Monday, February 15, 2010

The Salvation of Thomas Becket

~ Icon by me, a quote from the film "Becket."

"Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings, but mercy is above the sceptered sway. It is enthroned in the heart of kings and earthly power doth then show likest God's, when mercy seasons justice." ~ William Shakespeare

What defines the measure of a man? It is usually his actions over some long period of time that define him. Where Thomas Becket, confidant to Henry II, was concerned, he was nearly as corrupt as his king. When the king caroused, so did he. When the king required female companionship, so did he. And when the king required something of him, Thomas did it, unquestioningly. One would think this man to be irredeemable. Except that no one is irredeemable. It may take years to find God, or it may take only a single moment to make a choice. In the case of Thomas Becket, it only took a moment.

Thomas Becket loved his king, as much as he was capable of loving anyone. He and Henry were so close that it irked Henry's wife and mother to no end. When Henry needed consoling, he went to Thomas. When he needed friendship, he went to Thomas. And when he needed someone to manipulate, he went to Thomas. All because Thomas understood that he could do nothing to change the king. Ironically, it was Henry's manipulative nature which finally cured Thomas of his placatory behavior. In one fell swoop, the Archbishop of Canterbury died. Henry conceived a magnificent plan to have a new Archbishop placed, one who would support him. And who better than his oldest and dearest companion, Thomas Becket? It was the biggest mistake of Henry's life and the best thing that could have happened to Thomas.

Becket was suddenly thrust into a religious life. He had always experienced a great respect for God. But it wasn't until Thomas Becket received the robes of Archbishop that he began to seriously consider the state of his immortal soul. All that time he spent with Henry, he was trying to earn his king's respect and love. And Henry did love him. But it was a selfish and manipulative love that did Thomas Becket no good. Suddenly, Thomas realized that trying to honor Henry wasn't working. He couldn't reconcile himself to the two warring factions within his own heart. It was a fruitless labor and one that only brought a deep dissatisfaction. One day, as he knelt before the altar, Thomas Becket found God. And everything changed. In one fell swoop, Henry II lost not only his confidant but his closest friend and ally. Richard Burton's Becket said it best, "He has not yet forgiven me for choosing God over him." Just as Becket found peace, both with himself and with God, Henry II watched his world be torn apart.

Love. How does love appear when it refers to men loving men without sexuality playing a role? Some make the claim that Henry II was in love with Thomas Becket. I utterly deny that point. Women were for sex and Henry II loved his women. Men were for love and respect. Thomas was the best, honest, and most trustworthy man Henry ever knew and he gave him his love utterly and completely. It had nothing to do with sexuality, but of two people bonding as if they were brothers, or even closer than brothers. When Thomas realized his fulfillment was through God and not the king, it broke Henry's heart. All Henry ever desired was Thomas' good opinion and support. When that was stripped from him, he reacted as a man suddenly desolate. Women gave him pleasure, but Thomas stimulated his mind.

There is a moment in "Becket" that is extremely poignant. Henry is now conceiving ways to wreak vengeance upon his former friend. He speaks with his barons, the most trusted men in his realm outside of Thomas Becket. All of a sudden, Henry clutches his heart. He cries out in realization that despite the pain and anger and hatred, a part of him still loves Thomas Becket and grieves for the loss of their friendship. He falls upon the floor and utterly weeps as the immense loss washes over him. His weakness lasts only a moment. He then utters the quote that most people recognize, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest!" And this serves up Thomas Becket's death sentence. The barons take Henry seriously and martyr Thomas Becket. Henry lifts his head from the table where he collapsed as his men leave to commit their crime and he murmurs, "Thomas."

There is no way to tell whether Thomas Becket's religious actions as Archbishop really stemmed from religious fervor or from ambition to steal Henry's power. But this film presented a man already torn in two directions by Henry and who finally decided that he needed God's approval more than man's. Regardless of reality, the Hollywood story of Thomas Becket moved me to tears. He was indeed martyred and made a saint by the same man who pronounced his death sentence. Thomas Becket is living proof that a man can commit horrible, unclean, and perverse acts and yet still emerge as a child of God in the end due to a contrite heart. No man is perfect, Thomas Becket least of all. But he gives us hope that if he can be saved, so too can any man. If people only focus on their imagined vision of homosexuality in "Becket" then they've missed the point. This film isn't about Peter O'Toole or Richard Burton and their remarkable talents. It's about a single man who learned that he no longer needed to please man but only God. And that's something worth seeing.

Cautionary Warning: This film does contain some sexual content and brief partial nudity of a woman. The story couldn't have been told accurately otherwise.

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