Monday, December 29, 2014

Saint Thomas Becket, Murder in the Cathedral

Saint Thomas Becket, (21 Dec. c. 1118 (or 1120) -- 29 Dec. 1170.
Today is the feast day of Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, and martyr for the Catholic faith. In some ways, his story is remarkably similar to that of Saint Thomas More, whom he preceded by several centuries. Both men maintained a loyal friendship to the English monarch and fiercely devoted to the Catholic faith, which eventually led to irreconcilable differences ultimately costing them their lives. Before his appointment as Archbishop, Thomas led a life of lavish abundance. However, upon appointment, he forsook his materialistic lifestyle and gave up all claims to earthly wealth, a remarkable choice when one considers that this choice was not required of his position at the time.

"This stark, 'cold turkey' separation, this radical embrace of a life of spiritual and physical simplicity, was undoubtedly challenging, overwhelming, and initially undesirable. ... But he denied, with prayer and fasting, this area of temptation in order to focus solely on the Source of the strength and grace that he knew would be necessary to remain faithful in such a perilous and controversial role. This Source was summoned and accepted upon the martyrdom of St. Thomas, when his executioners sought him out in the cloistered abbey where he lived in 1170. Taking his life in the abbey’s Cathedral, between the altars of Our Lady and St. Benedict, St. Thomas exclaimed to his executioners, 'For the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church I am willing to die.'"

St. Thomas' martyrdom has been the subject of numerous literary and film adaptions. One of the most famous is T.S. Eliot's verse drama titled Murder in the Cathedral. First performed in 1935, it was deeply influenced by the eyewitness account of the murder by Edward Grim, a clerk at Cambridge who authored a biography of St. Thomas published in 1180. Grim was visiting Canterbury Cathedral when Becket was attacked and attempted to protect the archbishop, but was seriously wounded in the attempt.

Snow White and Rose Red by ejbeachy from Deviantart
I first came across Eliot's retelling via another retelling: the young adult novel The Shadow of the Bear by Regina Doman, a modern adaption of the Grimm fairytale Snow White and Rose Red. In the first chapter, two sisters meet a homeless stranger, a young man who calls himself Bear. The three young people find that they share a love for poetry, especially T.S. Eliot. It so happens that Bear's favorite poem is Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, foreshadowing the events which are to unfold as the sisters become entangled in their new friend's dark past, involving murder, betrayal, and a secret treasure trove. Passages of the drama are quoted throughout the novel, and thus I discovered the beauty and wisdom of Eliot!

Similar to the ancient Greek tragedies such as Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, a chorus comments on the events as the story progresses, serving as a link between the characters and the audience. I conclude with one of the final passages, a particularly compelling prayer  in which the chorus becomes the audience, the common man. Likewise, may the prayer of the chorus become our prayer, especially on this St. Thomas' feast day.

"Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man,
Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire;
Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;
Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God…
…Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us. 
Blessed Thomas, pray for us."

Sources cited:

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