It is good to think of Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, a woman who spent her days finding religious relics the way my mom spent weekends finding yard sales.
For instance, here she is with the True Cross, which she found while destroying a temple to Venus, the goddess of love, built inconveniently over the sacred location of Jesus’s tomb. She was visiting the Holy Places in Palestine and, as one does, tried to make the city her own, like when one takes a local lover, or pretends to know enough Czech to order from Subway. As they were excavating — and I like to pretend that the 80-year-old Helena was right there with the workers, all Katherine Hepburned by the sun, in gloves, in the dirt — they discovered three buried crosses. Fortunately, a very sick woman, near death, was quickly found so the miracle could be verified, if it was a miracle at all, mistakes had been made in the past, and these Untrue Crosses of no more value than a fencepost. The ill woman touched the first cross, and nothing. She touched the second cross, and still nothing, like a specific kind of Goldilocks with an unspecific cough, but more than a tickle, something heavier. The third, however, cured the dying woman entirely, in the way of any good Once Upon a Time, and Helena was convinced; the miracle was a miracle. She put one of the nails that pierced Our Savior’s wrist into Constantine’s helmet, for protection, because she loved him, and he warred a lot.
Helena was very good at finding relics, though less Indiana Jones and more Tori Spelling’s mom, Candy, who, in the Spelling Mansion, has a room entirely devoted to gift wrapping. In photos she is centered, both spiritually and physically, behind a cleared table, roll after roll of paper on spools behind, her smile as sharp and thin-lined as the crease on a perfectly papered present. Or maybe a better comparison is Barbra Streisand and her weird old-timey mall that she keeps in a basement, “selling” antiques. Barbra Streisand built an antiques mall in her basement because she had nothing better to do with her time and what I’m trying to explain is that, within the Great Palace of Constantinople was an imperial treasury, and Constantine essentially said to Helena, “See what you find in there that looks holy.” And she did: a leaf from the burning bush; a piece of the rope by which Jesus was tied to the cross; the fingernails of a prophet from the desert. “These will do nicely,” she said. “I like finding what has been lost.”
(She did not find the Holy Prepuce, though many others did, and sometimes at the same time, foreskins, it would seem, being easily findable, much like how a man who knows everything is almost anywhere. These are some of the foreskins we know: The Holy Foreskin of Rome; the Holy Foreskin of Le Puy-en-Velay; and the Holy Foreskin of Santiago de Compostela, of which much can be said, but at another time. One foreskin spent some time, in Antwerp, bleeding lightly on a linen altar cloth, a miracle so marvelous that a Brotherhood immediately formed so the foreskin would not feel lonely. My favorite story about the Holy Foreskin, though, is this: that Charlemagne gave it to Pope Leo III as a gift for having crowned him Emperor. “I trust you don’t already have one,” I’m sure Charlemagne asked. “I will put this on the mantel,” I’m equally sure Pope Leo replied, marveling at the gift wrap, and the way the patterns lined up along the seams. The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ falls on 1 January each year, though the menu is ambiguous. Protestants eat black-eyed peas.)
Helena came from fairly humble origins. St Ambrose, who was not good for the Jews, but to whom I’m, of course, sexually attracted, because self-esteem is a journey not a destination, and I like my men difficult and possibly mean to me, described Helena as a “stabularia,” or a stable-maid. But not in a bitchy way, the way you might think, but in an appreciative way, because the humble are always the best loved by God. A swarm of bees settled on Ambrose’s face, by the way, when he was a baby, leaving behind a single drop of honey. Ambrose didn’t need more.
(His body is still on display in the Church of Saint Ambrogio, in Milan, tender as a biscuit, on a carved bed that Liberace would describe as “too much.” He shares it with two friends, Gervase, and Protase, brothers who were also martyrs, both with very large hands.)
Once on vacation Helena found a shift Christ wore before being crucified and she bought it and sent it to a friend in Germany. “Hugs, Kisses, H.,” the card read. Tori Spelling’s mom would have lovingly gift-wrapped it, I’ve no doubt, if given time and half a chance.
Constantine loved his mother so much that he renamed the city of her birth, Drepanum, to Helenopolis, and that was the right thing to do.