The BBC Podcast In Our Time has a great episode on the life of Thomas Becket. I listened to it the other day in preparation for teaching T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral.
(Side note: In Our Time ranks as one of my top five favorite podcasts; I hope to be like Melvyn Bragg when I grow up.)
Having not read much of the history about Thomas Becket himself, I was unaware of how what we know about Becket’s personality and reputation does not recommend him as a saint. His story reminds me of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal who eventually becomes Henry V. As a young man, Becket was energetic, rash, and stubborn. Henry II made him Lord Chancellor, and Becket proved himself an effective and efficient member of the state. As Melvyn Bragg and his guests point out, Becket was the kind of person who had very few friends: everyone loved him or hated him.
Becket took the job of Archbishop of Canterbury reluctantly. Henry ushered him into the position hoping Becket would ensure that the church would remain subordinate to the power of the state. But like Prince Hal who forsook his closest friends when he ascended the throne, Becket swore his allegiance to the church and made a habit of frustrating Henry’s attempts to exercise authority over the church.
There are at least two ways to view Becket’s transformation: either it’s a genuine spiritual conversion which resulted in his conviction that the church should remain on equal footing with the state, or it’s an instance of Becket being consistent with his brash personality. In the podcast, Laura Ashe argues that Becket’s change is similar to a professional footballer changing teams: the player takes his skill-set and uses it in a new setting, even if it’s to the disadvantage of his previous team. How you interpret Becket’s personality inevitably colors your interpretation of his death. Was it a courageous, selfless act in service to the church? Or was it unnecessarily undiplomatic and foolhardy?
Eliot’s dramatization of Becket’s martyrdom engages with this exact historical problem. Upon returning to England after seven years of exile, Becket recognizes that his decision to return will bring his conflict with Henry to a tipping point. He is then met with four different temptations, all of which point to different ways of handling the situation. The fourth tempter is the most insidious because he tempts Becket with martyrdom—a sacred and revered title within Christian history. The church remembers martyrs for their uncompromising bravery, and reveres them as spiritual exemplars of Christian conviction.
Martyrdom, however, cannot be sought for its own sake. Otherwise it becomes a vehicle for self-glorification and egotism. The tempter makes the case clearly in his appeal to Becket:
But think, Thomas, think of glory after death.
When king is dead, there’s another king,
And one more king is another reign.
King is forgotten, when another shall come:
Said and Martyr rule from the tomb. (37-38)
Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest
On earth, to be high in heaven.
And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,
Your persecutors, in timeless torment,
Parched passion, beyond expiation. (39)
Martyrdom for the sake of fame and power is no martyrdom at all. Exasperated, Becket responds,
Is there no way, in my soul’s sickness,
Does not lead to damnation in pride?
I well know these temptations
Mean present vanity and future torment.
Can sinful pride be driven out
Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer
Without perdition? (40)
The play does not provide easy or clear answers to Becket’s questions. All human action is bound up with good and bad intentions, with sin and grace, virtue and vice. “Sin grows with the good” (45), Becket points out. No action can be viewed discretely or as devoid of value; yet every action can be construed in opposite extremes. How then should Thomas act in his situation when even holy martyrdom seems infected with pride?
Becket’s final speech before his death gives some clue. After the four knights have arrived and are returning to the cathedral to kill Becket, some of the priests attempt to persuade him to lock himself in the cathedral. Implicitly, the priests argue that Becket’s decision to leave the doors open is reckless. But Becket responds:
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent. (73-74)
Temporality is the problem. Actions committed and perceived in time become mixed: “For every life and every act / Consequence of good and evil can be shown.” The passage of time also tends to fragment experience and perception. The moment of experience is only understood as a memory, which is malleable. There is no isolated, objective, unadulterated “fact” of experience. In time, everything “become[s] confounded.” The only hope of a virtuous selfless action is eternity: some mode of perception in which experiences occur without the distorting effects of time. To act rightly requires either 1) a supernatural gift of insight prior to the decision to act, or 2) a grave humility that acts in faith and hope that right action does not require perfect knowledge, only the grace to act well.
Eliot ends the play with the four knights’ defense and the priests’ memorial speeches. Like the passage of time, the effect of Eliot’s ending distorts the audience’s ability to judge Becket’s actions. Is he a martyr? We’re never given the chance to consider his death on its own terms. Instead we’re met with a series of arguments for the practicality of his death as a means to retain peace within the kingdom, and then the laments and praises of Becket’s followers. Neither group—the priests or the knights—fairly represent Becket’s decision. They are equal and opposite extremes, demonstrating that “good and evil in the end become confounded.”
I think Eliot believed Becket to be a saint, but I appreciate that he doesn’t present him uncritically. There’s room within the play to think Becket made the wrong decision. Given the inescapable distortion of temporality, the play ends appropriately with a call to prayer, and specifically for God’s mercy:
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Blessed Thomas, pray for us. (88)