Monday, December 29, 2008

Fifth Day of Christmas and Saint Thomas Beckett

(Image from "Just a Slice" Flickr page, located through Google Images)

In addition to today being the Fifth Day of Christmas (I'd take five golden rings right now, thankyouverymuch), today is also the Feast Day of St. Thomas Beckett. The candle above in Canterbury Cathedral marks the place where St. Thomas was murdered by henchman of King Henry II, who apparently mistook his frustration at Thomas to be an order for the Archbishop's murder.

Here is the Saint of the Day from

St. Thomas Becket (1118-1170)
A strong man who wavered for a moment, but then learned one cannot come to terms with evil and so became a strong churchman, a martyr and a saint—that was Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral on December 29, 1170.
His career had been a stormy one. While archdeacon of Canterbury, he was made chancellor of England at the age of 36 by his friend King Henry II. When Henry felt it advantageous to make his chancellor the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas gave him fair warning: he might not accept all of Henry’s intrusions into Church affairs. Nevertheless, he was made archbishop (1162), resigned his chancellorship and reformed his whole way of life!

Troubles began. Henry insisted upon usurping Church rights. At one time, supposing some conciliatory action possible, Thomas came close to compromise. He momentarily approved the Constitutions of Clarendon, which would have denied the clergy the right of trial by a Church court and prevented them from making direct appeal to Rome. But Thomas rejected the Constitutions, fled to France for safety and remained in exile for seven years. When he returned to England, he suspected it would mean certain death. Because Thomas refused to remit censures he had placed upon bishops favored by the king, Henry cried out in a rage, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest!” Four knights, taking his words as his wish, slew Thomas in the Canterbury cathedral.

Thomas Becket remains a hero-saint down to our own times.

No one becomes a saint without struggle, especially with himself. Thomas knew he must stand firm in defense of truth and right, even at the cost of his life. We also must take a stand in the face of pressures—against dishonesty, deceit, destruction of life—at the cost of popularity, convenience, promotion and even greater goods.

In T.S. Eliot's drama, Murder in the Cathedral, Becket faces a final temptation to seek martyrdom for earthly glory and revenge. With real insight into his life situation, Thomas responds:

"The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

Although I found the above image via Google, Keith took an almost identical photo when we were in England in 1988. I loved Canterbury: the gigantic cathedral visible from everywhere in the town, the school kids in their plaid uniforms streaming out of their schools, the quiet of the cathedral and the hollows in the stone steps where perhaps millions of pigrims over the centuries crawled on their knees to the shrine of St. Thomas. And being the medieval scholar (a nice word for "fanatic") that I am, it was the place that Chaucer's famous cast of characters were heading to "on pilgrimage" and they told their (sometimes) notorious "tales" to while away the time on their trip from London to Canterbury. Some of the Canterbury Tales seem so modern that it's difficult to believe that Chaucer died in the year 1400.

As I spent a little time yesterday, reveling in research time now that my laptop is again Internet-worthy, I checked out some doctoral programs. Two caught my attention, but only one is a low-residency program. Living in England for a year (or a few) has always been one of my Big Hairy Audacious Goals (B-HAGs). The doctoral programme in English at the University of Kent in Canterbury is a dream programme, enabling doctoral candidates access to the historical and literary documents of the cathedral; however, it requires full residency for three years (full time). A dream, but such a lovely one! The doctoral programme in English at the University of Wales, Lampeter, can be accomplished almost totally from home as it requires just one short residency of two weeks at the beginning of the programme and then the rest can be done via electronic means. Doctoral candidates choose an area of research that matches with a research area of the professors (and Old and Middle English is one of them!), and a research PhD mostly from home is indeed possible. This university, established in 1822, seems to be the "real deal" and may be a possibility in five to ten years if I decide to pursue doctoral studies.

Back to Canterbury: the cathedral awed me, and, even in photos, still awes me. Its sheer size is daunting enough from the outside, but inside it's even more spectacular, especially considering its age. The surrounding roofs barely visible in the above image are all five to six stories tall, and the cathedral looms over them all, a beneficent giant guarding the town.

So today I think of St. Thomas, willing to stand up for what was right even when he knew the truth tolled his death knell, and of Christ whom we celebrate on this fifth day of Christmas.

1 comment:

Rodentking said...

Much of what Beckett died for might be considered interfering in the operation of the government. This was the standard mode of operation of the Roman Church which viewed itself as the true center of the world government. This was one of the major reasons that Henry VIII backed Thomas Cranmer in the founding of the Church of England.


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