Thoughts on the Feast Day of St. Thomas of Canterbury

After a lot of years circling the sun, with a sizable percentage of them now spent as a so-called expert in the history of the church, I just this year learned that my birthday, Dec. 29, is also the feast day of St. Thomas of Canterbury. In a sense, then, this makes the old guy my patron saint.

You might have heard of St. Thomas by his other name: Thomas Becket. If you are a poetry fan, you’ll know that T.S. Eliot’s poem “Murder in the Cathedral” is about Thomas. If you’re a movie buff, especially an old one like me, you’ll know that the move Becket  tells the story of his life, his troubled friendship with King Henry II, and his martyrdom (Richard Burton played a brooding Thomas and Peter O’Toole a manic Henry; it was neither actor’s finest performance).

To be honest, Becket makes a poor choice for a patron saint, at least at first glance. He spent his early life as a social climber, winding up a close friend of King Henry. He wasn’t particularly loyal to the people who had helped him, and he seemed to enjoy an especially opulent and worldly lifestyle. Nowadays we would call him a politician, but the old word “courtier” suits him better. He was Henry’s right-hand man, climbing the ladder of political influence and success until it landed him the plum position of King’s Chancellor.

But then Henry needed someone to be the head of the church in England, someone who would do what Henry wanted him to do. And who better, he thought, than his pal Thomas Becket? So against the wishes of just about everyone (Becket included), Henry named Becket Archbishop of Canterbury.

And that’s when things got interesting.

Becket, who had never given a second thought to his baptismal vows, unexpectedly took his oaths of consecration as a bishop with utmost seriousness. He set aside his expensive lifestyle, gave a lot of his own money to the church, and began to live a serious, devout life. What’s more, he almost immediately set about to promote the interests of the church, regardless of whether they coincided with Henry’s wishes or not. A bitter feud erupted between the two former friends, resulting in Becket fleeing the country for a period of several years. Eventually they agreed to a partial reconciliation, but as soon as Becket returned he started stirring up more trouble for Henry. Finally the king shouted out one night “who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four of his nobles, hearing this question and taking it to be a call to action, sought out Becket and slaughtered him in his cathedral–which is why both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches list Thomas Becket as a saint and martyr.

Other than the coincidence of his feast day falling on  the anniversary of my birth, why would I want to claim Thomas as a personal saint? He wasn’t a theologian like St. Augustine or St Thomas Aquinas. He wasn’t a mystic like St. Teresa of Avila. He’s not remembered for loving his fellow creatures, like St. Francis. Why him, then? Simply this: When it mattered, he knew where his ultimate loyalties lay. Thoroughly indebted to Henry for his worldly success, he nonetheless knew that, as a leader of the church, he had to put God’s kingdom first, not Henry’s. What’s more, he never pretended that the two loyalties were compatible when he knew they weren’t. Can as much be said of us?

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