Saint Thomas Becket, Sin and Contrition
Today is the feast day of my confirmation saint, Saint Thomas Becket, the holy, blessed martyr. His story tells us how foreign to our time the Middle Ages are. Becket was a worldly cleric who had risen to be chancellor of England for Henry II. Henry seized the opportunity to place his man, Becket, on the throne of Canterbury as Primate of England. Becket had a sudden and complete religious conversion and fought Henry for the liberty of the Church for which Becket suffered exile and, ultimately, murder. In penance for Becket’s murder Henry had himself beaten by the monks at Canterbury before the tomb of his former friend who, two years after his death, was canonized by the Pope. For over three centuries his tomb became one of the major pilgrimage sites in Europe and inspired the immortal Canterbury Tales.
The Middle Ages were fully as immersed in sin as our own time, although with different mixtures of evil, but the sins of the Middle Ages were often followed by great penances and acts of contrition that brightened and inspired countless lives down through the centuries. This we have lost and this we must regain. G.K. Chesterton put what we lack in high relief when he wrote about Saint Thomas:
At the grave of the dead man broke forth what can only be called an epidemic of healing. For miracles so narrated there is the same evidence as for half of the facts of history; and any one denying them must deny them upon a dogma. But something followed which would seem to modern civilization even more monstrous than a miracle. If the reader can imagine Mr. Cecil Rhodes submitting to be horsewhipped by a Boer in St. Paul’s Cathedral, as an apology for some indefensible death incidental to the Jameson Raid, he will form but a faint idea of what was meant when Henry II was beaten by monks at the tomb of his vassal and enemy. The modern parallel called up is comic, but the truth is that mediaeval actualities have a violence that does seem comic to our conventions. The Catholics of that age were driven by two dominant thoughts: the all-importance of penitence as an answer to sin, and the all-importance of vivid and evident external acts as a proof of penitence. Extravagant humiliation after extravagant pride for them restored the balance of sanity. The point is worth stressing, because without it moderns make neither head nor tail of the period. Green gravely suggests, for instance, of Henry’s ancestor Fulk of Anjou, that his tyrannies and frauds were further blackened by “low superstition,” which led him to be dragged in a halter round a shrine, scourged and screaming for the mercy of God. Mediaevals would simply have said that such a man might well scream for it, but his scream was the only logical comment he could make. But they would have quite refused to see why the scream should be added to the sins and not subtracted from them. They would have thought it simply muddle-headed to have the same horror at a man being horribly sinful and for being horribly sorry.
Bishop Stephen Gardiner who helped Henry VIII destroy the Catholic Church in England so long under the protection of Saint Thomas Becket, Henry plundering and destroying the tomb of Saint Thomas as a symbol of the Catholicism he hated, later repented and sought to restore the Catholic Church in England under Queen Mary. He died before Queen Mary and therefore he did not live to see the failure of the attempted restoration as a result of Mary’s death and the accession of Bloody Elizabeth. As he lay dying he purportedly said something in his grief that I think gets at the heart of what sickens the modern world: Erravi cum Petro, sed non flevi cum Petro. (Like Peter I have erred, unlike Peter I have not wept.) Sin remains sin, no matter what the world in its folly calls it. Sin without repentance leads to damnation in eternity and endless evil in this world, something the Middle Ages knew well and our Modern World has almost completely forgotten.