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The Hidden Life of St. Thomas More

St. Thomas More was a true family man, lovingly devoted to his wife and children

By: Kevin Perrotta

The Hidden Life of St. Thomas More: St. Thomas More was a true family man, lovingly devoted to his wife and children by Kevin Perrotta

St. Thomas More is widely known as “a man for all seasons,” but he is best known for the final season of his life.

A prominent government official when Henry VIII seized control over the church in England, Thomas refused to go along with the power grab. For that, Henry had him executed, in January 1535.

Thomas’ final stand of conscience was so heroic that it can overshadow much of what came before. But Thomas really was a man who followed Jesus through all the seasons of his life, including the seasons when he built a career, raised a family, and rose to prominence in the political sphere. While there is much we can learn from him about holding fast to our convictions in times of great stress, this great saint can also teach us about how to handle the common, ordinary seasons of our lives.

Making a Start. Thomas More was born into a wealthy London family in 1478. His father, whom he admired, was a very successful lawyer; Thomas followed him into the profession, apparently out of a great respect for the law and a sense that God was calling him to family life and active involvement in the world.

Biographer Peter Ackroyd remarks that More had all the makings of a fine lawyer: He was “precise and shrewd…skillful yet detached, cautious as well as theatrical, persuasive and practical in equal measure.” He was also famous for his humor and cheerfulness. A sociable and witty man, he was the kind of person you would be glad to sit next to at a long meeting or boring social event.

But there was more to this fellow than his affable exterior. Even as he began a brilliant legal career, he developed a prayer life that helped keep him grounded in the love of Christ and his ultimate goal of heaven.

Family Man. At age twenty-six Thomas married a sixteen-year-old woman named Jane. Six years and four children later, however, she died. Within a month, Thomas married Alice, a widow eight years older than he. A quick remarriage was not unusual in those days, when the emphasis was more on practical needs than on romance. Yet this was not a loveless marriage of convenience. Both wives were dear to him. He wrote quite seriously, in fact, that he could imagine that the two women and himself would have lived happily together—”if fortune and religion would have suffered it”!

The More household became a bustling, happy place, which Alice ran with kindness and efficiency. Others joined it, including four orphans, an impoverished widow, in-laws, guests on extended visits, and animals such as More’s pet monkey (who appears in a family portrait). Home life was disciplined and devout, with morning and evening prayers and Scripture reading during dinner.

Reflecting on his own experience, Thomas recommended that a busy person should find some quiet spot, “as far from noise and company as possible,” where he or she could be alone with God every day. More himself found that quiet time by rising at two in the morning for personal prayer. Then followed study, desk work, and daily Mass. (He did go to bed at nine in the evening and took a nap after lunch). When possible, he would spend the whole of Friday praying alone before a crucifix.

Fatherly Care. Thomas loved his children dearly. To provide for their education and religious instruction, he established a home school and planned the curriculum carefully. Children, foster children—and, eventually, eleven grandchildren—attended, all under Alice’s supervision.

Thomas and Alice used innovative methods to teach traditional subjects. To stir up interest in Greek, Thomas put the letters of the Greek alphabet on the children’s archery target! Even more innovative for the times: The girls received as good an education as the boys. Thomas’ eldest daughter, Margaret, became renowned for her learning and went on to publish her own scholarly and devotional works.

Thomas insisted that the children work hard. While away on business, he expected that they write him daily letters—in Latin, with attention to style. At the same time, he lavished praise and encouragement on them, with occasional humor. In one letter, he mentioned their progress in astronomy, marveling that they could not only point out “the polar star or the dog star, or any of the ordinary stars”—but had even learned “to distinguish the sun from the moon!”

By educating them and helping them to marry well, Thomas prepared his children for success in the world. But he also taught them to resist the world when it might threaten to lead them away from God. Real achievement, he told them, is to “stand fast and firmly stick to God …in a time when no one will give you good counsel nor anyone give you good example.”

Prestige and Power. As the children grew, so did Thomas’ reputation. He was on the cutting edge of the Renaissance in England. Among his friends he counted Erasmus, a Dutchman who was the leading European scholar of the day. He became a popular author. His best-known work is Utopia—he coined the word—an imaginary report on a recently discovered land where, for the most part, people lived more sensibly than in sixteenth-century Europe. But, as the name itself signified, it really was “no-place”—the meaning of Utopia in Greek.

Yet even as he humorously imagined a utopia without lawyers, More was rising to prominence in his profession. He became the main lawyer of the association of merchants in London, a member of Parliament, and a judge with a reputation for fairness and efficiency. Then, leaving private practice and other government offices behind, he went to work full-time for Henry VIII. In Henry’s court, he served as the king’s personal secretary and council member. Eventually he became chancellor—the highest political office in England under the king.

Pressed and Stressed. It might have seemed that Thomas led a charmed life, with success and acclaim on every side. But aspects of his work were far from his liking. Business trips involving tedious negotiations over commercial contracts took him away from home for months at a time. One letter, written from France, shows Thomas riding across the countryside in a heavy rain, composing poetry in his head to entertain his children back home while his horse keeps getting stuck in the mud.

Henry’s court, with its ostentatious displays of wealth and power, was hardly to Thomas’ taste. And he had no illusions about the priorities of this king who sometimes visited his home and called him a friend. One evening, after Henry had strolled in the back yard with his arm around the chancellor’s shoulder, Thomas told his son-in-law: “I have no doubt that if my head would gain him a single castle in France, my head would go.”

Working with Henry was surely stressful. In fact, Thomas had accepted a position on his staff despite misgivings about his policies. But, as he wrote at the time, “You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds.” Rather, “you must seek and strive to the best of your power to handle matters tactfully. What you cannot turn to good you must make as little bad as you can.”

More’s commitment to do what good he could was increasingly tested. Henry sought glory in unnecessary wars and began to flirt with Protestantism, which Thomas viewed as a threat to the church and the whole social order.

The Joyful Duty. Why did Thomas spend his time in tedious, often thankless, and, finally, dangerous work?

Personal ambition played a part: Thomas thought that lay people should give themselves wholeheartedly to their work and make as great a success of it as possible. But he thought we should do this not from a desire to be rich and famous but from a sense of duty to family and to society.

“Duty” may strike us as a grim motivation. We tend to think more in terms of “seek your dream” and “follow your passion.” For Thomas, though, fulfilling his duty was an expression of his love for Christ, who had given him his responsibilities as a gift and a calling.

This faithfulness to these duties—to his vocation, we might say—contributed to the sense of balance and calm that was a hallmark of Thomas’ life. Thus even when he spoke of being too busy and “distracted,” he remained a source of good cheer for those around him because he considered himself doing all his work for Jesus and not for himself.

Not Lost in the Maze. Thomas pictured the world of business and politics as a vast circular maze in which people rush around trying to get rich and powerful, giving no thought to their ultimate destination. So many work hard for the wrong reasons, he observed, that they bring such worry and weariness on themselves: “I truly think that many a man buys hell with so much pain that he might have bought heaven at less than half the cost.”

Thomas himself labored deep inside the maze. He worked hard—one historian rates him as the finest government administrator of his generation. He undoubtedly experienced temptations as he navigated through the world of the rich and powerful. But he was able to stay on guard against pride, greed, and envy by constantly reminding himself that life is short and eternity awaits us. In prayer, he asked for help to see his efforts, problems, and successes from the point of view of God’s judgment. He took Scripture’s advice and thought about the inevitability of death: “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin” (Sirach 7:36).

During his days at Henry’s court, Thomas wrote a private meditation on this verse. Death should never be seen as “a thing far off,” he said. Life will end soon enough, and each of us will have to give an account. It makes sense, then, to keep asking: Am I living in such a way as to enter into eternal life with God?

The Final Season. As he came to the parting of ways from Henry, Thomas found himself virtually alone. Not even his family understood his reasons for opposing the king. Night after night, he lay awake, tormented by thoughts of torture and by fears that he would fail to carry through on his final duty: refusing to assent to Henry’s seizure of power over the church.

During his fifteen-month imprisonment, Thomas found it necessary to remind himself that God would provide all the grace he needed. He prayed, meditated, and wrote about hope and about the strength and humility of Jesus before his own suffering.

Ultimately, with confidence in God’s love and seeking to imitate Jesus’ willing embrace of the cross, Thomas found the strength to stay faithful. In the end, he died as he had lived, with great composure and trust in the Lord.

Thus Thomas was a cheerful companion to the end. Needing help to climb the steps to the scaffold where he was to be beheaded, he asked the executioner to take his arm. “Help me up,” he said. “As for coming down, let me handle it myself.”

Kevin Perrotta is a Scripture scholar who has authored many Bible study guides as well as a frequent contributor to The Word Among Us. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.