Saint Thomas Becket, Sin and Contrition

(I originally posted this on December 29th last year.  I think it is worth a repost on December 29th this year.)

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.

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  1. It is amazing how moderns often treat death. It is no longer feared. It is seen as the end of our lives, but nothing is believed to follow, neither good nor bad. So it worries no one. To be extinguished, I guess, is no worry for the average unbeliever. Perhaps telling oneself that we’re all headed that way makes it seem OK.

  2. “It is no longer feared.”

    Completely disagree Jon. I believe that atheists and agnostics fear death most of all. There is a great deal of truth to the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. What we do have among many non-religious people is a denial of death.

  3. Thank you for this, Donald. As it happens, Thomas is my confirmation saint, too. He and I have a long history, stretching way back into my Anglican days, and I credit him with a large role in praying me into the Catholic Church.

  4. In our prayer, our act of Contrition, we promise to do penance. .. Maybe I’d be better about the “amend my life part” if I did a little more serious penance!

  5. Thank you Donald for this wonderful article. Thomas Becket is one of my favorite saints (his is one of the medals I wear along with my scapular). You made several good points. I would like to add that some accounts have, that after Henry II performed his penance at Canterbury, his forces won a major victory against a rebellion to his rule, with the capture of the rebel leader.

    This is part of a letter from Thomas Becket as todays second Office Reading (if today was not Sunday and therefore higher priority):

    “Yet the Roman Church remains the head of all the churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone knows that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach full maturity in Christ and attain to unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God…Nevertheless, no matter who plants or waters, God gives no harvest unless what he plants is the faith of Peter, and unless he himself assents to Peter’s teaching. All important questions that arise among God’s people are referred to the judgment of Peter in the person of the Roman Pontiff. Under him the ministers of Mother Church exercise the powers committed to them, each in his own sphere of responsibility.”

    You hit the nail right on the head about Henry VIII. Becket’s stand against Henry II made it necessary for Henry VIII to destroy Becket’s his image, for if an archbishop could stand against a king, then how could the king rule the church. Part of destroying that image was destroying Becket’s tomb, a source of pilgrimage from all over Christendom. It was also rumored to be wealthy and therefore a prime target for a cash hungry Henry (having already dissolved the religious houses) who, despite all the wealth he seem to acquire, it was never enough to keep up with his ambition.

    I would also like to add that the movie Becket, which you have posted a clip from above, is excellent (even if it takes some historical liberties) and would recommend to all catholics interested in Saint Thomas Becket. I think it is Richard Burton’s finest role.

    Samuel Edwards, welcome home. It is good to know that St. Thomas was helpful in your return. It brings me great joy (and I’m sure many other catholics as well) to hear of our Anglican brethren being re-united with us.

  6. If we weren’t afraid of death, why would we hide it away in such a cold, sterile place as a hospital?

    If one were curious to know, read the first chapter of George Duby’s William Marshall, to see what a good death in the High Middle Ages looked like.

  7. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the distinguished Boston physician and father of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Justice of the United States Supreme Court wrote:
    “So far as I have observed persons nearing the end of life, the Roman Catholics understand the business of dying better than Protestants. They have an expert by them, armed with spiritual specifics, in which they both, patient and priestly ministrant, place implicit trust. Confession, the Eucharist, Extreme Unction, these all inspire a confidence, which, without this symbolism, is too apt to be wanting in over sensitive natures… I have seen a good many Roman Catholics on their dying beds; and it has always appeared to me that they accept the inevitable with a composure which showed that their belief, whether or not the best to live by, was a better one to die by” (Over the Teacups [1891]).
    We will go to Christ, the Giver of Life, and ask Him for the life that never ends, life everlasting. Pray for a happy death; pray for those who have already died. We will accept death from God wherever, whenever, and however He decides. That is one of the best prayers and penances we can offer to the Almighty.
    Above all we will occasionally bring home to ourselves the vital, sobering, balancing thought that we must die, but that we will rise again, with Christ whom we have tried to love and serve. Let the dance of death go on. We, the followers of Christ are ready.

  8. That is wonderful Victor! I learn so much participating on The Amereican Catholic. Thanks Domald, Tito and everyone.

  9. “Confession, the Eucharist, Extreme Unction, these all inspire a confidence, which, without this symbolism, is too apt to be wanting in over sensitive natures”
    and “without this symbolism” The Person of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of The Holy Eucharist is a real Person; Jesus Christ is a Real Presence, and not a symbol. How empty must be the soul without Holy Viaticum.
    Flannery O’Connor said that if the Eucharist is a symbol, it can go to hell.

  10. Donald, perhaps it is a denial of death. Or perhaps people push it so far into the distant future that it seems unreal. When people are confronted with its prospect, fear may very well surface. And it’s a problem today that death is all too easily hidden from our sight.

  11. Thomas a` Becket is my birthday saint and that of my identically named sister-in-law. Becket and A Man For All Seasons need to be viewed by the younger generations. I wish that we had a Becket or a More in the present. Would we have Obamacare and other onslaughts against freedom of religion if the US bishops and cardinals had chained themselves in protest to the White House fence?

  12. A bit off topic but on the 29th I viewed the website of St. Thomas a Becket Church on 5th Ave. in Manhattan. I had slipped in the church once for a quick prayer before the BVM shrine, and only when I looked at the bulletin did I realize it was not R. Catholic but Episcopal/Anglican. Re the website: High church or now Anglican they have their version of the 7 sacraments. Very interesting their instructions on the proper way to receive the Holy Eucharist in both species (Our parishes’ websites should have a paragraph on the proper reception. Rarely is there a reminder on it from the pulpit.) There also appears to be an altar rail, which has been removed in most Roman Catholic churches.

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