Today is the Feast of St. Thomas Becket, a 12th century archbishop from England martyred as a result of his unabashed loyalty to the Church of Rome in opposition to the English monarch, King Henry II. The story of St. Thomas Becket bears a certain similarity to that of St. Thomas More, whom he preceded by several centuries. In both instances, deeply loyal friendship with the English sovereign of the era in conjunction with fierce devotion to the Catholic Church eventually led to irreconcilable differences. These differences compelled a choice, and that brave choice cost them their lives—martyrdom was the price paid for standing unapologetically upon the rock of Peter.
The story of St. Thomas Becket and his relationship with the ruler of England is long and complicated. Opposition from St. Thomas in regards to dictates of the king, especially as this opposition related to the rapport between Church and State in 12th Century England, can be difficult to qualify and understand from a 21st Century perspective. However, as is customary with the treasury of the tradition of the saints, the spiritual value inherent in the account of St. Thomas is timeless and enduring.
Prior to his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, a position undesired and avoided for a time by the young English chancellor, Thomas led a life of lavish abundance. History holds that Thomas’ taste for magnificence was almost more outlandish than the king’s. However, upon appointment, he immediately gave up all claims to earthly wealth and sought an ascetic life, which, at the time of his service to the Church, was not required. Thomas, by an act of his will, determined to discard the worldly riches that were for him (more powerfully than for most) a tremendous temptation; one that might hold sway upon his character when seeking to act in accord with the will of God over and above the wills of the other authorities to which he was held bound. This stark, “cold turkey” separation, this radical embrace of a life of spiritual and physical simplicity, was undoubtedly challenging, overwhelming, and initially undesirable. Most likely, Thomas preferred, at every turn, the plentiful life of the counselor to the king. Undoubtedly, he could have justified this life as be propitious for his position. But he denied, with prayer and fasting, this area of temptation in order to focus solely on the Source of the strength and grace that he knew would be necessary to remain faithful in such a perilous and controversial role.
This Source was summoned and accepted upon the martyrdom of St. Thomas, when his executioners sought him out in the cloistered abbey where he lived in 1170. Taking his life in the abbey’s Cathedral, between the altars of Our Lady and St. Benedict, St. Thomas exclaimed to his executioners, “For the name of Jesus and in defense of the Church I am willing to die.”
The grace, strength, and courage that defined this and all other martyrdoms throughout the history of our beautiful tradition is not a virtuous and bold act of bravery made in a single moment. It is the fruitful manifestation of a willful decision to accept the grace of Christ and painfully allow it to transform one’s life; honing, shaping, firing, and eventually, crowning with the glorious gift of eternal life. All are called, and in the words of St. Thomas Becket, “Remember the sufferings of Christ, the storms that were weathered…the crown that came from those sufferings which gave new radiance to the faith…All saints give testimony to the truth that without real effort, no one ever wins the crown.”