A regular feature in the Wall Street Journal is called “Masterpiece,” in which a great work is analyzed. The author, some chosen expert, invites us to stop, wonder, and appreciate. Catholics, too, need to notice and ponder the masterpieces, which first of all belong to them, if not by legal right then by devotion. They help us in our vocation to be contemplatives.
In this spirit, The Catholic Thing gives links to great works under the rubric “Notable.” Here, I want to consider with you the epitaph that St. Thomas More wrote for his own tomb (in Chelsea) in the summer of 1532, three years before his death – which is to say, before his imprisonment but just after he resigned as Lord Chancellor. He wrote it in Latin prose, but it concludes with ten lines in verse. It is a minor masterpiece, about 700 words in translation.
An epitaph (literally “placed on a tomb”) written for oneself is a strange genre. It seems to offer an assessment of your life as if from God’s point of view. Thus, any vanity or posturing will be immediately clear to others, although the author may be blind to it. Moreover, to be genuine, it must be the fruit of interiority, of self-examination in the presence of God. Yet it’s difficult for something so intimate to be publicly shared.
More avoids posturing and falseness by framing his life as if from both sides, youth and old age, from the point of view of two fathers. After an opening paragraph, where he recounts matter-of-factly his accomplishments and office, he memorializes his father. Thus, he makes it clear that, from his youth, he had lived his life to please the good intentions of his earthly father:
When he had thus gone through this course of offices or honours, that neither that gracious prince could disallow his doings, nor he was odious to the nobility nor unpleasant to the people, but yet to thieves, murderers and heretics grievous, at last John More, his father, knight, and chosen of the prince to be one of the justices of the King’s Bench, a civil man, pleasant, harmless, gentle, pitiful, just and uncorrupted, in years old, but in body more than for his years lusty, after that he perceived his life so long lengthened, that he saw his son lord chancellor of England, thinking himself now to have lived long enough, gladly departed to God.
Yes, we need to read this paragraph understanding that we are not to be scandalized that he thought it right to persecute heretics. We need, too, to be familiar with older English usages: “disallow” here means “fail to accept with pleasure,” and “lusty” means “vigorous, strong.” And then we cannot fail to notice More’s characteristic good humor, such as saying that he was odious to the right sorts of persons, or, as we would say, “you need to have the right enemies.”
But besides being a gracious way of thanking and honoring his father, in this passage More personalizes his career, as if to say, if in another life his father had been glad that he had been a simple tradesman, More would have been content in that as well – just as wise persons today give the advice, to those facing a career choice, “What would make your parents happy?”
Next in the epitaph comes what I regard as its most astonishing detail, a confession of how More viewed his own life, which testifies that he is writing out of intimate self-knowledge. When his father died, he changed from viewing himself a young man to viewing himself an old man:
His son then, his father being dead, to whom as long as he lived being compared was wont both to be called young and himself so thought too, missing now his father departed, and seeing four children of his own, and of their offspring eleven, began in his own conceit to wax old; and this affection of his was increased by a certain sickly disposition of his breast, even by and by following, as a sign or token of age creeping upon him. He, therefore, irked and weary of worldly business, giving up his promotions, obtained at last by the incomparable benefit of his most gentle prince, if it please God to favour his enterprise, the thing which from a child in a manner always he wished and desired: that he might have some years of his life free, in which he little and little withdrawing himself from the business of this life, might continually remember the immortality of the life to come.
He missed his father, lost his youth, and began to notice something within him, calling him out of this life as well. And yet this new stage too was continuous, as it was “the thing which from a child in a manner always he wished and desired.” This was More the young child living without care in the sight of his Father, God.
In the closing paragraph, he tells the meaning of his tomb: that it “every day put him in memory of death that never ceases to creep on him.” He then asks anyone who reads the inscription to pray for him “that this tomb made for him in his life-time be not in vain, nor that he fear death coming upon him, but that he may willingly, for the desire of Christ, die and find death not utterly death to him, but the gate of a wealthier life,” – thus showing that he believed at least that prayers for the past could have power.
The final lines, in touching Latin verse, are for his two wives, Jane (died early) and Alice:
Which most my love, I know not – first or last.
Oh! had religion destiny allowed,
How smoothly mixed had our three fortunes flowed!
But, be we in the tomb, in heaven allied,
So kinder death shall grant what life denied.
*Image: Thomas More by L. Cubitt Bevis, 1969 [Chelsea Old Church, London]