Martyrs on the Road to Jerusalem

I assassinated an archbishop today. As it happens, I assassinated this same archbishop, Thomas a Becket, five years ago, too. And it got me thinking.

Oh – this might be a good time to explain that this was a play. I didn’t actually travel back in time to 1170. But some things are timeless. I had the opportunity to reprise a role that I played five years ago. I was the fourth tempter/fourth knight in “Rejoice and Mourn: The Death of Martyrs” an adaptation of “Murder in the Cathedral” that incorporates words of and about Archbishop Oscar Romero throughout the play in key spots. It’s very effective, and today is the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Oscar Romero. So it’s a fitting tribute.

As it happens, both Archbishops were assassinated at the altar. Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights who thought they were doing King Henry II’s bidding. Romero was murdered at the altar in the chapel of a hospital as he was celebrating the eucharist.

Both men were appointed to their positions because the establishment thought that they would be staunch and conservative supporters of the status-quo. Both men became radical churchmen. Romero became a liberation theologian. Both took their oath seriously and walked boldly into Jerusalem. Both paid with their lives.

So why am I writing about this today? Well, it’s been an interesting journey for me, too. I first read “Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot when I was a senior in high school. At that time, I was totally taken in by the arguments of the fourth knight (as it happens, the character I played both times I’ve been in this production). At the end of the play, the four knights speak directly to the audience and explain why they did what they did. The fourth knight tells the audience that Becket had done this to himself – that he had determined upon a death by martyrdom, that he could have easily saved himself had he wished, and that this was, in the end, a suicide.

I was 17 or 18 years old. I couldn’t conceive of Becket sacrificing himself for something larger. Not unless there were people standing right there whom he was protecting from imminent danger. I just couldn’t see it. So he came across as arrogant and foolish to me. And, frankly, I didn’t care for Eliot all that much then, either.

But then, five years ago, I had the opportunity to play the fourth tempter/fourth knight for the first time. I could see what my character was trying to do to Becket – to throw Becket’s own words back at him – to tempt him with his own desires. This character truly torments Becket. Much then, rests on Becket’s response. In the production five years ago, Becket was terrified at the end. That didn’t stop him from going forward to his death. But he was shaking in his boots.

In the current production, with a different director and a different actor, Becket went in a different direction. This Becket was emboldened after his first encounter with the knights. He showed no fear and instead seemed to be daring us to kill him.

None of us were present in 1170 to see what the actual Becket was like. I have my suspicions, but I can’t say for sure. What I found interesting was that in the current production, Becket’s boldness engendered much less sympathy. Some people said that they thought the fourth knight was right (as I believed in high school) – that Becket was arrogant and had determined upon a death by martyrdom.

Becket himself is tortured by this thought in the play. He says as much when he says, “the last temptation is the greatest treason/ to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”  Of course, being arrogant, if Becket was (and I have no idea, really) isn’t a reason to assassinate someone. Regardless of his reasons, he was standing up for what he believed in. He still walked boldly into Jerusalem, and he still paid the ultimate price.

Becket was killed just after Christmas.  Romero was killed during Lent – shortly before Palm Sunday. This coming Sunday it will be Palm Sunday again. We will recall Jesus’ bold entry into Jerusalem. The walk is not easy.

History judges us again and again. There are many ways to look critically at what we do, and how and why we do it. It’s very easy to analyze and second-guess. That makes it tempting to make it all about the personality of the individual – to judge the qualities and imperfections of someone and to ignore the deed itself. The fourth tempter says as much to Becket – “and later is worse – when men will not hate you enough to defame or to execrate you/but, pondering the qualities that you lack/will only try to find the historical fact. When men shall declare that there was no mystery/about this man who played a certain part in history.”

In the end, Becket and Romero were only human. They were men. And that’s why they are saints. They were men, with all the flaws of men. We know that Romero was afraid because he admitted as much. Was Becket? Quite likely. Today, actors portray him how they will – it’s a matter of interpretation. But arrogant or not, he knew he was facing death. And so many others have taken that walk.

Walking into Jerusalem is bold and scary. Jesus was also scared. Yet he continued on. Let us remember that these men were human. We are all human. Being brave means doing the right thing — standing up for what is right — in spite of our fear.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.


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