On our need for the real Thomas More

Next month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the film, A Man for All Seasons. And if it’s impossible to imagine such a picture on such a theme winning Oscars today, then let’s be grateful that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got it right by giving Fred Zinnemann’s splendid movie six of its awards in 1967 – when, reputedly, Audrey Hepburn lifted her eyes to heaven before announcing with obvious pleasure that this cinematic celebration of the witness and martyrdom of Sir Thomas More had beaten The Sand Pebbles, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Alfie, and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming for Best Picture.

Intriguingly, though, A Man for All Seasons is a magnificent religious film – perhaps the best ever – despite its author’s stated intentions.

Robert Bolt’s introduction to his play, which led to the movie, makes it rather clear that author Bolt saw More less as a Catholic martyr than as an existential hero, an approach befitting the hot philosophical movement of the day (which was, of course, the Sixties). As Bolt put it:

“Thomas More…became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what areas of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases, for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at last he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self.  And there this supple, humorous, unassuming, and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff…

“What attracted me was a person who could not be accused of any incapacity for life, who indeed seized life in great variety and almost greedy quantities, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death.”

Yet this portrait of Thomas-More-as-Tudor-era-existentialist doesn’t quite convince, because Bolt, perhaps in spite of himself, gave us a different More in his drama and later in his screenplay – a More who “grasps” his death, not as an existential stalwart, a courageously autonomous “Self,” but as a Catholic willing to die for the truth, which has grasped him as the love of God in Christ.  Thus when More’s intellectually gifted daughter Margaret, having failed to argue him out of his refusal to countenance Henry VIII’s divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, plays her final card and cries, “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?”, More replies, haltingly, “Well…finally…it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”

And not love of self, but love of God and love of the truth. For the God who is truth all the way through is also, St. John the Evangelist teaches us, love itself. And to be transformed by that love is to live in the truth – the truth that sets us free in the deepest and noblest meaning of human liberation.

There was something worthy and inspiring about certain aspects of existentialism: not the soured existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which quickly decomposed into nihilism, but the heroic existentialism of a Camus, who could not abide the anti-clerical Catholic progressives of his day and who sought a world in which we could be, as he put it, “neither victims nor executioners.” But it was Sartrean existentialism that won the day, at least insofar as one can trace a line from Sartre to contemporary narcissism, displayed today in everything from temper tantrums on university campuses by over-privileged and under-educated barbarians to voters across the Western world who seek relief from their grievances – some quite legitimate – in adherence to some pretty dreadful characters.

In this unhappy situation, we need the real Thomas More: the Thomas More who bore witness and ultimately “grasped his death,” not to vindicate his sense of Self, but as the final and ultimate act of thanks for his having been grasped, and saved, by Truth itself, the Thrice-Holy God.

COMING UP: Gloucester fisherman, American veteran, Polish benefactor

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Photo by Robert BreuerOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Two weeks before Veterans Day, 88-year old World War II vet Curtis Dagley of Gloucester, Massachusetts, was decorated by the Republic of Poland. The great, late-Gothic sculptor Wit Stwosz (known in German as Veit Stoss) was smiling, from what I trust is his current station at the Throne of Grace. And therein lies a tale.

The colossal wooden altarpiece that Wit Stwosz carved in Kraków for the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady, the Mariacki, is one of the great feats of decorative art in Christian history. More than forty feet high and some thirty-six feet wide, the altarpiece is a gigantic triptych, the centerpiece of which is the Dormition of the Virgin in the presence of the apostles. The two flanking panels depict numerous scenes from the Bible, including the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Because the biblical figures (some of which are twelve feet tall) were modeled on the burghers, tradesmen, waitresses, and housewives that Stwosz met during his mid-15th century labors in Kraków, the altarpiece is a marvelous evocation of what the Creed means by the “communion of saints.”

Just before the German invasion of September 1939, the altarpiece was disassembled and the main wooden figures taken to the cathedral in Sandomierz for safekeeping. But Nazi looters were determined to take Stwosz’s composition to Nuremberg, his native city, and got their way in 1941 when the altarpiece was removed to Nuremberg Castle and hidden in its basement. Discovered by the U.S. Army detachments known to moviegoers as the “Monuments Men,” the Wit Stwosz altarpiece was returned to Kraków on a thirty-car train in April-May 1946, escorted by American GIs.

Enter Curtis Dagley.

The eighteen-year old Gloucesterman was a buck private at the time, assigned to guard duty on the train bringing recovered art treasures back to Poland. But tensions were high in Kraków, where the newly-installed Polish communist regime was not, to put it gently, popular. The regime planned a large May Day “workers’ celebration” on May 1; it was quickly followed by an anti-communist demonstration on May 3 in which eight hundred protesting students were arrested and thirty wounded. (The role played in that demonstration by a then-obscure seminarian named Karol Wojtyła – later to be known as Pope St. John Paul II – likely had something to do with Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha’s decision to send Wojtyła to Rome for graduate studies immediately after his ordination in November 1946.)

So congenitally nasty regime officials and their secret police goons were in an even more petulant frame of mind than usual on May 5, when the altarpiece was officially and ceremonially returned. Perhaps to underscore their unhappiness, they claimed that an American soldier had shot two Polish militiamen. Private Dagley was charged with this “crime,” handcuffed, and held in custody, even after another GI admitted to randomly firing his pistol and accidentally wounding one Pole the previous night. The falsely-charged Private Dagley’s commanding officer made the imprudent decision to leave him behind under Polish arrest, thinking that everything would sort out in due course. Thus Curtis Dagley spent unnecessary (and certainly unwanted) time as a guest of the ill-named Polish People’s Republic before being returned to American control and mustered out of the Army.

I first learned about all this from my friend Agata Wolska, the archivist of the Mariacki, who was a great help when I was preparing City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Kraków. Dr. Wolska, a charming and tenacious scholar, spent a year tracking down the American who helped restore the Wit Stwosz altarpiece to Kraków and was unjustly imprisoned as a result. Her persistence was rewarded when she met Mr. Dagley in Gloucester in 2012. Last month’s ceremony, at which Curtis Dagley was presented with the Bene Merito medal of the Polish foreign ministry, completed a work of thanksgiving in fidelity to historical truth.

There’s more than a whiff of isolationism in the American air these days. The remarkable, wonderful story of Curtis Dagley and the Poles who remembered him with gratitude seventy years later is a poignant reminder that some still look to the United States as a pillar of stability and decency in a very nasty world.