On the feast of St. Thomas Becket, it’s fitting to recall just how exacting the clash between religious faith and earthly powers can be. Some ages, like his, create martyrs. Our own age more often bullies people out of martyrdom pre-emptively, as secular intimidation derails many from fidelity even in small matters. Either way, the lesson bears scrutiny: we aren’t here for long; a comfortable pilgrimage is never guaranteed, with or without a murder in Canterbury Cathedral.
On a brighter note, Becket’s feast day is also the perfect moment to celebrate an outstanding new book about that other well-known English martyr venerated both by the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, St. Thomas More; and his fellow companion in exemplary courage, Bishop John Fisher. How fortunate that we now have an extraordinary new volume of meditations on their legacies, delivered to us by an extraordinary author.
Judge Robert J. Conrad Jr. is a trial judge, former federal prosecutor, former ACC college basketball player, and historian – and those are just some of his day jobs. He is also a husband, father of five children, and grandfather to ten and counting, and mentor to many people – from law clerks and others in the Courthouse he leads; to the faculty and students at Belmont Abbey College, on whose Board he sits; to an untold number of souls encountered in his daily rounds as a federal judge for the Western District of North Carolina.
An anecdote from his Wikipedia page will tell you more about his character than any short introduction can manage:
Conrad is known to invest in young people, including former gang members he once prosecuted. Brian Mack, a former member of a violent gang, testified at Judge Conrad’s judicial investiture, “From the day I was released from prison, he contacted me to make sure that I stayed in the right path. He’s been more than a mentor to me. He’s been a friend.”
There is much else to be praised about Judge Conrad the man; but we should not detain ourselves any longer from also learning about Judge Conrad, the author.
His new book is fetchingly titled John Fisher and Thomas More: Keeping Their Souls While Losing Their Heads. I first read it in manuscript several months ago, then sought to work up an endorsement commensurate with my enthusiasm. The resulting blurb notes, “Robert Conrad’s John Fisher and Thomas Moore is the most inspiring book I’ve read in years,” and that it “will make an outstanding gift to any Catholic – or to any student of human nature, period.” It is truly an inspirational evergreen, for all seasons.
We all know how it is with books. Within a few pages, you know whether it will be a dreaded uphill slog – or instead a stirring, ennobling adventure. John Fisher and Thomas More delivers the adventure scenario via the thrilling stories of these martyrs, interspersed with Judge Conrad’s reflections on the lessons of their examples for the rest of us. It is a riveting read, right through to the appendices and footnotes – and of how many books can we say that?
Then there’s the volume’s spiritual merit. This book made me want to be a better Christian. It will make other readers feel the same. Perhaps because he is a father and grandfather, Judge Conrad brings an empathy to the telling of these stories scanted in conventional accounts. We are reminded that saints and martyrs are also men (and women), with the same cares that we often think are ours alone.
Particularly poignant is Judge Conrad’s portrait of Thomas More and his daughter Meg, whose spiritual and intellectual connections ran deep. Through his words and theirs, we see the loving father on the verge of death, sweetly continuing to impart wisdom to his precocious child as if they had all the time in the world; and the doting daughter, struggling to do what courage and right demands, even as she struggles to let go of the great man who is also her one and only dad. More and Meg remind you of Shakespeare’s king and his daughter Cordelia at the end of King Lear, written around seventy years later: “Come let’s away to prison/We two along shall live like birds in the cage.” Or as More puts it in his final letter to Meg: “Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you, and for all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven.”
At one point during our correspondence before the book’s appearance, the Judge asked a Solomonic question: which chapter of the book I liked best. The choice wasn’t easy. Yet Chapter 4, on “Vocation,” contains one message that often goes missing these days. It’s that we are each here for a purpose, that Providence exists, that we are loved, and need to love in return. As Judge Conrad puts it:
We should live significant lives, but our significance must be rightly ordered behind the significance of God, for only then can we discern our life’s vocation and fulfill it in accord with his will. Don’t be a Wolsey or Cromwell working your whole life for the wrong things. . .
That phrase, “Working for the wrong things,” sticks – especially here in the nation’s capital, where ambitious and energetic people run the daily risk of falling into just that. Wise books like this one point the way instead toward working for the right things. They help us gravitate toward courage, rather than toward cowardice; toward virtue, rather than toward vice.
As the legendary Irving Kristol once observed, “If you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book.” Self-help tomes will come and go, but to read John Fisher and Thomas More is to know improvement of the enduring kind. In a moment when gravitas so often seems thin on the ground, we are indebted to Judge Robert Conrad for this original piece of literary mentorship.
*Image: Judge Robert J. Conrad Jr. by John Seibels Walker [Charles R. Jonas Federal Building, Charlotte, NC]
You may also enjoy:
Hadley Arkes’ Boswell, Johnson, and the Church
C.S. Lewis on Natural Law (from Mere Christianity)