is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:
A few days ago we celebrated the feast day of St. Thomas More. The "man for all seasons" was a celebrated scholar, public official, lawyer, and -- of course -- a martyr for the Church. He is known in popular culture through the play (and subsequent award-winning movie) A Man For All Seasons. He is the patron saint of at least one law school here in the Philippines. He is also one of the most misunderstood of saints.
The thing with Thomas More is that his martyrdom has been given a significance by most people that is disconnected from the actual context of his death. Most people look at Thomas More and see his defiance of a king. They take inspiration for their own disobedient attitude by looking at More’s alleged following of his own conscience. The truth was actually quite different. Because the simple fact is, Thomas More did not want to die.
Thomas More lived the life of a successful professional. He was not a mediocre man unable to get things done and incessantly intrigued against his betters. He was the "better." Due to a combination of hard work, savvy, and brilliant intellect, Thomas More rose to become Lord Chancellor. He had a big house in Chelsea, comfortable income, and the respect of his peers. This was a man who would not have given it up if he had a choice and, indeed, tried every legal skill he had at his disposal to escape death.
He certainly had several opportunities to return to the graces of King Henry VIII. But he could not accept the Act of Succession’s anti-papal assertion, that Parliament had the authority to legislate on matters relating to religion and thus undermining the authority of the Pope. Added to this was his refusal to recognize Henry’s divorce from his wife Catherine.
From this, two things should be apparent: the first is that Thomas More, rather than being the model of the disobedient rebel, is actually the paragon of obedience. For he was obedient to his king, following his instructions whenever a task was given him, and carried out work even though the work may seem to him needless or unreasonable. And he was a loyal subordinate to his superiors, which, prior to the King, was Cardinal Wolsey.
His death, rather than being a symbol of disobedience to authority, was instead a perfect illustration of obedience. Thomas More died not because he was following his own personal conscience or emotion. He died because he was obeying the dictates of his faith. In this case, he was completely subverting his will to that of God’s. And this obedience to God was based not on mere muddled hodge-podge thinking of his individual concept of right or wrong. No. This obedience was intelligently and methodically culled from a highly considered and deliberate reading of the Bible, the Church’s teachings and doctrines, and the Church’s traditions. His understanding of doctrine was such that he even wrote learned treatises on the matter, including classics such as The Four Last Things and A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation.
Thus, his death was not because he wanted to disobey his king. He did not die because he thought his ideas and himself greater than the king. He died because he could not bring himself to obey his king as he had to obey, after careful study, a much higher authority: his God. This is the only way to make proper sense of Thomas More’s last words: "I die his majesty’s good servant but God’s first." We have to look at those words in the context of his obedience. Otherwise, those words would seem like mere cheap sarcasm.
The second thing we could get from the life of Thomas More was how he simply worked well, without complaints, and giving it his best in every task that was assigned to him. In fact, the reason why his martyrdom had such poignancy and resonance was because of all the material wealth and professional success that he had to give up and sacrifice.
Though Thomas More is remembered for his martyrdom, we have to note that of the 57 years of his earthly existence, 56 of that was spent in ordinary, constant, and conscientious work. This is important. Because most of us will never have an opportunity to die for our faith. Neither should we look for it. Instead, what we should be looking at and find inspiration in Thomas More’s life is how he spent years and years just doing the work that was assigned to him, work that he did cheerfully and well.
When you think about it, this country’s problem really stems from a lack of saints. And when you look at Thomas More’s life, Filipinos don’t really need the drama of martyrdom to be a saint: just practice the virtue of proper obedience and learn to do your job cheerfully and well.