Saturday, December 29, 2012


Exactly 20 years ago today, on my first-ever trip to England, my friend Steve and I took the train from London to Canterbury, where we visited the historic cathedral and attended Solemn Evensong, celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, at the end of which we were all led down to the exact spot where St. Thomas Becket was martyred on this date in 1170.
It's obvious that my main intellectual interests (i.e,. the things I read serious books about) are religion, politics, and history. One of this year's books that wonderfully combined the three was Cambridge Fellow John Guy's Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel: A Nine-Hundred-Year-Old Story Retold (RandomHouse, 2012). As his chosen subtitle suggests, Guy retells the familiar story of the ambitious and talented, middle-class Londoner (later titled Lux Londoniarum, "The Light of Londoners"), who improbably rose to be Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury, only eventually to fall out with his powerfully ambitious King - Henry II, who reigned as King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou from 1154 to 1189. As the king's patronage had elevated Becket beyond what would have been warranted by his modest background, the king's enmity (and some would say Becket's uncompromising stance) drove him into exile for some six years. The two were formally reconciled in France in 1170, and Becket returned to England and Canterbury Cathedral in December of that year. But the reconciliation was superficial. John Guy recounts how in October on the occasion of one of their final meetings, "when it looked as if [Becket] might accompany the king to mass in the royal chapel, the order of service was hastily changed fromt he liturgy for the day to the liturgy for the dead, in which the prayer for peace is omitted and no kiss exchanged." Becket was back home less than a month before his dramatic murder in the cathedral. His dying words were: "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death." Devotion to him as a martyr developed immediately. (According to The Golden Legend, when the clergy were about to intone the Requiem aeternam, choirs of angels interrupted them and began to chant the Mass for a Martyr!) Thomas was quickly canonized on Ash Wednesday 1173. On July 12, 1174, the prudently politic Henry submitted to public penance at the martyr's tomb. 
While Henry II succeeded only in part and so dramatically and conspicuously failed in part, timing and circumstances were more favorable to his Tudor namesake Henry VIII, who would in due course systematically end the independence and freedom of the Church in England. In the process of his reducing the English Church to a department of the State, Henry VIII had what he hoped was the final word on Becket: "notwithstanding the said canonization, there appeareth nothing in his life and exterior conversation whereby he should be called a saint, but rather esteemed to have been a rebel and a traitor to his prince."
Becket's story was played out in a medieval world in which religion was omnipresent and a factor to be reckoned with. Modern western societies may think themselves immune from such pressures - and so that much more free when it comes to exercising complete control over their citizenry. The competition for people's ultimate allegiance will continue, and in every age will require its own Beckets ready to embrace martyrdom "for the name of Jesus and the protection of the church." 

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