Friday, 29 December 2006

Thomas of Canterbury

This morning, as is my custom, I celebrated Mass in the small chapel of St Thomas of Canterbury (also known as the Vaughan Chantry). Decorated with mosaics just two years ago, this chapel is a gem, with the walls and vault resembling the pages of a decorated medieval manuscript.

It is a great sadnesses that this Feast Day is no longer observed in the calendar, save as an optional memorial. It is hard for English catholics, this side of the Reformation, to realise just how popular St Thomas was in the medieval Church. At one time, the name of St Thomas of Canterbury (or Thomas a Becket) was daily on the lips of our forefathers; every person in this land would have been able to recite by heart prayers to him, or sing a few of the hundreds of hymns written to him. Many of us, in those days, would have made the visit to his celebrated shrine in Canterbury, where we would have mingled with Christians from all over Europe. For Thomas' fame spread throughout Christendom: there is an ancient Church to him in Spain, and another in Iceland; he is represented in near-contemporary mosaic in a Cathedral in Sicily, and in ancient fresco in Bordeaux. In sixteenth century Rome the entire College of Cardinals turned out for his feast day, and during my time as a student in Rome, the English College still kept his feast no this day with great ceremony and devotion.

Such was the fame of Thomas of Canterbury. How it has all changed now!

Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that he has gone out of fashion. Consider the reasons for his murder - not the sort of things we expect martyrs to lay down their lives for these days. St Thomas wanted to ensure the independence of the clergy from the secular law of the land - to which the king not unreasonably objected. He excommunicated two bishops who had crowned the king's son without his permission. This is a man who meddled in politics; we don't expect religion to go there.

Indeed, there are countless tales of his charitable deeds in life, and the miracles he worked after his death; but when all is said, the reason for his fame was not what he died for, but the very fact that he died. That an Archbishop should be cut down in his own Cathedral (as illustrated in the chapel, above) was an unthinkable blasphemy, an unforgivable crime. This was an epic tale, the struggle between a mighty king and his former friend and turncoat minister. No wonder he has provided fertile material for plays, films and poems.

But is that enough for prayer? Is that enough for us to hold a feast day to St Thomas? What does he say to us about Christian virtue, about faith, about holiness?

One can certainly point to Thomas' conspicuous charity; once the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king, as archbishop he lived simply and made generous provision for the poor. But then so did many others - even the King. Much can be made of the change in Thomas' personality, from grasping Chancellor to austere churchman. But this was his character - determined, efficient, thorough in whatever he did, whether politician or priest.

At the last, I think we have to look to the manner of his death, to see the heroic virtue that made him a saint. Like the man in the parable of Jesus who says at first he will not help his master, but later does so, Thomas deep down was faithful to the calling of God.

So it is, there are those who find faith hard, who struggle with the church, even with God. Those who have a complicated relationship with the Church and with the world, those who make mistakes, those in whome the strands of arrogance and piety are perhaps difficult to distinguish. But, at the end of the day, these same people are ready to give of themselves, to make sacrifices for God and for others.

I think this is where we find Thomas. He made many bad decisions, he mis-handled the king, and his motives and priorities were muddled. But at the heart of him was a deep and simple love for God, a belief in his calling, and a dedication that underpinned all he believed.

He is a patron for late-comers to the faith, those who are unsure of their commitment, of their ability to stand the test when it comes. He reminds us that God doesn't just want straightforward, uncomplicated people to serve him. God loves those who struggle, who fail, who are unsure of their motives. Standing alone in his vast Cathedral on 29 December 1170, faced with the wickedness of this world, Thomas shows the real source of holiness - a heart that trusts completely in the goodness of God.


Anonymous said...

Do you say the tridentine mass??

roydosan said...

I think it is a great shame that he is no longer as remembered as he was. His example, like that of archbishop Oscar Romero, that sometimes the service of God must come before the service of the secular authorities is a good one. We should look to the example of the martyrs of England and Wales (who it seems, sadly, are also fairly forgotten)- they were not afraid to disobey the law of the land in force at the time. The Catechism puts it perfectly:

2242 The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." "We must obey God rather than men"

Mark Langham said...

Not personally, although Tridentine Mass is celebrated in the Cathedral twice a month. Of course, we celebrate the Novus Ordo in Latin every day at 10.30am.

Anonymous said...

What really irks a convert is that the Church of England, Henry VIII having expunged him from the calendar for his opposition to royal supremacy so many years before his namesake St Thomas More, has now restored him to a rank in their calendar higher than that afforded to those who emulate both Thomases' loyalty to the Holy See.

orielensis said...

It was a delight to attend Mass said 'ad orientem' in the Vaughan Chantry Chapel of the Cathedral, where the new mosaics of St Thomas are, on his feast day. Well preached, Fr Mark, and keep up the good work. The Cathedral is indeed a marvellous place.