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How the Church Has Changed the World: Sign of Beauty, Sign of Glory


Well was it called the Place of the Skull. 

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helena67Gray-white limestone, rugged and creased, barren of life, you would suppose; but for the stunted pines at the base, the wild grasses with no name, a deep blue iris here and there poking out bravely from the vertical face, and the coo of doves nesting in the clefts of the rock.

An old woman hobbled up the stony way to the bald top of the hill, leaning upon a stick.  She was dressed in grave simplicity, but the cortege of soldiers gave witness that she was a lady of importance.  "Augusta," said an old man, darting a glance from side to side, expecting to catch sight of someone in the shadows, "this is the place."

"You are not lying to us?"

"I am in fear of my life, Augusta."

"You will not betray the Lord, Judas?"

"Domina, I did not name myself.  This is the place."

The old woman looked about.  Nearby stood a temple that Hadrian, emperor of Rome two hundred years past, had built, as if in scorn of the love that here was made manifest, here and nowhere else.  It was a temple to the goddess of love, Aphrodite.  "Our people have known of the place and kept it secret," said Judas.  "It is here, buried under earth and stones."

"We shall see," said the old woman, and she raised her cane toward the soldiers.  They were carrying picks and shovels.  "Dig here," she said.

Nothing but skulls

The old woman had seen much in her time.  She was but a girl, helping her father work the busy inn he kept in the old city by the gulf; shipmen and camel drovers, day after day, barbarians to the north, pagans all round, and Christians, those strange people, trying to honor their Lord in peace, yet willing to die for him when the persecutions came.

"Dig here," she said.

One day he showed up, Constantius the military commander, nicknamed the Paleface, the man she honored and loved.  Husband and wife then went west, to live not in palaces but in camps along the Danube and the cold Rhine, keeping the Germans on the far side.  She had seen many a man die on a cross.  She bore an only son to him, named Little Constantius, that is, Constantinus.

So long ago it was.  Constantius was true and not true to his name.  He was constant in his love for the empire, constant in courage, constant in just administration of the laws.  He was fair to Christians when such fairness was frowned upon.  And he was constant in ambition, so when the chance came for him to be named praetorian prefect of the West, he took it, and abandoned his wife, marrying the daughter of the co-emperor Maxentius.

Constantius became emperor himself, but he would not wear that title long, dying in York after victories against the men with the painted bellies — the Picts.  His wife herself had lived for a long time in that faraway island, Britain, in the company of her son.  He too was a fighter, and an ambitious man.

Oh, the emperors, they come and go, she thought.  She had seen enough of them for one lifetime.  Hadrian too, he came and went.

"Nothing but rubble so far, Domina," said the centurion.  "Rubble and skulls."

"Let the skulls be.  We are searching for life, not death.  Keep digging."

So they did.

In this sign you shall conquer

Who rules the world?

He was fair to Christians when such fairness was frowned upon.

She saw in her mind's eye the great Diocletian, whom she had known.  In his late years, people said that you had to lie on your face when you approached him, calling him Dominus et Deus, as if he were some god out of the god-besotted East.

She smiled and shook her head.  The man himself did not believe a bit of it.  All stage, all show.  He enjoyed governing, which he was remarkably good at, and gardening also.  In his old age he gave up the former so he could better enjoy the latter.  Before that, his underling had persuaded him to persecute the Christians, which he did, as he did all things, with real efficiency.

"Artichokes would have been better," she said to herself.


"Ah, centurion, I was thinking about an emperor.  Anything yet?"

"Rubble is all."

"Almost all," she said.

Rubble was what they left of the church in her father's city.  By then she was in Britain with Constantinus.  She was making her deliberate way toward Christ.  She had seen too much of the world to be hasty.  A Greek philosopher could oil the world with his words; and oil meant money and power.  The dark priests of Britain terrified the people; and terror meant money and power.  Augustus and Rome were god and goddess, and they were nothing without money and power.  Christ was not only different.  He was that whole world turned upside down.

"Mother," said Constantinus one day, "I have had a dream."

They were outside of Rome, and her son was fighting for control over the west.  Mother and son had been nudging one another along the Christian way.  He told her the dream.  It was of a shining cross in the heavens, with the words en Toutoi Nika: In this, be victorious.

"It is a sign of shame," he said.  "A scandal to the Jews, and folly to the Greeks," said she.

"Death and defeat," he said.

"Life and victory."

"What does it mean?" he said.

"It means that the world is not ruled as men have thought."

"I shall have my men bear this sign upon our banners."

The dream indeed came true.  And she, Helena, the humble daughter of an innkeeper, became Augusta, the most powerful woman in the world.

"Lignum, lignum!" cried the soldiers.  "The wood of life," said she.

How can we tell?

Helena could have spent her later years as Diocletian did, gardening, and enjoying the wealth of an empress.  Or that was what she did, in fact.  She enjoyed that wealth by giving it away, endowing and planting churches wherever she went, in Rome and Trier and now in Palestine.

She took a gold coin from a fold of her garment.  She looked at it with an old woman's ironic eye.  "I haven't looked like that in many years," she thought, seeing her stamped bust upon it, with full cheeks and braided hair and a coronet.  "Augusta," it read, while on the reverse stood an allegory of Security, holding an olive branch.  No security but in Christ, she thought.

"Augusta," said the centurion, as if short of breath.  "We have found three of them. 

Three posts and three beams."

The old woman hobbled to the edge of the cavity, fell to her knees, and peered down.  Five or six sweating men, stripped to the waist, looked up to her, holding their picks upright and backing away, in dread, from the planks.  For a few moments no one said a word.  A dove cooed from the rocks above.

And slowly, slowly, into dull and muddle-headed man, came the idea that power was manifest in meekness, strength in love, and life in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.

"How can we tell?"

Helena turned about.  "Judas!" she cried.

The old Jewish man stood near.

"Do you know which one it is?"

"No, Augusta.  But," he said, with all the courage he could muster, "I know a woman who is dying of typhus.  Perhaps…."  But the empress interrupted him.  "Bring her here!"

That was how they knew they had found the true cross of Christ, when the dying woman was cured.  This Judas did not go and hang himself from a tree.  He did not ask for thirty pieces of silver for his services.  He was baptized, and took the name Kyriakos (Latin Cyriacus), meaning "Belonging to the Lord."

Helena built a chapel nearby, and several other great churches in the Holy Land.  For many years, the bulk of the cross stood there.  But as soon as it was found, relics were sent round the Christian world for veneration.  Scoffers say that if all the relics of the cross were gathered up, it would be as big as a battleship.  That is complete nonsense.  One scholar has estimated that the bulk of all the relics would amount to about one-fortieth of a cross of pine wood weighing a hundred and fifty pounds.  Think how light a splinter is, and how a thousand of those put together would still be as light as a few feathers.

The world turned upside down

In 313, Constantine gave legal recognition to the Christian faith, and in 380 Theodosius made it the official religion of the empire.  "My Kingdom is not of this world," said Jesus, but did that mean that man's pursuit of the common good in this life was to have nothing to do with his pursuit of the ultimate good, the vision of God in the communion of saints?  After the son of Saint Helena, Christian missionaries could freely go to the ends of the earth, as Jesus had commanded, baptizing all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Then it was that Europe as we know it was born.  And slowly, slowly, into dull and muddle-headed man, came the idea that power was manifest in meekness, strength in love, and life in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Sign of Beauty, Sign of Glory." Magnificat (April, 2020).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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