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Kinship is the key to understanding kingship

The moon over the Apotheosis of St. Louis statue of King Louis IX of France, namesake of St. Louis, Missouri in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 11/26/23

A king who knows what it means to be royalty doesn’t actually lord over those around him. Instead, he serves.

Growing up in St. Louis, I had zero curiosity about the name of the city in which I had been born. Not being Catholic at the time, it didn’t occur to me that St. Louis was a flesh-and-blood person. In fact, I regularly walked past a massive bronze statue of St. Louis himself on my way into the local art museum, never once stopping to consider the crowned crusader knight mounted on a war horse guarding the entrance.

St. Louis was an abstraction, nothing more. As a man, he wasn’t real to me.

Now that I’m Catholic, he is no longer distant. More than someone I’ve learned about in a history book, St. Louis is my brother. I feel kinship with him that reaches across the centuries. Even the statue at the art museum has taken on significance, not only because it’s a site for devotion, but because the man depicted in the statue has ongoing influence in my life.

St. Louis the protector

St. Louis watches over our city. He prays for me. He is a member of the living communion of saints, and I hope one day to join him in the house of God. This long-deceased French king is my kin.

I feel close to St. Louis because he’s the patron of my birthplace but, must admit that, when I hear stories about some of the other great saints, the exploits of courageous men and women in battle, the kings and queens of history, or the inventions of keen minds that have shaped our technology and civilization, I wonder how I have anything in common with them. They remain distant. Whether it be grand hero or dastardly villain, the individuals who stand out so far from the crowd seem unlike the vast majority of us. They’re somehow unrelatable.

Personally, I would rather spend an evening at home with my wife and children than do anything else. Even if I had the time, energy, or talent to become famous enough to be inscribed into history books, I don’t have the ambition. I wonder what type of person does have that ability and ambition. How different are they from you and me?

Each of us in our own kingdom

At the extremes, people seem so different from each other that we hardly have any commonalities. Motivations are shrouded in mystery. Everyone has their own concerns, group of friends, nationality, and culture. We’re each the main actor in our own play and everyone else is playing a bit part. We’re all kings and queens in our own little kingdoms.

It’s easy, in this era in which I can proudly go on social media to congratulate myself on being a “king” to forget that other people are important, too. They aren’t merely distant servants, actors in our play, insignificant and unimportant to history. Being (alleged) royalty doesn’t mean we disconnect from others. It doesn’t mean we have no kinship.

Celebrating the feast of St. Louis at his statue in St. Louis, Missouri
Parishioners celebrate the Feast of St. Louis at his statue in St. Louis, Missouri.

What does it mean to be a king?

Today is the celebration of Christ the King, which has me meditating on the concept of kingship. A king who knows what it means to be royalty doesn’t actually lord over those around him. Instead, he serves.

Here, the example of St. Louis is helpful. He was a king who cared about his subjects regardless of their social status. He was just and fair, desiring to help the less fortunate. The crown on his head as a symbol of responsibility. The glory of his kingship was the ability to be kin to everyone.

Recently, I was reading Beowulf and came across the passage about Beowulf, King of the Geats, going into battle with a dragon. The dragon mortally wounds him with a blast of fire, and he “suffered, wrapped around in swirling/ Flames—a king, before, but now/ A beaten warrior.” As king, he gave his life to protect his villagers. He acted in complete solidarity with them.

This isn’t even the part of the poem that really got to me. It goes on;

None of his comrades
Came to him, helped him, his brave and noble
Followers; they ran for their lives, fled
Deep in a wood. And only one of them
Remained, stood there, miserable, remembering,
As a good man must, what kinship should mean.

Who is that one man who returns? His name is Wiglaf. After abandoning the battle in fear, he remembers that Beowulf, king or not, is his kin. They are family, and so he will stand with him to the end.

A kinship with humanity

There’s not a single person in this world with whom we do not have everything in common, to whom we do not owe our very best. This is why the poet Paul Claudel says we hold each other’s destinies in our hands. “It is a long distance between heaven and earth,” he writes, “and the adventure that leads all these obscure people to me would take a long time to tell.”

In other words, we cannot explain why certain people are in our lives, but God has placed them along our path to assist us, and we to assist them.

Humanity is a communion, a living net in which we are caught whether we like it or not. The hand of God gathers us up together. Kings, queens, enemies, ancient warriors, brand-new babies, the person in the line at the grocery talking loudly on a phone, the homeless man in the bus stop — all are our kin.

Maybe we’re all kings and queens, endowed with God’s royal favor. But that doesn’t mean we’re distant lords separated from the common folk. It that means we’re all in this together. That’s what kingship, and kinship, means.

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