My boyfriend regularly tears out portions of newspapers and journals for me to read, particularly the travel section of the Sunday edition of the Times. (I admit I’ve gotten a bit behind on my reading, so having articles thrust in my face is a good way of culling the crap and seeing some of the better pieces.) After getting home from a service for Trinity Sunday, he handed a feature on Canterbury, England from last week’s edition. I’d visited before, but I chuckled at the piece which called the city a “miniature Rome.” I learned that one could get a sandwich at Pret a Manger (which I could do in NYC), go to a drop in exercise dance class (ditto), and even go see some theater (…). The article captured some of the historical sites, but didn’t really go into why Canterbury is so important.

“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Whether it was under the king’s orders or a vigilante operation, Thomas Becket was beheaded in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 for not swearing fealty to Henry II. A point of pilgrimage for centuries, the stone “on which the sword fell” remains on display for touristic and penitent alike to view. Of course, there are places of pilgrimage and relics all over Europe, but it’s really hard to overstate the size of the cult that arose around Becket in the decades after his death. Probably one of most famous cases of political martyrdom in history, one can go to any major art museum in the United States and find some reliquary box, bone carving, tapestry or painting relating to Becket’s martyrdom. It’s been the topic of books and plays, and even provides dark backdrop for Peter O’Toole’s performances in Becket and The Lion in Winter.

But so immediate was the impact of Becket’s assassination that a little known Christian holiday took off not in commemoration of his death, but his ordination as a priest. Trinity Sunday is really a non-holiday in a way, as it doesn’t actually commemorate a specific biblical event or story. It’s a actually a celebration of the most convoluted and inexplicable foundation of Christian doctrine: the Holy Trinity. To this day, systematic theologians have yet to succinctly agree upon how it is that Christians are in fact monotheistic when the big guy in the sky is at once three different entities. And yet, Becket received special dispensation to celebrate this realtively obscure Christian feast on the day he was to become a priest. By all accounts, Becket’s veneration of the Trinity represented more than just an idea, but a foundational principle in his assertion that a a priest, adherence to doctrine and ecclesiastical law was more important than keeping the nobility happy. While Becket is memorialized on the day of his death on December 29th, the attempts to model and mold the English Church based after his example gave rise to celebrating the first Sunday after Pentecost, not as a simple veneration of God, but of human belief and purpose.

But in 1974, upon the excavation and refurbishment of the Elizabethan funerary shrine at Canterbury Cathedral, a curious transaction took place – one which would bring a bit of Canterbury to New York. In exchange for a rather large donation, the Rev’d John G. B. Andrew managed to obtain a piece of the very stone upon which Becket was martyred. On December 29th, it was dedicated and placed in the chancel floor at St. Thomas Church, 5th Avenue.

In questioning Comey this week, Senator Angus King (I-ME) very pointed asked about President Donald Trump’s efforts to silence the F.B.I.’s investigation of Mike Flynn and general attempts to extract “loyalty” from the former F.B.I. Chief.

King: “Do you take that as a directive?”
Comey: “Yes, yes. It rings in my ears as kind of ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ ”
King: “I was just going to quote that.”

There’s little question as to the import of Comey’s testimony we all saw on Thursday. The only irony is that a piece of Becket’s martyrdom sits only three blocks from Trump Tower.

2 thoughts on “Becket”

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