Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.
Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, p215.
Thomas enjoyed his finery and the wealth and privileges that went with being Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury. But he realised that life was more than fun, hard work, hard play, and being King Henry’s friend. He was wearing a hair shirt when he died but was already revered by the Kentish poor whom he supported through food kitchens. Poverty is real; poor people are real; God is real.
Hereford is on the other side of England to Canterbury, near the Welsh border. The city has its own Saint Thomas, Bishop Thomas Cantilupe, who lived a century after Becket. Last year was the 700th anniversary of his canonisation, as well as the 850th anniversary of Becket’s murder, the 900th anniversary of his birth and 800th anniversary of his translation, as we saw on Wednesday.
This article from Canterbury Cathedral concerns an ancient reliquary of Saint Thomas Becket belonging to Hereford which was rescued by a Catholic family at the Reformation and eventually restored to its proper home in the Anglican Cathedral.
Herefordshire was the mission served for 50 years by the Catholic Reformation Martyr, John Kemble, who worked for many years unmolested, until he was wrongfully accused of involvement in a papist plot to kill King Charles II. He was hanged in 1679. Thank God that today we can celebrate together our saints and martyrs, whatever branch of Christianity they may have sprung from.
In 1120, Thomas Becket was born in London; in 1170, he was murdered in his Cathedral. By the time his remains were translated (moved) to a new shrine in the cathedral, Canterbury had become a major pilgrimage destination and a place of healing. Perhaps relatively few of the healings recorded by the Benedictine custodians would be recognised as miracles today but those who were healed, whether by divine intervention or the workings of human psychology – mind over matter, if you will – went home rejoicing. Even King Henry II, whose tempestuous outburst spurred the four knights to confront and kill the Archbishop, came as a penitent pilgrim.
But in 1538 another king was angry. Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Catharine of Aragon, who had borne a daughter but no son. Unable to attack militarily the Pope who had refused the divorce, he divorced the Church of England from the Catholic church. Thomas, the low-born bishop who had stood up to the king was now, not a martyred saint but a traitor, whose name was to be forgotten, written out of history, even out of prayer books.
We met the poet John Betjeman again last month. He was a devout Anglican, if one beset by awareness of his own sinfulness as well as intellectual doubts. In his autobiographical poem Summoned by Bells he wrote:
What seemed to me a greater question then
Tugged and still tugs: Is Christ the Son of God?
Betjeman was also aware of the natural aversion of people to self examination and repentance. We can see it in all sorts of situations of course; he exposes this hypocrisy in a Church community. Let’s take note, not just how we treat our clergy, but also in all our dealings. I’d recommend seeking out the poem as well. I feel I am at times guilty of trying to ‘keep us bright and undismayed’, mea culpa!
Blame the Vicar
When things go wrong it’s rather tame
To find we are ourselves to blame,
It gets the trouble over quicker
To go and blame things on the Vicar.
The Vicar, after all, is paid
To keep us bright and undismayed.
Thomas Becket did not keep King Henry bright and undismayed.