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St Thomas a’ Becket (1118 - 29 December 1170)
“All my life they have been coming, these feet. All my life, I have waited.”
From “Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
From Apologeticus by Quintus Septimus Tertullian , AD 197
“O Lord, my God, by day I cry out and at night I clamor in your presence...”
In 1964 I saw the Hal B. Wallis film “Becket “ based on the 1959 French play “Becket or The Honor of God “ by Jean Anouilh. Peter O’Toole is cast as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas Becket. O’Toole is an out of control wild force of nature and tears up the screen with his savage tantrums, and also breaks your heart with his deep, suffering love for only one person in his life, Thomas Becket. Burton is a clean shaven Becket who seems, according to Anouilh, not to be able to truly love anyone. Then Henry makes the tragic mistake of making Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking he will have the total loyalty, obedience and control of Thomas, he desperately needs. Thomas is “struck” by God (see the unique and searingly beautiful book by the late Sr Corona Bamberg, OSB, “The Cost of Being Human” concerning being struck by God).
Thomas undergoes a severe conversion, similar to Saul becoming Paul as a result of an apparition of Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4).
Some are innocent and holy from birth onwards. Some come to God through an intellectual conversion as they begin to examine themselves and world religions. Some, like Paul and Becket have to be suddenly struck. I think most of us move slowly but surely closer to God as we age, and as nature takes away whatever blocked the way in our youth.
I have been drawn to Becket since 1964, and when I found out my friend, Jim Martin, SJ was born on his feast I knew I’d finally have a very good reason to paint/write, his icon. Becket and Holy New Martyr Nestor (+31 December 1993) are within the Christmas Season so each year I cannot help but think of them as the hushed atmosphere of the Holy Shekhinah descends upon the earth and then softly lifts in early January. We might refer to this as the Christmas spirit, but I think you’d agree it’s palpable in the days of the O Antiphons, right before Christmas Eve.
All these years I had thought of Becket’s legend as something wonderfully medieval; like the story of Joan of Arc. And both of these saints’ lives and deaths have captivated artists for centuries. This past December I saw the film again in preparation for the Icon, and I was amazed at how relevant it is now. I think when you watch it you’ll see for yourselves. I can sum up Thomas’s longing for God, and perhaps many of us, with the English poet John Donne, born in the Elizabethan era...
“Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend...
Yet I dearly love you ...
Take me to you , imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Never chaste, except you ravish me.”
Taken from Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne 1633
I end here, now, with a poem I wrote in the 1980’s AIDS Hospice Era. At that time I was so hungry, honestly desperate for healing, and I’d read that after Thomas’ many miracles, later in the next century, people would use the bandages from St Francis’ wounds to soak in water for healing. I’d found a 1974 Nonesuch recording of hymns and chants honoring St Thomas after his murder and one in particular worked its way into my soul and imagination written around 1295... “Thomas Gemma Cantuariae.”
“Thomas Gemma Cantuariae
I saw the blood-rain today,
a video of images ...
the brittle sound of metal
the quiet sound of your
last moan, the running
frightened feet pursued
forever by conscience;
a more relentless hunter
than ever man can be.
Then a legend grows on screen.
A peasant with wild eyes.
bold and gloriously hopeful faith,
dips his shirt into the red mud
sobbing from your head
and runs home to boil
the relic in water, Spirit’s recipe;
madness makes a healing soup
for children of belief.”
Fr William Hart McNichols 💮 January 2022