• Daniel Kephart

Honor: The Weight of Living

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

If you haven't seen Richard Burton's starring role in the film Becket, you've missed out on a great opportunity. Go and watch it as soon as you've finished reading.

In the film, Burton portrays Thomas Becket, the Saxon adviser to Henry II. As a servant of the king, Thomas was known for his intense devotion, enforcing the traditional tax code more rigidly than his predecessors. His attention to detail profited his ruler greatly. Eventually, this led Henry to appoint Thomas to the post of Archbishop of Canterbury in an attempt to curb the power of the church.

This backfired.

In his new position, Thomas felt that his allegiance had changed. He was no longer a king's man above all. Now he was a priest, and his primary allegiance belonged with God.

Historians debate whether or not Becket's conversion was truly so selfless. What is attested to by all sources, however, is that Becket--after years of strife with his former friend--would finally be murdered in Canterbury cathedral. While Thomas conducted the evening prayer service of Vespers, four knights assaulted him. The monks of the cathedral tried to bar the doors, yet Thomas prevented them from turning what he deemed a house of prayer into a fortress. He died for his commitment to the belief that the house of the God he served was a place open to all.

The Burton adaptation takes no small measure of liberty with the story of Becket; yet it adheres closely to this ideal of a higher honor. When interrogated by Henry, Becket attests that he never believed in honor till he found one worth defending: "The honor of God."

As he lays dying on the floor of the cathedral, Becket's final words in the film are these: "Oh Lord, how heavy thy honor is to bear."

There is no shortage in life of difficulty. Hence, the West has become a culture of distraction. There is a sense that we must keep our minds from straying too close to the problems facing us in daily life. We are quick to discuss politics at the national level, yet loath to do our dishes.

Traditionally, most world cultures were centered around the concept of an honor code. During the Enlightenment, this ethic was discarded--and with good reason: Honor cultures are violent, vindictive, and often bigoted. These honor cultures were replaced with a system of dignity--rights-based ethics. All in all, this has proven an excellent trade. Yet it is difficult to dispute that the shift has undermined much of the sense of community we feel about us.

We don't do the dishes because there is a temptation to think that it might impinge upon our happiness. Perhaps, we think, it might be better for our spouse to step up to the plate and face this inconvenience. We do this because it is our right to pursue happiness--and that is true.

Yet we forget that it is not honorable to do this, and honor demands its due. This, perhaps, is why Robert Jordan wrote that "Death is lighter than a feather, duty heavier than a mountain."

What gives us a sense of meaning in life is rarely our happiness. More often, it is our obligations. Only when we are in service to a higher purpose is there a structure to our universe. This is a terrible thing, for it means that we must suffer for something outside ourselves. Yet it also a glorious thing, for it means that our suffering is not in vain.

Whoever you are, wherever you are--your life is meaningful. You do not suffer in vain.

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