Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Sadness of Christ: Sleeping Bishops in the Garden of Gethsemane - St. Thomas More

The following article appeared in the June edition of the Remnant:

The Sadness of Christ: Sleeping Bishops in the Garden of Gethsemane

By St. Thomas More (1478-1535) -

Introduced and Edited for The Remnant by Connie Bagnoli Thomas More rose from humble origins to achieve the highest political and judicial office of England, second only to that of the King. He was recognized throughout early sixteenth-century Europe as one of the great lawyers, Christian
A young Thomas More
humanists, and classical scholars of his day. During his years of studying and teaching, More continued an intense life of prayer. At age 26, he was elected to Parliament; at 27 he married Jane Colt and fathered four children in the next five years. Jane died when More was 33, leaving him with four young children.

Despite his deep sorrow, he remarried again within one month for the sake of his children. He married the best woman he knew, Alice Middleton.

After fifteen years of prosperous civil life, More was called to serve the King at court, a position he did not want and would not seek out. Yet as a loyal citizen, More considered it the “duty of every good man” to contribute to the service of his country.

Once in the King’s service, More commanded Henry VIII’s friendship and trust, serving primarily as his personal secretary, but with some administrative and diplomatic responsibilities. He rose steadily over the next ten years, finally became Chancellor in 1529, at the age of fifty-one. More was Chancellor for only thirty-one months. He resigned on May 16, 1532, the day after Henry VIII manipulated the Parliament to take away the traditional freedom of the Church, a freedom that had been written into English law since the Magna Carta. At issue was the survival of the Church as well as the nature of law and the scope of the state’s legitimate authority.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London for fifteen months before his execution, Thomas More was heavily pressured by family and friends to sign the oath accepting Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. More steadfastly refused but never expressed animosity towards those who complied.

During this time, he wrote a number of devotional and exegetical works, including “The Sadness, the Weariness, the Fear and the Prayer of Christ Before He was taken Prisoner”, an in-depth study and meditation on Our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

What Thomas More writes applies pointedly to the individuals of his own age who were responsible for the virtual destruction of the Church in England. He writes of the Apostles falling asleep at their post and Judas’ betrayal of Christ as “a mirror image of what has happened through the ages.” More’s message is not limited to the issues of his own time.

Intentionally universal, it is applicable to every age and every individual. More sees the “sleeping Apostles” as a “mysterious image of future times”—it is a lesson for all time.

That St. Thomas More was “the King’s good servant, but God’s servant first” was readily seen in his life of prayer and penance. From the time he was a young man, More started each day with private prayer, spiritual reading, and Mass, regardless of his many duties. He lived demanding mortifications in his characteristically discreet and merry manner. He generously cared for the poor and needy and involved his own children in this same work. He had special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, to frequent meditation on the Passion, and to the rosary.

Thomas More was executed on July 6, 1535, and canonized as a martyr by Pope Pius XI on May 19, 1935. He has become a symbol of professional integrity, famous for balanced judgment, ever-present humor, and undaunted courage that led him to be known, even in his own lifetime, as “The Man for All Seasons.” He is the Patron Saint of Statesman, Politicians, Lawyers and Civil Servants. St. Thomas More’s feast day is June 22nd.

venerated His heavenly Father in a bodily posture which no earthly prince has dared to command. Our Savior Christ saw that nothing is more profitable than prayer, but He also was aware that this means of salvation would very often be fruitless because of the negligence of men and the malice of demons--so much so that it would very frequently be perverted into an instrument of destruction.

And He went to His disciples and found them sleeping. (Mt 26:40; Mk 14:37, Lk 22:45) Notice here how much greater one love is than another. Notice how Christ’s love for His own was much greater than the love they gave in return, even those who loved Him most. For even the sadness, fear, dread and weariness which so grievously assailed Him as His most cruel torment was drawing near could not keep Him from going to see them. But they, on the other hand, however much they loved Him even at the very time when such an enormous danger was threatening their loving Master, could still give in to sleep.

And He said to Peter, “Simon, are you sleeping? Could you not stay awake one hour with me? Stay awake and pray that you may not enter into temptation. For the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mt 26-40-41, Mk 14-37-38) This short speech of Christ is remarkably forceful: the words are mild, but their point is sharp and piercing. For by addressing him as Simon and reproaching him under that name for his sleepiness, Christ tacitly lets it be known that the name Peter, which Christ had previously given him because of his firmness, would hardly be altogether appropriate now, because of this infirmity and sleep.

Moreover, not only was the failure to use the name Peter a barbed omission, but the actual use of the name Simon also carries a sting. For in Hebrew, the language in which Christ was speaking to him, “Simon” means “listening” and “obedient”. But in fact, he was neither listening nor obedient, since he went to sleep against Christ’s express wishes.

Our Savior’s gentle words to Peter seem to carry certain other barbed implications, which if He were chiding him more severely would be: “Simon, no longer Cephas (Peter), are you sleeping? How do you deserve to be called Peter, which is Rock? I singled you out because of your firmness, but now you show yourself to be so infirm that you could not hold out even for one hour against the inroads of sleep. I always made much of you, Simon, and yet you are sleeping? I paid you many high honors, and yet, you are sleeping? I am being pursued to the death, and you are sleeping? What can I expect from the others, when in such great and pressing danger, not only to Me but also to all of you, that I find you sleeping?

Then, lest this seem to be a matter which concerned Peter only, He turned and spoke to the others: “Stay awake and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed in willing, but the flesh is weak.”

And again He went away for the second time, and said the same prayer over again in these words: “My Father, if this cup cannot pass away without my drinking it, let your will be done.”

And He came again and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. And they did not know what answer to make to Him. And leaving them, He went away again and, kneeling down, said the same prayer in these words: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me. Yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Mk 14-39-40, Mt 26:42-44)

When Christ came back from that prayer to see His apostles and found them sleeping and so startled by His arrival that they did not know what to say, He left them, so that it might seem He had come only for the purpose of finding out whether they were awake, whereas He could not have lacked this knowledge (insofar as He was God), even before He came. The answer is: Nothing Our Lord did was done in vain. It is true that His coming into their presence did not rouse them to complete vigilance but only to such a startled, half-awake drowsiness that they hardly raised their eyes to look at Him; or else (what is worse yet) if His reproaches did wake them up completely, still they slipped back into sleep the moment He want away. He Himself both demonstrated His anxious concern for His disciples and also by His example gave to the future pastors of His church a solemn injunction not to allow themselves the slightest wavering, out of sadness or weariness or fear, their diligent care of their flock, but rather to conduct themselves so as to prove in actual fact that they are not so much concerned for themselves as for the welfare of their flock.

And when He had arisen from prayer and come to His disciples, He found them sleeping for sadness, and He said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Sleep on now and take your rest. That is enough. Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation. Behold, the hour is coming when the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us go. Behold, the one who will betray me is near at hand” (Mt 26:45-46, Mk14:41-42)

When Christ comes back to His apostles for the third time, there they are, buried in sleep, though He commanded them to bear up with Him and to stay awake and pray because of the impending danger; but Judas the traitor at the same time was so wide awake and intent on betraying the Lord that the very idea of sleep never entered his mind. Does not this contrast between the traitor and the apostles present to us a clear and sharp mirror image, a sad and terrible view of what has happened through the ages from those times even to our own? Why do not bishops contemplate in this scene their own somnolence? Since they have succeeded in the place of the apostles, would that they would reproduce their virtues just as eagerly as they embrace their authority and as faithfully as they display their sloth and sleepiness! For very many are sleepy and apathetic in sowing virtues among the people and maintaining the truth, while the enemies of Christ, in order to sow vices and uproot the faith are wide awake—so much wiser are the sons of darkness in their generation than the sons of light.

But although this comparison of the sleeping apostles applies very well to those bishops who sleep while virtue and faith are placed in jeopardy, still it does not apply to all such prelates at all points. For some of them—alas, far more than I wish—do not drift into sleep through sadness and grief as the apostles did. Rather, they are numbed and buried in destructive desires; that is, drunk with new wine of the devil, flesh and the world. They sleep like pigs sprawling in the mire. Certainly, the apostles feeling sadness because of the danger to their Master was praiseworthy, but for them to be so overcome by sadness as to yield completely to sleep, that was certainly wrong. To grieve because the world is perishing or to weep because of the crimes of others bespeaks a reverent outlook.

Sadness of this sort produces repentance that surely tends toward salvation. If a bishop is so overcome by heavy-hearted sleep that he neglects to do what the duty of his office requires for the salvation of his flock—like a cowardly ship’s captain who is so disheartened by the furious din of a storm that he deserts the helm, hides away in some cranny, and abandons the ship to the waves—if a bishop does this, I would certainly not juxtapose and compare his sadness with the sadness that leads, as St. Paul says, to hell; indeed, I would consider it far worse, since such sadness in religious matters seems to spring from a mind which despairs God of help. Far worse, consists of those not depressed by sadness at the danger of others but rather by a fear of injury to themselves, a fear which is so much the worse as its cause is the more contemptible, that is when it is not a question of life or death, but of money.

Our Lord commands: “Do not be afraid of those who destroy the body and after that can do nothing further. But I will show you the one you should fear: fear him, who, when he has destroyed the body, has the power to send the soul also to hell. This I tell you, is the one you must fear.” If every good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, certainly one who saves his own life to the detriment of his sheep is not filling the role of the good shepherd. Even worse, if driven by fear, he denies Christ openly in words and forsakes Him publicly. Such prelates do not sleep like Peter, but deny his waking. But under the kindly glance of Christ, many of them through His grace will eventually wipe out that failure and save themselves by weeping, if only they respond to His glance and friendly call to repentance with bitterness of heart and a new way of life and leave behind the shackles of evil which bound them to their sins. But if anyone is so set in evil that he does not merely neglect to profess the truth and preaches false doctrine, whether for sordid gain or out of a corrupt ambition, such a person does not sleep like Peter, but rather stays awake with wicked Judas and, like Judas, persecutes Christ. This man’s condition is far more dangerous than that of the others, as shown by the sad and horrible end Judas came to.

Christ did not merely order the apostles to pray but shows them the need for it and teaches what they should pray for. Pray that you may not enter into temptation.

Prayer is the only safeguard against temptation which permits the besieging troops of the devil to enter the castle of the soul. From the example of bad priests, the contamination of vice spreads easily among the people. During these times of severe crisis in Our Lord’s Church, it is necessary for the people to stay awake, get up, and pray all the more earnestly for themselves--and not only for themselves but also for the Successor of St. Peter, the Princes of the Church, and all clergy. Let us imagine that Christ is addressing us: “WHYARE YOU SLEEPING? SLEEP ON NOW AND TAKE YOUR REST. THAT IS ENOUGH! GET UPAND PRAY! THE ONE WHO WILL BETRAY ME IS AT HAND.”

St. Thomas More, Faithful Servant of God, Pray for Us!

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