Last Friday I went to the British Museum to see the Thomas Becket exhibition – which is well worth a visit, if you have the chance.
I have long been fascinated by Becket and his story: as a child I can remember visiting Canterbury Cathedral and being riveted by the experience of seeing the site of his murder, while hearing his remarkable story. And to this day there is much about the story of his life that I find both fascinating and intriguing. Indeed, the one thing that no exhibition about the man could ever show is the one thing that one would most dearly love to know about him – which is what was going on in his heart, particularly during the time when his relationship with the King he had served so faithfully and closely, was so definitively sundered.
Many of you will, I’m sure, already be very familiar with Becket’s story, but in case a reminder is helpful, a brief outline:
Thomas Becket was born in the year 1118, just up the road from here, in Cheapside. His family were merchants, so he received a good education, and worked as a clerk before entering the service of Theobold, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. He excelled himself both as an administrator and a diplomat, and his gifts did not go unnoticed by King Henry II, to whom he became immensely close, not only professionally but personally. The King appointed Becket Chancellor, and then decided that he should succeed Theobold, his former employer, as Archbishop of Canterbury. The slight inconvenience that Becket was not even in Holy Orders was overcome by his being ordained priest the day before his consecration as Archbishop. His rise through the clerical ranks was certainly meteoric.
But that is when events took a very different turn from anything that one might possibly have expected – certainly Henry II would not have seen this coming. Because looking on from the outside, after this great passage of time, it is tempting to see in Becket nothing more than a highly skilled, ambitious careerist, whose friendship with the king brought him obvious personal benefits. Certainly the King assumed that with Becket as Archbishop the Church was safely under control.
But what then unfolded requires a complete and comprehensive re-write of that particular script. Because Becket took his duties as Archbishop, as the leader of the Church and as a servant of Christ, profoundly seriously. He defended the privileges of the Church against royal encroachment – leading to increasing friction and eventually a total rift with the King and the nobility. Becket was forced to seek exile in France between 1164 and his eventual return to Canterbury in 1170, where he was murdered in his cathedral, on 29th December.
A contemporary eye witness account of his killing by Edward Grim, describes how Becket ordered the doors of the Cathedral to be opened, admitting the four knights who would take his life.
His final recorded words surrendered his life to God:
‘I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain peace and liberty; but in the name of Almighty God I forbid you to harm any of the men, whether clerk or lay.’
He then commended his cause and that of the Church to St Mary and St Denys. And he was hacked to death as he prayed. When his body was recovered, he was found to be wearing a hair shirt under his robes – there was nothing superficial or bogus about his piety.
Perhaps unsurprisingly I have been very haunted by Becket’s story in recent days because of the exhibition. But it also came back into my mind when reading our first reading this evening from Jeremiah. A reading in which the prophet, in his own very particular way, warns his hearers not to conform to the ways of the heathen; not to be dismayed; not to heed those who have no fear of God, for the wisdom of God exceeds all human wisdom, and the things of God are the things that last.
It is so tempting to be seduced into pursuing the ways of the world; to be shaped by the attitudes and assumptions and the priorities of the world; by the pursuit of power and influence and wealth. And yet, such ways fundamentally conflict with the ways of God. Ways that are so distant from the ways of the world, that, as Paul says ‘How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out.’
There is a sense in which Becket did indeed turn his back on the former to embrace the latter, even though, ultimately, it cost him his life. He was undoubtedly a stubborn and complex man – no plaster saint, for all that subsequent generations revered him. But he was also a man who was profoundly touched by God – in a way that, quite possibly, even took him by surprise. It certainly astonished the King whom he had previously served so loyally. But then again, God has a habit of slipping into our lives unexpectedly and unannounced, often when we least expect it.
The Victorian scholar, teacher, theologian and poet, Thomas Edward Brown (T.E. Brown) wrote a marvellous, but incredibly simple poem called ‘Presence’, which describes this experience beautifully. I shall leave you with his words:
Expecting him, my door was open wide:
Then I looked round
If any lack of service might be found,
And I saw him at my side:
How entered, by what secret stair
I know not, knowing only he was there.