Thomas Becket: the simple but daunting question he puts before us today

There is much discussion about the faults of St Thomas Becket before he became Archbishop of Canterbury. Alban Butler, who could hardly be accused of lack of sympathy, said that as well as being decisive and intelligent, with great leadership qualities, he showed an excess of magnificence when travelling in state (he scandalised the French in this regard) Butler also says that he was proud, irascible, and violent. Fr Thomas Hogan who has recently led a popular Novena to the Saint, on Twitter, and wrote a biography which was published earlier this year [Thomas Becket: Defender of the Church from OSValso on Amazon] recently commented that,

“Remorseful & penitential, he could be angry, rash, imprudent, vengeful, coldly tactical; gentle & forgiving at times to Henry, but often annoyed at the Pope. Passionate & aloof, he was a work in progress.”

After his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury and his spiritual conversion, he wore a hair shirt and a black cassock instead of the flamboyant lay clothes he wore as a lesser cleric. He did not say Mass every day out of a fear of becoming lax, but he attended Mass when he was not celebrating. He was imprudent in taking on harsh penances that nearly killed him, and he was unnecessarily intransigent in disputes with those who opposed him.

Therefore, we need to remember that he was not canonised by Pope Alexander III as a gentle and retiring mystic, but as a martyr. The knights who hacked his skull open in his own cathedral did so on account of hatred of the faith: their own and that if King Henry II. Famously the king humbled himself with public penance and the knights sought forgiveness in Rome and accepted the penance of serving 14 years in the Holy Land on Crusade, but at the time, they hated both the Archbishop and the faith he stood for.

Pope Benedict XIV determined that in addition to being killed on account of hatred of the faith, it was necessary to establish that a proposed martyr showed,

“voluntary suffering or toleration of death on account of the faith of Christ, or the act of another virtue in reference to God.”
Becket is an example of this voluntary toleration of death. For his true and genuine martyrdom, we may be sure that St Thomas was rewarded by God with immediate entry to heaven.

At the same time, we recognise that our saint had many faults during his life. This can lead to various mistaken ways of assessing him. The most egregious perhaps, was a poll in History Magazine in 2006 which found him to be the second worst Briton of the second millennium. He was only pipped to the post by Jack the Ripper. The historian who proposed him said that he was greedy, hypocritical, the founder of gesture politics and master of the soundbite. Some sense intervened when the editor of the magazine said that,

“In an era when thumbscrews, racks and burning alive could be passed off as robust law and order—being guilty of ‘gesture politics’ might seem something of a minor charge.”

Leaving such nonsense aside, there is a more insidious temptation for the modern assessor of flawed sanctity, and that is to suggest that sins and faults make us more “human.” This is akin to the error that St Augustine made as a Manichee, and corrected with searing accuracy as a Christian. Just as evil is not an independent principle existing alongside good, but is the privation of good, so our sins are not a positive part of our make-up that renders us more human, they are a detraction from our humanity, they make us less human.

People are so confused about this today that they even suggest that Jesus had faults and failings as a boy, or that Mary was put out when Our Lord said, “My mother and my brethren are they who hear the word of God, and do it.” It is a short road from heresy to blasphemy.

It is folly to praise Becket because he was “only human” when this is meant to make us comfortable in our own sins so that we can excuse ourselves from repentance and conversion of life. That is precisely the opposite of the lesson that our Saint teaches us.

No! we praise Becket for his virtues, those that he worked on all through his life, and those that he developed more greatly as he became determined to be faithful when called to the office of shepherd. We are inspired by his virtues of faith in Christ, love for the Church and opposition to her enemies.

Ultimately, we thrill with admiration at his courage. His martyrdom was not suddenly sprung on him. While in exile he had a vision of it while staying in a monastery. When he returned to England, he knew full well the mortal danger that he was in, not only from the King, but from many enemies both lay and clerical.

When he celebrated Midnight Mass at Canterbury in 1170, a few days before his martyrdom, he told the faithful that he was soon to be taken from them, reminded them of his predecessor St Alphege, and told them that Canterbury would soon have another martyr.

When the knights finally came for him, there was a meeting at which demands were made by them and refused by the Saint. It ended in a violent row. (Perhaps they needed a qualified facilitator?) The holy archbishop and his attendants went to the Cathedral and as he entered, the monks slammed and bolted the doors. Our martyr Saint shouted “Away, you cowards! a church is not a castle” and flung the doors open again. He stood firm before the knights and said, “I am no traitor, and I am ready to die.” When the first sword blow drew blood from his scalp, he said “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit!” When they had hacked and gravely wounded him several times, he said,

“For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.”

and then the final blow was struck, his brains spilled onto the pavement, and Saint Thomas Becket, on Tuesday, the 29th of December, 850 years ago, went directly to join in the song of “the white robed army who shed their blood for Christ.”

Often, when we recall the martyrs, we say “Oh! We are not likely to be put to death for the faith.” The way things are going it is getting a little bit more likely each year. So maybe we should return to the more urgent question that might have been asked in Rome or Gaul or North Africa in the days of the Caesars. Will you stand?

Holy monks did. Young students did. In the Canon of the Mass today as every day, we will remember young girls who did. Will you stand?

Yes, you will need God’s grace. You know how to receive that from the sacraments...

So, will you stand?


PICTURE CREDIT: Wikimedia. Reliquary with the muder of St. Thomas Becket. Champlevé, enameled and gilt copper, Limoges, ca. 1210.

Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon (First floor, room 17)

Source: Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2008-12-26

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. (Cropped)

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