“Poor working girl perseveres through the adversities of life and love—but finally makes it big.”
It sounds like the outline of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale—or, given a more contemporary spin, a Danielle Steel novel. But in fact it’s the life story of one of the saints of the Armenian Church: Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, and discoverer of the Holy Cross of our Lord.
St. Helena started life as a humble tavern girl—a waitress in a remote outpost of the Roman Empire—who caught the eye of a rising officer in the imperial Roman army. Eventually, the soldier’s ambitions caused him to set his wife aside to pursue another, more political marriage—but not before Helena had borne him a son, named Constantine. As the father moved up to the highest levels of government, he took his son out of Helena’s care; but the boy never forgot his mother. He became a great general himself, and then the Roman emperor. And having risen to the most powerful position in the world, Constantine brought his mother out of obscurity, to live as an honored and—it was widely recognized at the time—an influential member of his court.
Of course, her “rags-to-riches” story is not the reason we remember Helena, let alone why we revere her today. What captured the church’s admiration was not Helena’s imperial greatness, but rather the way she exemplified the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
We are told that Helena came to Christianity in the latter part of life. In one of the most famous conversion stories of all time, her son Constantine received a vision of the Holy Cross on the eve of battle. “Before this sign you shall conquer,” boomed an accompanying voice from the heavens. With crosses held before his army, Constantine won the battle, and went on to overthrow all the Roman laws prohibiting Christianity.
Eventually he became a great patron of the faith, convening the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, in A.D. 325. Armenian clergymen were among those who traveled from all over the inhabited world to attend that council, and to this day we still recite the Nicene Creed—the Havadamk—in our liturgy.
According to the traditions, Helena was influenced by her son’s vision, and became deeply devout and learned in the Christian faith. But this is the received story, and perhaps it has it backwards on this point. A child is much more likely to come back to his parent’s way of thinking—even if late in life, even if begrudgingly—than the other way round. And as Armenians, we can testify that it is hardly uncommon for men to be deeply influenced by the faith of a mother or grandmother.
Though we know very little about Helena’s early life, it seems plausible that the Christian religion would have appealed to someone with her life experiences well before she had any hopes of becoming an imperial matron. Perhaps, then, Helena was the one who introduced Christianity into her family, and her son’s vision was not so much a “bolt from the blue” as it was a confirmation to Constantine to embrace his mother’s faith.
In any case, it is a fact that, following Constantine’s vision, Helena quickly became the world’s most high-profile Christian, while Constantine himself waited until his deathbed to fully convert to the faith.
Helena became beloved in her own time for her acts of charity and benevolence, and was celebrated for her simple piety and dedication to God. At the advanced age of eighty, she took it upon herself to travel as a pilgrim to the Holy Land, and there she set about trying to identify the places where Christ had walked and preached, some 300 years earlier.
It was in Jerusalem that, after years of prayer and good works, Helena herself was witness to a miracle. At the foot of Golgotha—the hill where Christ was crucified—workers under her sponsorship found three wooden crosses. As the crosses were unearthed from beneath 300 years of debris, Helena is said to have thrown gold coins to the laborers, to speed their work. Imagine her excitement as the workmen uncovered the material remains of the Crucifixion!
But how could they determine which (if any) of the crosses was the Cross of Christ? In an ingenious solution, they brought the body of a recently-deceased man to the site. Laying him on the first two crosses produced no result. But when he was placed on the third, his dead body stirred to life. This, Helena concluded, must be the True Cross—still surging with the miraculous, life-giving power of the Resurrection.
In addition to her own feast day (observed in July), the Armenian Church celebrates Helena’s discovery of the True Cross every autumn, during the feast cycle of the Holy Cross. And the sites she identified on her pilgrimage are still the ones we venerate in the Holy Land. Some of them, like the Church of the Nativity, are under the custodianship of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
—Christopher H. Zakian
Above: Saint Helen Testing the True Cross, by Tintoretto (c. 1545).