A couple of days ago I finished reading John Guy's biography of St Thomas Becket, simply titled Thomas Becket. It got good reviews when it was first published, and the author has written some fine historical studies including one on St Thomas More's daughter Margaret and one on Mary, Queen of Scots. However, one tends to be careful it comes to secular historians writing about Saints: they may well be historically accurate (not always, by the way), but will they "get" the Saint.
I can say, hand on heart, John Guy "gets" Thomas Becket: the biography is the best I have read on St Thomas and I would strongly recommend your reading it. For one thing it is not a pious hagiography, it situates Thomas in his time and takes Thomas as a man of his time, not condescendingly, but in a real attempt to understand the man as he really was. Guy knows his history and he knows the historical figures who surrounded St Thomas, so if you do read the book you are going to be transported back to the 12th century and your experience will be vivid. The book is well researched, Guy does not rely exclusively on previous publications, but goes right back to the original sources and reads them with an objective eye. St Thomas emerges out of the legends that surround him (both the negative and positive ones) as a man who was extraordinary, a man whose conversion was not dramatic but gradual, a conversion not from a debauched life but from a distracted life to heroism, to standing for the truth and the liberty of the Church, most of the time standing alone.
Apart from being a great read and an accurate account of one of our great Saints, the book is one which can help us come to understand where we are now because though the events it describes took place in the 12th century they have relevance for us today. The continuing relevance of St Thomas's stand was acknowledged by Henry VIII when he, like his predecessor Henry II, sought to bring the Church under his complete control: the Tudor had the shrine at Canterbury destroyed and the Saint's remains burned. Five hundred years later the rebel Christian Thomas is as potent as he was then.
St Thomas stood for the liberty of the Church. Many previous historians saw his struggle as one in which he sought to keep his wealth, his property, his titles, his life of ease. On a superficial level that is an interpretation one might argue could be applied. However one needs to understand the time and Thomas's motivations. There is no doubt Thomas loved the comfortable life - I won't say life of ease because he was a hard worker and usually found himself in difficult situations which he had deal with, which he usually could. During his exile he found himself living a materially deprived life and he adjusted to that, quite well actually. Thomas fought King Henry II to preserve the rights, laws and liberty of the Church so it could be the Church and not a department of state. It was not material things which Thomas was fighting for, but rather the principle that as a free association the Church had the right to her rights, laws, liberty and yes, possessions, in order to guarantee its freedom from interference by secular rulers.
Henry wanted to control the Church, deprive the Pope of his role within the Church in England and Henry's possessions in France. Basically he wanted to do what Henry VIII did. Thomas resisted that - the Church had to be free and the members of the Church had to be free in the context of their relationship with the Church. Christ was the only King would could exercise authority in the Church, beneath him was the Pope, the successor of Peter, and beneath him the bishops. Pope and bishops had to defend the flock as well as teach the faith. Henry II would go so far as to think he alone had the authority to govern the Church - revealed in one argument when, as Thomas defended the rights of God, Henry was furious and accused Thomas of depriving him of his rights. Henry wanted his rights to eclipse the rights of God. He would maintain that he was king by divine right but he developed the opinion that in his kingdom (and his influence over others) meant that he should have greater rights than God: God should, in a sense, bow to what Henry wanted.
If ever there was antecedent of modern men and women we have it in Henry. Many today disregard God and his laws to satisfy their own desires and enthrone their own opinions. Even in the Church we have pastors who put away the direct teaching of Jesus Christ to replace it with their own ideas which they consider to be more pastoral than Christ's word. This is pride; Henry was full of it; St Thomas, humiliated, impoverished, strong-willed, dogged, stood up to it and refused to yield. Henry was incandescent with rage when Thomas refused to budge, as are many today when a follower of Christ refuses to yield. Thomas was killed for his stance - martyred; today the murder is in the sense of condemnations: of accusations of lacking compassion, of being hard, "unChristian".
There is another lesson worth taking from the life of St Thomas (there are many): in his struggle Thomas stood alone most of the time. Not even the Pope stood by him in crucial moments. Pope Alexander III was mired in politics, trying to deal with the threats the schismatic Emperor Frederick Barbarossa posed in his campaign throughout Europe. While the pope encouraged Thomas to protect the liberty of the Church, he also urged him to reconcile with Henry as soon and as completely as possible. Thomas knew that could not be done: the only reconciliation Henry would accept was the absolute surrender of the Church to his will, and that could not happen. Pope Alexander would blow hot and cold, at times depriving Thomas of his rights and powers so not to alienate or aggravate Henry, and Thomas bore with this patiently. Part of Thomas's sanctification was that lonely stance when even a pope could not be trusted to hold the line because that pontiff had fears and issues of his own. As many found to their chagrin (eventually!) Henry could not be trusted, he had no integrity, he was a tyrant and the only way to deal with a tyrant, as Thomas well understood, was to say "No" regardless of the consequences. While many cowered before Henry, churchmen among them, Thomas refused to do so.
In the end, some might say, all ended well. Henry came penitent to Thomas's tomb and apologised in the spirit of their original friendship. Well, things are not as simple as that. First of all Henry and Thomas were not friends, not in the way the legend presents. Thomas may have believed there was a friendship, but he was soon dispossessed of that notion: Henry was king, he had no equals and he used people to get what he wanted - there was no room for genuine friendship in his life. Thomas was a servant, and as long as he was useful Henry was happy to keep him sweet. However, there were things Henry did, mean and awful things, to remind Thomas who was in charge and to keep him in his place.
As regards penitence, Guy is convinced, as I am myself, that there was little or no regret in Henry for Thomas's murder: Henry was brutal and had little regard for justice, mercy or equity - the death of one who refused to yield to him was not to be lamented regardless of how it happened. Henry's shock over Thomas's murder was, I believe, firmly grounded in the political damage it might cause for him, and he was right to be concerned: even many of Thomas's enemies were won over when they heard of his murder, and Henry was ultimately seen to be responsible for it. The theatrical visit to the tomb in Canterbury in 1174 was purely political, an act of damage limitation - Henry was not a penitent, it was not in his nature. At that stage he had had his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, locked up (she would be imprisoned from July 1173 until Henry's death in July 1189 because she had stood up to him), his sons were in revolt and he was facing a long war with King Louis of France. At this stage St Thomas was venerated throughout Europe not only as a martyr and Saint, but as a hero who defended the rights of the poor and dispossessed. Henry was shamed and now he needed good PR.
However, I wonder if Henry really believed that St Thomas might turn and become an intercessor for his murderer, a tyrant who was intent on getting things back under his absolute control? I have no doubt Thomas was praying for him, but not for his earthly success, for his eternal salvation which, at the end of the day, is the most important thing. We should keep that in mind: we must live and act in a way which will help our salvation, and that gives us an insight into Thomas Becket. A man of the world, in his long-suffering he understood what was most important, and rather than jettison the Word of God to keep an earthly ruler happy, he stood for what was right regardless of the consequences: in the end he had to save his soul and guard the souls of those in his care. That is a good lesson for all of us.
St Thomas Becket, pray for us!
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