Wednesday, May 04, 2022

St Joseph and St Helena

This year, the feast of the Finding of the Cross is followed immediately by the Solemnity of St Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church. Although they often come close to each other, this is the first time in thirty years that these two feasts have concurred at Vespers, as the rubrics traditionally describe it. This got me to thinking about some profound reflections on the figure of St Helena by the English writer Evelyn Waugh, and how they also apply to Our Lord’s foster father.
In 1950, Waugh published his only historical novel, Helena, a fictionalized account of the empress’ life, and her discovery of the Cross. His introduction begins with a funny story based on the Latin version of the feast’s title, “Inventio Crucis”, which, in his classic fashion, foreshadows the greater point of the story.
“It is reported (and I, for one, believe it) that some few years ago a lady prominent for her hostility to the Church returned from a visit to Palestine in a state of exultation. ‘I got the real low-down at last,’ she told her friends. ‘The whole story of the crucifixion was made up by a British woman named Ellen. Why, the guide showed me the very place where it happened. Even the priests admit it. They call their chapel “the Invention of the Cross.” ’ ”
The chapel of the Finding of the Cross in the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; photo by Nicola dei Grandi, from an article published in April of 2019.
“a British woman named Ellen” refers to a medieval tradition that Helena was the daughter of a local chieftain in Roman Britain, a tradition which Waugh incorporates into the story. He always regarded it as his best work, a fact which may well surprise those who know him for much more famous books like The Loved One or Brideshead Revisited. The latter was made into a critically acclaimed mini-series, and several of his other works have likewise been brought to film, although none as well or successfully. Helena, on the other, has not only never been filmed, but is the only one of his novels that ever fell out of print.
Two years after its publication, Waugh was invited by Claire Booth Luce, who like him, was a prominent convert to Catholicism, to contribute to a collection of essays called Saints for Now, alongside a number of other Catholic writers. He chose St Helena as his subject, and his essay, essentially a summary of the novel’s theological ideas, is deeply insightful; all the more so, when one considers that he had no pretense of any sort to be a theologian.
Evelyn Waugh in 1940. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
What Waugh correctly understood was that in the 4th century, once Christianity had been legalized, it was in danger of being assimilated to (if not into) the numerous other religions that existed in the ancient Roman world. Many things about it were already very congenial to the Roman religious mind: “(a)nother phase of existence which select souls enjoyed when the body was shed; a priesthood; a sacramental system, even in certain details of eating, anointing and washing – all these had already a shadowy place in fashionable thought. Everything about the new religion (i.e. Christianity) was capable of interpretation, could be refined and diminished…”
The novel is set shortly after the Council of Nicea, the first major defeat of the Arian heresy, but far from the last battle fought over it. This newly fashionable version of the Creed, which most of the emperors for 50 years after Constantine adopted, was just such an interpretation, refinement and diminution: the translation of Christianity into Platonism, with God the Father as Plato’s One, and God the Son as the demiurge of the Timaeus.
But Waugh goes on to clarify that everything about Christianity was capable of being interpreted in such a fashion “except the unreasonable assertion that God became man and died on the Cross; not a myth or an allegory; true God, truly incarnate, tortured to death at a particular moment in time, at a particular geographical place, as a matter of plain historical fact.” And thus, in the novel, St Helena herself (a classically British self-assured older woman, who could well be played by Maggie Smith if it were ever filmed), says to the Pope, St Sylvester I, “Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it… there’s a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against. I’m going off to find it.”
St Helena, 1495, by Cima da Conegliano. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
And of course, find it she does, a fact whose importance Waugh underscores by saying in Saints for Now, “It is not fantastic to claim that her discovery entitles her to a place in the Doctorate of the Church, for she was not merely adding one more stupendous trophy to (its) hoard of relics … She was asserting in sensational form a dogma that was in danger of neglect.”
Now it must be stated that the Church’s defense of that dogma was not the argument over abstruse and useless theology that bad historians have long presented it as. It was motivated rather by the gravest possible pastoral concerns, and for this reason, it is very appropriate that the Finding of the Cross should be preceded by the feast of St Athanasius, the great champion of Nicene orthodoxy.
The assertion of Christ’s full divinity is the assertion that it is God Himself who takes such great interest in the salvation of the human race that He joins it, uniting each baptized person to Himself in His mystical body. And since it is God Himself, not a lesser creature, who freely offers redemption and salvation to “every man that cometh into this world”, the Church can truly say to every man, regardless of his status in this world, “God is your salvation.” In this sense, the only sense that ultimately matters, all men are equal before God. From this derives the very concept of personhood, which did not exist in the ancient world before Christianity, and the dignity of the human person.
Waugh beautifully connects this essential point, the unique importance of each individual before God, to the career of St Helena. When Constantine came to power in 306, she had been divorced from his father, Constantius Chlorus, for over 15 years, and was no more than a wealthy but obscure retiree, far from power and the centers of power. Indeed, it was for the sake of consolidating power through political alliances that Constantius had put her aside. But as Waugh writes in Saints for Now, “God had His own use for her. Others faced the lions in the circus; others lived in the caves in the desert. She was to be St Helena Empress, not St Helena Martyr or St Helena Anchorite. She accepted a state of life (i.e. that of dowager empress, after her son’s ascent to power) full of dangers to the soul in which many foundered, and she remained fixed in her purpose … Then came her call to a single peculiar act of service, something unattempted before and unrepeatable – the finding of the True Cross. … What we can learn from Helena is something about the workings of God; that He wants a different thing from each of us, laborious or easy, conspicuous or quite private, but something which only we can do and for which we were each created.”
A catacomb stone of the 3rd century, with the Magi approaching the child Jesus as he sits in the His Mother’s lap; note that St Joseph is standing behind the throne.
This also applies in an especially fitting way to St Joseph. Like St Helena, very little is known about him, although many traditions, some of them very ancient, but historically very uncertain, have sprung up around him. In recent centuries, he has largely taken over St Barbara’s role as patron Saint of a good death, but the canonical Gospels, our only genuinely reliable source of information about him, do not even mention his death. In many early depictions of the Nativity, he is either absent or relegated to a visibly inferior position, standing where the servants stand, behind the throne of the Virgin and Child. His feast day was slow to catch on, not admitted at Rome until the later 15th century.
But like St Helena, he too was chosen for “a single peculiar act of service”, the guardianship of the two holiest persons who have ever lived in this world. And the Church, having long and duly considered his role as Jesus’ earthly foster father and the true spouse of the Virgin Mary, has thus entrusted itself to him as its own guardian under the title “Patron of the Universal Church”, with which he is honored in today’s feast.
Apart from their specific roles in the history of salvation, these two Saints therefore each remind us in their own way of the broader truth stated by Waugh above, also beautifully expressed by one of the more recent Popes who was given Joseph’s name in baptism. “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in the homily of his inaugural Mass, April 24, 2005.)
St Joseph as Patron of the Catholic Church. This image was used as the header of his feast under that title in liturgical books printed by the German company Frideric Pustet, from the later 19th to mid 20th century. The crests of Popes Bl. Pius IX, who placed the feast of the Patronage of St Joseph on the universal calendar, and Leo XIII are seen to either side of St Peter’s Basilica.

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