T.S. Eliot published his beloved poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in the summer of 1915. In this poem the speaker has ordered his reality, has “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons,” and has “seen the moment of [his] greatness flicker.” The speaker laments modern order and “safety,” and he wonders whether he will dare to “force the moment to its crisis.” Can he push back and risk what culture and progress say are best for the good of the life of his soul? We have cushioned ourselves against conflict and hardship, he says, and by doing so we cushion ourselves against the abundant life that is our purpose.
In 1935 a more seasoned Eliot gives the definitive answers to “Prufrock’s” questions in a play entitled Murder in the Cathedral. The play dramatizes the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. In the year 1170, Becket was assassinated by four knights sent from King Henry II. Becket had excommunicated bishops in the church who had affirmed Henry’s spurning of due process between church and state, as Henry attempted to speed along the coronation of his son as the new king of England, and the building of a dynasty. Becket opposed Henry’s balk at the church’s authority and was given a token attempt to recant and reinstate the excommunicated bishops. When Becket refused, his head was opened by a sword after being knocked down on the cathedral floor near the monastic cloister.
This play is about Thomas Becket’s assassination, but it is surely about us too, some eighty years after the play’s publication and nearly nine hundred years after Becket’s death. In “Prufrock,” a younger T.S. Eliot asks if he has the courage to take a moment to its crisis and receive the consequences once he does. In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot does exactly that. The crisis is the moment we wait to see whether Thomas Becket will obey God or people, even though the person is a king and so-called friend. We come with Becket to the brink of eternity and meaning as we look death in the face. We question whether convictions matter and if they will hold fast in the storm of crisis. And Becket’s convictions are driven down deep. They do hold and carry him beyond the offer of comfort and the saving of his skin.
The Misunderstood Resolution
The play opens with the return of the Archbishop from exile, and resolute in his purpose to simply shepherd his flock, regardless of imposed duties of state. Gone are his ambitions for wealth and power, whatever they were before. God’s opinion matters most to Becket and his conviction is to pastor his church. He will not move to compromise his convictions for the sake of his career. Not everyone understands Becket’s resolution, however, and the oppression of fear hangs heavy over the chorus and priests. They need their archbishop, but cannot bear the fear of death he brings with him in the anger of the king. The chorus echos the protests of the priests as they declare, “But now a great fear is upon us, a fear not of one but of many, a fear like birth and death, when we see birth and death alone.” And, “do you realise what it means to the small folk drawn into the pattern of fate, the small folk who live among small things . . . who stand to the doom of the house, the doom of their lord, the doom of the world?” The action of their shepherd, their archbishop, brings them all to the brink of a terrible fate, and they can hardly bear it.
Four tempters enter to persuade Becket to recant, and he weathers the temptations with conviction too. Each in-turn, they lay before him temptations of conservatism and a return to a better past, regaining former power that he may do some good with it, the offer of joining a stronger underground political party that may take the throne, and finally to pursue God’s purpose in order to win a legacy after death. This last tempter, the only one who surprises Becket, echoes the craftiness of Eden’s serpent as he tells mostly truths, but uses God as a means to an end. But Becket stands firm, though with some difficulty as the temptations spring from his own desires for pleasure and power. All except the last tempter, external to Becket and offering “dreams to damnation.”
As an interlude between the two acts, the archbishop preaches his Christmas morning sermon four days before his death. And in this sermon, using the text of Luke and the angels announcing “peace, good will toward men,” Becket preaches hope beyond the brink of a martyr’s death. He preaches it as much to himself as to his church, asking,
Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat? . . . Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples, ‘My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.’ Did he mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such thing . . . If you ask that, remember then that He said also, ‘Not as the world gives, give I unto you.’ So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.
And Becket remains faithful four days later when death comes for him. The knights appear, sent by King Henry, to force a recantation or force Becket and his followers back into exile. When he will do neither, the knights rid their king of this troublesome churchman by death. Moments before, when the chorus of women and priests confess their horrors at their lord’s impending doom, Becket assures them that these painful thoughts, even after his departure, will be their “share of the eternal burden.” He comforts them by saying, “This is one moment, but know that another shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy when the figure of God’s purpose is made complete.” In death, in martyrdom, Becket is assured that his convictions are real and true, and that his obedience is not wasted for him or for his church in God’s purpose.
There is glory and hope and joy in T.S. Eliot’s short play. And there is hope for us as we edge up to the brink of either death, or to more turbulent cultural waters. The modern world has produced, as C.S. Lewis calls them, “[people] without chests.” And Eliot leads us into the story of Thomas Becket to help us grow our own—to grow convictions that run deeper than cultural pressures, and hearts for what is truly good and right. With the right convictions, and knowing God’s ways are higher than ours, we can meet any enemy and joyfully stand even on the brink of death.
Cover photo by Derek Story.
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