Feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, Martyrs
“I die my king’s humble, good servant, but God’s first.” So said Thomas More, lawyer and Chancellor of England, to Henry VIII as he was led to the chopping block to be beheaded in 1535. St. John Fischer, Bishop of Rochester, was of the same mind as Thomas. Our saints of the day come together with the scriptures of today to offer a fascinating principle of our spiritual lives.
Our reading from 2 Kings gives us a wonderful example of gradualism in the spiritual life. That slow moving practice or non-practice of our faith day after day can eventually build a rather solid pattern either for good or for ill. We might find ourselves choosing to affirm a family member each day or offer support regularly to a friend in need or simply do something small but real for the homeless, the destitute or the lonely. We choose to do this day after day until one day we cannot even imagine a day going by without this simple act of kindness, goodness, or compassion. Gradually, it has become part of our makeup, part of who we are and we begin to identify ourselves more readily as a faithful disciple of the Lord in our world today. On the other hand, we may choose to begin leaving off a prayer or two, leaving off our attendance at Sabbath Eucharist, leaving out our sense of kindness or generosity to family, friends, co-workers or those in need around us. We find ourselves thinking they should be doing kind and generous things for me after all I have done and meant to them up to this point.
We might find ourselves thinking they don’t deserve my attention. We might find ourselves thinking they should find a job and stop feeling sorry for themselves. They need to stand on their own two feet. We might find ourselves, in a gradual way, growing more and more critical and hard hearted toward people in our lives and toward groups of people in other parts of the world or groups which have a different complexion or faith or economic status or point of view than we have. Gradually, we might find ourselves walling ourselves off from others without even realizing it.
This was the situation for the Israelites in today’s reading from 2 Kings. They have returned from exile. They have, over the years, grown complacent in their understanding of and living of the Covenant with the Lord. They cannot even remember most of what covenant living entailed. Gradually, day by day, they lost their sense of how to live in faith, hope and love. This pattern is broken when Hilkiah discovers the Book of the Law (Deuteronomy), brings it to King Josiah who then initiates a dramatic return to covenant living by himself and all of the people. They begin the process of gradually reversing the destructive gradualism that infected the people with a positive, uplifting, faith based living of life with God.
Jesus echoes the same principle when He urges us to understand that we will know others by their fruits. Day by day, are we able to see the fruits of kindness, goodness, compassion, encouragement, and affirmation in our lives. Once begun, the small deeds gradually grow to permanent fixtures in the way that we live our lives. We are able to recognize and rejoice in the good fruit of our lives. The same is true of any destructive, critical or cold ways of behaving until we cannot even recognize we are in a downward spiral. Then, only bad fruit becomes apparent. Sometimes we need a dramatic moment such as Israel experienced with Hilkiah. Then we are able to reset the pathways of our lives toward living in small but real ways the mind and heart of Jesus.
For Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More the lesson of gradualism was all too clear. They watched and attempted to prevent Henry VIII’s gradual drift away from faith living. They were challenged in a dramatic moment to accept the gradual move away from God or pay with their lives. They chose to die as God’s faithful servants. Perhaps today’s scripture will help us to re-commit to faithful living of our union with the Lord Jesus in this world, with the knowledge that our destiny is the heavenly Jerusalem with John and Thomas.
Fr. Richard Burke, CP, is a member of St. Paul of the Cross Province. He lives at St. Ann’s Monastery in Scranton, Pennsylvania.