Every now and again, I revisit the Tudor period and become obsessed all over again with Henry and his wives. Yesterday, I started thinking (not for the first time) about Katharine of Aragon. Anyone who knows me at all knows how much respect I have for her, and how much I greatly admire her both as an individual and as a woman of faith. Katharine was many things – a diplomat, a strategist, a loving mother, an adored queen, but most of all, she was devout. Had she been forced to make the same choice as Sir Thomas More, and choose between her faith and appeasing Henry, she would have made the same decision – to die, rather than give up the church.
I won’t pretend that the Catholic Church in this period was anything other than corrupt. Martin Luther had his reasons for attacking it, and both Katharine and Thomas More had their reasons for despising Luther. But, look beyond the superficiality and sadness of their church experience, and we see a faith so genuine that nothing shook it. Katharine’s motto was “humble and loyal.” Her faith contributed mightily to her ability to be those things, and even in her darkest hours, she found her greatest comfort in prayer. It was she who famously said that if given the choice between happiness or sorrow, she would choose sorrow – for in the midst of sorrow, we remember God, where in happiness we seem to forget him. Who does that? Who would rather choose God and sadness than happiness and not thinking of Him?
Katharine was not perfect. She was stubborn almost to a fault – because she believed that her role as queen was hers by divine right, and also that by proxy, her daughter had every right to the succession. She was Isabella of Spain’s daughter, after all. Stepping aside from that role was unfathomable to her, particularly on the pretense of a lie revolving around her earlier marriage to Prince Arthur. Historians have famously debated whether or not she lied about the marriage being unconsummated, but there I must take her side: I don’t think Katharine put ambition ahead of her faith, and she swore it on her faith. Katharine had the misfortune of not knowing a “loving” God. She never found God the way Martin Luther did. A vow made before her interpretation of God – as a powerful, divine, but ultimately punishing force – would not be made lightly.
But, that is beside the point. The brutal fact is, in comparison to many of our ancestors, and the believers of the past, my faith is superficial and insignificant. God influenced every aspect of their lives, but I struggle to find that connection to Him. Even more so than her relationship with Henry, or her queenly duties, Katharine put God first. He got the credit, He heard her devastated prayers, and she endured whatever life threw at her, out of a belief that God was still in control and that this was somehow in her best interest. She was so forgiving that not only did she forgive her husband on her deathbed, she chastised her maids for speaking ill of Anne Boleyn, because she feared Anne would soon know her husband’s cruelty. Having experienced it firsthand, she could not even muster up the rage to hate the woman indirectly responsible for it.
I want to be that way, to have such a profound relationship with God that I forgive even the gravest offenses. I have more tools than Katharine did, too. I have the actual scripture, where she only had laymen’s sermons and prayer books. But… I can’t seem to find that level of immersion with God. The sermons sound empty. The Bible’s pages seem dry. I yearn for an emotional connection where none exists on a superficial level. Pretending otherwise seems wrong to me. I am not someone who lies, or says what she doesn’t feel. Giving God the credit for everything in life seems insincere to me, probably because it is so uncommon in the modern age. In the past, for good or evil, society was saturated in religion. It was second nature to most people. True, it was a watered down, highly-biased interpretation, but in later periods, the Bible saturated society instead of religion. Children learned to read it in primary school. John and Abigail Adams spoke of faith as second nature, giving God the credit for a good deal – and they meant it. It doesn’t sound superficial, because it was sincere. Yet, ours isn’t. Mine isn’t.
Deep down in my heart, I yearn to make God everything and to be the kind of selfless woman that Katharine was, as an icon of faith, but I don’t know how.