St. Thomas More's letter from prison is a powerful example of why Catholics look to the saints in heaven for inspiration and encouragement.
The Catholic relationship to saints can be puzzling from the outside.
Of course, we are asking Jesus when we ask the saints. The saints don’t help us on their own. They pray to Jesus alongside us.
Asking the saints for their intercession is no different from asking a friend at church to pray for your intention. We believe that the veil between heaven and earth is so thin that these holy men and women are still present with us and active in our Church family.
The saints are our older brothers and sisters in Christ, cheering us on to the finish line. They inspire us with their examples to be faithful as they were.
The letter of St. Thomas
A powerful example of this relationship can be seen in a letter St. Thomas More wrote from prison to his beloved daughter, Margaret.
The “man for all seasons” was a lawyer, writer, philosopher, and statesman who died a martyr in the 16th century. His influence was so brilliant that today his words of wisdom are still popular and Pope Francis recites his prayer every day.
Convicted of “maliciously denying the royal Supremacy” when King Henry VIII separated from the Catholic Church, Thomas More was executed on royal command. Those final days in prison must have been harrowing. More had been a trusted confidant of King Henry VIII at one time, and this sharp reversal in fortunes would have tormented the best of souls.
Indeed, he feared that his courage would give way at the end. In this temptation, as elsewhere, he found strength in St. Peter’s example.
I will not mistrust [God], Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how St. Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: Call upon Christ and pray to him for help. And then I trust he shall place his holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning.
The image of St. Peter walking across the water through faith in Jesus comforted More in his crucible and strengthened him for the trials to come.
I shall remember how Saint Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did…
And when he feared giving in to the pressure to betray his conscience, Thomas More trusted in the same mercy that Christ showed when St. Peter denied him three times. He wrote:
And if he permits me to play St. Peter further and to fall to the ground and to swear and forswear, may God our Lord in his tender mercy keep me from this, and let me lose if it so happen, and never win thereby! Still, if this should happen, afterward I trust that in his goodness he will look on me with pity as he did upon St. Peter, and make me stand up again and confess the truth of my conscience afresh and endure here the shame and harm of my own fault.
More felt that the worst thing that could happen, even worse than death, was to betray his conscience. Like so many saints, he hated sin more than death, but he trusted God’s mercy more than his own virtue.
Saints inspired by saints
It’s always moving and beautiful to see examples of the saints inspiring each other, and there are many stories like this one: St. Therese inspired Dorothy Day, St. Teresa of Avila inspired St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and there were several saints who were friends on earth.
More’s letter reminds me to look to the saints’ examples in hard moments. They spent their lives growing closer to Jesus and more like him, and now they stand ready to pray for us to do the same.