A blessed continuing ‘Merrie Christmas!’ to all our readers, on this sixth day of Christmas, as we celebrate all these twelve days, right up to the Epiphany and the Baptism of our Lord. So keep those lights and candles burning, the decorations, the Nativity set, the tree…Christmas has just begun!
In the midst of the festivities, today is the memorial of Saint Thomas à Becket (according to this source, which should be taken cum grano salis, he may have been just Thomas Becket, the à a ‘Victorian affectation’) the steadfast, some might say intransigent, bishop of Canterbury – in its own glory days before the usurpation of its cathedral and diocese by the Anglican reformers, which is to say, by the State and her minions, along with most of the other dioceses in England.
But Thomas was long before all of that, martyred in 1170, a century after the great cathedral’s completion, offering his life for the rights of the Church, as independent of the King. Henry II’s thirst for power encroached upon the Church’s lawful autonomy, to the resistance of his former chancellor, friend and boon companion, Thomas, whom he had appointed bishop of the primary see of England. Henry thought that the carousing Thomas would be a pliant tool in his royal hands – but how wrong he was. Thomas underwent a deep conversion upon his ordination as bishop, and, to the king’s surprise, actually took his spiritual duties seriously, as though, one day, he were to be asked to give an account for them before His Maker and Judge. As the good bishop wrote, in a letter quoted in today’s Office:
If we who are called bishops desire to understand the meaning of our calling and to be worthy of it, we must strive to keep our eyes on him whom God appointed high priest for ever, and to follow in his footsteps. For our sake he offered himself to the Father upon the altar of the cross. He now looks down from heaven on our actions and secret thoughts, and one day he will give each of us the reward his deeds deserve.
As successors of the apostles, we hold the highest rank in our churches; we have accepted the responsibility of acting as Christ’s representatives on earth; we receive the honour belonging to that office, and enjoy the temporal benefits of our spiritual labours. It must therefore be our endeavour to destroy the reign of sin and death, and by nurturing faith and uprightness of life, to build up the Church of Christ into a holy temple in the Lord.
The King – as is the wont of most petty tyrants – could not stand to be contradicted, and Thomas was exiled for seven years before an uneasy truce was arranged. Warned of a trap, the bishop nevertheless courageously returned to his see and rightful place, and would not budge an inch on the Church’s fundamental rights. Eventually, the king’s simmering resentment burst forth in ungoverned anger and, at one point, harsh words burst forth, perhaps under the influence of too much seasoned mulled wine:
What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?
Apparently adding: Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?
As the story goes, four knights took this as an implicit command to deal with the bishop as they saw fit. They stormed the cathedral, confronting Thomas, who refused to flee, and dashed his brains out before his own altar with multiple sword blows to his head, violating the very sanctuary of God.
Thomas’ martyrdom was a sign of the Church’s unbending courage, independence against the folly of kings, the encroachment of the State upon the rights and freedom of the Church. He was canonized two years later (in an age when canonizations usually took much, much longer). Whatever King Henry’s own views, he knew he had committed a grave sin – for which Henry repented publicly, having himself scourged in full view by the cathedral monks.
But what Henry II began, another Henry – the Eighth by that name, and less repentant than his predecessor – would bring to completion four centuries afterward in the bitter fruit of the Protestant ‘reformation’. As a definitive sign of the end of what was once England, Henry VIII had the shrine of Becket – the destination of the Canterbury Tales pilgrims, and the most popular holy site of England, along with Walsingham – destroyed in 1541, and the martyr’s relics dispersed to the four winds, which is about where the faith of England is now going, going, and, unless a severe course correction sets in, gone.
Ironic that Thomas à Becket is now honoured as a saint in the Anglican communion, and I must confess I find it rather odd that the great English, and Anglican, poet Thomas Stearns Eliot could write a brilliant dramatic play on the murder, yet not see the deeper issues at work, that Becket’s death presaged the loss of the Faith in England, that Anglicanism has not the foundation to withstand the assaults of secularism and, now, Islam.
As Becket foresaw, that if he did not insist on the Church’s God-given rights against his own struggle with the king:
There will be few or none in the future who will not follow the princes’ will entirely, who will keep faith with the Roman Church . . . who will not spurn the law of God as a fable, empty words without truth or meaning.
Sadly, as Newman foresaw, the ‘Church of England’ is now in its own death throes. There is only one, true Church, as countless martyrs before and after the bishop Thomas saw so clearly, and for which they were willing to suffer and die.
We often see the bright side of the saints, but for a deeper analysis of Becket’s complex character, peruse this reflection by Dan Hitchens.
And, for lighter reading, feel free to peruse my thoughts on Canterbury upon my pilgrimage there a couple of summers ago, when one could travel and pilgrimage freely. There is actually a small shrine to the saint in the cathedral, marking the spot where he died, and where I knelt and said a Rosary – a fitting prayer in what was once a Catholic cathedral, and may one day be again.
Saint Thomas à Becket, ora pro nobis!