A Message From Father Nick 20, 2nd August 2020

Constantine’s mother (1) – Going on the Journey of Faith

Many weeks ago we met Egeria, who travelled from Western Europe to the Holy Land in the late fourth century and described what she saw there. Her account is very precious and yet, despite her intrepidity, Egeria was not the first such pilgrim. Fifty years before her, Helena the mother of our old friend Constantine, had made her own journey to Jerusalem. Helena is our pilgrim pioneer.

We cannot be sure where she came from. A sixth century historian tells us that she was a native Greek from Bythinia in Asia Minor, the keeper of a tavern or guest-house. Another, rather tantalising, account claims that she came from Roman Britain and was the daughter of Coel, chief of the Trinovantes.

Understandably, this was the version which the writer Evelyn Waugh preferred when he was writing his lovely little book Helena (his own favourite of his novels). He modelled Constantine’s mother on Penelope Betjeman – a close friend of his – and imagined her as a healthy, horsey, tomboyish girl who grew rather reluctantly into her grand future role.

Whatever the truth might be, Helena attracted the interest of Constantine’s father, Constantius I Chlorus, a high ranking officer who would become Augustus in the West. Constantine was their child, and even when his parents had separated, he would always love and honour his mother.

As emperor, Constantine encouraged his mother to go to the Holy Land on pilgrimage – some believe that this was in expiation for his own guilt in shedding family blood. But whatever the reason might be, mother and son were responsible for a remarkable building programme, most famously erecting the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Helena is also credited with finding relics of Our Lord’s Passion – but we will say more about that next week.

What did Helena think? In his book Evelyn Waugh imagines her feelings of concern for her own son and her reflections on the nativity. On Twelfth Night in the shrine at Bethlehem, he provides her with a famous passage in which she identifies herself closely with the three wise men.

‘“You are my special patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.

“Dear cousins, pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son. May he too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly…

“For his sake, who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”’