29 December 2010

29 December - St. Thomas of Canterbury; 5th Day of Christmas; Shepherd's Pie

Weather: the weather today foretells the weather of May.
Brilliant sunshine this morning; overcast and chilly in the afternoon.
"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?!"

Today is the optional memorial of Saint Thomas a Becket of Canterbury, the most popular of the English saints (until he was stricken from the prayer book and his shrine despoiled by Henry VIII).

His story is well known: a boon companion and Lord Chancellor of Henry II who loaded him with honors, including the Archbishopric of Canterbury, the premier position in the prelature of England.  And then...  Almost overnight, the entertaining friend became a serious and ascetic priest, standing up for the rights of the Church against his king.

A subsequent author saw in him an early champion of English liberty:
"We need no longer look at the great prelate through the spectacles of his posthumous Protestant opponents.  With all its faults, the Church of Becket's day was the only possible helper of the people.  The Bishop of Rome was just then a less dangerous shepherd than Henry, the Angevin king.  Becket may not have become consciously a champion of the people when he turned an opponent of the king, nevertheless he proved a mighty agent in winning that long battle for English liberty..." Walsh, William S., Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities, p. 926.

Heads of state don't like to be reminded where they stand in the true hierarchy, and Henry was no different (any more than his namesake six Henrys later).  Supposedly, in a fit of pique, he wondered out loud why the Archbishop was still allowed to thwart him - "are there none who will relieve me of this upstart priest?"; four knights took that to mean that their king wanted Becket dead.  They obliged.

You can read a detailed account of Becket's murder here. 

To continue with Walsh:
"The news filled all Christendom with horror.  King Henry, in sackcloth and ashes, bewailed the crime which he had unwittingly instigated.  "He shut himself up three days in his closet," says good Bishop Butler, "taking almost no nourishment and admitting no comfort, and for forty days never went abroad, never had his table or any diversions as usual, having always before his eyes the death of the holy prelate.  He not only wept, but howled and cried out in the excess of his grief."  He assured the Pope of his absolute innocence in intention.  He voluntarily made all the concessions which St. Thomas had demanded.  The martyr was canonized two years after his death by Alexander III, and there was an immediate outbreak of miracles at his shrine, which long continued to be the most popular pilgrimage place in England, while his cult spread rapidly throughout every country in Europe."

"Among the first of these pilgrims came Henry II. to do a second penance in expiation of his unwitting crime and sacrilege.  After having lived upon bread and water for some days, and after walking barefooted to the cathedral, he knelt in the transept, where the martyrdom had occurred, and then in the crypt, where Becket's tomb then was.  Upon this he bowed his head, and, his lower garments having been removed, the King of England, a Plantagenet, received five strokes from the rod of each bishop and abbot who was present, and three from each of the eighty monks!  After this he stood the whole night barefooted upon the ground, resting only against one of the rude stone pillars of the crypt."
Saint Thomas was a Shepherd of the Church, one who defended his flock with his life.  So today is a good day to make SHEPHERD'S PIE

I like to make mine with ground beef - there is usually some on hand - but purists will tell you that it is made with ground or cut-up lamb ("well, it's a SHEPHERD'S pie, d'uh!").  So it is, but I have never understood the economics of eating one's profits.  Makes better sense to dine off someone else's animal.  Of course, paying for that animal when you already have a meat-pie-on-the-hoof in your own flock is probably not good economic sense either.  Well, you make the choice.  Here is a recipe with ground beef.

Boil 3 - 4 large potatoes (or however many are needed to make 3 cups of mashed potatoes.) Mash and season as desired (I always mash them with milk and butter and stir in a teaspoon or two of Seasoning Salt).

Chop 1 onion to make 3/4 of a cup.  If you have fresh carrots, thinly slice enough for 1 cup.  Thaw a 10 ounce package of frozen peas (or a box of mixed vegetables).

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a large skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter; add the onion and saute for about 5 minutes. Crumble 1-1/2 pounds of ground beef into the skillet, and saute for 5 minutes more.  Stir in 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 cup of water, and if you have the carrots, add them now. (If you haven't thawed the frozen veg, just add them now as well.)

Bring the mixture to a boil; reduce heat.  Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

Blend 1 tablespoon of flour with 1-1/2 tablespoons of Worcestershire; stir this into meat mixture.  Add the thawed peas (if you haven't already), cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

Pour mixture into a 2-quart casserole.  Cover with the mashed potatoes, making lengthwise and crosswise markings on top with a fork.  Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes.