At the core of Murder in the Cathedral is a contrast between a higher power beyond human comprehension and the earthly realm of everyday human affairs. This realm of human thought is fraught with opposites—with oppositional thinking that pits good against evil, holy against unholy, high against low—while the divine realm of spiritual thinking is concerned with a oneness and wholeness that transcends the partial nature of human categories. Eternity—the everlasting, indivisible dimension of spiritual unity—therefore, is put into a complex, unfolding relationship with human understanding in the play.
Becket explores this dynamic relationship in a few ways. He describes the relationship between acting and suffering as one that humans understand as oppositional, but which, from a higher perspective, is an interdependent whole. Early in the play he compares the relationship to a wheel that can turn and be still at the same time, with the moving aspect of the wheel representing human conception of the wheel and the unmoving aspect representing the eternal view. Yet, though Becket retains this theological view about the division between eternity and human understanding throughout the play, he nonetheless seems to believe that, by submitting completely to fate through his martyrdom, he can in some sense bypass the partial nature of human understanding and be an instrument of God’s will in the world.
Further, Becket, in the sermon he delivers in the interlude of the play, encourages his audience to understand the quality of saintliness from a divine, and not a human, perspective. He wants the congregation to understand that Jesus’s disciples by no means became saints through any peace they achieved or experienced on earth. Becket says that the peace which Jesus left to his disciples did not “mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the king,” for his disciples never encountered this kind of worldly, political peace. Instead, they suffered arduous journeys, torture, imprisonment—very little, if any, earthly comfort or peace. He asks his congregation to consider that the peace which Jesus promised had nothing to do with the everyday realm of human satisfaction, but referred rather to peace from a divine, eternal perspective.
The Chorus also demonstrates an appreciation of the radical division between human understanding and eternity. In the beginning of the play, when the Chorus begs Becket to leave and return to France, they say they are facing a fear which they cannot understand, and which is ultimately unknowable; they say that this fear has torn their hearts away, and unskinned their brains as if they were onions—the symptoms of a “final fear which none understands.” The play as a whole, therefore, displays an appreciation of some fundamental split between human knowledge and the realm of something higher than the Chorus—a higher realm whose intervention in their lives threatens to split them from and destroy their sense of self.
The Chorus’s sense of a difference between human understanding and the higher, more eternal powers of fate persists throughout the play. However, the chorus does undergo a changing relationship with the eternal dimension: whereas they begin the play merely speculating about it—warning that it, “the doom on the world,” will be unleashed upon them if Becket stays—they end the play no longer possessing the comfort of a speculative distance from their fear. The fear has come to fruition – Becket has been killed – and they must truly face it.
Thus, just as Becket appreciates a division between human understanding and eternity, so does the Chorus. The way they deal with that division, however, differs. While Becket is “secure and assured of [his] fate, unaffrayed from the shades”—while he deals with the split between eternity and human understanding through spiritual self-sacrifice to fate—the Chorus is unwilling or unable to adopt a more spiritually nuanced, selfless understanding of the eternal.
Eternity and Human Understanding ThemeTracker
Eternity and Human Understanding Quotes in Murder in the Cathedral
We do not wish anything to happen.
Seven years we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.
There have been oppression and luxury,
There have been poverty and licence,
There has been minor injustice.
Yet we have gone on living,
Living and partly living. . .
But now a great fear is upon us . . .
. . .We
Are afraid in a fear which we cannot know, which we cannot face, which none understands,
And our hearts are torn from us, our brains unskinned like the layers of an onion, our selves are lost
In a final fear which none understands. O Thomas Archbishop,
O Thomas our Lord, leave us and leave us be, in our humble and tarnished frame of existence . . .
They know and do not know,
what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that acting is suffering
And suffering is action. Neither does the agent suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.
We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The same things happen again and again.
Men learn little from others’ experience.
But in the life of one man, never
The same time returns. Sever
The cord, shed the scale. Only
The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.
Temporal power, to build a good world
To keep order, as the world knows order.
Those who put their faith in worldly order
Not controlled by the order of God,
In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder,
Make it fast, breed fatal disease,
Degrade what they exalt. Power with the King—
I was the King, his arm, his better reason.
But what was once exaltation
Would now be only mean descent.
Is there no way, in my soul’s sickness,
Does not lead to damnation in pride?
I well know that these temptations
Mean present vanity and future torment.
Can sinful pride be driven out
Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason . . .
What yet remains to show you of my history
Will seem to most of you at best futility,
Senseless self-slaughter of a lunatic,
Arrogant passion of a fanatic.
[On Christmas] we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overborne by mourning, or mourning will be chased out by joy; so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason.
Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples ‘My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.’ Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the house-holder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. If you ask that, remember then that He said also, ‘Not as the world gives, give I unto you.’ So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.
A Christian martyrdom is never an accident. Saints are not made by accident . . . A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God.
It is not I who insult the King. . .
It is not against me, Becket, that you strive.
It is not Becket who pronounces doom,
But the Law of Christ’s Church, the judgement of Rome.
I have smelt them, the death-bringers; now is too late
For action, too soon for contrition.
Nothing is possible but the shamed swoon
Of those consenting to the last humiliation.
I have consented, Lord Archbishop, have consented.
Am torn away, subdued, violated,
United to the spiritual flesh of nature,
Mastered by the animal powers of spirit,
Dominated by the lust of self-demolition,
By the final utter uttermost death of spirit,
By the final ecstasy of waste and shame,
O Lord Archbishop, O Thomas Archbishop, forgive us, forgive us, pray for us that we may pray for you, out of our shame.
You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
It is the just man who
Like a bold lion, should be without fear.
I am here.
No traitor to the King. I am a priest,
A Christian, saved by the blood of Christ,
Ready to suffer with my blood.
This is the sign of the Church always,
The sign of blood. Blood for blood.
His blood given to buy my life,
My blood given to pay for His death,
My death for his life.
We did not wish anything to happen.
We understood the private catastrophe,
The personal loss, the general misery,
Living and partly living;
The terror by night that ends in daily action,
The terror by day that ends in sleep;
But the talk in the market-place, the hand on the broom,
The nighttime heaping of the ashes,
The fuel laid on the fire at daybreak,
These acts marked a limit to our suffering.
Every horror had its definition,
Every sorrow had a kind of end:
In life there is not time to grieve long.
But this, this is out of life, this is out of time,
An instant eternity of evil and wrong.