“Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”
That line was famous enough to get caught in the history books. It was Henry the Second’s response to a priest who had fallen out of favour, and it preceded the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket. Becket was hacked to death at the altar by Henry’s soldiers in a manner gruesome enough to emphasize that the Church couldn’t save you from the King’s wrath.
Saints are interesting stuff. I didn’t grow up Catholic, so saints at a certain point were new to me. I tended to think more along the lines of the “Saints go Marching In” song, which refers to that corporate body of believers who remain hopeful in Christ unto death.
The Catholic Church likes saints a lot. They still pick and choose people here and there as candidates for sainthood. While I have not paid attention to the particular details, there has to be a verifiable miracle in there somewhere as well as a saintly kind of life. The latter one might be more tricky. I have heard people referred to as saints in polite company whose own children won’t talk to them. That kind of thing tends to keep you honest.
The Catholic fixation on saints is rather odd, because your go-to place to learn about saints might be the Foxe Book of Martyrs, which details just how many were killed BY the Church, not FOR the Church. The Catholic Church did away with a lot of those annoying Protestants in rather grim ways that included torture beforehand to determine whether they thought the right stuff. The take-away from all that, might be that the Pope was always right, even when he was wrong. Hence, I take sainthood with a grain of salt.
The litmus test for being a saint goes like this: you think stuff that the powers that be don’t like, word gets about, you are called before some kind of official body. They ask you: “Tell us… you think so-and-so… right?” At that point you have a chance to back out, and those people don’t make the saint list. The other ones are a bit more stubborn. They say: “Yeah, that’s what I think. So what?” And that’s when they kill you for thinking the wrong stuff, an idea which is made more scary by how often it actually happened in history.
Getting back to Thomas a Becket. He was an accomplished warrior, and proficient enough in the skills of the day that he was recommended to the King and made Lord Chancellor. His savvy at the job prompted the King to promote him to Archbishop of Canterbury, a post that he held for eight short years.
The fine print demanded that Thomas must first be a priest in order to qualify as Archbishop. He was not. So plans were made on the fly to cobble together sufficient accreditation. It was then an unusual change of conscience seized Thomas. He knew he was being chosen for reasons that were politically expedient to the King, not because of personal holiness. It apparently made him want to earn the role honestly. In order to count himself worthy, he doubled down and became somewhat of an aesthetic. For example, he wore a hirsute beneath his clothes… an itchy undergarment designed to make you uncomfortable. Such voluntary discomfort was a sign of giving up the flesh for something more spiritual. Being uncomfortable in your body was supposed to spur you on to holiness and prayer. If he was going to be wearing a righteous title, he wanted to own it for real.
Becket expressed early on that to be Archbishop placed him uncomfortably in the middle. The King assumed Thomas was his inside man he could use to lean on the Church, tap its ready funds and boss around the ecclesial authorities. The people on the other hand, believed that Thomas was their man to ply for justice and clemency from the king’s overreach. Confrontation with King Henry would be inevitable. Thomas remarked that he must lose either the favour of God, or the favour of the king.
It would have been easiest to side with the sovereign, but Thomas followed his conscience instead. Becket did a lot of things to get himself into trouble right from the start. He began by seizing back lands that had formerly belonged to the Church, but had been grabbed in forfeit by the King. It was a direct challenge to the king’s authority, a question of who was boss.
Thomas a Becket could have been the king’s stooge for easy benefit, but his decision to follow his conscience instead, won over the people. Becket was once exiled by the king, and on his return the people threw down their robes and cried, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Perhaps it was the washing of beggars’ feet that did it. He was recognized as one who represented Christ on earth for those he served. A short three years after being killed by the king, Becket was declared a saint, and the same king who had killed him was compelled to do penance at his shrine. That place of homage became the most visited spot in England.
Grace and mercy are a funny balancing act. It reminds us that only God makes saints when he mysteriously works on the human heart. As Jesus told Nicodemus in the third chapter of John, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” If someone called you a saint would you deserve it? Likely not… in which case you are about as likely a candidate as anybody. Still, it might give you pause to think of what and who makes anybody worthy. It might even spur you on to become a better man.