We Are All of Us Called to Be Heroes

I’m appearing as William Roper, St. Thomas More‘s Lutheran son-in-law, in a production of A Man for All Seasons, presented by the Pasadena Theatre Company at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park, Maryland. Our show closes this weekend (though we’re doing a school show next Tuesday morning, tomorrow a week). This is one of my favorite plays, and was made into one of my favorite movies.

To me, one of the major benefits of this play is the challenge it makes to us, as audience members, to think about how far we would go to maintain our integrity. In our modern Western society, we think of saints as something anachronistic, a relic from a by-gone era. And as I pointed out at the talkback after yesterday’s matinee, when we study the saints, especially those who were major figures in society, we tend to discount any religious motivations for their behavior, and instead focus on political or social motivations. We discussed the motivation of King Henry VIII in pursuing More, whom he could very well have left quiet in retirement, in which case we wouldn’t remember Sir Thomas. Our talkback guest, a history professor from a local university, pointed out that Henry was a significant theologian, and a man who experienced scruples of conscience (for instance, when he mercifully commuted More’s sentence from drawing and quartering to beheading). If you take the view that Henry (and More, and the Pope, and all the other religious political leaders of the time) acted only out of political and selfish motivations, you miss a rich layer of human experience and historical study.

But back to saints. One argument that’s often made about saints, and other heroes, in drama is that they’re “too good,” and therefore the audience can’t identify with them, which means they need to be “humanized.” For example, I remember when I took a course in Arthurian legend at NYU. The professor asked us which of Arthur’s knights we would choose to be if we could. The vast majority of the class chose Lancelot, a handful chose Gawain, and I chose Galahad, because he was the only one who remained sinless and pure enough to wholly achieve the Quest of the Grail. The other students felt Galahad was “too good,” and therefore a character with whom they couldn’t identify. Lancelot and Gawain were “human,” because they made mistakes. It’s not that I could identify with Galahad’s goodness – I’m not even on Lancelot’s level – but if I were to aim to be like any of the knights, why would I stop with Lancelot? Why is Galahad seen as “not human” because he is good, rather than the most fully human of them all?

To me, this idea of heroes and saints being “too good” and therefore not “human” sets up a dangerous dichotomy between the quest for spiritual perfection and “being human.” We are all called to be saints. All of us will either allow ourselves to be made perfect, or will fall to the depths of lowest depravity. There is no just “being human.” Part of being human is the call to sainthood. Now, as humans, touched by original sin, we will all fail in the quest for perfection, but thankfully we have grace, which, if we allow it, will mold us in the end into shining beings even more glorious and good than even the saints were here on earth.

One thing that interests me about actors is the common claim that playing villains is more interesting, because their motivation is more complex, and that playing the good guy is boring. IMHO, the good guy is the more interesting one, because he is the character who does not allow himself to give into the temptations that villains allow themselves to fall into, or he is the one who is redeemed from previous sins by making the hard choice to do good instead. Make no mistake, acting morally and doing good is a lot harder than living for oneself and watching out for “Number One.” I’d rather play a character who has the courage to make that tough choice than play one who’s slick, cool, and morally cowardly. And if it’s the writers who are making villains three-dimensional and making heroes two-dimensional? Then I think that’s a symptom of our fallen nature, which finds it easier to imagine evil than imagine good. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, in order to write (and play) villains, all we have to do is look inside ourselves to find the necessary anger, lust, and pride, whereas in order to write (and play) heroes, we must imagine the inner mental and spiritual state of people better than ourselves. (If someone can find me the exact quote, I’ll add it. I’m blanking on it at the moment.)

All this is to say that we are each of us called to be Thomas Mores, and therefore to read or watch the play A Man for All Seasons should not solely be an exercise in understanding the political, social, and religious decisions that led St. Thomas to his martyrdom, but should also be a lesson in how each of us should act should we (God forbid) be placed in a similar situation. And people are still martyred, and made to suffer, today, for their faith, and for their consciences. The whistle-blower who loses his job and financial security because he will not keep silent about wrongdoing; the student who loses a friend because he will not lie about the friend’s cheating on a test; and the soldier who is mocked and threatened because he exposes inhuman and illegal behavior toward the enemy – all of these share in some small way the honor of those like St. Thomas who treasured their conscience more than their life. Not to mention the thousands of people each year who are actually murdered for their religious beliefs. It still happens today, and will continue to happen, which is why saints and martyrs like St. Thomas must not be thought of as anachronisms, but as living examples on which to model our own behavior today.

“We are all of us called to be heroes.” – Adam, The World Over (Keith Bunin)

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