the end, More saw his call to greater spiritual ends as something helpful to himself, but comforting to his family. As he remarked to his son-in-law, William Roper, prior to imprisonment,
“Son, Roper, I thank our Lord the field is won.”
For fifteen months, Thomas More would languish in the Tower of London, deprived of family, adequate food and medical care, writing and reading. The time would arrive when Thomas More would be dispatched by perjured testimony before a stacked jury. Fifteen minutes of deliberation would yield a death sentence. In short order he would be beheaded. Finally, the last full measure was taken. Thomas More would be stripped of his life.
The story of St. Thomas More so poetically told through Robert Bolt’s play by the actors of Open Window Theater is, quite simply, a story of Lent. It involves suffering and sacrifice in the name of uncompromising principles of faith. It a modern world of distraction, division, indulgence and entitlement, sacrifice, suffering and principles of faith are rare commodities. But we are called to make it different during Lent. We are called to greater ends through the greatest encounter. But to encounter God and His calling to us we must be willing to strip or be stripped – of ego, of desire, of selfishness, of self-sufficiency. We must humbly submit to The Almighty to bend us and perhaps break us, but always into something better than we once were. As Thomas Merton once so eloquently reasoned,
“Man was created to this end: that he should praise God, Our Lord, and reverence and serve Him, and by doing these things, should save his soul. And all the other things on the face of the earth were created for man, to help him in attaining the end for which he was created. Whence it follows that man must use these things only in so far as they help him towards his end, and must withdraw himself from them in so far as they are obstacles to his attaining his end…Wherefore it is necessary that we make ourselves indifferent to all created things, in so far as it is permitted to our free will…in such a way that, as far as we are concerned, we should not desire health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than ignominy, a long life rather than a short life, and so on, desiring and choosing only these things which more efficaciously lead us to the end for which we were created.”
In the season of Lent – a time of refining, anticipating and, yes, suffering – may we willingly allow ourselves to be stripped, to be vulnerable, to be humble and as such, may we touch the limitless mercy and grace of God. It is a time to be good servants to many, but God’s first.
To learn more about or contribute to the wonderful work of Open Window Theater, please check out their website (especially their mission statement) available here