Watching and Waiting with T.S. Eliot

I love the poetry of T.S. Eliot. To kick off Advent, I recently got together with a friend and pulled out his play entitled Murder in the Cathedral. It recounts the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in the Canterbury cathedral on December 29, 1170. In typical T.S. Eliot fashion, he also offers much for our modern culture to think about.

The play begins during Advent, on December 2. Becket is returning from France, where he has been living in exile for seven years, protected by King Louis (for whom the city of “Saint Louis” is named). Becket had been an old drinking buddy of King Henry II. They caroused and womanized together, as well as engaging in political affairs together. Becket was the brains behind Henry’s operation. As chancellor, he helped the king forge a greater unity in the island and rule more forcefully – sometimes even at the expense of the Church. Henry thought it would be a brilliant idea to promote his friend and chancellor as the new archbishop of Canterbury. Then everything changed. Becket took his identity as priest and archbishop even more seriously than his role as chancellor. He embraced a life of penance and prayer. He resigned the chancellorship and led the flock courageously. He defended the religious freedom of the Church – even when it enraged his friend the king.

The audience is presumed to know the basic story (back in 1935 in England they would have). By December 29, Henry grows tired of Becket’s unwillingness to compromise, he eventually cries out in anger, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest???” Four of his knights pick up on his cue. They arm themselves with alcohol and swords and assassinate Becket at the altar during Vespers. After the fact, Henry II repented, doing penance at Becket’s tomb. Sad to say, it was not the last time in England that a King named Henry would murder an ex-chancellor or a bishop over the issue of religious freedom. 460 years later, Henry VIII came along and killed both John Fisher and Thomas More.

T.S. Eliot loves to explore the human heart. He offers the reader a window into Becket’s soul during his moment of martyrdom. In the estimation of some historians, Becket obstinately and recklessly rushed into his death. They believe it was preventable. There is no question that he saw it coming. T.S. Eliot depicts Becket’s attitude in a way that shows true human freedom and fulfillment.

The beginning of the play is set in Advent and offers some very Advent-y words. Becket foresees the end that is coming, but abides in a time of watching and waiting:

End will be simple, sudden, God-given.
Meanwhile the substance of our first act
Will be shadows, and the strife with shadows.
Heavier the interval than the consummation.
All things prepare for the event. Watch.

It is not the actual moment of trial or martyrdom that is difficult. It is all the successive moments leading up to it. “Heavier the interval than the consummation.” Abiding in love, watching and waiting, is so much harder than a brief moment of pain. I think college students preparing for their final exam can relate!

I have already written about the “already but not yet” of Advent, and of our Christian existence in general. Christ comes to us at each and every moment, standing at the door of our heart, knocking and waiting patiently for us to admit him. We only live in the present moment and can only say “yes” in the present moment. Jesus teaches us that it is by being faithful in small things that we learn how to be faithful in large once. Our “yes” or “no” to God’s will in the present moment sets the stage for the Day of Judgment. That Day of Judgment is already present in each of those moments.

Becket faces four tempters (played by the same actors who later enter as the four knights). One by one, he resists their efforts – tempting him to go back to his old pleasures of the flesh, to go back to the power of the chancellorship, or to ally himself with the barons and stick it to the king. Then comes the final and most enticing temptation: for Becket to position himself as a martyr, admired and honored, with his enemies reviled and repentant. Becket resists. The tempter even tempts him to think of centuries beyond, when his shrine is long since rotted and corrupted, but he will experience endless heavenly glory. Even there, Becket resists. Pursuing martyrdom, even for heavenly glory, would ultimately be feeding his own ego and dishonoring God.

Becket renounces his pride. He surrenders his will to God’s. He neither seeks nor avoids. He neither lets himself  be a victim of fate, nor pretends to be master of his own destiny. He does not disagree with the words of one of the tempters: “Only the fool, fixed in his folly, may think he can turn the wheel on which he turns.” However, Becket sees in faith that God is the one turning the wheel. He positions himself in peace at the “still point” in the very center of the turning wheel – neither active nor passive, neither controlling nor controlled. He is truly free as God’s instrument:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason…
I shall no longer act or suffer, to the sword’s end.
Now my good Angel, whom God appoints
To be my guardian, hover over the swords’ points.

In holy and free receptivity, his prayer is like that of the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation: that it be done unto him according to God’s Word. As each of us watches and waits for the final consummation of our own lives, may we also abide at that “still point” of God’s love.

One Reply to “Watching and Waiting with T.S. Eliot”

  1. Thank you, Father, for bringing to light the dramatic “Advent meaning” of Murder in the Cathedral! It is interesting that Beckett was in EXILE before the play begins. Conversion can often make us feel that we are exiled, even from loved ones who don’t understand what our conversion is about.

    I had never thought that the “temptation” to be a martyr is indeed a temptation and NOT good! It is easy for one with an overactive imagination to put oneself in the right as the “good guy” and those who cause pain and suffering in one’s life as “the bad guys”! So simple and clear cut! But that is merely pride which “feeds our egos” and does not give glory to God.

    “Heavier the interval than the consummation” made me think of childbirth AND old age! There was a point in all of my pregnancies when I anticipated giving birth with fear of pain and the sleepless nights with a newborn. Somehow, mothers make it through that, and looking back, the anticipation was greater than the realization (well, maybe not every time!). Watching the elderly people in memory care also is like childbirth: it is wrenching to see a loved one struggle with “the strife of shadows” as the mind and body decline. To invoke a guardian angel appointed by a loving God is about the only thing that makes sense in this “advent” stage of life!

    Thanks again for shedding this light on T.S. Elliot’s poetry and St. Thomas Beckett!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *