May 21 – Constantine the Great; Godric of Finchale

Constantine the Great (ca. 272–337), Equal to the Apostles, was on his way to fight for the emperority of the Roman Empire when he had a variously described vision. According to one variation, he saw a chi-rho in the sky above the sun, and the words “Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα,” usually translated as “in hoc signo vinces,” which is a lot like, “in this sign, conquer.” Confused as to what this meant, he dreamed a little dream of Christ, who told him to use that sign against his enemies. He was conveniently camped within blocks of an “In by 7, out by 5” banner shop, so he had a standard whipped up, and went on to win the battle.

This put him in such a good mood about Christianity that he (together with Licinius but this isn’t his story) issued the famous Edict of Milan, allowing Christians (and anybody else for that matter) to worship as they pleased, thus striking down requirements for worshiping pagan gods, burning incense to idols, or going to Justin Bieber concerts. He went on to sponsor churches, promote Christians to high-ranking offices, sponsor Bible production, and many other things that in general made Christians happy and pagans less so. There have since been questions about how politically-motivated all this may have been, but however much these may have troubled the Church, they’re not going to trouble this essay.

When the Arian controversy got controversial, Constantine asked Hosius of Córdoba what he should do. Hosius asked his bishop buds, who said, “Well, in the New Testament, they held a council,” so a council was convened in Nicea. It declared that Christ was of the same ούσιος (technical term meaning “ousios”) as God—not created, as was taught by Arius & the Arians (which would be a really dismal name for a rock band).

Constantine did a lot of other stuff, but the one that had the hugest implications for the Church was the founding of Constantinople, which became the de facto capital of the rump empire after Rome was sacked by the Goths, Visigoths, Bieberites, and so on. Constantine took the tiny Greek town of Byzantium, renamed it New Rome, endowed it with courtiers and Senators and big stone buildings and what-not, and set it on the trajectory to being the glorious hub of the eastern Mediterranean for the next 1000 years, capital of the so-called Byzantine Empire. (Nobody actually called it that until over 100 years after its demise, but it appears to be the term we’re stuck with.)

Godric of Finchale (ca. 1065–1170) was a sailor and perhaps pirate who landed at Lindisfarne* and had a life-changing encounter with St. Cuthbert (Mar 20), who had been dead and buried for over 300 years (which could sober anybody up). He pilgrimaged to Jerusalem, where he vowed to go barefoot the rest of his life (which he did). After traveling about, he spent two years with a hermit named Aelric in Wolsingham[1]; after Aelric’s death he returned to Jerusalem, working in a hospital as a doorkeeper. (Details about this period are scant but I think it only fair we assume he kept the door very well.) He lived out the remainder of his days in a hovel in the forest near Finchale (in England). The prior at Durham sent a priest regularly to say Mass, and persons obscure and great came with some regularity seeking advice. All his life he was in tune with the sea, getting urpy on stormy nights, and sometimes stopping what he was doing to pray for a ship that was foundering. Four songs by Godric constitute the oldest English songs for which both words and music have been preserved.

[1] Not to be confused with Through the Looking-glass and What Aelric Found There.