Heroic Suffering

By Connor Stevens, grade 9

In this day and age, modern humanity has turned suffering, pain, and inconvenience into the worst evils one can face. People complain when their orders at fast-food restaurants take too long, rudely grumble when personal plans are altered, and throw fits whenever they don’t get exactly what they want. However, this slavery to personal comfort reaches an all-time low when the value and dignity of human life itself is ignored. Now people murder their preborn children simply because it would be too hard or expensive to keep them. They euthanize the elderly and those with debilitating diseases and defects since they can’t “contribute” to society. Some countries go so far as to force abortion on parents if they suspect the child will have Down syndrome or other cognitive disabilities. Long gone, it seems, are the days when people understood suffering as something not to be avoided at all costs, but to be endured and used to forward not just human dignity, but the Kingdom of God itself.

A shining example of this heroic suffering is the life of King Baldwin IV, also known as the Leper King. Born the summer of 11611in the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, Baldwin was intellectually bright and physically gifted. As his tutor, William of Tyre, described him, “He made good progress in his studies. . . . He was . . . more skilled than men who were older than himself in controlling horses and in riding them at a gallop. He had an excellent memory and he loved listening to stories.”2

However, Baldwin’s promising and carefree life would change forever. After rough-housing with some friends, Baldwin told his tutor that, no matter how hard his friends pinched his right arm, he felt no pain. William of Tyre instantly recognized the telltale signs of a serious illness, and, after further examination discovered, to his horror, that Baldwin had contracted one of the most feared diseases of his day: leprosy. Four years later, as the disease was starting to devour his body, Baldwin’s farther, King Amalric, suddenly died, and Baldwin was crowned king by decision of the High Court of Jerusalem in 1176 at age 13.3Even as Baldwin was being crowned, trouble was brewing in the East. A certain Muslim leader had unified much of the Middle East and his name would bring fear to Christians in years to come: Saladin.4

By 1174 Saladin had unified Egypt, Yemen, and Syria and had set his sights on Jerusalem. Baldwin’s regent, Raymond of Tripoli, in an effort to alleviate some of the pressure on Jerusalem, had established a peace treaty with Saladin in 1175.5Two years after Baldwin’s coronation, Raymond’s regency was up; Baldwin had come of age to take the throne. Almost immediately Baldwin rejected Raymond’s treaty, which had greatly favored the Muslims and allowed them to surround the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Instead he led successful raids against Saladin at Damascus and Anduir.6With wisdom given by God, Baldwin realized that the best way to drive back the Muslim threat surrounding his kingdom was to attack Saladin’s power base in Egypt. In the autumn of 1176, Baldwin began to amass troops and soon he was ready for an invasion. 

Unfortunately, with the death of Baldwin’s brother-in-law, William of Montferrat,7and hesitance from other Christian leaders, Baldwin’s plan came to nothing. This would have been one of the crusaders’ best opportunities to strike a serious blow to Saladin, and only Baldwin had been wise enough to realize it. After the cancellation of the Egyptian invasion, Raymond of Tripoli joined French nobleman Phillip of Flanders with a number of soldiers from Jerusalem in a campaign against northern Muslim territory8leaving Jerusalem in a weakened state. Saladin, recognizing the opportunity at hand, was quick to order his army of 26,000 elite warriors9to march on Jerusalem. Calling upon his dwindling strength, Baldwin summoned what small forces remained to him, less than 600 knights and a few thousand infantrymen.

By this time, Baldwin’s heath was so poor that many feared he would die. Some writers described him as being half dead. Even in such pain and sickness, Baldwin personally led his men on his horse. Saladin, knowing how minute Baldwin’s force was, ignored it and kept marching until Baldwin confronted him near the hill of Montgisard, a mere 45 miles away from Jerusalem. Before the battle, Baldwin called upon the Bishop of Bethlehem and asked him to hold out the relic of the True Cross which he had been ordered to bring. Falling on his knees, Baldwin fervently prayed to God for aid in the coming battle. After his prayer, Baldwin ordered his men to charge, with himself at the forefront. Hands bandaged, holding his sword in his left hand as he lacked the strength to wield it in his right, Baldwin valiantly led his men into the Muslim front with, as soldiers would later say, the True Cross shining as bright as the Sun.

The battle ended as a decisive Christian victory, with Saladin barely escaping on the back of a racing camel. Sadly, even such a miraculous victory could not halt the deadly disease. With his leprosy completely taking over his body, Baldwin tried to abdicate the throne so a more physically able person could rule, but his people begged him to stay in command, so loved was he. On March 6, 1185, Baldwin breathed his last and died a king, warrior, and hero at the age of 24. 

Our world today needs more people like Baldwin IV, people who, through their sufferings, are able to help others in their struggles. Should our world continue its self-serving nature, it will only get worse. Now is the time for people, or rather heroes, to step forward—people who, though bruised, battered, or riddled with sickness, still strive to aid their fellow man. We need people who, through the agony of their own leprosies, lead their men at the front of battle, and people who, no matter what happens, remember that the little things in life make all the difference. This world needs people who can suffer heroically and by doing so take up their crosses boldly every day and change the world. The only question is: Who will they be?

©2018 Connor Stevens. Published with permission.

End notes

1. Michael Whitcraft, “Catholic, Crusader, Leper and King: The Life of Baldwin IV and the Triumph of the Cross,” 2007, tfp.org/catholic-crusader-leper-and-king-the-life-of-baldwin-iv-and-the-triumph-of-the-cross.

2. Whitcraft.

3. Whitcraft.

4. Steve Weidenkopf The Glory of the Crusades(San Diego, CA; Catholic Answers Press, 2014) p. 110.

5. Whitcraft. 

6. Gina Dimuro, “How a Leper Became King of Jerusalem – And One of Its Most Fearless,” 2018, allthatsinteresting.com/baldwin-iv.

7. Whitcraft.

8. Whitcraft. 

9. Whitcraft.