During research years ago for a book I want to write at some point, I looked into the life of a preacher named Henry Harbaugh, one of those 19th century believers who never stopped thinking about life, after life and the meaning of heaven.
He was a remarkable man for many reasons, not the least of which were his books in English, German and Pennsylvania Dutch, which had an otherworldly feel to them and clearly, were inspired by deep belief. He wrote something like 50 of them in his 57 years. Those I have found after some searching are revealing, full of poetry in German and English and observations of 19th century life.
I thought I would write about him and then re-publish one of his most famous and well-received books, “Birds of the Bible,” which was published in the 1850s and warmly received. He even included bats, which are not birds, but what is there to say about this today?
I have come to know him as “Henry”, because its difficult not to feel connected to someone you have read so much about. One research trip to Pennsylvania, I found one of his essays in which he located heaven on the other side of the universe, where we can’t see it. That’s such a romantic thought, that there is a place your soul would go “up” to if you had lived a holy life.
I spent a lot of years thinking about heaven and how it could exist and how religion could use the thought as a foundation to build elegant castles and philosophies and theologies. I concluded many years ago that i just don’t believe it. And I am sorry for that because it was such a consolation to my family and its ancestors.
All of these thoughts have now been revived by a story in the New York Times about the plan to shift Fulton J. Sheen’s earthly remains to Peoria from their crypt in a cathedral in New York. This is in anticipation of his elevation to sainthood. Apparently, sainthood carries more weight in Peoria that in Manhattan. Not surprised by that, in the least.
What I remember of Fulton J. Sheen comes, of course, from television, where he was presented in a startched-stiff version in his Cardinal’s clothes, all buffed and shiny.
I knew priests who were like that, focused on how they looked, their image. Is that enough to get you into heaven? Bishops aplenty had that look. Undoubtedly some of them modeled themselves after Fulton J. Sheen.
But nobody modeled their look after Henry Harbaugh’s, plainly because he was such a farmer and carpenter at heart, even as his head was swirling toward the heavens.
You want to consider someone for sainthood, look to Henry. He is a much less sparkly choice, but maybe the deepest believer I have ever read.