March 6 — Uncovering of the True Cross by the Empress Helen; Colette

Empress Helen (ca. 248–330) was the mother of Constantine the Great (May 21). Today we celebrate her finding or Uncovering of the True Cross.

In 326, the emperor sent his mother with a blank check to Jerusalem to tear down pagan temples (she had amazing grip strength) and build churches and such. Quickly bored with this, she decided to look for the True Cross, and started questioning the locals. Things were grim until she asked an old Jew named Jude (cliché, we know), who told her to look under the temple of Venus. Helen tore down the temple (I’m going to assume she had help, but the sources do make it sound like she did it unaided), and behold! Underneath they found three crosses, four nails, and a placard matching the one in the Gospel (“INRI,” in Greggorian Shorthand). Trouble was, they couldn’t tell which of the three crosses was Jesus’. So they brought in a dead man (or sick woman), and laid his body on (had her touch) each of the three crosses in turn. When he (she) was laid on (touched) the third cross, he (she) returned to life (regained her health). (Can you tell our sources disagree on some details?)

Everyone rejoiced, and the True Cross was whittled into sliver-sized pieces, placed in tiny reliquaries, and sold at religious gift shops throughout the Empire. Just kidding; that didn’t happen until Constantinople was sacked by the Fourth Crusade. Moving away from inter-church enmity back to the far more comfortable subject of dead saints’ bones, Helen’s skull (or “crown” as relics fans say), for reasons we probably don’t even want to know, ended up in Trier (Germany), in their very sharp-looking twelfth-century cathedral.

Colette (1381–1447) was born to a carpenter at Corbie Abbey (which is fun to say—try it!), and named “Nicolette” after St. Nicholas of Myra. She was orphaned at 17 and left in the care of the abbot. She was short and beautiful, which is important. She tried her hand at the Beguines and Benedictines, but without success, so she gave everything she had to the poor, and became a Franciscan tertiary*. On her twenty-first birthday, she was given a hermitage near the church in Corbie (no doubt she would have preferred one in the woods or desert or something). She tried to live as austere a life as she could, which (predictably) attracted advice-hungry pilgrims. Then she had a vision (or two) of St. Francis (Oct 4), who told her to reconstitute the Rule of St. Clare (Aug 11) in the original (austere and severe) packaging. She ignored the vision, and was struck blind for three days, leading one to the inescapable conclusion that when St. Francis tells you to do something, you probably should.

Afraid nobody would take her seriously, she headed off to Nice and was blessed by the pope-in-exile, who gave her a commission to take over and create as many convents as she could. She set off to do just that, but nobody took her seriously. They were rude to her and even accused her of sorcery—at least at first. But eventually she found her footing, and began setting things to rights. She founded 17 new convents and reformed others (and even a men’s monastery or two). She is said to have helped heal the papal schism, was devoted to the Passion, loved and cared for animals, and may even have met (St.) Joan of Arc (May 30), although my source is skeptical. She fell ill while working in Flanders, and when she knew her death was coming, received the last rites and died in her convent in Ghent. Her body was moved to Poligny when the Holy Roman Emperor (Joseph II, but who’s counting?) started messing with the monasteries in Flanders. She is the patroness “against the death of parents.”