Monday, January 19, 2009

The prayers of a righteous man

In one of the earliest accounts (1588) of the life of Saint Thomas More, Thomas Stapleton narrates as if aware that he is writing hagiography, the life of a saint. In a chapter dealing with More’s piety, Stapleton tells a story of one of the More’s miracles. (There are several, and they all deal with prayer.)

A certain citizen of Winchester, the story goes, “was for a long time troubled by the gravest temptations to despair that prayer and the advice of his friends seemed of no avail.” Finally, on recommendation from a friend, the man went to More for advice. Under the council of the saint, the man found freedom from the bondage. Stapleton interjects that “it was not by his words but by his prayers to God that More at length obtained for the man relief from his grievous temptation.”

The man remained free up until the time More was taken to the Tower of London and inaccessible, at which point he became bombarded with the temptation “with still greater force than before,” and found himself “in misery without hope of cure.”

Finally, when he heard that More was sentenced to death, he sped to London in hopes that, risky though it may be, he could hazard some words with the doomed martyr. He ran to More while the saint was being taken to the scaffold, and cried, “Do you recognize me, Sir Thomas? Help me, I beg you: for that temptation has returned to me and I cannot get rid of it.”

More answered, “I recognize you perfectly. Go and pray for me, and I will pray earnestly for you.”

According to Stapleton, the prayers of both men were answered; the saint died with his integrity, and the despairing man was made whole.

It is an odd story, and its peculiarities are what I find delightful. I love the image of More approaching the scaffold praying for another man’s despair. I love that the man’s inner conflict is treated as gravely (no pun intended) as More’s martyrdom. I love the humility of the saint in the midst of his “illustrious martyrdom” (to use Stapleton’s phrase) who asks for prayer of the man who came to him for help, and in so doing honors him. And, as much as it is good to admire saints, I love imagining that More, after all of his heroic boldness before Henry VIII, feels afraid and needful of prayer as he approaches the scaffold. I love that he receives the prayer from a despairing man.

Maybe for Catholics who are constantly repeating entreaties to their favorite saint to “pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” More’s humble and exonerating reaction to the needy man is quite natural.

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