Monday, July 13, 2015

Henry and His Times

Here we are in the early years of a new millennium. History has been quite crazy. People freaked out in '99 and thought the world was going to end.

But it didn't.

Efforts were being made to unify Europe. Islamic militants were on the advance. The Germans were playing a crucial role. Kiev was in the news. So were the Greeks.

I'm looking at the beginning of the second millennium. Yes, as in "a thousand years ago." The eleventh century was a period of complex politics, envy, greed, ambition, scandalous morals, sinners everywhere, and a few saints.

One of those saints was a man known to history as Emperor Henry II. The "Holy Roman Emperor" Henry II the Saint. Today is his feast day.

Henry is dear to me. He loved the poor. He fostered evangelization. He sponsored the "missionary diocese" of Bamberg on what was then the fringe of the Christian world, in order to bring the Gospel to the northeastern Slavic tribes.

And at Bamberg he supported the foundation of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Michael, to which he attached himself as a lay collaborator, living the Benedictine spirit in the midst of the secular world as an "Oblate."

He is the patron saint of Benedictine Oblates. He is also the patron of disabled people, and this is another reason why I love him. He was afflicted with various chronic illnesses, and had a significant limp.

He did his best to use his authority to foster the peace and good of the Church. Nevertheless, religion and politics were deeply interwoven, and Henry couldn't help setting precedents and building up the structures of what would soon become the "investiture crisis" and then blossom into the ongoing medieval struggle between Church authority and civil power.

The best of political solutions can only be temporary, and will eventually be the occasion of new problems. Humans can't be "fixed" by politics. That's why Jesus came.


Saint Michael's Abbey, Bamberg, Germany
Nevertheless, it's interesting and educational to examine the ways that people have tried to wrestle with the problem of being human.

So let's explore this path a bit.

Allow me to give space to my imagination here, and attempt to describe the situation of Saint Henry's time. Note well, this is an attempt to describe the situation. I am not advocating any kind of RESTORATION of these circumstances or these kind of political aspirations. What I want to do is to understand how people saw things at the dawn of the second millennium --  to try to see "the past" as decisions-yet-to-be-made, experiments not yet tried.

Let us attempt to step into a historical environment without the benefit of a thousand years hindsight. What did the world look like in 1015? What we call "the Middle Ages" didn't conceive of itself as being in the middle of anything. It was an age that looked back and looked forward to a political ideal, a world of peace, a world of unity-in-diversity, of culture, education, and leisure, a world that was known as the Imperium.

Today we think of "Empire" as a word that signifies tyranny and oppression. We associate it with cruel dictators and totalitarian control. Our "Western" ancestors, however, did not regard it as such. Rather, they saw it as a check on arbitrary violence, as an institution that prevented the dominance of raw power and individual whims over the common good, and as the foundation for order and the flourishing of civilized life.

They struggled to realize and renovate what was for them the greatest achievement of politics, the Imperium Romanum: the best kind of government they had ever known, and what they saw as their best hope of fostering justice, equity, fairness, impartiality, constructive activity, and defense against lawlessness and banditry. For these earlier Europeans, the Roman Empire was not looked upon as a distant memory of the past.

In fact, it was not considered a "past memory" at all.

Rather, it was an ongoing project, though admittedly one which had had some significant setbacks. It was the great hope of the second millennials that the Roman order was not only being renewed and solidified. It was being purified and elevated by Christianity.

It was destined, they hoped, to be a real reflection of Christ's kingdom in this world: the Christian people living in peace and united in bringing His benevolent reign to the ends of the earth. It was Christendom.
(In retrospect, we might say, "Christendom 1.0" -- but before we dismiss entirely this piece of primitive, clunky, bug-ridden political and historic software we would do well to attend to the ferocious viruses that have crashed our present global operating system. But I digress....)
All of this sounds quite idealistic, and it was never really more than that. Jesus never promised success in this present world. Second millennials, nevertheless, can't be entirely blamed for being a bit "heady" in those early years.

After all, in the year 1000, there was a Christian Roman Empire.

Actually, that's not quite true, and herein lies the biggest of all the many big problems: there were, in fact, two "Christian Roman Empires" with two "Roman Emperors" in two distinctive (but overlapping) territories.

What we call "the Byzantine Empire" knew itself simply as the Roman Empire, with its capital in Constantinople, the "New Rome" for over 600 years, ruled by Christian emperors, full of Christian churches and monasteries and also plenty of worldly splendor and wealth and corruption. To the west were the vigorous tribes and peoples who, when they became Christians, also identified themselves as "Romans."

At first they had placed themselves in at least a nominal relationship to the Emperor in Constantinople, but increasingly they took their political as well as religious identity from the "Old Rome," the guardian of the ancient imperial mystique but also the church founded on the head of the Apostles, Saint Peter.

The tenth century had been a messy period all over Europe, but the Germanic kings had once again emerged to claim their role as protectors of the Pope and emperors of the Old Rome.

To say this was a tense situation would be an understatement. But there was hope. The churches of Rome and Constantinople were still united at the end of the first millennium. It was a rocky relationship, but it's hard to imagine that anyone foresaw the chasm that was about to crack open.

Indeed, from a political point of view, there were good reasons for hope. The Germans and "the Greeks" both saw "the problem" and they were seeking a solution: marriage.

The beginning of the second millennium saw a rising star: the marvelous Otto III, devout, educated, full of idealism, son of the German Emperor and his wife, a member of the Byzantine royal family. The daughter of the current Byzantine Emperor sailed for Italy in the year 1001. She was espoused to Otto. The wedding of the two Imperial houses would have created a unified succession.

Political unity between Constantinople and Rome, East and West.

And then Otto suddenly took ill and died at the age of 21. The future Empress Zoe returned to Constantinople.

Saint Henry was already married by then, and his successors pursued other courses. By the middle of the century, the Great Schism had begun. No one could have dreamed that another thousand years would pass without healing.

Human plans are fragile things.

"For present glory is fleeting and meaningless, while it is possessed, unless in it we can glimpse something of heaven’s eternity" (attributed to Saint Henry II).