Imagine facing death and being able to escape it by signing your name to a bit of parchment. By your signature you would also be released from jail, the fortune of your family restored and you restored to your family. Now imagine that all your friends and family are begging your to sign your name. Such was the dilemma confronting Saint Thomas More. It took clearly superhuman courage for him to go to his death in spite of all of this, and in spite of all evidence that his act was simply an act of futility that would not stop Henry from building his new church.
I have always thought that martyrdom, never easy, is simpler when it comes suddenly and one’s blood is hot with adrenaline pounding through your veins. Then heroism can stand out as the sudden culmination of one’s life, with one passing swiftly to eternal reward. How much harder is the type of cold martyrdom suffered by Saint Thomas More, a gradual thing spanning over a year, with every second Saint Thomas More having to fight off the temptation to simply sign his name and save his life.
In his Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, written while in the Tower, Saint Thomas explains the source from which he drew his strength:
When we feel us too bold, remember our own feebleness. When we feel us too faint, remember Christ’s strength. In our fear, let us remember Christ’s painful agony that himself would for our comfort suffer before his passion to the intent that no fear should make us despair. And ever call for his help such as himself wills to send us. And then need we never to doubt but that either he shall keep us from the painful death, or shall not fail so to strengthen us in it that he shall joyously bring us to heaven by it. And then doeth he much more for us than if he kept us from it. For as God did more for poor Lazarus in helping him patiently to die of hunger at the rich man’s door than if he had brought to him at the door all the rich glutton’s dinner, so, though he be gracious to a man whom he delivereth out of painful trouble, yet doeth he much more for a man if through right painful death he deliver him from this wretched world into eternal bliss.