In 1534 the English Parliament passed legislation that declared King Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England.
Holding fast to the Catholic Church’s teaching on papal authority, Sir Thomas More (b. 1478) refused to take an oath recognizing the king’s supremacy, which was required by the law, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Fifteen months later, he was tried for treason. Convicted on perjured testimony, More was sentenced to death and beheaded on July 6, 1535. On the scaffold, he told the crowd of spectators that he was dying as “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Sir Thomas More found strength and comfort in the psalms during his imprisonment. A short version of the breviary and Psalter that he used in the tower called the Book of Hours still survives with marginal annotations written in his own hand. These notes give us insight into his spiritual life and inner struggles as he approached death.
More prayed the psalms frequently, and highlighted many verses in the Book of Hours particularly relevant to his circumstances, among them Psalm 27:3: “Though a host encamp against me, / my heart shall not fear; / though war arise against me, / yet I will be confident.”
Other notes reveal his awareness of his human frailty and ask for strength and the grace of virtues such as perseverance and hope—for example, he penned the word “trust” next to Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, / I fear no evil.” Next to the lines “How lovely is thy dwelling place, / O Lord of hosts! / My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord” (Psalm 84:1-2), he wrote, “The prayer either of a man who is shut up in prison, or of one who lies sick in bed, yearning [to go] to church, or of any faithful man who yearns for heaven.”
And one note that reveals More’s deep longing for God is especially moving when we recall that, filled with the ardent desire to see God, he wrote it while awaiting execution: “Happy the man who can say this from his soul: As a hart longs for flowing streams, / so longs my soul for thee, O God. / My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. / When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42:1-2).
In 1935, four hundred years after his death, St. Thomas More was canonized by Pope Pius XI. His feast day is June 22.
Excerpted from The Psalms: Gateway to Prayer, by Jeanne Kun (The Word Among Us Press, 2013). Available at wau.org/books