It’s the feast day of St Helena today and as she is a family saint of ours I can’t let the day go without giving her a mention.
The beginning of her life is a bit uncertain but my favourite view is that she was the daughter of King Coel the Magnificent of Colchester (who just might be the Old King Cole the merry old soul). Anyway, Helena appears to have been his daughter and she was married off to a Roman consul with a great future named Constantius Chlorus(meaning pale face poor man) and she had a son called Constantine.
Constantius was made to divorce Helena and get a more politically correct wife and so Helena was left to bring up her son alone. She is one of those mothers (along with Monica and my own St Bridget) who knows what it is like to have a hard time keeping a son on the straight and narrow.
It is not certain when she became Christian, although it seems as though it was back in Britain even though most Britains were pagan then. She didn’t seem able to get Constantine to go along with her religious views and there are some suggestions that he had a fondness for Mithras for a while.
Constantine got his famous vision of the Chi Rho and went off to win his war and become Emperor and very kindly and astutely made the Edict of Milan which allowed religious freedom even for Christians. Lucky for us eh? And it meant that Fr Christmas (St Nicholas) was let out of prison and could go back to being Bishop of Myrna. All good stuff.
Helena became Empress Mother and tried her best to keep her rather wayward son on the straight and narrow but things don’t seem to have gone well; the part where he murdered his wife must have been a low point. Meanwhile she was a keen archeologist and headed off to the Holy Land in search of the Cross which had been missing since the Crucifixion. Obviously the Christians of the Holy Land had very good knowledge of where things had happened and the church of the Nativity was already a busy place in Bethlehem.
Hadrian who had been Emperor of Rome from 117-138 had been a pretty nasty bloke and as part of his efforts to kill off and generally persecute the Christians he had a temple built to some god or other over the place of the Crucifixion. It was a ruin when Helena found it and so she went about having the thing taken down and the ground dug up. There were some crosses buried deep, but which one was the Cross of Christ? Apparently Helena had some sick people brought to the three crosses and a woman was healed, a boy had his withered arm restored and I think there is even a story of a dead person being raised. So Helena brought the true cross back to Rome. Not sure what she did with the crosses of Gestas and St Dismas.
The cross was cut up and sent to various places. There have been suggestions that there is enough pieces of the cross claimed to make a forest of them. However I read a report that says research into the claims found that there was less wood than needed for one cross. Still doesn’t mean all the claimed pieces are real but it’s interesting research. Most of the titular survived too it seems and is in Rome.
Constantine had found a heresy that allowed him to hedge his bets with God. A bit ungracious when you think what God offered him but I am sure his mother made that clear. He thought he could do whatever he liked as Emperor, bending to political expediency and not get baptised until the last moment so that just before he met his Maker all his sins would be forgiven. Poor Helena, it must have been so hard for her trying to make him see sense. He had his own son murdered and hedged his bets with the still powerful pagans with offerings to Apollo and his mates.
Helena died at a ripe old age, well into her 80s and still Constantine was not baptised. But Helena was a mother first (I think so anyway) and her prayers as a mother must have been heard. I believe, from so many stories of mother’s over the years, not just saint ones, that God has a special ear for the prayers of a mother and He surely gave Constantine a lot of chances to make good. Constantine was not killed suddenly in battle, nor murdered as other Emperors had been. He fell ill and he was ill long enough to get his act together with God and receive baptism. It seems that he received it in good faith in the end and that is good. Perhaps St Dismas (whose cross was also brought back to Rome) had a few words on his behalf too; after all he too left it to the last minute to get his life in order.
Helena is one of our family saints from way back. Iona took her as her patron at Confirmation and Heleyna is named for her. She is also a saint of our parish. She was a strong woman who overcame a great deal; lived as a single mother, a mother of a soldier, a man of power, and she loved history and archeology. (We have St Monica too as she is a patron along with Ven Matt Talbot of alcoholics and we have family and friends in that boat).
She is also believed to have attended the Council of Nicaea which answered the Arian heresy and gave us the beautiful Nicaean Creed. Perhaps she was there when St Nick, our Fr Christmas, got a bit cross with the pompous Arius and lamped him one. Even saints have their moments you know.