Friday, September 12, 2008

Required Reading for All Who Face Trouble (In Other Words, for ALL)

As a writer, St. Thomas More’s best known literary work is Utopia, which some people cite for the foolish and insulting proposition that this roaring lion of two-fisted cool supported the repellent and downright anti-Catholic practices, like euthanasia, that he describes in his non-existent society. Ironically, as Gerald B. Wegemer notes in his introduction to A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation (Scepter Publishers, 2005), Utopia, a Latin work, has long been more accessible to English-speaking readers than More’s English works – because the language has sailed on, leaving the English of More’s time far behind, shrouded in mists of unintelligibility. It takes special training, and plenty of patience, to decipher the crazy spelling and archaic vocabulary of More’s pre-Shakespearean language. I myself have never tried to read more than a few lines of his original, un-updated work, even though, as an undergraduate, I studied the even older and crazier Middle English dialects of Chaucer and the Pearl Poet. But Mary Gottschalk’s rendition of the Dialogue into modern English is highly readable: at no time does she get in the way or blunt the force of More’s uncluttered mind, his penetrating logic, his keen wit, or the sense of humor and good cheer that not even the headsman and his axe, overshadowing him as he wrote, could repress.

The Dialogue is set in Hungary on the eve of Suleiman the Magnificent’s invasion of that Christian country, which took place in 1526. The conversation takes place between Vincent, a young man stricken with fear of the ferocious Turks, and his elderly uncle Anthony, wise with the wisdom of the Christian who stands on the threshold of death. Vincent – the figure of More’s family, tormented by his persecution at the hands of Henry VIII – turns to Anthony – the figure of More himself – for advice on how to find consolation, strength and perseverance in the midst of the woes that loom over their country and above all, threaten their faith. Anthony begins with an analysis of true comfort, showing that it is grounded solely in the Christian faith, which in turn affords a true understanding of the medicinal value of suffering and the merits of suffering patiently borne. He then discusses the temptations against perseverance, and their cures; the danger of attachment to worldly goods; the true nature of imprisonment and death, the realization of which is an antidote to fear. The Dialogue culminates in a comparison of the fleeting torments of earth to the everlasting and unremitting pains of Hell, followed by a description of the unimaginable joys of heaven, that will instantly drown out even the greatest earthly suffering.

More’s logic is elegant and straightforward. His insights seem so obvious in the telling that we are apt to forget that they are actually the product of a highly disciplined mind, in turn the product of years of not only intense study and practice, but prayer and mortification. Consider, for example, his response to the then-new Protestant doctrine against the need for penance, reparation and sorrow for sin:
Now, Nephew, as I told you the other day, I will not dispute these matters with those upstarts. But surely, for my own part, I cannot very well go along with them, because as far as my poor mind can see, God’s holy Scripture is very plainly against them. And the whole body of Christendom in all Christian regions, including the ones in which they themselves live, has always, down to their own day, clearly believed against them. And all the ancient, holy doctors of the Church have consistently taught against them, and all the ancient, holy interpreters have construed Scripture against them. So if these new people have just now, at this late date, discovered that Scripture has been misunderstood for all this time, and that of all those holy doctors of old, not one could understand it correctly, then I at this age am too old to begin to study it now. And trust in these people’s knowledge, Nephew? That I would in no way dare to do. For I see no reason to think that these people might not now, in their understanding of Scripture, be as deceived as they tell us everyone else has been for all this time.
From the Master he served so well on earth, More learned the art of parables, using them effectively to clarify the truths he teaches in the Dialogue. His illustration of the sin of presumption sends a chill down the spine:
There’s a story about a fellow who always used to say, “As long as I live I’ll do as I please, for when I die, three or four words will make everything safe enough.” Well, it so happened that long before this fellow could get old, his horse stumbled on a broken bridge. He tried hard to rescue them both, but soon he saw that it would not be. He knew he would be flung headlong into the river below. And in sudden agitation he cried out, as he was falling, “Well, I’ll be damned!” So there he was, drowned with his three or four deathbed words on which, for all his wretched life, he had hung all his hope.
Very intense stuff. But dire solemnity is not More’s style, even in the shadow of his own impending violent death. A lightness of heart befitting a thoroughly convinced Christian shines throughout the Dialogue; and although he engages in serious and sharp reasoning, the Dialogue is leavened throughout with the wit and humor that accompanied the saint all the way to the block. I laughed out loud at another of More’s descriptions of the sin of presumption:
There are also some, I say, who are reluctant to die because they lack good sense. These people believe in the world that is to come, and they hope to go there one day; yet they love so much the wealth of this world, and such things in it that delight them, that they will fight tooth and nail to keep them as long as they possibly can. And when they see themselves allowed in no way to keep that wealth any longer, when death comes to take them away from it, then, for lack of anything better, they will consent to be – as soon as they are gone – hoisted up to heaven and placed right next to God.
More has a delightful way of playing with words. On the chance that a person who refuses to give his life for his faith may “perhaps” afterward attain forgiveness, he warns, playfully yet pointedly:
All his forgiveness hinges, Nephew, as you clearly see, on this “perhaps.” A “perhaps” can turn into a “yes,” but it can also turn into a “no.” And then where is he? And besides, as you well know, per no kind of haps will he happen to permanently escape from death – the very thing for fear of which he forsook his faith.
Although he does lament the need for levity to break up meditation on even the joys of heaven, which our carnal nature regards as tedious, and recommends humor as sauce rather than as meat, More is not above breaking up his own serious subject matter with funny stories, apparently derived from his own domestic life. Witness Vincent’s tale of a relative and her long-suffering husband:
This woman’s husband took much pleasure in the attitude and behavior of another honorable man, and therefore spent a lot of time with him. In fact, more often than not, he was away from home at mealtime. Well, one day it happened that both he and his wife dined with that neighbor of theirs, and she playfully picked a fight with this man for making her husband feel so happy elsewhere that she could never keep him at home. “Actually, ma’am,” he said (for he had a dry sense of humor), “nothing keeps him in my company but just one thing. Give him the same thing, and he’ll never be away from you.” “What wonderful thing might that be?” our relative then asked. “Indeed, ma’am,” he said, “your husband dearly loves to talk, and when he’s with me I let him have all the words.” “ALL the words?” she asked. “Well,” she said, “I’m quite willing and content to let him have all the words just as he’s always had them – which is, I speak them all myself and give them all to him. In that way, for all I care, he can still have them all. But to say that in some other way he shall have them all – you can keep him forever, rather than he get the half!”
Or Uncle Anthony’s story of the confession of the nagging wife:
…a certain nagging wife, when she came home from confession one day, told her husband [what] she was going to do. “Cheer up, man,” she said, “for today, thanks be to God, I made a very good confession and got thoroughly absolved. So now I intend to stop all my old nagging, and star over afresh!”
More clearly understood that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and he used it to great effect.

When I was a kid, there were few things I hated worse than writing a book report. They weren’t as bad during my college years, when I was working toward my degree in English, though they were still onerous, mostly because I was being made to do them. Now that I am all grown up, and at the service of accused criminals rather than professors, I write book reports for fun. I suppose it’s because I enjoy the books in question so much that I want others to read them also, and get as much out of them as I have. The Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation is one such book.

But the day I start doing story problems for fun, somebody better book me a straitjacket and a corner in the rubber room.

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