Barton being about as far away from Canterbury as it is possible to be in England’s southern province, it’s slightly odd that we have a mediaeval altar-dedication to Thomas Becket. But the presence of an artesian spring by the churchyard may hint at a connection: the healing associations of such pools is well-documented, and the mediaeval pilgrim-saying ‘Optimus aegrorum medicus fit Thoma bonorum’, ‘Thomas is the best physician for the pious sick’ suggests we might have a franchise of the saint’s healing cult, with convenient miraculous pool nearby.
Bede tells of Oswald’s relics ability to work miracles, so this link between saints, particularly martyr-saints, and healing is hardly newsworthy. But it does invite reflection on the relationship between death and wholeness.
They present as polar opposites: though in their different ways both hospice and euthanasia movements try to make death a better experience, both are counsels of last resort, of how we manage the transition from life into not-life. Neither challenges the polarisation of the two. That life might somehow spring out of death isn’t considered.
It is a commonplace of Christian belief that suffering unites us with the crucified Lord — ‘in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions,’ Paul writes. I suggest that the long association of martyr-shrines with healing take us one step further, that these who are united in Christ’s suffering are also somehow channels of the first-fruits of the Resurrection, signs of the wholeness that is to come. This bids us hold up a prism to the mystery of death which transforms our vision of future, present and past.
My father died a week ago, and my response to the inevitable, ‘I suppose you’re going to cancel Christmas this year?’ was found in this proliferation of martyr-days between Christmas and New Year, in turn underscoring ancient carols which see in the Nativity the seeds of the Crucifixion, inviting us to consider the truth that in the Incarnation death and life become co-workers in the story of redemption.
We may see Thomas as political victim, as meddler in State affairs, as prophetic figure, whatever. Saints have their fads and their fashions. But the cult of Thomas as Physician surely points us to this great paradox of the Christian faith, that in the midst of death, we are in life, and that death is not merely a gateway into life, but a gateway back through which life comes — and transforms.