Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Murder in a Cathedral

On this day 18 years ago, during my first visit to England – a London-based week with a friend from high school - I attended Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral on this feast of St. Thomas Becket (1118-1170), the Archbishop of Canterbury who was martyred at Vespers in his Cathedral on this date. In 1992, it was Becket’s Anglican successor as Archbishop of Canterbury who led the celebration of Evensong, the highlight of which came at the end of the service when the Archbishop led the congregation down to the exact site of St. Thomas’s murder, where we listened to a contemporary medieval account of the famous event.

We heard the familiar story of how four of King Henry II’s knights demanded that Becket “restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated.” Becket responded, “I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace.” After the four knights had split off the crown of the martyr’s head, someone put his foot on the dead bishop’s neck and “scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; he will rise no more’.”

Canonized within three years of his death, Becket rose to become one of the Church’s great heroes in the perennial conflict against the ambition of secular power. Famously, his shrine at Canterbury also became one of medieval Europe’s popular pilgrimage sites. Sadly, that shrine – his burial place in Canterbury’s Trinity Chapel – is long gone. A new pharaoh, Henry VIII - much more ambitious to control the Church (and everything else) than Henry II had been or probably could ever even have imagined being – destroyed the shrine (and the saint’s relics) in 1538. (A candle now burns on the bare floor marking the site of the former shrine, and a modern altar adorns the location of his martyrdom).

The issue which precipitated the conflict between Henry II and his long-time friend is hardly one which would likely endear Becket to too many modern audiences. It involved “benefit of clergy,” the right of medieval clerics to be tried exclusively in church courts rather than civil courts. The
underlying principle, that the Church represents a claim on people’s consciences superior to that of any state, still has some resonance in some quarters – but likely less and less. The words of one of Becket’s killers – “No faith, nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the king” – have echoed continually through the centuries, seldom louder perhaps than in this most recent one.

The commemoration of St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom on this 5th Day of Christmas is a serious reminder – amidst all the sentimentality of this season – that the world into which God has become human is a dangerous and challenging world, one in which saying “Yes” to Christ inevitably means saying “No” to (at least some) other options.

That is not to say that one should go around looking for fights! I suspect Becket would have preferred to remain on good terms with his old friend the King, if he could have done so. Being a faithful Christian is not about saying “No” all the time to the world, but about saying “Yes” all the time to Christ. Certainly saying “Yes” to Christ sometimes means saying an unequivocal “No” to the world, but at other times it may mean saying “Yes” – maybe even an enthusiastic “Yes,” or, more likely, a qualified “Yes.”

Speaking about being Christian in the contemporary world in his recently published conversation with Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of being part of both, striving “to integrate the two, insofar as they are compatible with each other.” The point, according to Pope Benedict, “is to try to live Christianity and to think as Christians in such a way that it incorporates what is good and right about modernity – and at the same time separates and distinguishes itself from what is becoming a counter-religion.”

1 comment:

  1. HI, Ron! Your sentence:
    "The underlying principle, that the Church represents a claim on people’s consciences superior to that of any state," explains the position of Beckett's namesake, Thomas More, exactly.

    I love them both. More's head is buried in Canterbury, in the Roper vault of the parish church where the Ropers worshipped.

    If you haven't been down to Canterbury recently, there is a lovely, recently renovated spot which now marks that martyrdom of Beckett.