The story of the Carthusian martyrs is not as well known as it should be. No doubt this is because, in the great tale of the early English Reformation, the figures of Sts John Fisher and Thomas More tower over all others, for many and obvious good reasons. And yet nobody becomes a martyr without some extraordinary qualities—tenacity, faith, holiness—that make it possible to face all the consequences of simply doing the right thing when it is required. And yet how difficult that simple thing can be, even in small matters.
The monks of the London Charterhouse (who provided most of today’s saints) were renowned for their holiness of life in the early sixteenth century. It had become fashionable to grumble about monks at that time, but nobody grumbled about them. Thomas More, who could be rather scathing about monks who were no holier than they should be, actually lived with the London Carthusians for several years, and contemplated joining them. Carthusian monks, following a somewhat different and stricter form of the Benedictine life, have as their proud boast that they have never needed reform. Theirs is, and always has been, a very silent and recollected life: The London community in the sixteenth century was led by Prior John Houghton, a relatively young man, already with a reputation for sanctity. You will understand, then, why Henry VIII was particularly keen to get him and his community on side. Being widely respected, they would lend authority to the King’s claims to the headship of the Church in England.
John Houghton was somebody who had wrestled with his vocation. At first, he had studied civil law at Cambridge, and his parents had planned a good marriage for him to go with his almost certain good career prospects; however he became increasingly aware of the call to holiness and went to live with a secular priest, studying with him for ordination. For four years he lived as a secular priest until he finally tried his vocation with the Charterhouse, and in short order ended up novice, then professed, sacristan, prior of Beauvale Charterhouse in Nottinghamshire, and finally Prior of London, where, under his guidance, the whole community achieved a reputation for sanctity and wisdom.
When presented with the King’s demands that the London Carthusians recognize his claim to the headship of the Church in England, the community took three days to pray about it, on the last of which they celebrated a Mass of the Holy Spirit. During Mass, at the elevation, the whole community actually had an experience together that they unanimously identified as the Holy Spirit breathing in the chapel, and which gave them courage for what was to come—courage they would sorely need.
John Houghton, together with two other priors from the North, went to speak to Thomas Cromwell, the King’s strong arm man in religious matters. We can be sure that with his lawyer’s training, St John tried everything to make it possible to take the oath of allegiance to the King, without, however, compromising principle. Nothing availed, however, and all three were arrested, the charge being that —and I quote — ‘John Houghton says that he cannot take the King, our Sovereign Lord to be Supreme Head of the Church of England afore the apostles of Christ’s Church’, which rather makes it sound as if the apostles had also usurped what was the King’s rightful position.
In any event, he was condemned, of course—Cromwell had had to threaten the jury with treason charges themselves in order to achieve it, and the three priors together with a Bridgettine priest and a secular priest were all dragged to execution together. St Thomas More, by now in the Tower of London, watched them from the window of his cell setting off, and commented to his daughter who was visiting that they looked just like bridegrooms going to their wedding, a comparison that St John Fisher was also to use on the morning of his own death.
King Henry was insistent that the priests should be executed in their religious habits, to teach other religious a lesson, one presumes. This meant that after St John was cut down from the gallows, still alive, to be butchered, the thick hairshirt he wore under his heavy habit had to be cut through by the executioner, who had to stab down hard with the knife. And then, finally, as the executioner drew out St John’s still beating heart before his face, he spoke his last words: ‘Good Jesu’ he said, ‘what will you do with my heart?’
The story of St John Houghton is one that I have been very familiar with for the last twelve years or so, because I was once the Catholic chaplain at Charterhouse School near Godalming, which had been founded in the buildings of what had been the London Charterhouse. John Houghton’s last words have long puzzled me: they were very suitable for young people—I used them a great deal to get the boys to think about what they were going to do with their lives ‘Good Jesu, what will do you with my heart?’ but why would St John use them at that very moment. Some devil sometimes whispered in my ear that in his pain and confusion he was blaspheming at the executioner, feeling his hands around his heart, but I know that cannot be the case. St John knew all along what to expect. For years I have puzzled about it—such a strange thing to say—and only last night I think the answer came to me.
I think his words were not accidental but very deliberately chosen, and they were words that he had used in his life before, perhaps often. We have seen how he was uncertain what his state in life would be and, doubtless, a prayer such as ‘Good Jesu, what will you do with my heart?’ must often have been on his lips. It was, then, a prayer from his youth, when puzzled as to just what God wanted of him. And when the end had come, when his heart was about to be torn from his body, then he acknowledged his destiny: martyrdom, and he knew very literally what Jesu was to do with his heart. And that heart he willingly gave in honour of that Sacred Heart that loved mankind so much.
The death of those priests did not have the effect Henry desired; in fact it shocked people deeply, so the other Carthusians were not executed publicly. Instead they were simply chained up in a cell and were left quietly to starve.
‘Good Jesu, what will you do with my heart?’ These are words that can speak to us at any stage, indeed in any moment in life, because we are daily confronted with choices between good and evil, or even simply between good and better. These words place the element of choice firmly in the Lord’s loving providence, praying for his grace to help us make the right decision.
When it comes to lifetime choices, however, St John Houghton’s words become more eloquent. There are any number of ways one can give ones life for the Lord—martyrdom is only one, albeit just about the best. One can also give ones living life for Him, by living in the married state, by working in any number of vocations in the world, and, of course, by spending ones life in consecrated religious life and/or the Priesthood. I think that the key element that identifies when a job becomes a vocation is when there is an element of self-giving to it—or in other words, when there is at least an element of martyrdom.
I have always been very struck by the story of Blessed Noel Pinot, a martyr of the French Revolution, who, having been arrested when about to celebrate Mass, ascended the scaffold to the guillotine dressed in the same Mass vestments, reciting to himself the same words we said today ‘Introibo ad altare Dei’. The mother of St John Bosco said to him on his ordination day; ‘remember, son, that beginning to say Mass means beginning to suffer’. These words come home to me and strike at my conscience, because I would far rather have a nice dinner with brandy and cigars than suffering, but I increasingly think that I can never really be worthy of my priesthood until I pour myself more entirely into it. There is nothing worth having that does not carry its price label, and the price label for following the Lord is imitating him in all things or, as He said Himself, taking up our cross daily. The question is not what do I want (the answer to that is straightforward: I’ll have an easy life, please, involving some nice dinners in agreeable company) but what does He want. In fact, ‘Good Jesu, what will you do with my heart?’ Because whereas my little wants are rather petty and contemptible, his are wonderful beyond comprehension. And very often beyond my comprehension, anyway.
Thanks be to God that the priesthood of God’s Church does not belong to me but to Christ, that I do not exercise it, but he exercises it through me.
Thanks be to God that the sacraments we offer do not depend on our worthiness but on His.
These may seem curious words on the day of a priestly jubilee—surely what you were expecting was a host of funny stories about Fr Ray (and perhaps I can think of a few), but he charged me very specifically not to say anything of the sort; in fact barely to mention him. And I do what I am told—sometimes. Twenty-five years, a quarter of a century, is only a blink of an eye to the Lord—you only need just over 18 of these periods of time to be back in the time of St John Houghton himself. So all that we can say, as our Lord recommended, is that we are merely unprofitable servants.
What a wonder it is that the Lord loves us at all! And yet he does, and is happy with the feeble struggle and great labour we make of bearing his sweet and gentle yoke, he rejoices as a parent does when guiding the first steps of a child or when speaking his first words. Caused by grace, these shallow twitches in our lives towards doing the Lord’s will and setting aside our own desires are no matters of mere jubilees and quarter centuries, they are the stuff of eternity leaking into time. These things are signs of the Kingdom of God, where, in eternity, eye has not seen nor ear heard what good things God prepares for those who love him. Which is why we pray with St John Houghton: ‘Good Jesu: what will you do with my heart?’