Writing our Lives in the Margins: Liturgical Texts & the Life of Faith

Last week, for the feast of St. Thomas More, I kept an image of his prayer-book close at hand. More took this book with him in 1534 to the Tower of London, where he was executed for treason a year later. In the margins of this prayer-book, Thomas More hand-wrote his own reflections, notes, and prayers. It is as close as one can get to Thomas More’s lived life and prayed faith.

What is usually referred to as Thomas More’s prayer-book is in reality two books bound together, both of them liturgical: a printed Book of Hours and a Latin Psalter. Whether these two were already bound together when Thomas More took them to the Tower with him is unclear but what is clear is that within these liturgical books, Thomas More wrote his own prayer-life, scribbling notes in the margins of various psalms, and — most famously — a long prayer in the margins beginning at the Office of Prime. The prayer stretches across the following pages and pages. Many things are remarkable about these texts and what Thomas More prayed about and for (and against!). What moves me, not least as a scholar of liturgy, is how he wrote his life into the liturgical texts wherever they left room for that. This prayer-book, in other words, witnesses not only to how Thomas More prayed with a given liturgical text, but also beyond it. And he did so by writing in the margins, seeking room for his own words as he turned page after page to identify blank spaces (Thomas More was not alone in this but followed the pious practice of many late medieval believers, as Eamon Duffy has shown).

That particular practice – namely, the fusion of printed liturgical texts and a lived faith scribbled around these texts – has something to say to us today. After all, we ourselves are not only witnesses of this fusion taking place on the pages of St. Thomas More’s prayer-book but co-creators of this fusion in the here and now, as we chart our own path through a lived life of faith, praying with the liturgy, and beyond it, and sometimes against it (at least that is true in my case, as a woman and a theologian in the twenty-first century).

I think of this fusion when I cycle to Mass past the building that now houses the prayer-book of St. Thomas More, namely Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. I am glad to say that I have been able to see and hold and study this book on a number of occasions. So, I wave to St. Thomas More’s prayer-book in its temperature-controlled vault of the library as I cycle past. I tell it that I honor it as a precious relic of someone who spoke truth to power and paid with his life for obedience to God rather than to Empire, even if Yale’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library wouldn’t know to catalogue the book as such. At least, the prayer-book of St. Thomas More now lives in close proximity to a church named after the saint who prayed with and beyond this book. As I cycle on to that church, I am grateful for the reminder that the liturgy and my own lived life of faith fuse in ever new — and never simple — ways.


7 thoughts on “Writing our Lives in the Margins: Liturgical Texts & the Life of Faith

    1. Thank you for your thank-you, Lee :). I will have to admit that St. Thomas More meant very little to me — until I held his prayer-book in my hands for the first time.

  1. Thank you for this wonderful, heartfelt and illuminating reflection. Over the ages, many “writing in the margins” of Catholic and Protestant theology have brought deep prayer and understanding to many lives. One thinks of Teresa of Avila, Therese de Lisieux, Edna O’Brian and more.

    The ‘marginal’ is not always opposed to ‘the official’, although it often plays out that way. It certainly did here. Moore’s writings in the margins show a deepening of the text he was reading realized and felt in his particular circumstances. But this last, for you and others, has carried over and resonated in your own faith life. What he found in his double prayer book, sketched out in the margins, somehow has reached out and found you, and us.

    Christians, almost by definition, live in the margins of the world. I always have to remind myself of this.

  2. Thank you for your reflections, Jeff. You are right, the “marginal” is not always opposed to the “official” (– unless you are ex officio invested in the “official” being what matters most :).
    Re Thomas More’s scribbles in the margins: those in the Psalter do routinely engage with the printed text. But his famous prayer does not — it is simply a case of More finding spaces for his own prayer; the words are unrelated to the Office of Prime and the following offices [Eamon Duffy has argued as much in his chapter on More’s prayer-book in “Marking the Hours”; and having studied the prayer-book myself over several days in the Beinecke, there is no doubt in my mind that Duffy is right].

  3. “…it is simply a case of More finding spaces for his own prayer; the words are unrelated to the Office of Prime and the following offices”

    More, imprisoned in the tower–at the extreme margins of ‘official’ society–seems to have found in the open margins of his prayer book a space to record his inner ramblings in the sacred. Or anyway, a sketch of his prayers. That empty space seems to have offered itself to his own silence, and the words that were brought up there.
    Often we read the Psalms or the Gospel and find ourselves drifting off into our own concerns. Usually, this is just distraction. Sometimes, the words of the text bring us to ourselves and our own necessary prayer, even when the two seem unrelated. Meditating on the text is preparation for our leap into what really matters for us now. Maybe something like this happened for More in famous prayer.

    1. Yes, I like your way of thinking about this very much, Jeff. Thank you for deepening my own reflections. ++

  4. Teresa Berger, thank you for this post. I didn’t know St. Thomas More had done this. And Jeff Armbruster, thank you for those wonderful reflections!

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