Saint Thomas Becket: Saint of Courage

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We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, God permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame.

CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

 

 

Today is the feast day of Saint Thomas Becket, “the holy, blessed martyr”.  His fearless championing of the True Faith against his liege and former friend, Henry II, reminds us of the importance of courage as a virtue among Christians. From the historical record it is clear to me that Becket knew that his stand would likely end in his being a martyr for Christ, a destiny he embraced and sealed with his blood.  TS Eliot put into the mouth of Becket this homily on Christmas morning 1170 that probably was close to what the Archbishop actually said at the time:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The fourteenth verse of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate on the deep meaning and mystery of our masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overcome by mourning or mourning will be cast out by joy; so that it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason. But think for a while on the meaning of this word “peace.” Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples: “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember that He said also, “Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” So then, He gave to his disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord’s Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of his first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world’s is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. 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.

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ’s birthday, to remember what is that peace which he brought; and because, dear children, I do not think that I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Courage is an essential virtue for followers of Christ.

 

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Those times offer food for thought for Catholics today concerning church and state .
    Becket in the movie said ” I will be judged by the pope alone!”
    How would the pope today respond?

  2. It is rather interesting that Henry II, first king of the Plantagenet line, ushered in an era of unsettled social conditions that lasted, with a few brief interruptions, almost three hundred years. The country could not decide if it was truly English or a French derivation. Although it may seem that Thomas lost his life in a futile cause, the devotion to Canterbury that followed and the principle of Church sovereignty lived on even to the present despite the tensions that arise from time to time.

  3. Donald Link,
    .
    With the breakup of Anglicanism and the wholesale embrace of anti-Christian sexual mores and a female priesthood, I do not think there is much devotion to modern Canterbury.

  4. The Hundred Years War aided in the process of making the English feel English and the French feeling French. Henry V was the first English King to speak English as a first language and French, shakily, as a second language. (Shakespeare got that right.) The Plantagenets had the ill luck to have many weak kings mixed in with strong kings, often following in leap frog: Henry III-Edward I-Edward II-Edward III-Richard II; Henry V-Henry VI. The Tudors viewed themselves as a continuation of the Plantagenet line and were so viewed by their contemporaries after the passions of the Wars of the Roses, a 19th century construct in terminology, had cooled. Regarding them as a separate dynasty is also a 19th century construct.

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