The Canterbury Cathedral


Three swords, the length of them jagged like lines of lightning. They are the shrine to Thomas Becket. A light that comes in at a slant from an adjacent wall completes the meaning of that work of art. Becket was born without heraldry, it seems, and for most of his adult life he was no more than an able administrator who backed up a weak king. And what he did when Henry II named him Archbishop of Canterbury was to set himself to the task with such devotion as he'd always shown the king. But Henry had made the mistake of turning Becket over to God, and he'd lost him thus.

So the king's men took Becket's life as a matter of their duty, and after some clergy swore they's witnessed the mandatory miracles, Becket was declared St. Thomas. A Saxon saint, in Norman times. It is a poignant story, but it is consistent with its time and so it doesn't move me as does the fine Cathedral of Canterbury as it exists today.

The reigning archbishop, Justin Welby, has been a top man in big business before he entered the clergy. So he should be as able as Becket, or perhaps he is even better. I heard him over Classic FM radio Easter morning and I liked him very much. It was a sunny day, and cold outside. "The spirit of Christ has risen," he assured, and asked listeners to come to the Cathedral, "where you'll find you're very welcome." It was warm, the timbre of his voice, it was the voice of a knowing man.

Last week, I went to the Cathedral along with my wife. We had travelled to Canterbury (she from Paris, I from Bangalore) to pack my stuff and wind up my stay there. We went to the Cathedral two days. The first day we strolled round and round the building in the evening, having entered it from the small rear entrance which opens into a neat, rectangular garden with a war memorial in its centre. The next day we spent a few hours inside the building.

I enjoy the silence in Christian temples. There is a certain quiet also during sermons, and when the choir performs the silence is a magnificent, majestic foil. I told my wife I wish our Hindu temples were like that. I don't know what she thought, she didn't answer me. (We have both been to the pravachanas of Brahmananda Swamiji, whose devotees we are, and who also commands complete silence when he teaches the Gita.) Now as I write I think of the bells and the chants and the fragrance from flowers and incense in our temples—and prostrations and circumambulations. Also bhajans, and the beating of drums at closing time in the Hanuman temples. They're all very, very nice, but I like the quiet in the church.

We sat on a bench back of the Cathedral, watching the metal statue of the "Son of Man," who seems frail in sum but if you see him up close he is robust in his parts. A bunch of turkeys walked about on the lawns and the tourists took pictures of them, white tourists, who must have had turkey at least every Christmas. But these turkeys were neat and well turned out, small heads ever pecking the ground to feed their fat bodies, and there at the back of the Cathedral they must've held a special meaning for the tourists.

I watched Becket—the movie—this week here at home in Bangalore: Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O'Toole as Henry. Even in the film it was the Cathedral that touched me. As it always did when I watched the sun on it during daytime, and the yellow light of lamps on it at night, when I walked days and nights on St. Thomas Hill, on which is sprawled the University of Kent.