Imitating the Saints: St. Helena and the finding of the True Cross

We are advised to meditate on the lives of the saints, but this precept originated in the ages when meditation was a more precise and arduous activity than we are tempted to think it today. Heavy apparatus has been at work in the last hundred years to enervate and stultify the imaginative faculties. First, realistic novels and plays, then the cinema, finally the television, video and dvds have made the urban mentality increasingly subject to suggestion so that it now lapses effortlessly into a trance-like escape from its condition. It is said that great popularity in fiction and film is only attained by works into which readers and audience can transpose themselves and be vicariously endangered, loved and applauded. This kind of reverie is not meditation, even when its objects are worthy of high devotion. It may do little harm, perhaps even some little good, to fall day-dreaming and play the parts of Sir Thomas More, King Louis IX or Father Damien. There are evident dangers in identifying ourselves with St. Francis of St. John of the Cross. We can invoke the help of the saints and study the working of God in them, but if we delude ourselves that we are walking in their shoes, seeing through their eyes and thinking with their minds, we lose sight of the one certain course of our salvation. There is only one saint that Mary Smith can actually become, Mary Smith, and that saint she must become, here or in the fires of through in fancy-dress, made up as Joan of Arc.

For this reason it is well to pay particular attention to the saints about whom our information is incomplete. There are names in the calendar about which we know nothing at all except those names, and then sometimes in a form that would puzzle their contemporaries. There are others about whom, humanly speaking, we know almost everything, who have left us a conspectus of their minds in their own writings, who were accompanied through life by pious biographers recording every movement and saying, who were conspicuous in the history of their times so that we can see them from all sides as they impressed friends and opponents. And mid-way between these two groups are the saints who are remembered for a single act. To this class Helena eminently belongs. In extreme old age, as Empress Dowager, she made a journey into one part of her son’s dominions, to Jerusalem. From that journey spring the relics of the true Cross that are venerated everywhere in Christendom. That is what we know; most else is surmise.

We can assume that she was devout, chaste, munificent; a thoroughly good woman in an age when palaces were mostly occupied by the wicked; but she lived grandly and comfortably whereas most of the saints in every age have accepted poverty as the condition of their calling. We know of no suffering of hers, physical, spiritual or mental, beyond the normal bereavements, disappointments and infirmities which we all expect to bear. Yet she lived in an age when Christians had often to choose between flight, apostasy or brutal punishment. Where, one may ask lies her sanctity? Where the particular lesson for us who live in such very different circumstances?

For the world of Constantine is utterly remote from ours though there are certain superficial similarities. Poetry was dead and prose dying. Sculpture had fallen so low that in all his empire Constantine could not find a mason capable of decorating his triumphal arch and preferred instead to rob the two hundred year old arch of Trajan. An enormous bureaucracy was virtually sovereign, controlling taxation on the sources of wealth, for the pleasure of city mobs. All this seems familiar but for the event of supreme importance, the victory of Christianity, we can find no counterpart in contemporary history.

Helena accepted that God had His own use for her. Others faced the lions in the circus; others lived in caves in the desert. She was to be St. Helena Empress, not St. Helena Martyr or St. Helena Anchorite. She accepted a state of life full of dangers to the soul in which many foundered, and she remained fixed in her purpose until at last it seemed God had no other need of her except to continue to the end, a kind, old lady. Then came her call to a single peculiar act of service, something unattempted before and unrepeatable – the finding of the True Cross.

The old sneer, that there was enough “wood of the cross” to build a ship, though still repeated, has long beennullified. All the splinters and shavings venerated everywhere have been patiently measured and found to comprise a volume far short of a cross. We know that most of these fragments have a plain pedigree back to the early fourth century. Perhaps there is no guarantee which would satisfy an antiquary of the authenticity of Helena’s discovery, but if she found the True Cross it was by direct supernatural aid, not by archaeological reasoning.

She was asserting in sensational form a dogma that was in danger of neglect. Power was shifting. Sly sharp minds were everywhere looking for phrases and analogies to reconcile the new, blunt creed for which men had died, with the ancient speculations which had beguiled their minds, and with the occult rites which had for generations spiced their logic.

And at that time of crisis suddenly emerged God-sent from luxurious retirement in the far north, a lonely, resolute old woman with a single concrete, practical task clear before her; to turn the eyes of the world back to the planks of wood on which their salvation hung.

That was Helena’s achievement, and for us who, whatever our difficulties, are no longer troubled by those particular philosophic confusions that clouded the fourth century, it has the refreshing quality that we cannot hope to imitate. The Cross is very plain for us today; plainer perhaps than for many centuries. What we can learn from Helena is something about the workings of God; that He wants a different thing from each of us, laborious or easy, conspicuous or quite private, but something which only we can do and for which we were each created.