Saint Henry, whom we keep today, on July 13th, is the first of a series of holy kings who begin to make their appearance in the calendar of the Time after Pentecost, precisely when, at Matins, we begin reading the story of Solomon, Israel’s wise and glorious King, the builder of the Temple.
On August 25th we shall celebrate King Saint Louis of France; on September 28th, the Martyr King Saint Wenceslaus; on October 13th, King Saint Edward; and on October 21st, Blessed Karl of Austria. (King Saint Canute of Denmark, following the Three Kings, comes after the Epiphany on January 13th.) What do all these kings in the Kingdom of Heaven have in common? With the exception of Saint Wenceslaus and Saint Canute who, as martyrs, are honoured with the Mass In Virtute, from the Common of Martyrs, they all have the Mass Os Iusti, from the Common of Confessors.
An Authentic Spiritual Portrait
The first place to look for an authentic spiritual portrait of any saint is in the liturgical texts appointed for his feastday. From the Mass Os Iusti, we learn that Saint Henry meditated the revelation of Divine Wisdom, he spoke rightly, and held the Word of God ever in his heart (Introit, Psalm 36:30–31). He was not obsessed with the accumulation of wealth; he used his goods to distribute alms to the poor (Epistle, Ecclesiasticus 31:8–11); he flourished like the palm tree with its thousands of luxuriant blossoms (Gradual, Psalm 91:13–14). (A single palm tree bears multiple clusters of flowers; each cluster contains as many as 10,000 flowers.) He stood fast in the face of temptation (Alleluia, James 1:12) and relied on the truth and mercy of God when confronted with the lies and hardheartedness of men (Offertory, Psalm 88:25). Finally, when the Lord came for his good earthly king, he found him keeping watch; in the kingdom of heaven, he has placed him over all his goods (Communion, Matthew 14:46–47).
One of the things related about Saint Henry is that, on arriving in any town, he would spend his entire first night there in a vigil of prayer in a church dedicated to the Holy Mother of God. When he arrived in Rome in 1014, he spent the night in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, Rome’s Bethlehem. While keeping vigil, he saw the “Sovereign and Eternal Priest-Child Jesus” enter to celebrate the Holy Mysteries. Saints Lawrence and Vincent assisted Our Lord as deacons. A throng of saints filled the basilica; Angels chanted in choir. It is noteworthy that in Henry’s vision Christ the Priest is a Child. One wonders if he was not keeping vigil before the altar of the Crib of the Infant Jesus in Saint Mary Major, a place of grace for countess souls through the ages.
Touched by the Book of the Gospels
Henry’s vision is very much like those of Saint Gertrude the Great: a pulling back of the veil, a glimpse of “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (1 Corinthians 2:9). After the Gospel, an Angel bearing the book of the Gospels was sent to Henry by the Mother of God. Normally, one kisses the book of the Gospels. Instead the Angel touched Saint Henry’s thigh with it, saying, “Accept this sign of God’s love for your chastity and justice.” From that moment on, Henry limped like Jacob after his night vigil spent wrestling with the angel (cf. Genesis 32:24-25). How fascinating — and how consistent with God’s dealings with men — that a mark of weakness should be the sign of a special grace!
The Oblate Emperor
Henry was crowned Emperor in Saint Peter’s Basilica by Pope Benedict VIII in 1014. Henry cherished Benedictine life, spending time in monasteries whenever he could. His greatest joy was to occupy a stall in choir and join the monks in singing the Divine Office. Henry founded monasteries throughout the Empire and endowed them liberally. While detained at Monte Cassino by illness, he was miraculously cured through the intercession of Saint Benedict. Saint Henry’s feast, falling within the Octave of Saint Benedict, is a reminder of the special bond that united him with our glorious Patriarch. Saint Henry became an oblate of the Abbey of Cluny and then asked to make profession as monk at the Abbey of Saint-Vanne. The abbot received him as a monk, and then ordered him, in the name of obedience, to take his place again on the imperial throne.
Set Your Mind on Things That Are Above
Living in virginity with his wife Saint Cunegonda, Saint Henry preserved the heart of a monk. Limping through life, because of his thigh touched by the Angel bearing the Book of the Gospels, Saint Henry represents every man who, while living in the world, is not entirely at home in it. “Set your minds on things that are above,” says the Apostle, “not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:3).
In what way was Saint Henry a monk in the midst of the world? He understood that his basic task as a Christian was to seek the Face of Christ. The Face of the Child Christ was shown him in that mysterious dream by night in Saint Mary Major. The Child Christ he saw was also the High Priest ascending the altar for the Holy Sacrifice. As an Oblate, Saint Henry surely knew that, in every Mass, his place was on the corporal, close by the bread and the chalice. The Child-Priest, in raising the paten and the chalice heavenward was lifting up Henry’s life, making it an oblation to the Father. He will do the same for us today. We have only to seek His Face and abandon ourselves into His hands.