“When you come to the point, it does go against the grain to kill an archbishop…”

Re-post from elsewhere in 2007.

Thomas Becket martyred, roundel at Exeter Cathedral (my photo)
Thomas Becket martyred, roundel at Exeter Cathedral (my photo)

So says, “Third Knight,” Baron William de Traci, in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935/38, Faber & Faber), following the murder of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Becket, who died on this day in 1170. In the first part of the play, St. Thomas returns to Canterbury after a seven-year exile in France. Shortly after his arrival, four Tempters come to Becket, the fourth tempting him to becoming a martyr for the advancement of his own political and ecclesiastical causes. In the midst of the temptation, this Tempter, the most alluring, looks ahead into the future, into the Reformation and the Modern Period. The Tempter says, after mentioning the glory and power of a martyr:

You have also thought . . . of further scorning.
That nothing lasts, but the wheel turns,
The nest is rifled, and the bird mourns;
That the shrine shall be pillaged, and the gold spent,
The jewels gone for light ladies’ ornament,
The sanctuary broken, and its stores
Swept into the laps of parasites and whores.
When miracles cease, and the faithful desert you.
And men shall only do their best to forget you.
And later is worse, when men will not hate you
Enough to defame or to execrate you,
But pondering the qualities that you lacked
Will only try to find the historical fact.
When men shall declare that there was no mystery
About this man who played a certain part in history. (pp. 40-41)

And the Fourth Tempter is broadly right about how we treat the saints of the past. We reduce them to bare history. We reduce them to “facts” — cold, hard, lifeless. We reduce them to selfish causes. We seek out their flaws. We make them into mere products of their times, men who are merely the result of their social, economic, political, educational environment.

Today, let’s take a step to reverse the trend of Modernity to make men into things of study rather than mysteries to be delighted in. And let’s take a step to undo Thomas Cromwell’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and relearn how to venerate the saints without worshipping them. But first:

The Bare History

An exciting truth about Christianity is that it is real. It is about real people who have done real things in actual history. The Bible, the cornerstone of our faith, is the record of God’s action in history with humanity, a fact that is quite exciting and exhilarating. This means that, for the Christian, historical questions are not irreverent — neither are they the sum total of our enquiry into any event of spiritual significance. So, first, the bare history surrounding St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop, Martyr, Saint of the Church:

Henry II (r. 1154-1189), King of England, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, Maine, Brittany, was a powerful man who had the princes of Wales swear fealty to him, subjugated large portions of Ireland, and had the King of Scotland as his vassal. He is famous also for having a famous wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and famous sons, King Richard I, Lionheart, and King John. If you have a taste for theatre besides Murder in the Cathedral, there is another play about his rule called The Lion in Winter, which I have seen and quite liked.

He became king after that civil war that more literary, monkish, mysterious readers who are fans of Derek Jacobi may know from Brother Cadfael. The major thing this king did was unify, standardise, and strengthen his own control over English Common Law. This was, by and large, a Good Thing, since after civil war and whatnot English law was what is commonly called a Mess.

King Henry, though, tried reaching further than he really could. He tried to impose his own Royal Courts over the clergy. If you know a thing or two about mediaeval society, one of them is this: Leave the Church alone. The Church had always and ever enjoyed its own courts. Clergy were subject to ecclesiastical courts, not the courts of the kingdom. And crimes committed on church property, such as assassinations of archbishops, were also within the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts.

In order to try and get the Church on his side, King Henry appointed his Chancellor and chum, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately for Henry, Thomas took his role as priest of the church more seriously than his role as “buddy of the King.” Thus, they settled into vicious conflict, each seeking to impose his will over the other, and each ultimately appealing to the Pope in Rome.

Things got so bad, what with the good Archbishop excommunicating a few bishops and other suchlike people, that Becket was forced to flee to France and live in exile. He was in exile for seven years. In December of 1170, Becket returned to England, things having been patched up a little bit by the Pope.

Also in December of 1170, King Henry got himself drunk (unwise) and declared, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four barons took it upon themselves to see to it that they would be the ones to do the ridding.

On December 29, they went to Canterbury and had audience with Becket, trying to sway him to the King’s position. Finding him unmoved, they left — only to return later, break into the cathedral, and kill poor Thomas Becket who was found praying. They cut open his head, and got blood and brains everywhere. Highly unpleasant.

Henry thus underwent penance for his role, although he never condoned the action of the four barons.

St. Thomas Becket had a shrine established at Canterbury Cathedral that was to become one of the chief pilgrim places in England. It is, indeed, on the road to Canterbury (a road I have stood upon myself, but not walked the length), that Chaucer’s pilgrims tell their tales. This shrine stood until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when in the overzealous, iconoclastic frenzy of the Reformation, it was destroyed.

Is There a Lesson?

Undoubtedly, many have said that Becket was simply serving his own ends and those of the power of the Church. They will have declared that, although assassinated, Becket’s story is still the story of the “winners.” Essentially, this story will be wiped clear of meaning by the modernists and of existence by the postmodernists.

But the Church and orthodoxy are older than modern and older than postmodern, and they shall stand unto ages of ages. And there is a lesson here. There is a lesson in the life of every saint. They are more than mere history, more than mere events, more than dates and figures, more than relics, more than dead flesh rotting in the grave — for they live and shall shine with glory on Resurrection Day!

Saint Thomas Becket was acting in the interests of the Church. Indeed, he lived at a time when the Church had political interests, and he was operating in favour of the enshrinement of certain rights that the Church enjoyed within the mediaeval judiciary organism. Nevertheless, he was doing his job as a Bishop of the Church. As well, he was working for the curtailment of the overreaching power of the king, power that was seeking to shift the balance of the established order — an order that operated in like fashion throughout Western Europe.

The mediaeval world thrived on order. The universe has order, and this means that certain people have certain roles to play. There is room for individual flourishing and movement and expression within those roles, within the order, but the established order helped keep things from falling apart. Life was hard: winters could be cold, crops could fail, children could be stillborn, mothers could die in childbirth, enemies could attack, raiders could lay waste your home, thieves could steal your wealth. By operating within the order of things, one helps maintain balance and helps to perform a necessary function in the movement of society, civilisation, and culture, helping the task of survival. Everyone is dependent upon everyone else — the villeins upon the knights for protection, the knights upon the villeins for food and help in maintaining the land, the king upon the barons for counsel and battle, the barons upon the knights for the same, all upon the clergy for prayers, instruction, and the preservation of knowledge and the arts, the clergy upon everyone else for food and protection.

If one upsets this order, this balance, this delicate preservation of society, life, beauty, and culture, then one endangers everything. So, in opposing a king who would put the Church under his law in judiciary matters, Becket was protecting the Church from an overproud and overpowerful monarch, and thereby protecting everyone who would seek the protection of the Church. In the Middle Ages, there is no dichotomy between Church and State, yet they co-existed and worked with and through each other, each balancing the power and privileges of the other. Becket preserved this balance.

But Becket died.

He is, therefore, a reminder that when secular authorities seek to curtail the power of the Church, when they seek to interfere in the Church’s business, to stand up and fight does not mean one will make it through unscathed. However, he reminds us that we are to stand nevertheless, even if it means the crown that comes through martyrdom.

In this way, he is a little bit a type of Christ. To quote Philip Yancey:

the only time Jesus met with powerful political leaders, his hands were tied and his back was clotted with blood. Church and state have had an uneasy relationship ever since. (The Jesus I Never Knew)

How to Honour a Saint

If you have the time and money, make a pilgrimage to Canterbury! His shrine is gone, but the cathedral is there.

Or do as I did today. Read Murder in the Cathedral. Plays are short. If you have no stamina for reading, watch the movie. I also received Eucharist today. If there’s a saint you particularly like, go to church on his or her feast day! Honour these people with the worship of Christ. Honour them with the receiving of the gift that God has to offer us in the sacraments. Honour them as they would prefer it, therefore.

Read up on him. The information I gave you in “The Bare History” came from my brain (if I could cite the places I learned it all, I would); what I heard from a reading at church this morning out of For All the Saints, a book of readings and whatnot for saints in the Anglican calendar; and A Short History of the Middle Ages by Barbara H. Rosenwein. You could undoubtedly find St. Thomas Becket at The Catholic Encyclopedia, in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, or Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

And then try and emulate the saint! Speak out against the injustices wrought by institutions and authorities. Give the church a voice in a secularist society that seeks to stifle us and muffle us and keep us passively quiet. Faith is always personal but never private (Jim Wallis, I think). Seek to see an order in our society that affirms the truths of Christ and seeks the embracing of all and the exclusion of none. Seek truth, justice, and piety in the order of this nation of Canada. We have a rich Christian heritage. Christians built this country. Let us become visible once more.

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