Sunday, March 23, 2014

My "diary" of four days at Clear Creek Abbey


Dear friends,

A few of you who know me "in real life" are aware of the various misgivings I've shared in recent weeks toward certain... attitudes and practices in the institutional Church, especially anything that contributes to the unhealthy sort of clericalism that frowns upon us questioning the bad decisions of bishops and popes. From the recent, seemingly arbitrary banning of the Latin Mass at Fisher-More College in Fort Worth to Catholic talking head Michael Voris's fatwa against anyone who criticizes Pope Francis's weekly shenanigans, and, of course, the Vatican City's refusal to extradite one of its resident archbishops to answer accusations of child molestation even after a full decade into the sexual abuse crisis, it's true that my faith in the men in red and white hats is at an all-time low. You may, then, find it strange that I still support the vocation and mission of the ancient monastic institutions. What do the men and women who take vows of poverty, chastity, and unflinching obedience to the rule of a religious order and its appointed superiors have to do with rebuilding the faith of a Church that has caused so much devastation in the name of "pray, pay, and obey"? Surely they are the problem and not the solution?

On the contrary, even though I've opined that mandatory priestly celibacy has perhaps outlived its usefulness for the Church at large (and been pilloried for such an opinion by fellow Catholics enough already), I have always been a steadfast believer in monasticism and all it stands for: foundations of prayer around the clock, oases of learning and the preservation of western civilization, and total submission of the soul to God in pursuit of one of the many hard sayings of Jesus we try to tone down and explain away in metaphors: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me." But until last weekend, monasticism was only an idea, as distant as the image of Saint Benedict on the right-hand column of this blog. So when one of my friends began organizing a retreat to the Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of the Annunciation at Clear Creek, Oklahoma, I jumped at the opportunity to witness the monks' way of life firsthand. I had never been to an active monastery before, so for me, it promised to be on of those rare leaps from the stuff of a modern medievalist's obscure books, to reality.

What follows here is a diary-esque account of the days I spent at the abbey, followed by a brief reflection on what I learned.


The first day: Thursday

I, along with two companions from San Antonio, ventured north by car for some nine or ten hours with a mind to get to the abbey in time for Vespers (6:30pm). Save for gas and a brief but delicious stop at a Chik-fil-A somewhere in Whitesville, Texas, we blazed through one vast swathe of parched, casino-laden Indian territory after another until, at last, at the end of a bumpy dirt road in the middle of nowhere, the abbey's edifice came into view. The sun had nearly sunk into the horizon, but we made it for Vespers with a little time to spare. Before entering, we had a reunion of sorts with two of the founding members of our schola whom had since moved to greener pastures, and whom I hadn't seen in a few years. They were also part of our group but arrived in a separate car from Houston (where you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy).

My first picture upon arriving. The sky grew progressively cloudier from this point on.

At the ringing of the bell, we filed into the church, a Romanesque fortress in stone. True to style, the windows were small and high upon the walls. The floor, ceiling, and the great portal at the western entrance were unfinished; there was still much work to be done. The altar rail gave only about half of the church's total length to the laity, almost like they were an afterthought. The rest of the sacred space was reserved for the brothers. About forty of them, all habited in solid black, entered at once from their cloister and filled the inward-facing choir stalls, two rows on each side, with the abbot holding a cathedra-like seat at the east end of the gospel side. The service began with a monk intoning the words from the 69th psalm, Deus in adjutorium meum intende; O God, come to my assistance. It proceeded according to the traditional Benedictine Office: entirely in Latin, entirely chanted (no words uttered in a normal spoken tone whatsoever), and in most respects the same as the standard Office according to the pre-Vatican II Roman Breviary. It wasn't long into Vespers when I mused that they all sang with the quality of any Gregorian chant CD you could think of.... and as they should, since Clear Creek, and its mother abbey at Fontgombault in France are heirs to the legacy of the Abbey of Solesmes, known best for their work in restoring the art of Gregorian chant in the 19th century after centuries of corruption or disuse. It also helps that the church itself, with its high ceiling and stone or brick surfaces all around, was perfectly constructed to receive and resonate with the sounds of the chant.

My cell.
Afterward, we met one of the priests assigned to watch over us, dubbed "Father Guestmaster". He greeted us, asked our names, and showed us to our rooms. The guesthouse was effectively a wing of the cloister sectioned off for (male) visitors. All rooms had windows facing out to the wilderness in the west. The cells themselves were plain and a bit on the small side, but hardly prison-like. I slept comfortably, with the exception that each night grew progressively colder until, by Sunday, I was consistently chilled to the bone. I was convinced that all the thermostat in my room did was make the room even colder if I turned it on.

Around the same time we brought our bags to our cells, the final group of three tore into the parking lot, and the fellowship of the ring, or of past and present altar servers and chanters from the Latin Mass community in San Antonio, was complete. It soon became time for dinner, so we were ushered in to a long, poorly lit hallway to await entry to the refectory (literally, "place of restoration", and much cooler-sounding than "dining hall" or "cafeteria"). The nervous waiting, coupled with the low sound of monks chanting a litany of saints seeping through the crack under the door was like waiting outside the vice principal's office in middle school when you got in trouble. But when the door opened, the expected response was quite the contrary. Attended by one the younger brothers carrying a silver ewer and dish, the abbot himself was there to welcome us and ceremonially wash our hands. I later learned that such a reception is prescribed in the Rule of Saint Benedict, the ancient governing rule of all Benedictine monasteries and their offshoots: "Let the Abbot give the guests water for their hands" (chapter 53).

Dinner was a regimented affair, not unlike my recollection of basic training in the US Army. The refectory was arranged with four rows of long tables, with one on a raised platform laid perpendicular to the others for the abbot; really, positioned like the judge's bench in a courthouse, except with the cross of Christ suspended behind him rather than the seal of the state. The guests were directed to sit at the inner tables. Not only did we have nicer chairs and dinnerware than the monks, we were also served richer food, especially since the monks were fasting through Lent. The first night's courses were soup and bread, followed by a beef pasta dish (though the monks were forbidden meat themselves), and a dessert. I've heard that they would have served us wine were our visit not during Lent, but we had to make do with either water or fruit punch. The cook was trained in France and every fare was of high quality without being decadent. Best of all, where the monks had to serve themselves, they provided us with waiters, or perhaps you could call them footmen. We apportioned our own food from serving trays laid in the middle of the table, but a monk would remove your dish within ten seconds of your finishing it and replace it with the next; always taking from your right, replacing from your left. Soup spoon, then knife and fork, then dessert spoon. By now you may wonder why I found something as mundane as dinner to be worthy of so much detail, but keep in mind that I don't even have a dinner table to eat from at home in the first place, so like a modern savage, my meals are generally consumed on a couch positioned before my television screen. In truth, I ate better at the abbey, even during Lent, than I do at home.

It's important to mention the centrality of reading at meals. The Rule of Saint Benedict orders that a lector must be appointed every week: "The meals of the brothers should not be without reading." And, "let absolute silence be kept at table, so that no whispering may be heard nor any voice except the reader's." At Clear Creek that evening, after grace but before we broke bread, the lector read a portion of the Rule regarding the duties of the kitcheners (I assume they read from the Rule at every dinner of the year, on repeat, forever). That ended, we began eating while the lector switched to another book, this one being Saint Dominic and His Times, specifically a chapter from it entitled "The Lateran Council". It also bears mentioning that whatever the lector reads, he does so by chanting it in recto tono (on one note). Let's say for now that this practice sometimes leads to unintentional hilarity.

When the abbot struck his gavel, the lector ceased and all rose for a prayer of thanksgiving (chanted in Latin, like everything else). Guests could resume eating if they needed afterward, but for a monk, when the abbot says you're done, you're done. We withdrew to a parlor and temporarily broke silence to chat with Father Guestmaster. Then night was upon us, and therefore, Compline. We and the monks reconvened in the crypt chapel directly under the main church to pray the final office of the day. Unlike Vespers, this was sung mostly in recto tono, and was over before you knew it. Following along in one of their booklets, I was reminded of my favorite part of Compline: Psalm 90 (Qui habitat).
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.
Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.
With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.
The biggest variation I noticed from the standard Roman Office is that the abbot ended Compline by sprinkling us with holy water while the monks chanted Asperges Me (like before sung or solemn Mass on Sundays). With that done and the monks retiring for the night, we entered "great silence": no speaking until after breakfast the next morning. I hit the sack and slept like rock for the next eleven hours.

The second day: Friday

By the time I awoke, around 8am, the monks had been at continuous prayer for the past three hours: Matins, Lauds, and low Mass. I made my way down in time for Prime: the most important office of the morning, Father Guestmaster said, because after Prime comes breakfast! In truth, breakfast was a self-served affair and attended only by the guests and a handful of the brothers; in my observation, typically the younger ones or the ones most likely to do a lot of manual labor. The monks ate standing, and there was no lector, perhaps because the Rule only envisions lunch and dinner. I recall us only having cereal and bread with jam or peanut butter to eat.

To pass the time until the next office, we took a walk up a hill west of the monastery, called "Weathertop" by someone in our group at some point. Some of our less athletic companions felt winded on the way up, but I was more worried about sliding face-forward on the way back down for lack of proper footwear. The view of the surrounding countryside from the top of said hill was excellent.

"Weathertop"
We returned to the crypt for the office of Terce around 10am, followed immediately by the conventual Mass (or "community Mass" attended by all the choirmonks, as opposed to the many private low Masses each attended by only one server earlier that morning). It was celebrated in the form of what you might call a "sung low Mass": one priest and one server, though with everything chanted. A schola formed a circle in the middle of the chancel, between the stalls, to sing all the propers, but I noticed that all the monks present joined in the singing at certain parts of each chant as well. There were a handful of small divergences I noticed from your standard Latin Mass according to the 1962 books, but that deserves its own section, which I've written at the very end of this article. For now, I'll remark that there was no sermon, and that a few local laity came to attend and receive Communion, though if I recall correctly, Communion was not distributed to any of the monks themselves. I assume any monk who wanted to receive had already done so at one of the earlier low Masses.

I don't recall what I did after Mass, but as with breakfast, lunch was to immediately follow the office of Sext. By this point, I was drawn back to the church yet again more to present myself to lunch on time, rather than strictly out of devotion to God at regular intervals. Sext, like the other little hours, was mercifully brief, for all this prayer was working up an unusually monstrous appetite. Filing back into the refectory, we took our seats with all the other monks after grace, but held off on digging in until after the lector had read an appointed reading from Scripture, Genesis, I think. Then a great cacophony of metal against metal ensued as the abbot signaled his permission to commence with the eating. Being a Friday, we were served tuna pizza. By this time, I started to notice the occasional monk genuflecting before the abbot, seemingly at random points throughout the meal. I was later informed that a monk does this when he makes a mistake. In the context of meals, this may involve something like dropping a spoon or making a mess. 
"When anyone is engaged in any sort of work, whether in the kitchen, in the cellar, in a shop, in the bakery, in the garden, while working at some craft, or in any other place, and he commits some fault, or breaks something, or loses something, or transgresses in any other way whatsoever, if he does not come immediately before the Abbot and the community of his own accord to make satisfaction and confess his fault, then when it becomes known through another, let him be subjected to a more severe correction." --The Rule, chapter 46
But then I later noticed the same random genuflecting going on at divine services, too (though there, they would usually stay in their places in the stalls rather than approach the abbot). There, they humble themselves by genuflecting whenever they make a mistake in praying, such as by mispronouncing a Latin word, hitting a wrong note in the chant, perhaps even when nodding off. The Rule says: 
"When anyone has made a mistake while reciting a Psalm, a responsory, an antiphon or a lesson, if he does not humble himself there before all by making a satisfaction, let him undergo a greater punishment because he would not correct by humility what he did wrong through carelessness." --chapter 45
Let's just say that if the priest at the local Latin Mass where I now live had to observe this rule, Mass would run six hours, minimum. I'm not joking.

One last word on lunch, though: after the Scripture reading, the lector began, where he presumably left off the previous afternoon, with a reading from something unexpected: not a saint's life or a work of theology, but a secular history book, specifically Great River: The Rio Grande in American History by Paul Horgan ("Volume 2: Mexico and the United States, Book 4: The United States Rio Grande, Chapter 5: The Cannonade, continued", as the lector would preface it). For a good while, Brother Lector regaled us with a detailed account of General Zachary Taylor and his men's misadventures during the Mexican-American War. Let me remind you that the lector chants everything in recto tono, without exception. More than one of us grinned when the book said of General Pedro de Ampudia: "he was a great generaaaal, he was a brave maaaan, he was a bloodthirsty fiiiend who in marching to the river just nooow had refused to be encumbered by sick and straggling soldiers and had ordered such wretches to be shot". I asked Father Guestmaster about the book later that evening, and he said they had been working on it more or less every lunch since January, and that we would hear about what happened at Port Isabel tomorrow afternoon unless they would get a new issue of l'Osservatore Romano (the Vatican City's daily newspaper). Elation abounded through the camp.

After the office of None, around 3pm, was the appointed time for guests to engage in manual labor if they so wished. I was tasked, along with my good friend of several years, now a diocesan seminarian, of picking up rocks off of a field and dumping them into a wheelbarrow, then to be dumped in turn in a nearby ditch. At the rate we were going, the job would be done perhaps after Pope Francis retires. To pass the time, we talked about unmonkish things such as the Total War game series and conspiracy theories, all while hunched over like the anarchist peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A few wheelbarrows full of rocks later, one of the brothers announced an end to our toils. I decided it was a good time to lounge in the guest library after my exertions and actually get some reading done, as I had imagined I would have ample time to do. Under the afternoon sun's warming rays on a chair positioned comfortably below a west-facing window, I started on Saint John Fisher's Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms. The book is a compilation of sermons, one for each of the psalms of David relating to the confession of sins. Praying the seven penitential psalms as a group was a standard practice throughout the Middle Ages until modern times. Fisher, the only bishop in the entire English church to defy King Henry VIII's separation from his wife and the Roman church, was beheaded for treason. But before that, he was renowned as a prolific writer and leading thinker of the northern Renaissance. These sermons was preached and published in 1508, a year before Henry VIII became king, and reprinted seven times in the course of Fisher's life. Reading them was a trip into the mind of an extremely learned man, yet accessible enough to a common spiritual rube like myself. There was no need to build an elevator to ascend the ivory tower of scholastic wisdom, for which I was most grateful. One point that struck me was how, early in the very first sermon, Fisher spoke of the adultery of King David and Bathsheba: "David immediately forgot the goodness of almighty God and again fell into the sin of pride, being proud of the great number and multitude of his people against the commandment of the law of God." It seemed prophetic in light of Henry VIII's great matter with Katherine of Aragon many years later.

The library in the guesthouse is filled with books rebound in handsome hardcovers by the monks themselves.
The rest of the evening from Vespers to bedtime proceeded exactly as it did the previous night, except that this time, several hours of tossing and turning had passed before I could fall asleep. This usually happens when I sleep a lot the prior night and then try to go to bed early the following evening.


The third day: Saturday

By the time I could pry myself out from the covers and withstand the chill air of my cell, Prime had already commenced in the crypt. It was almost over when I stumbled in, but not to fear: I had ample opportunity to catch up on missed prayer a couple hours later when I attended the day's conventual Mass, opened a hand missal I grabbed from the table outside, opened it to the day's readings and realized it was an Ember Saturday. For those who meet the phrase "ember day" with a blank stare, these days mark the beginning of one of the four seasons with intense prayer and fasting. In ancient times, the Senate and people of Rome implored their gods for a successful seeding or harvesting, depending on the time of year. After the ascendancy of the Christian faith, the Church saw fit to keep the days of prayer, and for many centuries, they were observed as part of western Europe's agricultural cycle. Unfortunately, our path to industrialism has taken away this sense of unity with the land, so the Ember days declined in observance until at last, with the issuing of the new Mass in 1970, the Church effectively abolished them entirely. For the monks of Clear Creek, this last point is irrelevant since they happily use the 1962 order. But what all this means in the context of my account here is that Mass was going to take a lot longer than I thought. See, on an Ember Saturday in the old Mass, the Scripture readings appointed for that day number not only the usual Epistle and Gospel, but five readings from the Old Testament.

To tell you true, one of the few "reforms" I appreciate about the new Mass is how it restored lessons from the Old Testament to common use (in the traditional rite, they had been mostly phased out during the High Middle Ages with a handful of exceptions, this day being among them). Nonetheless, five lessons at once made today feel like a marathon of prayer. For each lesson, a different monk emerged from his place in the stalls to chant the full reading in the traditional tone. Between each lesson, the schola formed a circle to chant the full gradual. After that followed a genuflection and collect prayed by the priest-celebrant. Oh, and don't forget the canticle of the three children. It was beautiful, but brutal for a man of the world. And imagine, in the Church's young days, this Mass would actually begin on Saturday evening as a vigil and run all the way to Sunday morning. With seven readings, each would be punctuated by men being ordained to one of the seven orders (porter, then exorcist, then lector, and so on up to the order of priest after the gospel, which was read by one of the newly ordained deacons), for ordinations were once restricted to one of the four Ember Saturdays of the year. (On that note, though it seems even traditionalist seminaries today seldom hold ordinations on the Ember days, I did learn later that the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter had diaconal ordinations at their seminary in Lincoln, Nebraska that same day. I can only imagine that their Mass took forever.) As for us in the pews at Clear Creek, I almost felt a bit sorry for the old church ladies who had come out to the abbey, thinking they were just attending another daily Mass as usual.... almost, but not quite.

After the liturgy, we were most eager to get outside and take a walk. One group returned to Weathertop to seek out either transfiguration or a good cell phone signal; another split off in the opposite direction, downhill toward a stream. I was in this latter group, where we chased a badger to his hiding hole for no reason whatsoever, then held an impromptu stone-skipping contest at the stream by a bridge. At three good skips, I was about to win until, with one last "okay, this is really the last one" parting shot, J.S. made a miraculous five and took home the nonexistent trophy.


From here, I can only hazily recall a smoke break, feelings of famishment, and anticipation for the next exciting episode of Great River: The Rio Grande in American History as told by Brother Anonymous. The endless collecting of rocks resumed after None, though several more guests were assigned this time around. After our penance/peon roleplaying session ended, I went to the gift shop to continue another medieval tradition: "buying" a Mass, or more properly speaking, making a donation to the abbey for one of the priests to offer Mass for a specific intention of mine. Some of the priests were hearing confession for the guests, but as irrational as it is, I was too intimidated to go myself.

Our rock-picking adventures took place in the clearing in the upper portion of this photo.

The rest of the evening proceeded as before. I resolved to go to bed as early as possible so that, on the last day of my visit, I could catch at least the latter part of Matins.

The fourth day: Sunday

I arose at around 6am, feeling the coldest yet. It was still completely dark outside, and raining to boot. Matins had proceeded for about an hour already. I bundled up with several layers, a scarf, and gloves, and power-walked to the crypt. Only a handful of laity were present this early. Given Matins's length, there was no simple booklet to follow along with. I used a hardbound breviary left on the table outside, but without an English translation on the opposite column, my understanding was sketchy at best. I endured the tail end of Matins and Lauds, after which it was time for the low Masses. 

What took place at this moment is hard to put in words and almost certainly alien to any Catholic born after 1962, if not even earlier. Ten of the abbey priests retreated briefly to the vestry, then emerged in vestments and fanned out to each of the ten altars positioned around the crypt: four four positioned against the wall within alcoves on either side, the main freestanding altar, and another final one behind it against the wall of the apse, where the tabernacle rested. Each began celebrating their own private Mass all at the same time. By now, even though it was still only about 7am, the crypt was teeming with locals coming in to fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation. Old church ladies, families with ten children (all of whom inexplicably are boys and all sporting the exact same haircut), and marriageable young women sent by the devil to tempt novices from their vocation. I decided to break away from the pews and beelined to the priest saying Mass in the alcove on the far right and back of the crypt: first, because he was wearing a chasuble clearly based on a Pugin design and pattern, and second, because he seemed lonely, his Mass only attended by B.R., my seminarian friend. When I knelt beside him, the alcove was at capacity. This entire experience was truly the epitome of a missa privata: imagine being so close, you could reach out and touch the priest's chasuble at any given moment of the whole Mass. Unlike your standard low Mass, all the priests in the crypt whispered the entire liturgy, not just the Canon and so on. My priest in particular, I noticed, beat his chest with a resounding thud at mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Altogether, "my" Mass took about 20 or 25 minutes. I then mused about why the locals didn't mind coming so early in the morning: their Sunday obligation was fulfilled in record time, with no sermon to worry about and no pesky hymns. I can understand why this sort of Sunday experience could have been abused in the preconciliar era by Catholics with a punchcard mentality, but in its proper place, as I experienced it this day, that was by far the most edifying low Mass I have ever attended. After it was over, I inadvertently broke the great silence before Prime to remark to my companions just how surreal it all was, being so intimately close to the action on the altar as a mere layman in the pew, as well as witnessing all the other Masses being offered at the same time, in the same place, for undoubtedly a wide variety of intentions.

We resolved to depart the abbey immediately after high Mass, so we packed up our bags and cleaned up our rooms after breakfast. I thought nothing could top what I had already seen in the three and a half days I had spent at the abbey; I was wrong. The monks chose to hold high Mass in the upper church, despite its cavernous nave being unbearably cold. Just after Terce, Father Guestmaster approached the altar rail and invited the men and boys in the pews to join the monks in a procession around the cloister, in the area normally forbidden to visitors. We stood behind the monks, who formed two columns. I was fortunate to be only a few paces behind the abbot. We processed very slowly around the square, with the wind blowing rain under the walkway and causing the monks' cloaks to flap in dramatic fashion behind them. Combined with the somber, unfamiliar chants they were singing, and the fact that my knuckles were turning purple as I tightly gripped my hand missal, I actually found myself thoroughly relishing how miserable and "English" the weather was; the atmosphere wouldn't have been the same if the day had been sunny. In a moment frozen in time, I united my prayer with the brothers, and with those of all the monks of the past two thousand years that had implored God with those very same chants to help raise up a sturdy foundation in the face of Viking invasions, plagues, famines, rapacious kings, bloodthirsty revolutions, and all other manner of terrors and tribulations more frightening than our own. I was at once a small speck in the great march of time from the cross to the final judgement.... and yet larger than life, speaking with one voice in an army larger than any empire's or proletariat's in the history of man. For a moment, I shed a tear for the beauty of what I had witnessed, for all we had lost, and for what these monks could build for themselves and future generations in the new world.


The procession returned to to the upper church and everyone filed back into their places for the conventual Mass, a solemn high Mass with the priest assisted by a deacon and subdeacon. The wind and rain battered the sides of the church and caused a great noise, as though we were riding deep the hull of Noah's ark, or but the monks paid it no heed and kept chanting the propers of Mass as though nothing were disturbing them at all. The Gospel reading was the same as yesterday's: the account of Christ transfigured before His closest disciples, with Moses and Elijah appearing beside Him. In some small way, I had climbed Mount Tabor as well; like Peter, stirred from some strange slumber. I was able to pray the Nicene Creed with a renewed belief in its words. During the offertory, I stepped aside from my pew to a shrine of the Virgin Mary and left a blessed candle, which had been gifted to me by a companion, in a candelabrium by her feet. The candle, which has probably run its course by now, was burned to offer the sacrifice of that solemn high Mass for my deceased stepfather, whose fifth anniversary of death was to pass three days hence.

There was still no sermon, despite it being the main Sunday Mass. It was just as well; oratory was unnecessary. I was content to leave that procession and high Mass as the summit of my weekend. I received a blessing from one of the priests in the gift shop, and we started the drive back to normalcy.

I had hoped to post this article in time for the feast of Saint Benedict last Friday, but it took longer than I expected to gather my thoughts. I don't have a great story of Damascus-like enlightenment to wrap up this account of my visit with, other than what I already wrote above. But I came away with a greater appreciation of the monk's role in civilization and the work they contribute to the society of Christians. It would be better to end this entry not with anything I could say, as a mere observer, but with the words of the abbot himself, Dom Philip Anderson, who was interviewed shortly before we ventured forth to the abbey. (Just ignore Father Mitchell's hokey intro before the interview itself.)


Also, some photos from Clear Creek's website....

Detailwork of a sculpture in progress.
One monk's solemn profession, in the crypt church.
The monks in procession around the cloister.
The Easter fire during the Vigil.
A view of the upper church during Cardinal Burke's visit.
Cardinal Burke again, celebrating Mass in the upper church.
One of the tiny alcoves where low Mass is celebrated.
And best of all, sheepdogs in winter.

Appendix for the liturgy nerds

Early on in the article, I mentioned some divergences in the way the monks observe the 1962 Missal compared to what you might usually see in Latin Mass communities. My friends and I talked about them at various points during the trip, so I endeavored to do some research to find out more. This last section, then, is for those of you who are armchair liturgists and find minor differences in the way Mass is celebrated from place to place genuinely interesting, rather than tedious.

The following differences I noticed, by the way, all apply only to the conventual Masses (sung or solemn Masses after Terce). As far as I could tell, their low Masses were celebrated "as usual", with the exception of them being entirely whispered.

-The priest and ministers omitted the prayers at the foot of the altar (when Mass immediately follows Terce. It's possible that they pray it privately in the sacristy beforehand, but I can't say for sure).

-The priest led the entire Mass of the Catechumens from the sedilia (similar to the Novus Ordo, or in the old rite when a bishop celebrates from the throne), not the altar. The acolyte or MC held the missal open against his chest for the priest to read from. This had the interesting effect of effectively not being able to see the priest for most of the first half of the Mass, since at Clear Creek, the sedilia is tucked in an area obscured by the choir stalls.

-The priest didn't appear to privately recite anything sung by the choir, such as the Kyrie, Gloria, or Credo; he chanted them in unison with the choir instead.

-The Scripture readings were proclaimed versus populum (facing the people). 

-The priest chanted the "secret" prayer at the end of the Offertory rite aloud.

-The priest chanted the doxology of the Canon (from per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso...), as a lot of priests do in the Novus Ordo.

-The Pater noster was chanted by all the monks in unison with the priest.

-The kiss of peace was exchanged between all the monks in attendance, even at "sung low Mass".

-The priest chanted even the words which are normally said in a spoken tone at high Mass (ecce Agnus Dei and the blessing after Mass).

-And finally, the priest omitted the Last Gospel.


After doing some reading, I learned that, in the early years of Vatican II, the Benedictines of Fontgombault had adopted some of the early reforms given in the 1965 Missal, even though they may have had the 1962 book on the altar. A letter from the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei in 1997 had confirmed that these were legitimate and licit uses within the 1962 Missal still; some for all Masses in general, others specifically for conventual Masses in Benedictine communities. There were further permissions granted to the Benedictines for using bidding prayers before the Offertory (after Oremus), and even for using prefaces from the 1970 Missal, though I didn't see them used at Clear Creek during my visit. For more information, you can see scans of the letter I mentioned on this entry in the Saint Bede Studio's blog.


Monday, February 10, 2014

An Unlikely Saint: summary/review of John Guy's "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel", part IV




Part IV: Primate of England

The news of Theobald's death turned the gears in Henry's mind toward new plots. His idea to nominate Thomas as successor to Canterbury was not a sudden stroke of genius, but the natural conclusion of a master plan to consolidate all power in the Angevin empire under royal rule. Thomas wasn't a bishop, true, but he had knowledge of every aspect of the job from his years in Theobald's service. Furthermore, he had gained the king's trust over seven years as his right hand; Henry went so far as to have his eldest son and heir, also named Henry, fostered at Thomas's house. It took a year for Henry to formally announce the nomination, during which time Canterbury's revenues were sent to the royal coffers. Thomas did not object this time because he knew the see of Canterbury, as well as the chancery, would both be in his hands regardless. He did, however, have his reservations about assuming the office at first. John of Salisbury: "He had by now learned to understand the king's character and the wickedness and rapacity of his officials." We know that Thomas hesitated because his delay caused one of Henry's early schemes to derail. Ever anxious about the fate of his empire after his death, Henry intended for Thomas to quickly assume the primacy and use its ancient privileges to crown his son within his lifetime, thereby guaranteeing a succession without the threat of rival sons rising up to stake their own claims. But, as the bishops would not accept any substitute for the right to crown and anoint a king of England, the entire affair was downgraded into a mere investiture ceremony, with Thomas presiding as the lords and bishops made their oaths. It was a far cry from what Henry had planned, but for now, he had to live with disappointment.

Today's Roman church is led by bishops appointed directly by the pope. In medieval England, the final say over the successor to Saint Augustine was in the monks of Christ Church. Henry sent a number of commissioners to campaign on Thomas's behalf, including Richard de Lucy, Abbot Walter of Battle, and Bishop Hilary of Chichester. The monks' case against: that Thomas was not a monk (all but two of the previous archbishops had been from religious orders) nor even a priest, had sullied his hands in warfare, and, of course, was feared to be a mere puppet of an avaricious king. The commissioners brought them around, however, and at a council in Westminster Abbey, the Christ Church monks unanimously gave their assent to Thomas. Only one man voiced his opposition during the entire proceedings: Gilbert Foliot, bishop of Hereford. At the time, Foliot must have appeared to have the perfect résumé for the primacy: a son of the Norman aristocracy, a prior of Cluny (which he held at only 25 years of age), an abbot of Gloucester, a supporter of the Angevin dynasty since the Anarchy, an orator, even a "strict vegetarian". Foliot probably sought the primacy for himself; he certainly resented seeing it fall into the hands of an extravagant, baseborn whelp ten years his junior. As his character in the film says, in the end, he bowed before the royal will. Thomas Becket would become the next archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomas and his followers set out for their new home, as Guy says, "following the same road that he had first taken as a young man of twenty-four on his way to join Theobald's household." Though he was greeted by crowds along the streets to great ceremony and fanfare, he dismounted and proceeded on foot once he entered the walls. Guy writes, "first impressions matter, and he was eager to create the right one." One June 2, Thomas was ordained a priest by an old patron, Walter of Rochester, but the privilege of consecrating him as archbishop was hotly contested by him, Roger of Pont l'Évêque, and other senior bishops. The honor eventually settled on King Stephen's brother, Henry of Winchester. The following day, Trinity Sunday, the rite of consecration took place.


The director of the 1964 film purposefully shot the consecration scene with, if not reverence, then respect in accurately portraying ancient Catholic rites. Every word pronounced by Donald Wolfit's Foliot is uttered with the utmost seriousness, despite his jealousy and loathing of the man he's consecrating. Of course, in history, the prayers were said by Henry of Winchester, as Foliot was given the bishopric of London as a "consolation prize" by Thomas after the election, but not in time to properly assume that see and claim any seniority. The rite may have actually gone more smoothly on the silver screen than in real life, if Foliot is to be believed. In those days, the rite of consecration was spiced with a dash of bibliomancy; after the consecrator prayed over the new bishop with a book of the Gospels laid open upon his head and neck, it would be flipped to a random page and the consecrator would utter aloud whatever he first set his eyes upon. According to Foliot in a later attack, Thomas was initiated into the hierarchy of the Church with an ill omen: "Never shall fruit be born of thee throughout eternity; and it was forthwith cast into the fire." Whether it was a lie born from Foliot's envy, a warning from heaven, or just bad luck, the new archbishop would not let a bad prognostic keep him from turning the king's machinations asunder, for as Guy says of the day Thomas received his pallium from the pope two months hence, "he can only felt he stared God directly in the face." What events transpired that summer of 1162 that transformed Thomas Becket into the man we know today? Was it an outpouring of divine grace given to him by the conferral of holy orders? Or the sudden realization that, with no one directly above him save a distant pontiff, he had become a truly powerful man in his own right? Whatever was the true cause of his conversion, it was sudden and slighting. A few months following the consecration, Thomas resigned the chancellorship. Even though such an office was routinely held by bishops elsewhere in Christendom, Thomas saw a conflict of time and interest. This would have earned Henry's wrath regardless, but especially because Thomas did so without speaking to him about it first; indeed, while Henry wasn't even in England at the time. When he learned the news, the king exclaimed "by God's eyes!" From that day forward, the battle of royal and ecclesiastical wills was on.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A grimdark Christmas -- Batman: Noël

Yesterday, I took a break from more serious reading material during my work breaks to enjoy a comic book. The lady got me Batman: Noël, a one-off short story of my favorite superhero in a handsome hardcover edition. What's it about, you ask? The unseen narrator has a working-class voice, telling the tale of a Scrooge who has everything but appreciates none of it; who begrudges one of his workers for taking Christmas Day off to spend time with his son "as though he were getting away with a crime". 

The stand-in for Dickens' classic character needs no introduction: he is, of course, billionaire Bruce Wayne, who moonlights as self-appointed lord and protector of Gotham dressed as a flying rodent. Batman is on patrol for the night of Christmas Eve as though it were any other. His prey for the evening is a certain Bob, a low-level Wayne Enterprises employee down on his luck, a single father struggling to support a disabled child. The sunken economy has pushed Bob to desperation; namely, he's agreed to play the bagman and deliver a package for his new employer, the clown prince of crime. Bob, of course, is really just an ordinary working stiff, and is no match for the Bat. The caped crusader allows our part-time crook to escape solely to use him as bait later on: for Batman can rely on the Joker's retribution to swiftly bring him out into the open when he comes to collect. The pieces are in place to put two criminals behind bars, though at great risk to Bob's son at home, to which the embittered, heartless Batman nary gives a second thought... that is, until three "ghosts" come to him through the course of the night to bring him out of the shadows he's too long dwelt.

Observe, in the display case, Batman's "first appearance" costume from DC Comics #27, existing alongside an Adam West-style suit, and finally, a modern armored suit.

Lee Bermejo superbly illustrates the Dark Knight as we know and love him today: bulky, weathered, with a permanent grimace at all the injustice he wades through from night to night. The years of scrapes, bruises, near-death encounters, and seeming futility of all his efforts have taken their toll on Bruce; most of all, the death of Jason Todd. The artist plays with the motif of newer vs. older interpretations of Batman in memory panels, especially the rendering of vintage costumes in the same realist style as the rest of the comic. "We used to play, remember?", says Catwoman in the midst of their latest altercation. It was a risky move, given A Christmas Carol's descent into the realm of cliché in recent decades, but Bermejo, as both writer and illustrator for this piece, puts it all together in such a way that, at the end, old and new visions of the Dark Knight are reconciled, and even the most ardent fan of broody, Frank-Millerized Batman can appreciate why he's been cast as Scrooge for this story.


I have to admit that my own exposure to retellings of A Christmas Carol have been minimal, so I treated the book as mostly an original story; in fact, I think I nearly shed a tear toward the flip of the final page. Altogether, for masterful artwork, decent writing, and clever application of themes all in one hardcover edition that feels "just right" without breaking the bank, I give Noël 9 out of 10 batarangs.

As an aside, I liked Jim Lee's description in the forward of the book as a "neo-Gothic work". That is all.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

An Unlikely Saint: summary/review of John Guy's "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel", part III




Part III: The King's right hand

Theobald briefly assumed power as regent until Henry and Empress Matilda landed from Normandy. Thomas, naturally, was present at the coronation in Westminster Abbey, presided by his master. And, to ensure that Henry would keep the terms of the Treaty and the Church's interests at heart, Theobald nominated Thomas to serve as Henry's chancellor, even sending two bishops from Normandy to make the case. The office of chancellor was usually filled by a bishop, but given his extensive involvement in royal affairs thus far, Thomas's rank in the Church was no obstacle. Henry confirmed the nomination and brought Thomas into his inner circle.

Now, whether Thomas and Henry were quite the bosom buddies they're portrayed as in the Anouilh play/film is up for debate. William fitz Stephen, the new chancellor's clerk, wrote that "never... in the whole epoch of Christian history were two men more of one mind or better friends." However, Guy observes that William gives precious little evidence to back up the assertion, opining instead that William played up the idea of a past friendship to castigate the king even more for his role in the murder; for as Dante showed us, if any sin is greater than murder in the medieval mind, it's betrayal. What we do know from history is that, at least in the first years of his term, Thomas enjoyed the king's unbound trust over the royal treasury. A common-born Londoner in a court where virtually all high offices, both secular and sacred, were held by sons of the landed gentry, Thomas was obliged to outspend his rivals in every way to assert his authority. This is completely counter-intuitive to our modern attitudes toward world leaders. Where we today are enamored with "people's popes" and presidents that pretend to have something in common with the working class, a public official in the Middle Ages that didn't enter a city in grand procession, didn't feed his guests the finest dishes available in the kingdom, or refused to appropriately dress the part, would be seen by his inferiors as weak, stingy, or both. Hospitality, or what would be known in later codes of chivalry as largesse, was a virtue that measured one's worth as a man and a Christian. There's truth to King Henry's line early in the 1964 film, "on gold plate? I am your king, and I eat off silver". Guy mentions how Thomas once served a dish of eels rumored to cost £180, "enough to keep whole families of laborers in comfort for a lifetime." When traveling to Paris on a mission to secure a marriage between Henry's son and King Louis VII's daughter, Thomas rode with over two hundred mounted followers. In Paris, he went through twenty-four changes of clothes, most being worn once or twice before being given away to Louis's courtiers as gifts, or to charity. Free beer was distributed at every village they passed on the way. Villagers are reported to have said, "if this is the chancellor and he travels in such great state, how much greater must the king himself be!"


And if people really did say such things in the streets of France, then the king could not ask for a better servant. But when the barons and bishops at home whispered that Thomas's consumption outdid the king's, it set the stage for the quarrel they would wage in later years. For now, though, Henry never seemed to mind, and was an uncouth sort in any case. Secure in his birthright, he came to court in his riding clothes and served days-old meat at his table. His hands, unlike Thomas's, were weathered as he never wore gloves save for hawking. Standing four inches shorter than Thomas, he even cut a less royal figure, so it's no surprise if visitors confused the chancellor for the king or outright preferred to dine at the chancellor's house. Thomas's popularity may have worked to Henry's advantage in the end, since he never cared for his own. From the beginning of the reign, Henry established himself as a philanderer, an imp (literally, an impious person), and worst of all, an oathbreaker, such as when he violated the terms of the Treaty of Westminster by seizing William's (Stephen's younger son's) castles and lands. This is not to say that Henry had no interest in governing the kingdom. On the contrary, he embarked on a long-term plan to restore the "ancestral customs" of grandfather, Henry I, and his great-grandfather, the Conqueror; some of which were genuine, others which sprang from the young king's imagination. 

If Theobald banked on his former protégé keeping the Church's interests at heart, he was most probably disappointed, since Thomas showed himself a king's man. The play touches on one of these instances, when Thomas, at Henry's behest, levied a tax on church landowners to pay for the military campaign in France in lieu of providing knights. The wealthier bishops and abbots found themselves paying six times as much in dona ("gifts") as they did before. And Thomas's incursions against the Church were not strictly financial, either. Guy devotes several pages to a case Thomas judged in the Exchequer alongside lords Robert de Beaumont and Richard de Lucy. In 1157, a long-lasting feud between Battle Abbey and the diocese of Chichester came to a head. Walter, abbot of Battle, had aspired to the bishopric of London, but the local bishop, Hilary, refused to give a recommendation. Instead, Hilary chose to assert "supervision over the morals and discipline of the abbey", which the monks resisted all the way until Walter was excommunicated. Fortunately for the monks, they had friends in high places that they could count on to reverse the decision. Battle Abbey drew its name from its founding, built over the site of the Battle of Hastings as William the Conqueror's atonement for the blood spilt for the English throne. The abbey, therefore, was sponsored by and intimately associated with the Norman kings; it even had charters in pristine condition which proved their royal exemption from local diocesan authority. The charters were not denounced as forgeries until nearly a century later, so in Becket's time, the issue at hand was strictly on whether a king had any authority to declare a religious community exempt from a bishop's rule in the first place. When Hilary pleaded his case before the judges, he not only defended his rights to all the souls within the boundary of his see, but went so far as to assert the bishops' autonomy from all powers save for the successor of Peter in Rome. The king, who was present at the hearing, smarted: "Very true... a bishop may not be deposed, but see (and at this he gave a violent shove with his hands), with a really good push, he could be thrown out!" Once Henry's blood was up, there was no stopping him from imposing his will. According to the abbey's chronicler, Thomas sided with the king: "You have forgotten your allegiance to the king, to whom you have, we know, taken an oath of fealty. You should therefore be prudent." In the end, for affronting the king's majesty, Hilary was forced to drop all charges and offer surrender before the entire court, much to Theobald's shame.

The ruins of Battle Abbey. The high altar is supposed to have been built over the very spot where King Harold was slain with an arrow in his eye.

The summer following the Battle case, Henry and Thomas turned their attentions westward with a mind to pacify the insolent Welsh, where Dwain of Gwynedd's men were raiding English settlers. Thomas served as capably a general as he did a treasurer and judge. Despite being formally forbidden from bearing arms by virtue of his ordination as a deacon, he personally took to the field in both Wales and later in France, often leading his men at the vanguard of the force and no doubt slaying the enemy by his own hand. In one instance, during the French campaign to reconquer territory that belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine (Henry's wife), Thomas was left with the unenviable task of defending the fortress of Cahors while Henry retreated with the tattered remains of his army back to Normandy. All the barons had "excused themselves" from the command, but again, the London merchant's son allowed himself no such leeway. Not content with merely holding the fort, he sallied forth at the head of his men and stormed three nearby castles at great personal risk, without adequate protection in the rear, but nonetheless pushing the French to the far side of the Garonne.

Can we conclude from all this, then, that Thomas the chancellor plunged a dagger into the Church's bosom in exchange for a life of warmongering and carousing with the king? Not entirely, it seems, for even in those years, there were times when Thomas felt the need to draw a line. For instance, one of Henry's favorite ways of boosting his income was by allowing the seats of bishoprics and abbeys to go vacant for years since he was entitled to collect their revenues until a successor was found. Perhaps Thomas's experience at Canterbury illuminated him to the Church's need for good shepherds, so he used his influence to fill vacancies with haste where he could, often with worthy candidates from Theobald's inner circle of former clerks. In one case, Henry attempted to appoint a baron's illegitimate, illiterate son to the bishopric of Exeter as a favor to the father. Somehow, Thomas managed to subvert the king's will and have Theobald's favored candidate, Bartholomew, appointed instead. Another instance that pricked the chancellor's conscience was Henry's plan to have King Stephen's daughter, Mary of Blois, married off to a cousin he trusted, thereby nipping any chance at a future insurrection in the bud. The trouble was that Mary was not only an avowed nun, but abbess of Romsey. The arrangement was enough for Thomas to call "profane" and "abominable", but though he put his relationship with Henry at risk to block the marriage, his influence wasn't enough, and Mary was dragged out of the nunnery for reasons of state.

Thomas's occasional pangs of conscience at this stage in his life weren't enough to answer Theobald's summons when the archbishop was on his deathbed. To the king, he wrote, " since the evils of these days deny us your bodily presence, you would at least allow our archdeacon to return to us... He ought to have come even without our summons and would have been convicted of disobedience before the eyes of God and men did not your needs excuse him." But Thomas, for reasons unknown, never came, and in 1161, Theobald surrendered his ghost to God and left his see at Canterbury for the ravenous king to determine his successor.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

An Unlikely Saint: summary/review of John Guy's "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel", part II

In part I, we explored young Thomas Becket's origins in London up to his appointment in Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury's household staff as a clerk. Now we'll look at his first ventures into the world of royal and ecclesiastical politics.




The first order of business was orders. Thomas, like any man or boy put to the service of the Church at virtually every level, was ordained to one of the four minor orders, so literally, a "clerk". He was likely a lector or acolyte and served in that capacity in the liturgy, and was expected to maintain a tonsure (that is, to shave the upper part of the head as a sign of humility before God), but was not bound to any religious vows or promise of celibacy. Theobald enhanced Thomas's on-the-job training by hiring a tutor in Roman and canon law. Soon enough, Thomas showed promise in the archbishop's court and and was sent to the University of Bologna (the world's oldest university as we know it) for a year to advance his study of law. He threw himself wholeheartedly into his work now, driven by a newfound ambition to make a place for himself in this world, particularly by gaining the archbishop's confidence. This he did, when in 1149 or 1150, Theobald sent Thomas to Rome to secure the title of "papal legate to England" for Canterbury. The position was previously given to Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester and, much to Theobald's consternation, younger brother of King Stephen. Thus, the king's brother held the highest precedence in the English church and frequently hampered Theobald's attempts to enforce the Pope's will. Fortunately, Pope Eugenius had the sense to put an expiration date on Henry's authority as legate. When the time came, despite the fact that Henry raced to Rome himself to seek a renewal, Thomas convinced the Pope to pass his authority on to Theobald instead. Soon after, the archbishop sent Thomas back to Rome with a mission of even greater importance. Stephen was counting on his brother to secure the succession and crown his son, Eustace. But with Theobald now papal legate as well as archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald held an unimpeachable claim over the coronation rite. Thomas's task was to convince Eugenius to issue a formal decree banning anyone from placing a crown on Eustace's head. This he achieved, eroding Stephen's hold over the realm, bolstering the archbishop's, and establishing Thomas as Theobald's right hand in all affairs.

Stephanus Rex... not quite the most flattering portrait.
By 1153, the house of Stephen was crumbling at the foundations. The hated Eustace died of a heart attack while plundering the lands of Bury St Edmunds Abbey (it's said that the monks of Bury rejoiced at Eustace's timely demise). With the future of England uncertain after Stephen's inevitable passing, even his brother, Bishop Henry, eventually saw the light and threw in with Canterbury, regretting his earlier role in aiding Stephen's usurpation. Between an old and broken king on the one hand and a young prince across the channel without the army to take his birthright by force, the realm turned to the archbishop of Canterbury to mediate a truce. Theobald, meanwhile, turned to Thomas Becket, "my first and only counselor". The ensuing six months were as precarious as walking a tightrope under the jaws of two lions, but at last, Theobald and Thomas hammered out the royal rivals' differences in the Treaty of Westminster. Stephen agreed to forbid Eustace's younger brother, William, from taking the throne. In William's place, Stephen adopted Empress Matilda's son, Henry of Anjou, as his own "son and heir" in ceremony, with all the bishops swearing fealty to him in all "saving only the fealty which they owed to the king for as long as he lived". All castles and lands taken during the war would be returned to their original owners on pain of excommunication and interdict. The Anarchy was over.

For Thomas's indispensable service, he was given the archdeaconry of Canterbury. That office's revenues, in addition to sinecures (parish incomes given to absentee officials instead of vicars with actual care of souls) he already received as one of Theobald's favored clerks, meant that Thomas earned more than £100 a year by Guy's estimate; even more than the previous archdeacon, Roger of Pont L'Évêque, now promoted to archbishop of York. The archdeaconry, of course, required Thomas to advance to major orders and forswear marriage and bearing of arms; minor inconveniences in the face of such rich rewards. But even these accomplishments would pale before what was to follow, for within a year of the Treaty, Stephen would die of a bloody flux and the twenty-one year old Henry would assume the throne and impose a new order upon his kingdom.


Part III will cover Thomas's eight year tenure as chancellor of England.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

An Unlikely Saint: summary/review of John Guy's "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel", part I

In the months since my last post, the world, or at least anyone with a degree of cinematic taste, wept for the loss of Peter O'Toole. An eight-time Academy Award nominee, one of the last great film actors of yesteryear, O'Toole's was the only celebrity death that I truly took notice of in... well, as long as I can remember. His second hit, Becket, starring alongside Richard Burton, remains one of my all-time favorites. And so, when I found myself with more free time than usual after the end of classes, I stopped by the public library and checked out Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, A Nine-hundred-year-old Story, Retold by John Guy. Published just last year, I thank Guy for the refreshingly modest title; no pretensions of earth-shattering, Bible Code proportions of research. Indeed, after 900 years, very little new information has come about the shed light on the life of the "hooly blisful martir", yet the book still taught me a great many things I didn't already know. Guy, like other Becket historians before him, tries to answer those over-persistent questions: "was he really a saint?" "Were his differences with the king really worth getting killed over?" "Did he provoke his own martyrdom?" And now, since today happens to be his feast, the 843rd anniversary of his death at Canterbury Cathedral, I'm rushing to get out this summary of Becket's life and thoughts on Guy's book to share with you.


Part I: The Early Years

The future archbishop was born in London against the backdrop of a great calamity. Those of you who have read or seen the TV adaptation of The Pillars of the Earth will recall the sinking of the White Ship. On the 25th of November, 1120, the English Channel's depths claimed the lives of some three hundred of the realm's highborn, including Prince William, his brother, Richard, and sister, Matilda. King Henry I sired twenty bastards, but only one legitimate son, so when William died, so too did any hope of a peaceful succession. England was torn apart in the ensuing decades by a civil war between Henry I's nephew, Stephen, and his one legitimate daughter, Empress Matilda (or Maud, but yes, Henry had two Matilda's). The usurping nephew won the bid for the throne, but Matilda perhaps had the last laugh as Stephen was forced to pass the kingship to Matilda's son, the future Henry II, after his death. It's this second Henry, portrayed by the thunderous Peter O'Toole not just in Becket, but again in The Lion in Winter, who forms the other great player in this story.

And so, on the 21st of December, either 1118 or 1120, depending on the source, a boy was born to Gilbert and Matilda Becket (the English at this time were as fond of Matilda's as we today are of Aidan's and Liam's), who was given the name Thomas, after the apostle on whose feast it was. He was baptized the same day, at Saint Mary Colechurch. Guy remarks that Matilda wasn't present "since canon (or church) law forbade a newly delivered woman to enter a consecrated church space until she had been ritually purified in a special ceremony some forty days after birth." He's referring, of course, to the "churching of women" that you can still find in the old Rituale Romanum, but I've never heard of the rite being strictly mandatory. Maybe Matilda just had the wind knocked out of her, having given birth the very same day? It's worth some further study. 

The presentation of Christ in the Temple (also called the Purification of the Virgin by some) forms the basis of the ritual of churching of women.
The Beckets lived on Cheapside, which to modern ears would suggest a medieval way of saying "the ghetto" and give lie to the popular folk belief that Thomas belonged to the conquered and dispossessed Saxon majority. The Saxon myth admittedly makes for a good story, and Jean Anouilh, playwright for what would eventually become the 1964 film, acknowledged that he learned of Becket's true origins before the play debuted and retained the script as it was for the sake of the plot. To the contrary, Thomas's parents were both from Normandy, and "Cheapside" simply meant "the marketplace". Gilbert was a textile merchant who provided a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for his family. Thomas's enemies would nonetheless begrudge him for his non-noble origins every chance they got. Guy quotes him as responding in one of these occasions with, "'I prefer... to be a man in whom nobility of mind creates nobility, rather than one in whom nobility of birth degenerates. Perhaps I was born in a humble cottage, but through the aid of divine mercy... I lived very well indeed in my poverty."

A word on the name: "Becket", says Guy, most likely stems from Bec Abbey, situated near the village where Thomas's ancestors hailed. Surnames were not yet in general use, so our established customs did not yet come into play. For example, when Thomas's sister, Agnes, married, she still used the Becket name afterward. Thomas himself never used the name, instead going by "Thomas of London", "Thomas the chancellor", or "Thomas the archbishop" as his career progressed. Anyone who addressed him as "Thomas Becket" meant to incite him by using his lowborn surname, so his hagiographers omit it entirely. At last, the form "Thomas à Becket" is entirely foreign to the 12th century. It may have arisen from a pious imitation of a later medieval writer, Thomas à Kempis, who wrote the massively influential Imitation of Christ.

Bec Abbey, abandoned during the French Revolution, was actually restored by a small community of Olivetan Benedictine monks in 1948, and therefore is an active monastery once again. The tower above is the only surviving medieval portion of the Abbey.
We can thank "Mrs. Becket" for pushing the young Thomas through an education. French was his native tongue, but he was exposed to English early on from the family's servants; more than can be said for the Norman, so-called English kings such as Henry II, who neither spoke nor even cared to learn the language of his subjects. Thomas began formal schooling at an Augustinian priory in Surrey at the age of 10, then returned to London to advance his Latin, composition, and rhetoric at one of the city's grammar schools. Most of these boys would be destined for careers in the Church hierarchy. Thomas doesn't seem to have had any clerical ambitions for himself at this point. He coasted through his studies, neither earning his teachers' ire, nor their praise.

His first taste of the high life came when, as an adolescent, a noble by the name of Richer de l'Aigle, began lodging at the Becket house during business trips to London. It was this Richer that took Thomas out on adventures during school holidays, partaking especially of the pleasures of the hunt. Thomas would become known for his love falconry in particular, easily the most expensive sport of the age. To be seen with a hooded falcon on one's arm was as conspicuous a form of consumption as our Lamborghinis today, and Thomas would someday keep a whole aviary of them. His mother disapproved Thomas's new worldly habits, so before he and Richer grew too close, not to mention that the civil war was escalating and making the country increasingly more dangerous to live in, Thomas was sent away to school in Paris... a safer city, to be sure, but at no time from then to now was Paris every the place to go to find one's virtue.

It seems that Thomas was a bit of a loner during his time in Paris, so we know little of his "college days"; his friends, teachers, whether he enjoyed the usual kegger, and so on. The city housed as motley collection of schools that would eventually form the University of Paris. One of Thomas's most likely tutors was Robert of Melun, a fellow Englishman who numbered among the first to challenge the theory of divine right and defend "active resistance to a tyrant by the ministers of the church". Perhaps his lectures on resistance to kings emboldened Thomas and laid the foundation for his future actions?

Two years into his liberal arts studies and now grown over six feet, Thomas received word that his mother had died. He rushed back to London, never to return. He took what Guy identifies as a "gap year", and according to John of Salisbury, "'indulged in the rakish pleasures of youth and was unduly eager to be noticed'". But his father's fortunes were failing, and eventually, Thomas had to find a job. He had a brief stint as a clerk for one of his relatives, a banker named Osbert Huitdeniers (Eightpence), but the work soon proved to be beneath his talents. It so happened that two brothers who frequently lodged with the Beckets when they were in town, Archdeacon Baldwin and Master Eustace, took note of Thomas's underemployment and referred him to their friend, a certain Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury and primate of all England. The archbishop gave a cursory interview, and to Thomas's surprise, offered him a job as one of Theobald's nine or ten clerks on the spot. It was quite an accomplishment for a college dropout, as the leaders of the English church typically only hired the best and brightest; thus proving once again the value of having friends in high places. The appointment launched Thomas into the world of ecclesiastical and royal politics. Such would be true even in times of peace, but when Thomas entered the archbishop's service in 1145, Theobald's ongoing battles with King Stephen over royal incursions against church property, as well as his role as mediator between king and Pope Eugenius, propelled the primacy to a level of influence never before seen in England.



In part II, I'll write about Thomas's role under Archbishop Theobald and his path to the chancellorship. (Update: part II is up, now here.)