If I were on the sun-kissed beaches of Italy today rather than in the frigid swamps of Washington, then I would be enjoying the Italian celebration of my onomastico, or name-day in honor of one’s patron saint. Today the Dominican Order celebrates Blessed Henry Suso, O.P., the great Rhineland mystic and poet, who also does duty as my heavenly patron. Truth be told, if I weren’t confident that Henry presently enjoys the fullness of the beatific vision and communion with the Trinity, then I would wonder if he might not be entirely pleased to have me as a namesake.
After all, we don’t have very much in common aside from our common profession as Dominicans. He was a sensitive man of great interiority who endured the most fearsome of medieval penances for the sake of his love for God, which poured out in lyrical verses and mystical spiritual writings. I am a garrulous spiritual dilettante who finds the ‘fresh catch of the day’ on Fridays about as much penance as I can bear. If Bl. Henry and I had somehow met on this side of paradise, then I likely would have exhorted him to shower more frequently and keep away from sharp objects. I rather shudder to think what he might have told me.
I didn’t know much about Bl. Henry when he became my patron. When I was in the process of applying to the Province, an older friar mentioned that he received his middle name as a religious name, as it coincided with the name of an underappreciated Dominican blessed. The idea stuck with me, and when the time came to discuss potential religious names with the novice master (in the process outlined by Br. Innocent in his post last month), we settled on Henry without much debate. The novice master maintains to this day that I asked for the name in order to keep my monogrammed bath towels (which don’t exist except in his literary imagination).
In some respects, Henry Suso remains enigmatic to us moderns—his incredible penances and mortifications seem so distantly medieval that we lose sight of the man. He is, in the words of another great Dominican Henry—Henri-Dominique Lacordaire—“that lovable man from Swabia.” Even in its more bizarre episodes, his biography depicts an eminently human fellow, prone to misunderstandings with unintentionally tragic-comic results—whether in the form of a confused mob of pitchforked peasants, a murderous stalker, or his runaway sister. Still, Henry kept on praying and preaching, even when angry townspeople put a price on his head. Many of the particulars might belong to another age, but the love that drove Henry transcends time and place, and draws us to him even today. Henry Suso was a man entirely swept up by the ineffable mystery of God’s mercy, and he put his whole life at the service of that Eternal Wisdom.
Having Bl. Henry as a patron has forced me to expand my horizons of what it means to be a Dominican. All the great Dominican saints and blesseds are, in one way or another, in the image of St. Dominic himself. They reflect some particular extension of his charism. Having a mystical eccentric like Bl. Henry for a namesake works against the tendency to redefine the Order in one’s own image at the expense of the expansive vision of our holy founder. It is sometimes heard in the Order that, when you meet a Dominican, you’ve met exactly one Dominican, rather than them all. Considering what a varied lot must be huddled together under Mary’s mantle in heaven, this seems about right.
So on this feast of Henry Suso, I thank God for this eccentric patron who challenges me to draw ever closer to Christ, not by slavishly imitating his example, but by following the path the Lord has laid out for this modern, very different Henry. Blessed Henry Suso, pray for us!
Image: Scène de la vie d’Henri Suso