Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing: Memorial of St. Henry

Readings: Hosea 14:2-10; Matthew 10:16-23

Today’s saint brings to mind the gospel image of sheep and wolves, for the historical accounts of St. Henry almost paint two distinct pictures. First, there is Henry the lamb; a holy, pious 10th century king and emperor blessed with mystical visions, so favored by God that angels fought in his army. But then there is Henry the wolf; a tenacious power-hungry predator who connived to secure any throne he could and who wantonly made war on his Catholic neighbors. So which was he, sheep or wolf?

Of course the real man is much more complex; he has aspects of both. Henry was born in the year 972, the son of Duke Henry of Bavaria and his wife, Princess Gisela of Burgundy. As for the lamb, Henry demonstrated as a boy the kind of piety that put him in stark contrast to his father, Henry the Quarrelsome. Well-educated in both secular and religious studies, Henry’s nature seemed more suited to the spiritual life; he thought to become a cleric. However, when his father died at an early age, it became clear that a wolf was needed. Although Henry lacked his father’s temperament he did have his ability to lead; this eventually landed him the crown as King of Germany at the age of 30 and Holy Roman Emperor a few years later.

Despite his worldly responsibilities, Henry always made time for the spiritual life. Wherever he traveled his first stop was the local church where he spent hours in prayer before the Lord. The king also donated huge amounts for the welfare of the poor and to build churches and monasteries.

Yet there is also no doubt that Henry was not afraid to go to war even with Catholic nations. His motives are not entirely clear but his concern seems to have been the security of German borders against potential invaders, especially Poland, whose king had expansionist ideas of his own.

Recall the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves (Matthew 10:16). King Henry was a deeply religious man; he adored the Good Shepherd and in his soul gladly bore the brand of His sheep. Nevertheless, he also wore the mantle of emperor; he was a sheep with an empire to rule, people to govern, borders to secure and defend. Christ urged us to be shrewd; what is more shrewd than a sheep in wolves’ clothing?

For all that, there is evidence that the stress of his earthly duties wore on the king; he longed to retire, to cloister himself behind the walls of a quiet, peaceful Benedictine abbey. He said as much while visiting a monastery and the abbot took him at his word, accepting the king as a postulant and putting him under strict obedience. When Henry asked what his orders were, the abbot replied that he must return to the secular world and discharge his duties as ruler; the empire was in dire need of such a man. Henry obeyed; he left the abbey and ruled until his own premature death at age 52.

The abbot’s lesson to King Henry is just as appropriate today, for like him we may find ourselves weary and wondering if perhaps we have missed our calling. Over time the drudgery of daily life can take its toll, wear us down, lead us to question who we are and where we’re going, even tempt us to run away in pursuit of a life free of all the responsibilities we carry on our shoulders.

monastery-569368_640The abbot reminded the king and he reminds us that the church is not a place we run to that we may lose ourselves; it is the place we come to that we may find ourselves. Over the course of his life and reign Henry spent hours on his knees in front of the Tabernacle. He may have meant to empty himself of his problems but Christ had a different plan; He desired to fill him with the grace that would enable him to face and overcome his problems.

That same grace is available to us but we must be ready, willing, and able to receive it. The prophet Hosea tells us how: Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God (Hosea 14:2). Return means to repent, to turn from sin, for it is only in so doing that God restores us and instills in us the Holy Spirit that empowers us not just to go out among the wolves but to bring them back with us rejoicing into the flock of Christ.

St. Henry, pray for us.

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