IVP - Strangely Dim - Helena of Constantinople

March 19, 2009

Helena of Constantinople

We continue our celebration of women from Christian history with Tamara Park--or, more specifically, her profile of Helena of Constantinople, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, from the book Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem.


I like liberated old ladies. I know a couple of them. They can dole out sage advice, crack random jokes and, if need be, fart in public. It's those liberated old ladies who have lived well and loved generously that can take risks few others dare.

This pilgrimage was inspired by such a lady. Her name is Helena. . . . Helena was the mother of Constantine, the fourth-century emperor (the one with the Arch). Much of Helena's life is left to legend, but what we can piece together is that she was born around 248 C.E. in ancient Bithynia, today's Turkey. While working in a tavern she caught the attention of a Roman soldier, Constantius Chlorus. They became lovers, but as he rose through the ranks of power he moved on from her, leaving Helena a divorcée and single mother in her late thirties.

Fortunately her son did quite well for himself, making emperor and all. Helena is said to have officially embraced Christianity after Constantine's conversion in 312. So at the age of sixty-four she committed to a monotheistic religion, and almost fifteen years later, she became Christianity's first pilgrim from Rome to Jerusalem.

Helena is both a muse and a mystery to me. I envision her heading east on her historic journey looking elegant but wearing durable walking shoes. She insists on managing her luggage on her own, but is slightly scattered getting going. She's wonderfully free-spirited, still able to flirt, and yes, deeply spiritual. She is one of those women who has nothing to prove but loads to say. So to me, she's the quintessential liberated old lady.

Of course, that's simply the vision of her I've constructed. Eusebius, a church historian and contemporary of Helena's, describes the empress as handing out money to the poor, clothes to the naked and justice to the oppressed as she traversed from Rome to Jerusalem. Eusebius also notes that whenever she encountered a church along the way, she couldn't resist stopping to pray.

Helena's legend looms large once she makes it to the Holy Land. The majority of Christian pilgrim sites in Israel today are tied to her pilgrimage, as she scoped out sites attached to the story of Jesus and the early saints. Some places she visited already had a tradition of being sacred; others seem to have been declared holy after she shared a cup of tea with a hospitable local. Helena's biggest claim to fame was her discovery of the cross of Christ. Whether that was a legitimate find or not is debatable, but what is clear is that when she arrived in Jerusalem, it was considered a backwater city that had passed its prime. When she left, it was poised for a thriving pilgrimage industry.

Helena returned to Rome with a trunk full of relics, including a cross. Shortly afterward she died. In Helena's honor, Constantine built churches on many of the holy sites she visited, including the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.

I really don't know what compelled Helena to make the pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem. Eusebius portrays her as driven by religious enthusiasm, while later historians speculate that her pilgrimage was politically motivated. Perhaps she was trying to bolster her son's waning popularity. Constantine had recently made some radical religious reforms, including replacing many political officials with Christian dignitaries and suppressing pagan cult activities. He also made a few relational faux pas, such as murdering his wife, Fausta, and his son, Crispus, the year before Helena's historic journey.

I don't have the inside scoop on the empress's motives. I would like to think that in the mix of Helena's motives was a desire to see if this religion she converted to late in life was any different than the cults she grew up with--that ultimately her fourteen-hundred-mile trek from Rome to Jerusalem was a quest for truth. But what I take from Eusebius's tiny scrapbook of her life, and from all the holy sites helped along by her pilgrimage, is this: she had courage to go and capacity to savor the journey. On a trip of over a thousand miles she took time to talk to, listen to and respond to people en route. And when she got to the Holy Land, she wanted to go everywhere Jesus had been.


Posted by Dave Zimmerman at March 19, 2009 5:51 AM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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