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.
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.
I finally found what John the Baptist and Christ were saying to us in Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance. There he says, The term and the very concept of penance are very complex. If we link penance with the metanoia which the synoptics refer to, it means the inmost change of heart, under the influence of the Word of God and in the perspective of the kingdom. But penance also means changing one’s life in harmony with the change of heart and in this sense, doing penance is completed by bringing forth fruits worthy of penance. It is one’s whole being that becomes penitential.
St. John Paul has here recalled to us the true meaning of penance as found in the Scriptures: penance as metanoia. This was the penance rediscovered by Francis in the thirteenth Century. Over the centuries this meaning of penance once again became lost as emphasis was placed more and more on the externals of penance, with the interior meaning being either forgotten or overlooked.