Reflections from Canterbury Cathedral’s East Chapel
by David Douglas
The day is overcast. Rain has just passed over Canterbury. I have come from London by an easy, non-penitential train journey of 90 minutes; pilgrims in Chaucer’s era would have taken weeks to walk the distance.
I follow the bend of the city wall, past gardens of red-flowering horse chestnut trees, until the cathedral’s bell tower comes into view. For a moment I experience what I felt so briefly on the train: a kindred sense of identity, albeit undeserved, with footsore pilgrims as they approached Canterbury’s spires.
Towering as well over the city’s landscape is an act of faith made more than 800 years ago: the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. He was murdered in the cathedral shortly before vespers on December 29, 1170. Becket, once the king’s chancellor and then as archbishop of Canterbury the king’s arch-adversary, had his skull severed by swordblows. Four Norman knights had interpreted King Henry II’s outburst—“Who will rid me of this turbulent priest!”—as a royal command, and had hurried to Canterbury to demand that Becket recant the positions that put him at odds with the king. When the archbishop refused, they brutally killed him.
In the wake of Becket’s death and ensuing miracles attributed to his intercession, Canterbury soon rivaled Rome and Santiago de Compostela as Europe’s most famous pilgrimage destination. Over the years pilgrims traveled to Becket’s shrine for a host of reasons, often in penance or thanksgiving, at times in search of healing. But the cathedral now beckons for a lesser-known reason. Not far from the murder site, visitors enter into a story of contemporary Christian martyrdom.
Ready to Die
I arrive at the great West Door in time for services, and an usher leads me into a well-lit Quire, the narrow, intimate setting between the vast nave and the main altar. A boys’ choir sings “O clap your hands” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, accompanied by trumpet and organ that echo off the carved stone. From the Gospel of Matthew a priest reads of Christ’s promise to the disciples: “Lo, I am with you always.”
Only a few yards from here, with his back to a pillar, Thomas Becket confronted the knights: “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.”
What gave the archbishop such resolve? I glance along the Quire wall to the crucifix. Lest there be any doubt, Becket’s words as he faced death—“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”—link Canterbury’s stones to Calvary’s cross.
The martyrdom site itself, in the north transept near steps leading to the cloisters, seems startlingly unobtrusive. Becket, whose piety prompted him to wear a hairshirt and daily wash the feet of 13 beggars, would no doubt have appreciated the inconspicuous location. It was Becket’s life as well as his death that drew the faithful. After being named archbishop by King Henry II, “he put off the secular man,” observed a contemporary monk, “and put on Jesus Christ.”
As the four knights pursued him, they shouted, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the king and the kingdom?” Thomas had begun to climb steps into the north transept but came down the stairs to meet his attackers. According to eyewitnesses, a sword blade sliced through his head with such force that the metal shattered as it struck the stone floor.
Becket could have saved himself. He might have acceded to the knights’ demands or ordered the cathedral’s doors bolted or fled to the roof. Facing death rather than escaping it runs like a scarlet thread through martyrdom, not least in the twentieth century: Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer returning to Nazi Germany from the safety of America; Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe substituting himself for a condemned prisoner at Auschwitz; Catholic nuns Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, and Maura Clarke and lay missionary Jean Donovan disembarking from their plane to enter the killing fields of El Salvador.
Becket himself had returned to England from safe exile in France only weeks before his murder. Refuge remains an option for many men and women. No one would blame them. Instead, like Canterbury’s archbishop, they descend the stairs to face the swords.
The East Chapel
Not far from the martyrdom site, the easternmost end of Canterbury Cathedral opens into a semi-circular chapel lit with high stained-glass windows. Known as the Corona Chapel (having once housed a portion of Becket’s skull as a relic), the East Chapel now directs visitors’ attention toward the more recently slain. A sign on the wall explains:
Throughout the centuries men and women have given their lives for Christianity. Our own century is no exception. Their deaths are in union with the life-giving death of Our Lord Jesus Christ the Savior of mankind. In this Chapel we thank God for the sacrifice of martyrdom whereby truth is upheld and God’s providence enriched. We pray that we may be worthy of their sacrifice.
To both sides of the East Chapel’s entrance, two lecterns hold identical small three-ring binders. Plastic-sheeted pages inside offer brief biographical sketches of more than a dozen twentieth-century martyrs, among them the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the priest and hermit Charles de Foucauld. Two nuns, Edith Stein and Maria Skobtsova, are included, along with Bonhoeffer and Kolbe, as victims of the Nazi concentration camps. Turning the pages, I come across unfamiliar names of priests killed in Russia, Iran, and Uganda.
Each biographical entry seems meager at best, the occasional photograph faded. Set beneath a vaulted edifice with glorious ornamentation, the slim binder of names is likely the flimsiest object in the cathedral. Yet located so close to where Becket himself was killed, the list seems somehow to illumine all those who recognize a higher authority than Caesar’s. Without fanfare, in stained-glass stillness, the East Chapel transforms the beatitude, “Blessed are those who are persecuted,” into lives of flesh and spilled blood.
The cathedral designated its East Chapel “The Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time,” following the murder of Anglican archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda by Idi Amin’s forces in 1977. “His killing had a great effect on us Anglicans,” recalls former Canterbury canon and Welsh writer A. M. Allchin, who preached the Sunday following the assassination. “I felt a stronger sense of Thomas Becket than I ever had before because Janani Luwum was an archbishop killed by a king. I felt the stones of Canterbury shuddered in sympathy.”
The cathedral chose to limit the names listed in the booklet to fifteen. “From time to time candidates are put forward and we have to say, in effect, that we are not the agency for creating new saints,” explains Canon Peter Brett. “We therefore curtailed the list and made this representative of all who are persecuted for their faith in our own day.” Standing in the East Chapel, some visitors for the first time understand martyrdom not as isolated acts in history but as a pattern in contemporary faith.
What would a complete martyrs’ list look like? A recent one, says David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, would include names from the Sudan, “where the government has herded Christians into camps, denied them aid and food, and let them die by the tens of thousands”; China, where more Christians are in prison because of religious activities than any other nation in the world; and Pakistan, where recent blasphemy laws “have unleashed a reign of private terror against Christians and other religious minorities,” according to human rights observers. The list would spotlight countries that have made it a crime to convert to Christianity or to disseminate religious publications, and tally individual stories of suffering countenanced by governments in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Nigeria, Indonesia, and India.
In her book In the Lion’s Den, Nina Shea, director of Freedom House’s Puebla Program on Religious Freedom, chronicles contemporary men and women “persecuted and martyred before an unknowing, indifferent world, and a largely silent Christian community.” The atrocities they suffer “include torture, enslavement, rape, imprisonment, forcible separation of children from parents, killings, and massacres.”
Few observers expect the persecution to diminish. “Evangelical and Catholic communities in the Third World are acutely vulnerable,” writes human rights advocate Michael Horowitz, who adds that “the mounting persecution of Christians eerily parallels the persecution of Jews, my people, during much of Europe’s history. Today, minority Christian communities have become chosen scapegoats in radical Islamic and remnant Communist regimes, where they are demonized and caricatured through populist campaigns of hate and terror.”
Reached at the Hudson Institute where he is a writer in residence, Horowitz laments the indifference to the level of persecution. “I am in such despair,” he says, his voice strained and passionate, “from trying to get Christians in the West to deal with their fellow believers who are suffering in ways they can’t even begin to contemplate.”
How Many Die?
How many die annually? The most frequently cited figures come from the World Christian Encyclopedia, a massive reference volume edited by David Barrett and Todd Johnson of the World Evangelization Research Center in Richmond, Virginia. Their current annual estimate: 165,000 people.
My first reaction is to question that number. I once spoke by phone with the editors. Both men admitted the difficulty in adding up all the cases from around the world, ferreting out incidents slighted by the media, and the peril in isolating religious persecution from ethnic and political conflict. They explained their approach, the careful analysis of incidents falling within their five-point definition (“believers in Christ who lose their lives prematurely because of their faith, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility”).
“Most Christians today think that persecution ended with Constantine,” said Barrett. “Historically, the rate over the past 2,000 years is that just under one percent of all Christians get murdered for their faith.” Professors Barrett and Johnson estimate that the twentieth century saw more Christians killed for their faith than all the preceding centuries combined. Forty million Christians in 220 countries have been martyred in the past two millennia, they estimate, and of those, 26,625,000 have been killed in this century alone.
“But how do you know your numbers are accurate?” I asked, probing their methodology. I listened to accounts of past incidents from Russia, Iran, and the Sudan. Even so, I thought to myself, aren’t these numbers high?
I hung up the phone, only later conscious that I had just spent more time challenging a reference volume’s soft numbers than I ever had challenging hard instruments of repression.
Secular & Spiritual Lures
A band of tourists, hushed and reverent, walk towards the East Chapel from the direction of the Chapter House where T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral was first performed. Commissioned for the 1935 Canterbury Festival, the play probes Becket’s motives with a cast not only of Priests, Chorus, and Knights, but also of Tempters, who, through the lures of secular power and spiritual pride, would have beguiled the archbishop away from his rendezvous with martyrdom.
Writing during the rise of fascist dictatorships, Eliot “found the basic conflict of the twentieth century came very near to repeating that of the twelfth,” one essayist noted. Who are we in this play performed daily on the world’s stage? For most of us, certainly not Becket with his hairshirt and morals. A servant who reportedly tried to stop the blows? The Tempters perhaps? Surely not the Knights? With a chilling recognition it dawns on me: we are the audience, seated with folded hands, watching as across our field of vision people fall beneath the sword.
In Murder in the Cathedral, Becket confronted Tempters eager to lull him into passivity. Speaking from my own experience, bystanders to contemporary martyrdom face temptations of their own. For example, reading again the East Chapel’s list of names I find my doubts spreading like clouds over their shining stories. Did they in fact die for their Christian faith? Wasn’t Martin Luther King, Jr., murdered from racial rather than religious hatred? Did the Nazis condemn Edith Stein to Auschwitz because she was a nun or because she was born Jewish? And Charles de Foucauld: wasn’t this Catholic monk, whose life inspired the Little Brothers of Jesus, shot by a Tuareg revolutionary who viewed him as a French colonialist?
As I glance about the cathedral, I am tempted for a moment to deny even Becket his martyrdom. Didn’t his quarrel with King Henry II trace back less to religion than politics: to ecclesiastical privileges that threatened royal power? I notice that one of my guidebooks characterizes the archbishop as querulous and legalistic, embracing martyrdom with an unseemly and even self-indulgent enthusiasm, adding in a final swipe, “It is difficult not to sympathize with the king.”
David Barrett, however, provides perspective: “Look more at the motivation of the person giving his life, not taking it,” he suggests. “I’m less worried about what a killer’s motivation is—whether political or ethnic or not—than did the Christian get into the situation because he or she was a Christian?”
An even more subtle temptation masquerades as a laudable aversion to exclusivity. Reading of Christians bombed to death in the Sudan or churches burned in southern India, we stifle our concern by repeating to ourselves that others are persecuted too. It is a vital point, for the list is indeed long and includes in recent years Sunni Muslims, Bahais, Hasidic Jews, Tibetan Buddhists, and Sudanese animists.
But in practice, such immediate extinguishing of any spotlight on Christians has left many fellow believers in the dark, oblivious to suffering by people of any faith. As Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, who served on the US State Department’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, notes, “Western Christians take for granted that religious rights will not be trampled on.”
Moreover, “it is Christian persecution which is most widespread,” insists Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission. “It is persecution against Christians which is the most ignored around the world.”
The Pilgrim’s Sacrifice
In his Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote: “from every shires ende of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende, The holy blisful martyr for to seeke, That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.” Over the centuries visitors to Canterbury have often unburdened themselves of various items before leaving the cathedral. Some relinquished treasure (when Erasmus came, he reported that gold, silver, coins, and jewels covered Becket’s shrine); other pilgrims, miraculously healed, left behind sickness or blindness.
One way for current visitors to honor Becket’s sacrifice is to leave behind their indifference to those who may be suffering for the sake of faith. Confronting his royal assassins, Canterbury’s archbishop once proclaimed: “I accept death for the name of Jesus and his Church.” For contemporary Christians to hear similar words—being uttered in languages around the world—would amount to a miracle in itself, a healing of deafness.
As I leave the cathedral, an elderly priest greets me companionably and asks where I am living for the year in Britain. When he hears Scotland’s St. Andrews, he murmurs, “Beautiful place,” then shakes his head. “If only they’d been able to keep their cathedral.”
I tell him that only the day before I’d been walking in its ruins—the remains of what was once the largest cathedral in Scotland, dismembered by Reformation politics, incendiary mobs, and North Sea gales—and had felt similar regret. He shrugs. “You’ll find much the same feeling here,” he says, gesturing toward Canterbury’s still-standing Gothic stone, “but a little livelier spirit.”
The priest’s regret recalls ancient frictions and sectarian violence. Its legacy cannot be avoided on St. Andrews’ historic streets, given the initials of bonfire victims encobbled in the pavement. Protestant-Catholic strife still clouds Northern Ireland. From the Crusades to Kosovo, we are all too aware of Christians inflicting persecution.
But what Canterbury opens is a small window onto a landscape of Christians suffering persecution. The East Chapel draws pilgrims past Becket’s biography, a single, safe story of the distant past, to glimpse a global story of astonishing proportions.
The Bells Toll
My room for the night is in a fourteenth-century pilgrims’ inn, built adjacent to Christ Church Gate and the cathedral grounds. I have dinner at the inn, bent over brochures and books about Canterbury, and then return to my room for an early night. Through mullioned windows, the low-ceilinged room looks out on the cathedral itself, its soaring limestone brilliantly illuminated by spotlights.
It is a Thursday, the one night of the week when bellringers practice. I can see, high in the lighted Oxford Tower, a company of men pulling steadily on ropes, filling the evening with sound. John Donne, dean of another English cathedral, once wrote of bells and what he called the church universal: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Sitting at a desk, I open the inn’s window, letting fragrant spring air flood into the room. For a moment, the pealing of the bells becomes like a tally of lives given in faith, a tolling of arrests, tortures, and executions.
The comfortable inn creaks as guests return along its sloping floors to their rooms for the evening. It has been a long day, and I add an extra pillow to my bed.
Writing of the Body of Christ, St. Paul told the Corinthians, “When one member suffers, all the members suffer.”
I pull back the sheets and turn out the light. A reflected glow from the cathedral illumines my room. As the ringing of bells dies away over Canterbury, I stretch out in the soft bed and fall asleep.
David Douglas is a former practitioner of environmental law in New Mexico and now heads up Waterlines, a nonprofit organization that provides clean drinking water to villages in developing countries. He has written on issues of faith and place for both British and American publications, including Review for Religious, Christianity Today, Catholic Digest, Presbyterians Today, and The Way, among others. Douglas is married, with two teenage daughters, and lives in Santa Fe.
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