It doesn’t take long for newcomers to The Heights to recognize that St. Thomas More is held in rather high esteem here. A statue of his likeness graces the grand staircase leading from the Valley to Chesterton Hall, our young artists and musicians produce and perform works for Thomas More Night; he’s even the patron saint of our alumni association. This time last year, Dr. Matthew Mehan and Mr. David Brown led upper school students to London on a Crescite Week trip to explore the life of St. Thomas More. Why is it that we invoke this particular saint so often?
In a piece written in 2009 for the dedication of the St. Thomas More statue here at the School, Dr. Mehan wrote the following about St. Thomas More: “As the greatest English poet of his age, as one of the most learned men in history, as the second most powerful man in one of the most powerful countries in Christendom, a first citizen of London and the world, and now the United Kingdom’s “Lawyer of the Millennium” and the Catholic Church’s “Patron Saint of Statesmen;” as a defender of the liberal arts and a model husband and father; and as a man who attempted to do all things well in life and who died both defending the rights of free citizens and witnessing to the Catholic Church’s independence from a tyrant-king’s control, Thomas More, nestled in the peaceful heart of our campus, will no doubt inspire us to follow in his example.”
As a man who dearly valued education, it is certainly fitting for a school to look to St. Thomas More as an inspiration. He was an impressive scholar himself, being among the most learned men of his time. He was frequently in communication with the likes of Erasmus; in fact, the two often made games out of sending Latin translations back and forth to keep their knowledge of the ancient language sharp. While More clearly attained lofty positions of influence in the public sphere, he never regarded education as a mere tool to attain power and prestige. Rather, he believed that education properly understood is the pursuit of the good, the beautiful, and the true, as well as the training of the mind to recognize these in the world around us. We seek to instill the same understanding of education in the minds of our pupils here at The Heights, quite contrary to other prevalent and shallow conceptions of education in our contemporary world. While we hope to prepare the boys well for college and successful careers, a Heights education is intended to be much more comprehensive than just this. ‘Men Fully Alive’ is a noble goal, and one that we are sure More would have approved. And it is also worthy of note that St. Thomas More provided a rigorous education to his daughters, something rather unheard of in sixteenth century Europe.
On the Feast of the Guardian Angels this past September, the fourth grade was unexpectedly blessed with the opportunity to visit the St. Thomas More exhibit at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in northeast D.C. Dr. Mehan had an advisory role in this exhibit and our older students have visited the exhibit to learn more about this great saint. Fourth graders are a little young to fully appreciate St. Thomas More. Truth be told, we had originally planned an outdoor tour of the Franciscan Monastery and their bee colonies on this early autumn day, but an ill-timed downpour forced us to call a last-minute audible. And what a fortuitous audible it was. Though initially crestfallen that they would be missing the bees, the boys were intrigued at the prospect of seeing relics of a great saint — and one who was martyred, no less. After giving the boys a brief lesson on More, we piled into the vans and headed to the exhibit. The boys were fascinated by the relics, including St. Thomas’s tooth, his breviary, and his night cap knitted for him by his daughter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority quickly gravitated to the replica of the chopping block on which he was martyred. Following a slight injury or two in their attempts to reenact the execution, the boys heard an explanation from our tour guide of More’s famous words, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
At first glance, St. Thomas More’s quotation may seem befuddling. But More was sincere; he did serve his temporal master exactly as he ought. Rather than re-directing his moral convictions with the ease of a weather vane to follow the dominant thinking of his day, St. Thomas More relied upon his well-formed conscience and his strong faith to guide his judgments. He displayed saintly levels of fortitude in adhering to the dictates of that conscience, even though he knew the Tower and the chopping block could lie ahead. A sound advisor, one who desires to steer his master to the good and the true regardless of the consequences, is by necessity God’s servant first. In this day and age where the future of religious liberty in our country is perhaps in jeopardy, More’s unshakable conscience and commitment to the truth serve as a powerful example for us.
Another remarkable — and frequently overlooked — quality of St. Thomas More is his strong wit and sense of humor. Of course many of us have heard his famous quip from the chopping block that his beard should be spared, as it had committed no fault. Much of his writing, too, contains a streak of humor.
St. Thomas More recognized the necessity and power of both humor and cheerfulness in our everyday lives. Not only does our wit enable us to make arguments and convey truth effectively, it also assists us in finding joy in this life and spreading it with our neighbors. Another saint who is very dear to our school, St. Josemaría Escrivá, always held that virtue cannot be gloomy, but must be joyful. There is a common (and tragic) misconception in our contemporary world that people who live a holy life must be miserable bores. Great saints like St. Thomas More show us that nothing could be further from the truth; he encapsulates our ideal of a man fully alive. Do yourself a favor and pay a visit to this exhibit at the St. John Paul II National Shrine before it closes at the end of March!