Amazing Winking Thomas More courtesy of Natalie Coombs
About thirty years ago, my parents were terribly worried. Like me and my husband, they had a daughter who was eighteen. They wanted her to get a good college education, preferably at a school that would deepen her Faith. My parents were fairly recent converts, and couldn’t rely on a network of Catholic friends or family (or the internet!) to advise them.
They had heard, though, of this guy, St. Thomas More, and they knew he had bucked society to give his daughters a good classical education; so they figured it couldn’t hurt to pray to him for help. And — this is the way I remember the story, anyway — as they were in the car praying to him, they happened to take the scenic route, and happened to look out the window, and happened to see a modest little mailbox that said “Thomas More Institute of Liberal Arts.”
Naturally, they stopped in to see what it was all about. It turned out to be a fledgling Catholic liberal arts college that was eager for new students. My sister ended up going there, and so did my other two older sisters, and so did I. The school has since gone through a few permutations of name, culture, and leadership; but when I was there, it was Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, and the original mailbox was still there on the side of the road.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, this tall guy from Los Angeles was finishing up high school and looking for something completely different to do. He happened upon a list of Catholic colleges that named, among others, Thomas More College. He applied, was accepted, and hopped on a plane to New Hampshire. Which is where he met me. Within two weeks of our first date, we were talking about getting married. Which we did.
Oh, and his middle name is “Thomas,” for Thomas More. Womp!
I’ve always liked Thomas More. I like his face, I like his hat, I like his humor, I like the way he could always explain why he did what he did, as God’s servant first. And of course, what makes him not just likeable but worthy of veneration was his unwavering courage in the face of a hostile government. An ideal patron saint for anyone trying to do God’s will in a bewildering world, which is all of us.
I’m not superstitious. I wince when I hear Amazing Tales of Unbelievable Coincidences which you, too, can get a piece of if you pray this secret magic novena to this one weird saint! That’s not how it works, at all.
I mean, if I had gone to art school as I had originally planned, and if that California guy had joined the Navy like his dad, and if a different marriage had come about, and if different children had been born, or no children at all, I can see that it’s possible I’d be thanking God and the saints for that life, too, however it looked. Some paths are wrong, but many, many paths can be made right. It didn’t have to happen this way, Thomas More or no Thomas More.
At the same time, if my parents hadn’t prayed that prayer to him, and if they hadn’t taken that road, and if they hadn’t read the sign on the mailbox, and if they hadn’t stopped the car, then where would I be? Where would my children be? Nowhere at all, because they wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t married the man who was named for Thomas More. It’s unthinkable.
Here’s how I see it. The gardener, doing his best to make his one small plot of land fertile and gracious, may live and die without ever climbing to the mountaintop to see where, amid millions of acres of land, his little patch of green fits in.
Maybe he plants a tree that feeds a bee that stings a doctor who would, if he had not been allergic to bee stings, have saved a boy who would have grown up to be the president who brings about nuclear annihilation.
Or maybe he plants a tree that becomes the wood of a crucifix that sparks the conversion of that boy, who grows up to become not a tyrant but a pope.
Or maybe the gardener plants a tree that grows a blossom that smells good, and someone praises God, because the world is full of good smells, the end.
It’s not about the tree. It’s all about grace, our openness to it, and our response to it. It’s all about everything except the tree, even though the tree is at the center of it all.
Grace, and guidance from God, is all around us, and it can change our lives immeasurably for the better if we ask for His help, and then act on it. Remember: my parents decided to pray to Thomas More. A small detail at the time, but without it, they would have just kept on driving past that mailbox.
How does the intercession of the saints and the guidance of the Holy Spirit work in a crazy, impractical system like this? I don’t really know. Grace really is weird. The way the Holy Spirit and the saints and the dopey, half-blind Church Militant all function together is mysterious beyond words.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It just means that, sometimes, free will is simultaneously what makes us created in the image of God, and also what makes it hard for us to see where our will ends and God’s begins .
The one thing that we’re truly in control of is being open to God’s grace, and the way we become open is through prayer. I don’t waste time trying to game the system or peer into the future — or I try not to, especially where my children’s future and (eek!) my children’s free will is concerned. I tend my garden, I ask the saints for help, and I try to leave the details up to God.