The Word Among Us

Lent 2009 Issue

A Saint for Late Beginners

St. Helena's Amazing Journey of Faith

By: Woodeene Koenig-Bricker

A Saint for Late Beginners: St. Helena's Amazing Journey of Faith by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker

She grew up serving beer and listening to the rough jokes of soldiers and tradesmen at her father’s tavern. Then one day, a striking young man with a pale complexion, resplendent in his military uniform, came to town.

She grew up serving beer and listening to the rough jokes of soldiers and tradesmen at her father’s tavern. Then one day, a striking young man with a pale complexion, resplendent in his military uniform, came to town. The girl was smitten, as was the young man. They moved in together, and he rose through the ranks of the army to become a general. They might have gotten married quietly, privately, sometime before their son was born, but they were in love and perhaps they believed love was enough.

The soldier continued his rise in power until he literally reached the top rank of government. Then one horrible day, his beloved woke up to learn that she had been abandoned for a younger woman with better political connections, whom her “husband” promptly married with all due pomp and circumstance. She was left to fend for herself, a middle-aged woman with no education, no prospects, and no future.

It may sound like something from the pages of a contemporary novel, but this woman’s story is nearly two thousand years old. She is Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta, better known as Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, and one of the saints of the early church.

New Beginning. While Helena might be a likely patron of the First Wives’ Club—and indeed she is the patron of those who are divorced—she is far more than a scorned woman. Once Emperor Flavius Valerius Constantius left her to marry Theodora, the stepdaughter of his co-emperor, Maximian, Helena left her life of glamour and riches to find a renewed identification with God’s purpose for her. In fact, her story really begins when she entered what she must have thought was the end of her life.

While the date of Helena’s conversion from the state religion of Rome to Christianity is unknown, it undoubtedly happened after her son, Constantine, embraced the faith. Embroiled in battle for control of the empire, he had a vision that assured him that he would prevail under the sign of Christ. His soldiers carried the cross on their shields, and Constantine did, indeed, triumph. Shortly afterwards, he converted, becoming the first Christian Roman emperor and proclaiming religious tolerance throughout the empire. His mother most likely became a Christian at about the same time.

Once Helena embraced Christianity, her life changed radically. She threw herself into the faith with fervor. One of the church fathers, Eusebius, wrote that she became “such a devout servant of God, that one might believe her to have been from her very childhood a disciple of the Redeemer of mankind.” She began to work on behalf of the poor and to build churches and, by all accounts, led an exemplary life of sacrifice and prayer.

The True Cross. Now what’s so extraordinary about this is that Helena would have been roughly sixty years old when her new life began. In a time when the average life span was in the midthirties, she was already considered extremely old. In fact, she was probably in her seventies when she undertook her greatest work—a pilgrimage to Palestine, where she built a church in Bethlehem and another one in Jerusalem.

It was this pilgrimage that gave rise to the tradition that Helena headed an archaeological excavation resulting in the discovery of the true cross of Christ. As the story goes, she tore down a temple to Venus that had been built on the site of Jesus’ tomb. Finding three crosses, she had a terminally ill woman touch each of them. When the woman laid her hand on the third one, she was miraculously healed, and Helena pronounced the wood as coming from the cross of Christ.

We know that Helena did visit the likely location of Calvary and that she did bring back relics from the Holy Land. The rest of the story, however, is most likely a legend. The earliest account of the building of the first church of the Holy Sepulchre comes from Eusebius, who gives extensive details about the construction and about Helena’s visit but makes no mention of finding the cross. Also, it is highly unlikely that Helena would have been wielding a shovel, knocking down Roman statues for evidence of the crucifixion!

Alive to the End. Constantine was with Helena when she died at about the age of eighty. Although living into your eighties is no longer the rarity that it was in Helena’s time, we still are a culture that worships youth. If you haven’t made your mark and fortune in the world by the time you are thirty, you are considered a failure. This is particularly true in the entertainment business, where young actresses and pop stars can be considered has-beens by age twenty-five.

And so, when we are tempted to think that we ourselves have nothing more to do after reaching middle age (which is about thirty-three, given a worldwide life expectancy of sixty-six), we need to remember Helena. She had outlived most of her contemporaries by two or three decades when she finally got started on her life’s work. Abandoned, in what she had to have thought was extreme old age, by the man to whom she had given the best years of her life, she literally redefined her life and became a champion of the poor, an intreprid pilgrim, and a builder of churches.

In short, Helena became a saint when she could easily have just waited around to die.

Measuring Time. I especially think of Helena as one of my aunts turns eighty-five. She still works almost full time, earning top commissions at a leading women’s clothing store. She does all her own yard work, even climbing on the roof to clean the gutters. She reads voraciously, is active in politics and the church, and walks at least three miles a day. When we go shopping, she can outlast me by hours. Recently, she decided that she wanted to master the Internet, so she bought a computer and a flat-screen monitor and installed high-speed access. She now e-mails and surfs the Web with ease.

By contrast, I listen to a friend in her twenties, who believes that it’s too late for her to apply to med school because she should have done it when she first graduated from college. She laments that she could never pass the entrance exam, can’t afford the tuition, and would never be admitted to a top school. And so she lets her dream drift away in a cloud of regrets and less-than inspiring jobs.

I pray I am like my aunt.

My aunt and Helena both tell me that, although we measure our time here on earth in years, God’s time is not ours. God does not look at us and say, “Oh, you are too old (or too young or too middle-aged) to do that.” We are the ones who attach undue meaning to the number of times we have—or haven’t—witnessed the earth circling the sun.

God Can Make a Way. Is there something you feel called to do, but have ignored because you didn’t feel it was the right time to start? Is there a dream you’ve held, but have decided it can’t happen because you waited too long to try? Is there a goal you want to attempt, but believe you need to get more experience before you try?

Helena proves that it’s never the wrong time to start living the life God has intended for you. If God places a desire and a goal in your heart, then age is immaterial. God can make a way for you to accomplish the desires he gives. After all, he made it possible for a seventy-year-old woman to travel thousands of miles on foot and horseback to a hostile and foreign land so that she could “show due veneration to the footsteps of the Savior”—all this at a time when women didn’t travel, period, much less in old age.

Most important, Helena shows us that, no matter what our age, it is always the right time for conversion, reconversion, and the pursuit of sanctity. She lived most of her life as a pagan, and yet once she learned about the Savior, she worked so passionately and fervently for the faith that she was heralded as a saint upon her death.

Because of the expanse of her life—from serving beer to being served as empress to serving the Lord as a patron of the poor—I think that Helena, who is the patron of archaeologists, converts, difficult marriages, empresses, and the diocese of Helena, Montana, ought to have one more patronage added to the list: late beginners! n

Woodeene Koenig-Bricker lives in Oregon. Her latest book is Asking God for the Gifts He Wants to Give You (The Word Among Us).