The way we can be sure of our knowledge of [the Lord] is to keep his commandments, the man who claims, “I have known him,” without keeping his commandments, is a liar; in such a one there is no truth. But whoever keeps his word, truly has the love of God been made perfect in him. The way we can be sure we are in union with him is for the man who claims to abide in him to conduct himself just as he did… 1 John 2:3-11
Born in 1119 or 1120 as a merchant’s son in England, Thomas Becket was a strong, bright, and fun-loving youth, full of energy for everything. In spite of differences in wealth and family lineage, Thomas became fast friends early on with the soon-to-be King Henry II. They hunted together, shared their plans, played chess together, and felt as if they were one in mind and spirit. They held different values in some ways, however; Thomas, influenced by his devout mother, led a chaste life and spent hours in study of the law.
So, when Henry became King, he appointed Thomas as his Chancellor. Together the two men worked tirelessly to bring law and order to what was then a quite lawless England. The King sent judges throughout the country so that those accused of crime could have a chance to be heard. In fact, the term “trial by jury” originated at this time. They both saw the fairness of the system.
Unfortunately, rich bishops and abbots held much of the power in the country at that time. So, even though all the clergy swore loyalty to the King, when they committed offenses, they claimed what was called “benefit of the clergy.” This allowed them to be judged in the church’s courts. So, serious crimes sometimes were punished only by severe penances or defrocking, taking away priestly privileges. Obviously, this was not working out well.
Archbishop of Canterbury was the most powerful church position in England. So, when the then Archbishop of Canterbury died, King Henry II appointed Thomas to the position in 1162, thinking he could help to bring the church more in line with the laws of England and more directly under the king’s authority. Thomas was quickly ordained and then elevated to Archbishop within a day or two.
Thomas seemed, to the King anyway, to change overnight. He started to live a much more ascetic life and took his clerical responsibilities seriously. While Thomas could agree with the King on some issues, the King wanted to take revenues that were not his. He also wanted power in appointing bishops. Henry also forbade excommunication of royal officials and made many other dictates which would undermine church authority in ecclesial matters. Thomas refused to accept this, unleashing on himself the King’s fury. In 1164, he fled to France for protection, living the life of a monk in an Abbey there for six years.
When King Henry threatened the Abbey, Thomas returned to England, knowing he might be heading to his death. He was received by the people enthusiastically. But, on December 29, 1170, four knights who interpreted Henry’s angry words as wanting Thomas dead, followed the Archbishop into the Cathedral, murdering him there. Thomas’ last words were “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.”
While Thomas led an imperfect life, as we all do, he upheld the laws of God and of society as justly as he could, and he died for the truth as he understood it. He lived what St. John tells us in today’s reading: “The way we can be sure of our knowledge of [the Lord] is to keep his commandments.”
St. Thomas Becket is our thirty-first Ornament of Grace.
Observing the Beautiful Ornaments
Do you seek the truth with all your heart, studying and praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit?
How, specifically, can you uphold the two greatest Commandments, unconditional love for God and all people?