Saint Thomas Becket and Three Plays

 

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Destiny waits in the hand of God, not in the hands of statesmen.

TS Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

The investiture scene from the movie Becket (1964).  The story of the great Archbishop of Canterbury Saint Thomas Becket, who, from being the worldly Chancellor of King Henry II, became the great champion of the Church in life, and a greater champion in death, has always attracted artists and writers.  In our time Jean Anouilh wrote the play Becket, brilliantly brought to the screen in the 1964 film.  Filled with historical howlers, Becket was Norman not Saxon for example, it brilliantly captures the clash between Henry and the man who had been his friend and loyal servant, but who served a Greater Master after Henry, over his protest, had him raised to be Archbishop of Canterbury.

BECKET. Yet it would be simple enough. Too simple perhaps. Saintliness is a temptation too. Oh, how difficult it is to get an answer from You, Lord! I was slow in praying to You, but I cannot believe that others, worthier than I, who have spent years asking You questions, have been better than myself at deciphering Your real intentions. I am only a beginner and I must make mistake after mistake, as I did in my Latin translations as a boy, when my riotous imagination made the old priest roar with laughter. But I cannot believe that one learns Your language as one learns any human tongue, by hard studying, with a dictionary, a grammar and a set of idioms. I am sure that to the hardened sinner, who drops to his knees for the first time and murmurs Your name, marveling, You tell him all Your secrets, straightaway, and that he understands. I have served You like a dilettante, surprised that I could still find my pleasure in Your service. And for a long time I was on my guard because of it. I could not believe this pleasure would bring me one step nearer You. I could not believe that the road could be a happy one. Their hair shirts, their fasting, their bells in the small hours summoning one to meet you, on the icy paving stones, in the sick misery of the poor ill?treated human animal—I cannot believe that all these are anything but safeguards for the weak. In power and in luxury, and even in the pleasures of the flesh, I shall not cease to speak to You, I feel this now. You are the God of the rich man and the happy man too, Lord, and therein lies Your profound justice. You do not turn away Your eyes from the man who was given everything from birth. You have not abandoned him, alone in his ensnaring facility. And he may be Your true lost sheep. For Your scheme of things, which we mistakenly call justice, is secret and profound and You plumb the hidden depths of poor men’s puny frames as carefully as those of Kings. And beneath those outward differences, which blind us, but which to You are barely noticeable; beneath the diadem or the grime, You discern the same pride, the same vanity, the same petty, complacent preoccupation with oneself. Lord, I am certain now that You meant to tempt me with this hair shirt, object of so much vapid self?congratulation! this bare cell, this solitude, this absurdly endured winter-cold—and the conveniences of prayer. It would be too easy to buy You like this, at so low a price. I shall leave this convent, where so many precautions hem You round. I shall take up the miter and the golden cope again, and the great silver cross, and I shall go back and fight in the place and with the weapons it has pleased You to give me. It has pleased You to make me Archbishop and to set me, like a solitary pawn, face to face with the King, upon the chessboard. I shall go back to my place, humbly, and let the world accuse me of pride, so that I may do what I believe is my life’s work. For the rest, Your will be done.

 

Before the play Becket we had TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral which gave ample scope to a poet of genius.

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Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

Less well known is a third play about Saint Thomas by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  Tennyson, a secret agnostic, was no friend of Saint Thomas and intended the play to celebrate the liberation of England from Catholicism.  However, the figure of Saint Thomas got away from him, and the greatness of the Saint shines through despite the writer’s malign intent.

BECKET.
Am I the man? That rang
Within my head last night, and when I slept
Methought I stood in Canterbury Minster,
And spake to the Lord God, and said, ‘O Lord,
I have been a lover of wines, and delicate meats,
And secular splendours, and a favourer
Of players, and a courtier, and a feeder
Of dogs and hawks, and apes, and lions, and lynxes.
Am _I_ the man?’ And the Lord answer’d me,
‘Thou art the man, and all the more the man.’
And then I asked again, ‘O Lord my God,
Henry the King hath been my friend, my brother,
And mine uplifter in this world, and chosen me
For this thy great archbishoprick, believing
That I should go against the Church with him.
And I shall go against him with the Church,
And I have said no word of this to him:
‘Am _I_ the man?’ And the Lord answer’d me,
‘Thou art the man, and all the more the man.’
And thereupon, methought, He drew toward me,
And smote me down upon the Minster floor.
I fell.

HERBERT.
God make not thee, but thy foes, fall.

BECKET.
I fell. Why fall? Why did He smite me? What?
Shall I fall off–to please the King once more?
Not fight–tho’ somehow traitor to the King–
My truest and mine utmost for the Church?

HERBERT.
Thou canst not fall that way. Let traitor be;
For how have fought thine utmost for the Church,
Save from the throne of thine archbishoprick?
And how been made Archbishop hadst thou told him,
‘I mean to fight mine utmost for the Church,
Against the King?’

BECKET.
But dost thou think the King
Forced mine election?

HERBERT.
I do think the King
Was potent in the election, and why not?
Why should not Heaven have so inspired the King?
Be comforted. Thou art the man–be thou
A mightier Anselm.

BECKET.
I do believe thee, then. I am the man.
And yet I seem appall’d–on such a sudden
At such an eagle-height I stand and see
The rift that runs between me and the King.
I served our Theobald well when I was with him;
I served King Henry well as Chancellor;
I am his no more, and I must serve the Church.
This Canterbury is only less than Rome,
And all my doubts I fling from me like dust,
Winnow and scatter all scruples to the wind,
And all the puissance of the warrior,
And all the wisdom of the Chancellor,
And all the heap’d experiences of life,
I cast upon the side of Canterbury–
Our holy mother Canterbury, who sits
With tatter’d robes. Laics and barons, thro’
The random gifts of careless kings, have graspt
Her livings, her advowsons, granges, farms,
And goodly acres–we will make her whole;
Not one rood lost. And for these Royal customs,
These ancient Royal customs–they _are_ Royal,
Not of the Church–and let them be anathema,
And all that speak for them anathema.

Among the many crimes committed by the crowned monster known as Henry VIII at the time of the Reformation in England was the plundering and destruction of the shrine of the Holy Blessed Martyr.  Futile, in that over the great expanse of time the story of Saint Thomas could not be prevented from acting upon the hearts and minds of men, even with his shrine laid waste, and those shrines within the souls of  men are beyond the power of any tyrant.

3 Responses to Saint Thomas Becket and Three Plays

  • Last Fall I saw a tremendous off-broadway performance of ‘Murder in the Cathedral” by the Brooklyn Arts HQ and performed in an actual cathedral (well, a majestic parish church anyway — St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Brooklyn, NY). Excellent production of this great play enhanced by the staging in a church.

  • Much to my regret Kurt I have never seen a live performance of Murder in the Cathedral. My dream would be a dual revival of Anouilh’s Becket and Murder in the Cathedral with the plays being show on alternating nights.

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