A Feastday Table:
St Helena and the One True Cross...Or "The Tears that Found the One True Tree"

As the firey heat of summer is slowly heading to the fruitful harvest of fall, something has been hapenning. Over and over again, there has been this feeling of "don't toss the baby with the bathwater". One aspect of this for myself, as you may have noticed, has been realizing just how precious to my heart has been my Catholic upbringing, and how that is most definitely not going to be tossed. I'm not thrilled with some of the church's politics, and was appauled for example when a few years ago in L.A. the Catholic archdiocese built an outrageously expensive and garish cathedral, and not even one with compassionate healing beauty but with a sterile cold and haughty "beauty", instead of tending to the truly needy of that area. It literally made me sick. But that's the politics. With the actual deeper traditions--the love of both Christ our Savior and our Blessed Mother, the focus on the Saints, the truly healing art traditions, and the more contemplative and even monastic ways of life, these have always called to me deeply and I think always will. There is a very precious quietness there, a gentleness... a garden enclosed.

And this time of year this is especially felt. The feastday of the Assumption of Our Blessed Mother was just a few days ago (August 15th). And today, August 18th, is the feastday of St Helen (Helena) of the True Cross. And this is an especially precious feastday for me and my partner as she is an ancestor of ours. I hadn't even known much about St Helena until he found this out (dedicated geneology buff that he is). But when I did finally learn of her I felt an immediate draw to her, a very real warmth. There is just something about St Helena, even if she weren't an ancestor, that really moves me.

Since I've been interested in her, over time I've read a lot of material on her, and I don't have all the links and sources. So some of this is just from memory, but my understanding of her life so far is this...

When one goes back to her beginnings there are some variations found. Her name was eventually Flavia Julia Helena Augusta, and later cannonized as St. Helena of the One True Cross. But she may have had very humble beginnings. In some versions she was born in Drepanum (in Bithynia, an area of Asia Minor near the Bosphorus) and was the daughter of an obscure innkeeper and thus a waitress in his inn. This was seen as almost at the same level as prostitution in the ancient world (I had a dream where I was an ancient waitress and can definitely understand this feeling), because a woman had so very little respect or protection in this role. Other versions of her life say she is the daughter of the legendary British Old King Cole of Colchester (who was a very real person not just a nursury rhyme, and some even connect him with King Arthur's line (another who was likely a real person and not just a legend), see here). Either way, all agree that she married the Roman Constance Chlorus, while he was only a simple officer yet, only to have him abandon her for political advancement through a new wife in 292 AD. His new wife soon passed on however, and it was his son by Helena, the future Constantine the Great, who ascendeded to the throne as emporor. And Constantine immediately rescued her from where she had been abandoned to (some traditions say she'd had to resort back to waitressing at her father's inn once divorced) and raised his mother Helena to the level of empress.

And she was a very compassionate empress, truly helping those in need. From this site,

"Her generosity was such that, according to Eusebius, she assisted not only individuals but entire communities. The poor and destitute were the special objects of her charity. She visited the churches everywhere with pious zeal and made them rich donations. It was thus that, in fulfilment of the Saviour's precept, she brought forth abundant fruit in word and deed."

Those views are universal ones, but variations on her life crop up again in the area of her conversion. Some of those who see her as King Cole's daughter suspect she may have already been Christian in her younger years, and others say she converted only after her son's dramatic conversion when she was already in her 60's. But either way, it was at that later point in her life that together they stopped the heavy Christain persecutions of the time and instead raised Christianity. As this site put it,

"Mistress of the treasures of the empire, loved and respected by a son who, when near her, seemed to forget that he was master of the world, Constantine used every means in his power to anticipate her wishes. The dearest desire of Helena was to cause Christianity to flourish through the whole world. Although advanced in age, God prolonged her years in order that her examples might edify the Church, for the exaltion of which her son exerted all his energies. Her zeal and faith were incomparable, and Saint Gregory tells us that she kindled in the hearts of the Romans the same fire that consumed her soul. She assisted at the divine offices with exemplary assiduity; she decorated the churches with rich furniture and precious vessels; and she extended her munificence even to the chapels of the poorest suburbs."

And truly, she had a special love of sacred buildings, she would personally oversee the building of as many of these churches as she could, rich and poor ones alike. (Maybe that's why the building of the cathedral in L.A. bothered me so much, there was no real feeling of compassion behind it as it was built while so hugely ignoring those in need and almost mocking them with this in their midst, wheras with her it was the direct opposite as she gave incredibly generously to those in need and also walked among them with true compassion in her journeys, and the churches she had built reflected this feeling ). So there was something about this special draw to creating sacred and healing places for her, churches that held not only beauty but compassion, a truly sacred and healing combination. But the place that moved her the most was the place of the true cross...

After Christ's death the attack upon Him had continued. His cross was covered with literal heaps of garbage and buried deep within it to dishonor Him as much as possible, and then another temple was placed over Him, trying to erase His existance, trying to deny His rescue. And this was her deep focus in the end, and what she is most known for. Because she was so corely grieved by this dishonor of Our Savior and so longed to help heal this somehow that the answer came in her dreams. And perhaps this is what moves me the most about her--she listened to those dreams. Her dreams led her to the spot where His cross was buried in Jerusalem, and after much struggle with the Jewish powers that be in the area (who feared its unearthing would "end Jewish supremecy" as this site put it), she had Christ's cross unearthed, and finally beheld and cherished rather than buried and dishonored.

Some say this is only legend, but I seriously doubt it. Healings happened through this cross. And relics were all the rage in the medieval world, and yet all the slivers of the relics of this cross put together come to a very reasonable size, the size of a cross's remains. If it was a hoax I think much more slivers would have been found, for trying to make a profit (as relics were hugely profitable). No, I think it was very very real. More from this site:

"The pious princess was transported with joy when she found herself in possession of a treasure which she preferred to all the riches of the world. She took a portion of the true cross to bring it to her son, and, having enshrined the other portion in a silver case, she placed it in the hands of the Bishop of Jerusalem, in order that it might be venerated in the church which Constantine ordered to be built over the holy sepulchre.

This edifice was constructed with a magnificence suitable to the sanctity of the place. It enclosed within its precincts the holy sepulchre, and extended as far as Mount Calvary. Saint Helena also caused two other churches to be built, one on the spot from which the Redeemer ascended into heaven, and another at Bethlehem, where He was born.

Her piety did not confine itself to the mere magnificence of the edifices; she extended her pious acts over every place through which she passed, comforting the poor with abundant alms, everywhere proving herself a mother to the orphans and afflicted.

Before returning from Palestine, Helena desired to attest to the virgins consecrated to the Lord the esteem in which she held them. She therefore assembled them all together, and provided for them a banquet, at which she ministered with her own hands."

I especially love that last part. And I have a little image there too, though its just an image that comes strongly to mind, not based on fact at all. I see the temple that had been built over the cross, which had been a pagan one, and it had been destroyed to uncover the cross. What was hidden behind the building of that temple had been harmful--a suppression of Christ's love symbolized by the dishonoring of His very cross. But the actual women who served in that temple, the vestal virgins so to speak (though the temple was not to Vesta but to Venus) truly were good souls-- and St Helena saw that in them. They converted to Christianity and were now brides of Christ, realizing this was what they had truly longed for in their draw to the temple...and St Helena was there for this, with joy for the goodness she saw in them, and with compassion for where they had been led before when their hearts had silently longed for Him. I know its only an image that comes to mind. But I can almost feel it there. And St. Helena's warmth and compassion and true understanding for those women. As a former pagan, that moves me very deeply. But that's a whole other post(s). And it's all only an image, but then something about St Helena really inspires healing images, perhaps because of her strong connectioin with dreams. And she herself, if the innkeeper's daughter version of her is correct, was misused and misunderstod until the beauty of her own soul was seen rather than her being judged, and she was finally rescued by her son, just as these woman were now rescued by THE Son as the old temple was no more and His Cross of Rescue was now in the light of day. So I think she would have a special understanding here.

Next in Helena's life, she made the return trip from Jerusalum, and the fairy tale quality of her life continues. From here:

"Her return voyage to Rome was marked by a singular episode. While crossing the Adriatic Sea, the Empress heard accounts of the terrible and numerous drownings that often occurred there. She was so strongly moved by the stories that she took one of four nails that had crucified Our Lord, which she was bringing with her from Jerusalem, and threw it into the depths of the sea. St. Gregory of Tours relates the incident in his book The Glories of the Martyrs and adds that from that day on, the Adriatic Sea lost its furor...

(St Helena's) life in a certain way is symbolized by the episode in the Adriatic Sea. It reflects the idea that was already being spread that the most sorrowful Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ has the power to tame wild and violent things, making them gentle and docile. This is why a nail driven into the flesh of Our Lord that caused him such atrocious torments has the power to relieve men from their sufferings. So when St. Helena threw one of those nails into the tempestuous sea, it became placid. From that moment on – St. Gregory of Tours narrates – the Adriatic Sea was tamed and drownings were no longer as frequent there as they were before.

What can be said about this miracle? Almost all such miracles of nature are analogies of miracles of grace. A suffering from the Passion of Our Lord received with love in the depths of one’s soul brings peace to the revolted passions, dissolves the storms, and makes passage possible on the most dangerous voyages of life without the risk of drowning.

This means that an act of veneration and tenderness for the infinitely precious Passion of Our Lord that comes from the depths of the soul brings peace to it and orients it along the way of sanctity. It can tame the disordered passions, redirect the bad tendencies, and make the spiritual life tranquil - without drowning. This is the beautiful symbolism of that episode of St. Helena’s life."

And this site continues...

"This was the last trip of St. Helena. She died in Rome in the year 330. Constantine and the princes, his sons, surrounded the bed of the Empress, where she gave two last counsels to the Emperor. Her last words were to tell him to watch over the Church and to be just. Finally, she gave him her final blessing; the Emperor was holding her hand when she took her last breath."

What a person.
What a life.
And I am so very drawn to her.

She also has something of a "bridge" feeling to her that folks pick up on. This site for example, discusses how even the uncertainty of her birth place, for there are very strong traditions for it being both east and west, holds meaning. After all, there are no coincidences, and there may be good reason there has come to be this double view of her origins. I think they BOTH hold something, some true connection with her, and that is why both have persisted. And deeper still (from the same site),

"St Helen is one of the best-loved Saints of the Christian community, both in East and West. Over many centuries in England her name has been much used for our daughters, in various forms - Ellen and Eleanor being favourite variants. No doubt this has been partly due to much-loved Queens of England, but certainly the Saint herself has been greatly venerated, and as many as 135 ancient English churches are said to be dedicated in her honour.

Eastern Christians love her too, and this has meant she can draw together modern western converts to Orthodoxy and the cradle-Orthodox who have moved to Britain from the East.

Many widely venerated eastern Saints have been unknown in the West, and only gradually will British converts to Orthodoxy be able to absorb them deep into their consciousness. In the same way, many Saints from Britain's Orthodox past - i.e. before the Great Schism commonly dated to 1054, and the Norman Conquest of Saxon England in 1066 - are unknown to easterners. These western but entirely Orthodox Saints will take some time to become really loved by Orthodox Faithful who have come here from the East.

Yet we can all, from East and West, without difficulty love and admire St Helen."

Blessed feastday of St Helena everyone : )

P.S. In the spirit St Helena I am especially wanting to honor dreams right now. And so in the spirit of the "healer's journal" dream (detailed more elsewhere) I am including here the little meaningful things that happened today, the "healingness of the mundane".

First, on the way back from the store, I was thinking about some changes I want to make in my life ("heartbeat living" stuff, part of that being showing much better stewardship with what I am provided with, more on this at some point later). And I suddenly found this little treasure, this teeny tiny little yellow feather that I just love. Then when I got home i discovered that the ice cream that had mysteriously disappered last week was now back (a replacement was bought I'm guessing), so that was a nice surprise, and a treat for tonight, as well as opening me to forgiveness. And also in general tonight food has just tasted so GOOD and so especially nourishing. Simple food--lettuce and apples, rice crackers, cheese, hummus, oh and of course the ice cream--and SOOO good tonight! I ate a lot, I just really felt like feasting tonight.

Which reminds me of something. Earlier tonight I came accross something that struck me, it was over at Tongue in Cheek again:

"Shakespeare writes in Macbeth... Dreams are the chief nourishers in life's feast...Our dreams want to nourish us, they point to the table of our soul and say come sit down, feast on the richness of your life."

And one part of that in particular stands out to me, especially on this feastday of St Helena...

"Our dreams want to nourish us".

And I think they really do. Or rather, it is that God longs to nourish us through them. And those like St Helena truly opened to that nourishment. And so nourished, she then bore such amazing fruit.

Wow am I drawn there.

Blessed Feastday of St. Helena everyone.
And blessings of Christ's One True Cross,
the symbol of our very own rescue,
the "true tree" from our very own fairy tale.

Because I can't help but end with a verse here, an adaptation of Psalm 127:2 that I love so much,

"For He gives to His beloved
even in her sleep."

(Image from the Saints of the Passion page here)

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