Living and Partly Living

On December 29, 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in Canterbury by knights acting on behalf of King Henry, his former friend. The great poet T.S. Eliot memorialized this event in Murder in the Cathedral. In a previous post, we journeyed with T.S. Eliot into the human heart of Thomas Becket as he came to grips with his imminent death. But Becket’s heart was not the only one impacted by the event. Even more fascinating is the transformation that takes place in the peasant women of Canterbury. Throughout the play, they sing as the Chorus. As the plot unfolds, we witness the conversion of their hearts. Initially, they angrily oppose Becket’s return to England and the inevitable conflict that he brings. Eventually, they surrender themselves to the event, asking Thomas to pray for them and promising to pray for him.

There is a recurring refrain in their singing: “Living and partly living.” It describes their pitiful existence as they scrape by in poverty. They go on surviving, resentful of their misery. But at least the misery is manageable and predictable. It is what they know. By contrast, they are overwhelmed and terrified by the winds of change that propel the sails of Becket’s boat as he lands in Dover. Like most of us, they would so much rather stay mired in the hellhole that they know than venture out into new and scary horizons.

They beg and plead with Becket:

O Thomas, return, Archbishop; return, return to France.
Return. Quickly. Quietly. Leave us to perish in quiet…
We do not wish anything to happen.
Seven years we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.

They describe years of plenty and years of famine; birth and death; joy and fears. Like typical humans, they tend to deny and minimize just how awful things are. They hint at dreadful realities that they regularly endure – their daughters taken by the wealthy and powerful, untimely deaths, oppression, and violence. Somehow these painful parts of life seem “okay” or manageable in comparison with a new beginning of an unknown future.

As the old saying goes, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Rather than face our pain, rather than resolving conflict, rather than humbling ourselves and asking for assistance, we are much more likely to tell lies to ourselves and deny that change is needed. We choose surviving over thriving. Living and partly living.

Or we minimize. Personally, I’ve always had a passionate commitment to Truth and Goodness and Beauty. When those realities hit me between the eyes,  I realize that I can no longer live in denial. But oh, have I been a master of minimizing! For years, I carried painful and unhealed wounds that needed attention from God and others. I acknowledged them as best I knew how. But I shaded the truth. I told myself that it wasn’t all that bad, that other people had it so much worse, that I should be grateful for what I have, and so forth. I was surviving, not thriving. Living and partly living.

Back to T.S. Eliot. As Thomas faces his spiritual battle with the final tempter, the women of Canterbury chime in. They begin shedding their denial, admitting a bit more of the truth:

We have not been happy, my Lord, we have not been too happy.
We are not ignorant women, we know what we must expect and not expect.
We know of oppression and torture,
We know of extortion and violence,
Destitution, disease…
Our sins made heavier upon us.
We have seen the young man mutilated,
The torn girl trembling by the mill-stream.
And meanwhile we have gone on living,
Living and partly living…

As they begin facing the pain, they feel a clutching panic gripping their hearts:

God gave us always some reason, some hope; but now a new terror has soiled us, which none can avert, none can avoid, flowing under our feet and over the sky;
Under doors and down chimneys, flowing in at the ear and the mouth and the eye.
God is leaving us, God is leaving us, more pang, more pain than birth or death…
O Thomas Archbishop, save us, save us, save yourself that we may be saved;
Destroy yourself and we are destroyed.

It is one of the oldest human stories. We recognize the need for change. We begin to accept it. Perhaps we even make a firm resolve and take some serious first steps. Then, as the familiar fades from view, we panic. We become dizzy and disoriented. We feel a fear as of death. All too often, we scurry back to our hellhole. The battered woman returns to her abuser. The addict resumes his familiar rituals, and finds himself “surprised” to be acting out, yet again.

In this case, the women of Canterbury persevere. When December 29 arrives, they choose to be courageous. Even though they feel enormous fear and dread; even though they are yet quite feeble and imperfect, they give their consent:

I have smelt them, the death-bringers, senses are quickened…
I have smelt them, the death-bringers; now is too late
For action, too soon for contrition.
Nothing is possible but the shamed swoon
Of those consenting to the last humiliation.
I have consented, Lord Archbishop, have consented…
O Lord Archbishop, O Thomas Archbishop, forgive us, forgive us, pray for us that we may pray for you, out of our shame.

Thomas enters the scene and affirms them:

Peace, and be at peace with your thoughts and visions.
These things had to come to you and you to accept them.
This is your share of the eternal burden…
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Indeed. Truth and Goodness and Beauty transcend us. We receive them and are received into them as we are capable. It is a slow and sometimes painful journey of conversion and growth. It is okay that we stumble and struggle so much along the way. God understands, and so do our true friends.

The play concludes. Thomas is savagely murdered, just as he and the women foresaw. They have already asked pardon of Thomas. Now they ask pardon of God. They are finally ready to confess truthfully their greatest sin – fearing the fullness of God’s love, and protecting themselves against receiving God’s blessing.

Forgive us, O Lord…
Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;
Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;
Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,
Less than we fear the love of God.

God only wants to bless us. We are his dear and precious children. Any changes he asks of us, any sacrifices, any sufferings are only for the sake of stretching us, enlarging our capacity, and then filling us superabundantly with his love. We, like the women of Canterbury, cannot bear very much reality. Hopefully we will consent to put to death our old ways, to leave them behind, and to fare forward (to borrow words from another T.S. Eliot poem). Yes, we will feel fear, and probably all sorts of other emotions: shame, guilt, anger, sadness, or loneliness. Still, we can fare forward. With the support and encouragement of God and others, little by little, we can learn to leave behind our self-protective hellhole and step out into the light of God’s love, receiving grace upon grace.

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.