When I was teaching The Canterbury Tales to my students this year, I became absorbed with the destination of the pilgrims, as recorded in the opening lines of “The General Prologue:”
Then folks, too, long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers hope to seek there, on the strange strands,
Those far-off shrines well known in many lands;
And especially, from every shire’s end
Of England, to Canterbury they wend;
The holy, blessed martyr they all seek,
Who has helped them when they were sick and weak.
This “holy, blessed martyr” refers to Saint Thomas Becket, who was killed by Henry II’s henchman on December 29, 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. The setting of his martyrdom became England’s premier pilgrimage site in the Middle Age.
To remedy my ignorance about Thomas Becket, I watched the 1964 movie, “Becket,” featuring Peter O’Toole as the King and Richard Burton as the Archbishop; it was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won for Best Adapted Screenplay. I also read the 1963 drama, Murder in the Cathedral, by T. S. Eliot, which is his most accomplished work as a playwright, offering a “poetically masterful handing of issues of faith, politics, and the common good.” Once I completed the drama, I thought it could just as easily share the title with Willa Cather’s 1927 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
The play consists of two parts with an interlude. The scene for Part I is the Archbishop’s Hall on December 2, 1170, marking his return to England after a seven-year exile in France due to strife with the King. The scene for the Interlude is the Cathedral on Christmas morning in 1170 when the Archbishop preaches a sermon on martyrdom. The scene for Part II is also the Cathedral on December 29, 1170, the fateful day when the Archbishop was slain.
I throughly enjoyed this drama, especially Part I which employs brilliant “intertextuality” with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). The Christlike Archbishop faces his tempters, resisting them each time with a faithful and emphatic “No!” Here are salient passages for me.
Chorus: Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen:
I have seen these things in a shaft of sunlight.
Destiny waits in the hand of God; not in the hands of statesman
Who do, some well, some ill, planning and guessing,
Having their aims which turn in their hands in the pattern of time.
Come, happy December, who shall observe you, who shall preserve you?
Shall the Son of Man be born again in the litter of scorn?
For us, the poor, there is no action,
But only to wait and to witness.
Chorus: I see nothing quite conclusive in the art of temporal government,
But violence, duplicity and frequent malversation.
King rules or barons rule:
The strong man strongly and the weak man by caprice.
They have but one law, to seize the power and keep it,
And the steadfast can manipulate the greed and lust of others,
The feeble is devoured by his own.
Tempter: Real power is purchased at price of a certain submission.
Your spiritual power is earthly perdition.
Power is present, for him who will wield.
Thomas: Those who put their faith in worldly order
Not controlled by the order of God,
In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder,
Make it fast, breed fatal disease,
Degrade what they exalt.
Thomas: Sin grows with doing good. […]
While I ate out of the King’s dish
To become the servant of God was never my wish.
Servant of God has chance of greater sin
And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.
For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them,
Still doing right: and striving with political men
May make that cause political, not by what they do
But by what they are.
Thomas: 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 overborne by mourning, or mourning will be cast out by joy; so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason.
Thomas: A Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for 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. A martyrdom is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It 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, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.
Second Priest: What day is the day that we know that we hope for or fear for?
Every day is the day we should fear from or hope from.
Weighs like another. Only in retrospection, selection,
We say, that was the day. The critical moment
That is always now, and here. Even now, in sordid particulars
The eternal design may appear.
Chorus: Human kind cannot bear very much reality.
Thomas: All my life they have been coming, these feet. All my life
I have waited. Death will come only when I am worthy,
And if I am worthy, there is no danger.
I have therefore only to make perfect my will.
Thomas: I have had a tremour of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper,
And I would no longer be denied; all things
Proceed to a joyful consummation.
Thomas: Dead upon the tree, my Saviour,
Let not be in vain Thy labour;
Help me, Lord, in my last fear.
Dust I am, to dust am bending,
From the final doom impending
Help me, Lord, for death is near.
Third Priest: For all things exist only as seen by Thee, only as known by Thee, all things exist only in Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee; the darkness declares the glory of light.