Pope Francis prays to St Thomas More every day.
A few years ago, the pope revealed that he prays St Thomas More’s prayer for good humour “every day.” And why not? Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22) and the sure sign of God’s presence in the world. It is, as Fulton Sheen says, “the happiness of love”, of love which knows itself and takes pleasure simply in all that is good. Who doesn’t want more joy and more good humour in their life?
The prayer in question is attributed to St Thomas More, the famous English lawyer, statesman and martyr from the 16th Century. And it’s a delightful one.
According to the Vatican website, it goes like this:
Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.
Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good
and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil,
but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.
Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments,
nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.”
Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humour.
Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others.
Lovely, isn’t it?
There’s just one tiny problem. It definitely wasn’t written by the great saint himself.
Even at first glance, it doesn’t read like the prayer of a 16th Century Englishman. They didn’t tend to go on about having “good digestion” or a “healthy body.” They wouldn’t pray to not “frighten easily at the sight of evil.” You were supposed to be afraid of the devil and fearful of committing sin. As to “boredom” or “excess of stress”, they are characteristically modern concerns, expressly in characteristically modern idioms.
Above all, no 16th Century gentleman worth his salt would ever pray “Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humour.” Who would ask for a sense of humour when really, what you needed, was for a king to stop threatening to chop your head off? (Or, you know, to not die from the plague before the next harvest.) But the real kicker? The word humour only started meaning funny or joyful in the 1680s, a good 150 years after the death of St Thomas More. The whole thing reeks (in the nicely way possible) of the 20th Century.
So I went to find out where it did come from.
A quick search revealed that the writer of this charming piece was actually one Thomas Henry Basil Webb (1898 – 1917). He was a young man who was tragically killed at the Battle of the Somme at just 19 years old. It seems that this prayer, written by him, was either inscribed on a tablet or sold on a card in Chester Cathedral in the north of England. Although the prayer was popular, his identity was quickly lost. By the 1940s, the prayer was attributed to “Anonymous” and by the 1960s, it was freely ascribed to St Thomas More.1
(As an aside, you’d think someone in the Vatican would have bothered to check the sources. They didn’t even attempt to cite the prayer in the text. Is this what we’ve been reduced to? Next thing you know, we’ll have quotes about snapchat from St Therese of Lisieux or original ‘How Italians Do Things’ from the all-Italian boy Padre Pio.)
I actually think Webb’s original is better. Both the meter and the rhyme are back where they belong:
Give me a good digestion, Lord,
And also something to digest.
Give me a healthy body, Lord,
With sense to keep it at its best.
Give me a healthy mind, Lord,
To keep the good and pure in sight,
Which, seeing sin, is not appalled,
But finds a way to set it right.
Give me a mind that is not bored,
That does not whimper, whine or sigh;
Don’t let me worry overmuch
About the fussy thing called I.
Give me a sense of humor, Lord,
Give me the grace to see a joke,
To get some happiness from life
And pass it on to other folk.
No one quite knows how that happened. Any more than we know how “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”, which was also written in the early 20th Century, was attributed to St Francis of Assisi from the 13th Century.
But then, why not? If you were going to attribute this prayer to anyone famous, St Thomas fits the bill. He was a good and holy man, not one given to “boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments.” He loved the Lord and served his king as best as he could – and we all know you’d need a sense of humour to cope with the self-indulgent caprice of Henry VIII.
Thomas was also a giant of the Renaissance. He was a statesman, a lawyer, a philosopher, and a writer. He wrote Utopia and also helped to write (if he didn’t in fact ghost-write) the Defence of the Seven Sacraments, Henry VIII’s response to Martin Luther which earned the king the title, Defender of the Faith. (The English monarchs still use this title from the pope, despite being not quite so keen on the whole papacy bit in later centuries…) He is also first recorded source for thousands of words, including anxiety, atonement, chat, explain, fiendish, heretical, pretext, quip, tongue-tied, tottering and appropriately enough, saintly.
In the end, he became a true saint and like all saintly men and women, would not be troubled by the passing difficulties of this life. He went calmly to his death, writing to his beloved daughter Meg,
In good faith, Meg, I trust that His tender pity shall keep my poor soul safe and make me commend His mercy. And, therefore, my own good daughter, do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best.
In the end, he wasted his “healthy body” and “good humour” on the only thing worth wasting it on: the love of God. He died as a martyr to defend the truth that Christ, represented by His vicar the pope, is the Head of the Church — and no king could change that.
Like Christ, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:3), St Thomas More laid down his life for the prize before him — and entered into the joy of his Master. (cf. Mt 25:23)
Now, we could get all caught up in who wrote the prayer — and our own tendency to forget the true authors of the past. Or we could just enjoy the prayer, get some happiness from life and pass it on to other folk, and not worry about that fussy called ‘I’.
I think I know which St Thomas More would pick.