beneath the basil
Yesterday Orthodox Christians celebrated the Elevation of the Life Giving Cross. When commemorating the Life Giving Cross, we are also drawn to Saint Helen, a holy woman of Christ and the mother of Constantine the Great.
There is a rather unknown story about her, that maybe even most Orthodox Christians do not know, which is that most of her relics rest in Paris, in a cave beneath the altar of the Church of Saint Leu – Saint Gilles – an unknown Church on one of the worst streets in Paris.
I have always loved Paris. My husband travels there every year and we have often accompanied him. After years of having seen all the major tourist sites we began to seek out Orthodoxy in France – greatly encouraged by Saint John Maximovitch.
It turns out that Saint Helen’s first resting place was Rome and the translation of her relics to Paris is a remarkable story and speaks to a depth of Faith which allows for the Grace of God working in our lives – just as that depth of Faith and spiritual vision led Saint Helen, a woman with the faith of a child, to dig beneath sweet holy Basil to unearth the true Cross.
The story of her translation to Paris is that it was medieval times – during the 9th century – and a simple holy monk from France was in Rome. He was granted a revelation to take the relics of Saint Helen to his monastery. He was a humble man and he followed what God spoke to him.
This was not a planned informed ceremonial transfer. He just quietly took her relics – a.k.a. he swiped them. As you can imagine, when he brought her relics to his monastery of Hautvelliers he was not met with cheers but with surprise and disbelief. This is recorded in the chronicles of the monastery.
What the Abbot wanted to know first is whether this was fraudulent and second if the relics had actually been stolen, because if misappropriated relics were now in his monastery, his relationship with Rome would need some repair.
Word was sent to the Pope and indeed Saint Helen had been reported missing, not surprisingly from the time the monk claimed to have lifted them.
But what is striking of the story is that the Pope was a holy monk of Christ with a depth and vision of Faith. When he learned of the revelation and the miracles which dovetail Saint Helen’s journey to France, he stopped and he prayed.
Ultimately, instead of requesting their return to Rome he allowed for the will of God and Saint Helen.
He understood that in the history of salvation and of the Church, Saints have often chosen their own resting place. He was willing to allow for the Providence of God.
Similarly, the monastery Abbot was also a man of God and a righteous man. He tested the monk to be sure they had not been deceived. And so it is also recorded in the monastery chronicles that the monk underwent a test with a cauldron of boiling water. The humble monk willingly entered the boiling water. The Abbot only asked him to do it once. The monk emerged from the water, whole. Thus he demonstrated not only the sincerity of his faith to bear his Cross, but his devotion to the intercessions of Saint Helen and the truth of the revelation. Also, very importantly, it confirmed the integrity of the monastery.
Of all the Churches in Paris we have visited, this Church was the most difficult to find – for the taxi driver too. It is a Catholic Chuch, and even within the Church Saint Helen’s relics are not apparent but rather hidden in the sanctuary. But that east meets west here is clear, for on the walls and in the cave are Byzantine icons of Saint Genevieve the patron Saint of Paris, Christ, Saint Symeon the Hospitality of Abraham and others.
We came to this Church in the early evening and after spending time with Saint Helen, we began to leave, except that a service was beginning. So, we decided to stay for what was likely Vespers, a Gladsome Light and just a little bit of a Byzantine current bringing life to the chanting. It was beautiful!
It was an article in Roads to Emmaus Journal where we learned of the history of Orthodoxy in France. In it a salient point is made, which is what would happen in the distracted age of today under such circumstances?
“The pope’s decision about St. Helen was similar; he saw God’s hand in it. Our century, undoubtedly, would proclaim, “Return! Punish!”
Probably the relics would be returned and the monk would be punished.”
It’s a consideration. Do we have the depth of Faith, not only to rightly worship (Orthodoxy) but to also allow for the Grace of God to work with the raw material of what is often the mess of peoples lives? Do we actually believe that God exists beyond the tidy order of our liturgics and rubrics and that like the Potter he completes the work He begins in the lives of His people (Philippians 1:6)?
The answers to these questions are deeply personal, and speak to the heart of our relationship with God (the Father Son and Holy Spirit).
For more information about Orthodoxy in France, read this article from Roads to Emmaus journal.
O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance!