Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Honor of God

From Jean Anouilh's play Becket, when Becket is explaining to Henry II why he's going to oppose him:

I felt for the first time that I was being entrusted with something, that's all -- there in that empty cathedral, somewhere in France, that day when you ordered me to take up this burden [Henry had made him Archbishop of Canterbury]. I was a man without honor. And suddenly I found it -- one I never imagined would ever become mine -- the honor of God.

The full title of the play is Becket: The Honor of God. St. Thomas Becket is a figure who deserves better attention today. Unfortunately, most people get their history from TV and movies, and the very fine 1964 movie with Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton is inexplicably out of print on VHS, not yet released on DVD, and never seems to make it onto the small screen, at least around here. But the play appears to be still in print.

In the play, Becket is a worldly, successful, sophisticated man, but he's utterly hollow inside, bereft of personal honor. To his credit, he knows this and doesn't try to pretend otherwise. But then his friend the king makes him Archbishop of Canterbury, and Becket suddenly discovers the honor and integrity of God in the vocation that's thrust upon him. And when the king tries to call in a favor to make the Church subordinate itself to him, Becket defends God's honor to the death -- not, as certain religious zealots do today, by taking up the sword, but by simply standing fast and refusing to compromise.

And that's why he deserves our study today, when the Church faces challenges and pressure from so many directions to compromise its truth -- from the secular state, from Islam, from its own internal enemies. All we have to do is stand fast, like St. Thomas.