Henry’s Birthday

This blog post is all about me. I’m just warning you. In case you were wanting to read something about current events or some esoteric point of spirituality that applies to all of us, you’re out of luck. This is an introverted, introspective post. So…. fair warning.
But I have two things that might possibly justify my post about myself and my personality on my blog. Well, maybe three things. First off, probably everyone reading this knows me personally. Secondly, when I wrote this, it was my birthday, so I feel ok making this about me. And thirdly, I’m not really going to talk about myself entirely. I’m also going to talk about another man: St. Henry II.
St. Henry, before he was sainted, was simply King Henry. But that was not what was originally intended for him. In fact, he grew up being trained in a monastery to be a priest, as his father had wanted for him. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, he ended up in the very secular vocation of “King of the Holy Roman Empire.”
As it turns out, this was a good thing. King Henry (along with his queen) were known for their piety. And, while he sometimes meddled in church affairs he really shouldn’t have, on the whole the church flourished under him. He even started a few monasteries.
Legend has it that he and his wife chose to stay virgin their whole marriage which, to our modern ears, sounds very strange, but back then was a sign of real dedication and devotion to God.
Legend also has it that later in life he tried to somewhat finish what he started as a youth. He wanted to join the monastery. But the story goes that when he came to the superior and told him of his plans, the superior turned him away, telling him that he could do more good in the world than within the confines of a monastery.

(the dude, King Henry II)

It’s customary, though not required, for someone who joins the Catholic Church to choose a Christian name to be christened with. It’s normally a saint one has an affinity for or someone one wishes to show some special honor to or ask to intercede more often than others. I wanted to pick a name, and I thought of St. Patrick. I had read a book on his missionary work and really respected him. But as I prayed more about it, I felt like God brought me back to St. Henry.
On the most superficial level, his feast day falls on either July 13th or 15th, depending on where you happen to be worshiping. This is practically on my birthday. But the more I looked at his life, the more it became clear to me just how similar we were.
One of these areas is in regards to Natural Family Planning. Practicing NFP to make sure we don’t have babies instead of using birth control has been incredibly difficult. A friend of mine called it the hardest kind of fasting. In my experience, that’s about accurate. I remember moaning and groaning about how difficult it was to abstain, and then read about King Henry and his wife. Again, it’s legend, but it’s indicative of the kind of spirituality people have experienced throughout the centuries. Paul says couples should not withhold sex from each other except for this reason: prayer. Interesting, no? Basically, he is telling couples that just as Christians fast from the legitimate good of food for spiritual growth and prayer, it’s conceivable to fast from sex as well – another legitimate good – for the same reason.
But my affection for Henry goes deeper than that. Growing up, it was always an implicit message in my life that to be a truly good Christian, you had to be a missionary or pastor or some other full-time ministry worker. My dad was an avid evangelizer and would sometimes ask me why I didn’t feel comfortable handing tracts to everyone I met or telling more of my neighbors about Jesus. I suppose it just wasn’t me. I mean, I’ll blog about it. I’ll talk about Jesus because Christianity is such a huge part of my life. But his method always felt awkward.
But the guilt-trip wore off on me. I always found myself feeling like a truly fulfilled, abundant, super Christian life had to be lived on a mission field in a far-away place like China or something – and in poverty. Poverty had to be part of it, too. Even just a few years ago, when I was considering marrying my wife, I had to really think about the door that might be closing if we were wed. No Apostle Paul-like adventures for me anymore.
But with my every attempt at moving in the direction of ministry throughout my life, I felt the door closing. Maybe some other family responsibility would come up, or some other life goal needed to be fulfilled. But more often than not, it was really just the Holy Spirit reminding me that, despite my assumptions, that was not His plan for me.
When I read about St. Henry’s life, I see a man who waded into the world with Christian conviction. He wasn’t perfect by a long shot. He was ruling an empire at a time when church and state were unhealthily wedded. Any person looking now at the wars he waged and political moves he pulled might wonder why he was canonized. He was a man in the world… and even somewhat of the world.
But that’s what living in the world normally means, and that’s why I have such affection for him and that’s why I took his name. “Your place is in the world,” I hear almost in a whisper, over and over again throughout my life. King Henry reminds me that saints can be forged even in that place where the divine meets the mundane, the epic meets the parochial, where Heaven meets Hell – or at least Purgatory. You could say that the heavenly clouded sky extends as far up as the border of space, where the stars live. But you could also say it extends as far down as the dirt we walk on, the sweat we drip, and the sighs we let out. That’s where you could have found King Henry. And that’s where you’ll find me.

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