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Thomas More’s Call to Silence

In The Sadness of Christ, More reflects on Christ's agony.

Sir Thomas More (Hans Holbein the Younger/Public Domain

One of the most attractive features of the so-called Traditional Latin Mass is the silence. The priest faces the altar for most of the service. At the low Mass in particular, most of his prayers are inaudible. There is no “sign of peace” or extended exchange between priest and people. Both parties face God for long periods of silence interrupted by brief prayers of contrition and gratitude. 

Silence is like a mirror—it is, as the novelist put it, the “unbearable repartee.” As the corpulent avoid the scale, so sinners like this author avoid silence. In the silence of Mass, man is made to face his Maker. 

There is, of course, a communal element to the old Mass. But the most spiritually overwhelming feature of the pre-conciliar liturgy is that long, almost unyielding silence. It forces you to sit with yourself, your sins, and your failures—the honest truth about the person you are, what you have done, what you have failed to do—and therefore understand in a deeper way the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice at Cavalry. 

This Lent, I read St. Thomas More’s The Sadness of Christ, which touches on both silence and sin—how our fallen nature leads us away from silent contemplation and how our personal sins intensified Christ’s Passion.

More himself was executed for “malicious silence”—refusing to recognize Henry VIII as the head of the Church in England and the validity of his adulterous union with Anne Boleyn. In The Sadness of Christ, a three-part meditation on Christ’s Agony and Passion, More invites the reader to contemplate the Lord’s final hours as More confronts his own execution in the Tower of London. 

Early in the book, More attempts to answer two theological questions that arise from the Passion narrative. First, why did Christ seem so sorrowful in Gethsemane when many of His later followers enthusiastically embraced martyrdom? Second, what spiritual lessons are contained in Gospel accounts of Christ’s Agony for contemporary Christians?

More gives three reasons for the depth and intensity of Christ’s Agony. 

First, More argues, Christ sought to reveal to the apostles and future Christians the depths of His own humanity—“to make it clear that He was truly man” as well as truly God. 

The second reason for Christ’s extraordinary suffering in Gethsemane, More argues, was to redeem man’s suffering in its totality—both in its physical and mental forms. Christ “chose to experience not only the pain of torture in His body but also the most bitter feelings of sadness, fear, and weariness in His mind,” More wrote, so His victory on the cross “would be fulfilled in our souls as well as our bodies.”

The third, and perhaps most beautiful reason More gives for the intensity of Christ’s agony is His desire to console future Christians. More suggests that Christ knew “there would be many people of such a delicate constitution that they would be convulsed with terror at any danger of being tortured” for their faith and gave His own mental suffering in Gesthemane as cause for courage.

More then addresses the lessons of the Agony for contemporary Christians. His most poignant observation comes in his comparison of the apostles—fast asleep as the Lord awaits His arrest and execution—and Judas Iscariot, who has no problem staying awake as he betrays innocent blood:

See now 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.

More argues that men have ample energy to do wrong and must be poked and prodded to do right. Christ returns three times to wake the apostles, and each time, they’ve fallen back asleep. Judas meanwhile needs no suggestion to turn the Son of Man over to sinners. 

More draws an implicit parallel between the apostles’ failure to stay awake with the Lord with the failures of contemporary Christians in their prayer lives. He compares Christians who are distracted in prayer to a criminal duly convicted or a capital crime who, given the chance to beg for mercy before a gentle king, cannot bring himself to give the king his undivided attention.

More’s analysis—both his apologia for Christ’s extraordinary suffering and his application of the Agony to contemporary discipleship—leave the reader to ponder the relationship between silence and the spiritual life. Like the apostles, we are prone to distraction and diversion—to sleep when we ought to stay vigilant, to stay home when we ought to visit the sick, to neglect prayer in favor of amusement. 

The silence at Mass gives us an opportunity to stay awake with the Lord as His sacrifice is re-presented on the altar. My mind is weak, and often wanders, even as I sit before the consecrated Host in the presence of the Lord. I am grateful, as the apostle observed, that “we have not a high priest, who can not have compassion on our infirmities.”

about the author

John Hirschauer is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He was previously a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review and a staff writer at RealClear.

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