An angel whose face I couldn’t see
5th Day of Christmas Catch-Up Blog
Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland that ‘there is no there there’. The opposite applies to Canterbury – there is so much there here it can be heady at times.
One of the reasons for all this there-ness is the events of the 29th December 1170 when the Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in the North West Transept of the Norman cathedral. The cult of Thomas made Canterbury a centre of pilgrimage attracting hundreds of thousands each year until Henry VIII put a stop to it, dismantled the shrine and convicted Thomas of treason almost four hundred years after his death.
Something about the Thomas story – or rather stories – reminds me of the way news is packaged and distributed – whether top-down by big media corporations – or bottom-up via social media. Perhaps he really was a saintly individual or perhaps the murder was bigged up by Rome seeing it as a golden opportunity to tighten the church’s hold on an increasingly independent England and rein in the not particularly pious Henry II. There are probably all kinds of other forces at play to account for his extraordinary popularity.
At the Wednesday Mass in the chapel of Our Lady Undercroft, we were reminded that this is where his body was hidden and the monks removing his clothing found Thomas was wearing a hair shirt. What do we make of that? Is it an indication of his holiness or a need to do penance for something dreadful? How would this fact translate into newspaper headlines or FB posts?
In May this year, I saw a bit of St Thomas’s elbow which had been brought back to Canterbury by the Lady Mayor of Esztergom after a pilgrimage across Southern England. A real relic. A bit of his body which perhaps in some not too distant future could perhaps be used to clone a new Thomas. You can see it in the monstrance she is holding.
The day was spectacular with hundreds of people filling the nave. Later this Wednesday, there would be a procession at Evensong incorporating part of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral with actors in a rather odd mixture of liturgy and drama, attended by increasingly large crowds of people. Just as candle-lighting in cathedrals has increased hugely in past decades and pilgrimage similarly, there seems to be a yearning for pre-Reformation practices.
There’s a human need for mystery, wonder and connection that cathedrals serve. Like a body containing a soul, a cathedral and its rituals contain a multiplicity of readings of the eternal.
Here’s my favourite ‘cathedral’ poem – ‘Romanesque Arches‘ – and there are surprisingly few others. This is in translation by Robert Bly. I love the way Tomas Transtromer describes the way we can open up inside – for example in meditation – in the way a medieval cathedral does. His poem catches the rrdinary and every day, like the child falling over and crying during the mass, mysterious as the Eucharist in the twelfth century western crypt – the oldest part of Canterbury Cathedral – with its repeating Romanesque arches and Our Lady at its centre.