22 April 2016

St. Thomas More and Death, the next-door neighbor

Yesterday much of the world spent the first part of the day celebrating the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II and the second part of the day mourning the death of the musician formerly known as Prince (whose music I do not know) who died at the age of 57. The 33-year difference (so far) between the span of their lives ought to give us pause and remind us that tomorrow - though it is likely to be given to us - is not guaranteed to us.

"In all you do," says the wise author of the Book of Sirach, "remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin" (Sirach 7:36). In his unfinished commentary on this verse, The Four Last Things, Saint Thomas More hopes to help his reader understand the wisdom of this verse and joy that heeding it produces because, as he writes, "we must realize that even if [death] is not rushing toward us, we yet never cease ourselves to rush toward it."

Saint Thomas suggests,
St. Dunstan's, Canterbury
...the thing that keeps us from considering death as such, and from taking the great profit that would arise of the remembrance of it, is that because of our hope for our a long life, we look upon death either as so far off that we it not at all, or else as only a vague and uncertain sight, as we can see something so far off that we do not know whether it is a bush or a beast. And surely that is how we deal with death, looking at it from afar, through a big, long space of as many years as we hope to live. And we imagine those to be many, and thus dangerously and foolishly delude ourselves. For just as wives would have their husbands think from the example of Sarah that there is no woman so old that she cannot have a child, so there is no man so old, as Cicero says, that he does not expect to live one year yet. And so for young folk, they look not at how many in their own generation, younger than themselves, are already dead, but at who is the oldest man in the town, and upon his years thy base their calculation -- whereas the wiser way would be to realize that a young man may die soon and an old man cannot stay alive for long, but that within a little while the one may die and the other must. And with this reckoning the will look upon death as much nearer at hand, and better perceive the realities of it, and thereby take more fruit from the remembrance of it and make themselves the more ready for it.
Whereas Saint Francis of Assisi refers to death as a sister, Saint Thomas More refers to death "not as a stranger but as a next-door neighbor" because death is never all that far away from any of us.

Lest one suspect Saint Thomas did not really know of that which he wrote, consider one account of his martyrdom:
Detail from St. Dunstan's, Canterbury
When he came to the Scaffold, it seemed ready to fall, whereupon he said merrily to the Lieutenant, Pray, Sir, see me safe up; and as to my coming down, let me shift for myself. Being about to speak to the People, he was interrupted by the Sheriff, and thereupon he only desired the People to pray for him, and bear Witness he died in the Faith of the Catholic Church, a faithful Servant both to God and the King. Then kneeling, he repeated the Miserere Psalm with much Devotion; and, rising up the Executioner asked him Forgiveness. He kissed him, and said, Pick up thy Spirits, Man, and be not afraid to do thine Office; my Neck is very short, take heed therefore thou strike not awry for having thine Honesty. Laying his Head upon the Block, he bid the Executioner stay till he had put his Beard aside, for that had commit­ted no Treason. Thus he suffered with much Cheerfulness (Hall’s Chron. Vol. 2. S. 2).
His ability to ascend the scaffold with a joke did not come about because of a delusion about reality or because of some psychological illness, but because he spent so much of his life remembering the reality of death and preparing for it. He faithfully lived his life in union with Christ Jesus and knew that at the moment of his death - however or whenever it would come - he looking forward to going forth to merrily meet his Lord. When you and I lie on our deathbeds - or even ascend the scaffold - will the same be said of us?

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