December 29: Feast of Thomas Becket
The idea that a middle class kid from Cheapside can grow up to become the Archbishop of Canterbury is somehow appealing. But there is more there than meets the eye. The blood of the conquerors (not so distant past in his lifetime) flowed in Becket’s veins and, though his parents weren’t exactly rich, they were, ah, quite comfortable (thank you) and pretty well connected. Young Becket learned to ride and hawk down in Surrey (something I have always wanted to do but was never invited…), got a really decent education, and was pretty well ear-marked as a ‘mover and shaker’ by the time he hit his stride.
I remember as a kid watching the old Hal Wallace film and completely missing the point. The Archbishop (played by Richard Burton) was certainly praiseworthy, but failed to really inspire a ten year old. Henry II (played by Peter O’Toole) seemed to get all of the best lines- a favorite; ‘Don’t be tiresome, Thomas…’ (they were both after the same woman), and my favorite character by far was the boisterous young Saxon monk/patriot who, in the final climactic scene, tried to use a processional cross as a bludgeon in his attempt to save St Thomas from the murderous knights. But I had a thing for knights and castles in those days. My younger brother whiled away the hours with his plastic WW II soldiers, while I oversaw battles from the ramparts of a Styrofoam castle that my dad made for me one Christmas; the king safely on his throne, guarded by a host of lead warriors, banners always waving…
What ten year old knows much about conversion? Some, perhaps, but I wasn’t one of them.
Later, I (along with the rest of the world) witnessed another martyrdom, a different Archbishop on the far side of Thomas Becket’s world, laid his life down in a spray of bullet-riddled violence. Some things never change. In a flash (I wasn’t a kid anymore) I realized what carpe diem really meant. Thomas of Canterbury and Oscar of San Salvador had both known privilege and preferment. Both had also had their hearts broken by Divine Love so that, like Augustine before them, they could finally love in return…and do what they had always wanted to do. Each man became a champion of the poor, God’s little ones, both lovers of what was simply right. Choosing to live in the light of that day takes a lot of courage and there is always a price to be paid…or, might one say, a greater gift to be given?