Today is the feast day for St. Helena, popularly known for being the emperor Constantine’s mother and the discoverer of the true cross. Catholic literary convert Evelyn Waugh wrote a short novelized biography of her that he used to say was his favorite work and one he read to his children. When I first read it eight years ago, I assembled a couple of posts with excerpts for my old blog, which you can find here and here. The first concerns the “diversity” (a word at which Waugh would have shuddered) of the universal Church:
There was an echo from the old empty world. There was no hate in her now and nothing round her was quite profane. She could not dispense with her guard but she mitigated their roughness, and always her heart was beyond them, over their big shoulders, in the crowd. When she first heard Mass at the Lateran basilica — as she often did in preference to her private chapel — she went without ostentation and stood simply in the congregation. She was in Rome as a pilgrim and she was surrounded by friends.
There was no way of telling them. There was nothing in their faces. A Thracian or a Teuton might stop a fellow countryman in the streets, embrace him, and speak of home in his own language. Not so Helena and the Christians. The intimate family circle of which she was a member bore no mark of kinship. The barrow man grilling his garlic sausages in the gutter, the fuller behind his reeking public pots, the lawyer or the lawyer’s clerk might each and all be one with the empress dowager in the Mystical Body. And the abounding heathen might in any hour become one with them. There was no mob, only a vast multitude of souls, clothed in a vast variety of body, milling about in the Holy City, in the See of Peter.
The second is on the historicity and solidity of our religion’s founding:
There was a further pause; then in clear, schoolroom tone, Helena said: “What I should like to know is: When and where did all this happen? And how do you know?”
Minervina frowned. Marcias [a gnostic mystogogue] replied: “These things are beyond time and space. Their truth is integral to their proposition and by nature transcends material proof.”
“Then, please, how do you know?”
“By a lifetime of patient study, your Majesty.”
“But study of what?”
“… Tell me Lactantius [a Catholic], this god of yours. If I asked you when and where he could be seen, what would you say?”
“I should say that as a man he died 278 years ago in the town now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.”
“Well, that’s a straight answer anyway. How do you know?”
“We have the accounts written by witnesses. Besides that there is the living memory of the church. We have knowledge handed down from father to son, invisible places marked by memory — the cave where he was born, the tomb where his body was laid, the grave of Peter.”