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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Ellen's Invention

Formerly the Feast of the Invention of the Cross.

Scene: Lecture by pretentious antique would-be guru.
No one spoke immediately; then: 'I was not quite sure whether you said that the Demiurge was an Aeon.'
'No, madam. It was one of the aims of my poor discourse to demonstrate that he was not.'
'Oh... Thank you.'
Minerviana nodded as though to say: 'I couldhave told you that, and I should have done so rather more sharply.'
There was a further pause; then in clear, schoolroom tone, Helena said:
'What I should like to know is: When and where did all this happen? And how do you know?'
Minervina frowned. Marcias replied:'These things are beyond time and space. Their truth is integral to their proposition and by nature transcends material proof.'
'Then, please, how do you know?'
'By a life-time of patient and humble study, your Majesty.'
'But study of what?'
'That, I fear, would take a life-time to particularize.'

That evening Helena sent for Lactantius and said: 'I went to the lecture this afternoon. I found I knew the man quite well. He used to belong to my father in Britain. He's put on a lot of weight since then. I couldn't understand a word he said. It's all bosh, isn't it?'
'All complete bosh, your Majesty.'
'So I supposed. Just wanted to make sure. Tell me, Lactantius, this god of yours. If I asked you when and where he could be seen, what would you say?'
'I should say that as a man he died two hundred and seventy-eight years ago in the town now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.'
'Well, that's a straight answer anyway. How do you know?'
'We have the accounts written by witnesses. Besides that there is the living memory of the Church. We have knowledge handed down from father to son, invisible places maked by memory - the cave where he was born, the tomb where his body was laid, the grave of Peter. One day all these things will be made public. Now they are kept a secret[...].'
'Well, that's all most interesting. Thank you, Lactantius. Good night.'
'Good night, your Majesty.'
'No one has seen him for nearly three hundred years?'
'Some have seen him. The martyrs see him now.'
'Have you?'
'Do you know anyone who has?'
'Your Majesty, I must beg you to excuse me. THere are things that must not be spoken of to anyone outside the household.'
'I should not have asked. All my life I have caused offence to religious people by asking questions. Good night, Lactantius.'
'Good night, your Majesty.'

Helena meets mysterious chap (Waugh quasi identifies him with the 'Wandering Jew').

'What happened to the cross?' asked Helena.
'Oh they threw those away, all three of them. They had to, you know, by law.'
'Where did they put them? Do you remember?'
'I want that cross.'
'Yes, come to think of it I expect there'll be quite a demand for anything to do with the Galilean now that he's suddenly become so popular
and respectable.'
'Could you show me where it is?'
'I reckon so.'
'I am rich. Tell me your price.'
'I wouldn't take anything from you, lady, for a little service like that. I shall get paid all right, in time. You have to take a long view in my business. How I see it, this new religion of the Galilean may be in for quite a run. A religion starts, no one knows how. Soon, you get holy men and holy places springing up everywhere, old shrines change their names, there's apparitions and pilgrimages. There'll be ladies wanting other things besides the cross. All one wants is to get the thing started properly. One wants a few genuine relics in thoroughly respectable hands. Then everyone else will follow. There won't be enough genuine stuff to meet the demand. That will be my turn. I shall get paid. I wouldn't take anything from you now, lady. Glad to see you have the cross.It won't cost you a thing.'
Helena listened and in her mind saw, clear as all else on that brilliant timeless morning, what was in store. She saw the sanctuaries of Christendom become a fair ground, stalls hung with beads and medals, substances yet unknown pressed into sacred emblems; heard achatter of haggling in tongues yet unspoken. She saw the treasuries of the Church fillied with forgeries and impostures. She saw Christians fighting and stealing to get possession of trash. She saw all this, considered it and said:
'It's a stiff price'; and then: 'Show me the cross.'

Once the Cross has been found:
'Your highness, ma'am, dear lady,' said Macarius. 'You really must not expect miracles every day.'
'Why not?' said Helena. 'There wouldn't be any point in God giving us the cross if he didn't want us to recognize it. Find someone ill, very ill,' she said, 'and try the cross=beams on him.'
It worked, as everything had worked for Helena on this remarkable tour. The beams were carried up to the room of a dying woman and laid one at a time beside her on the bed. Two made no difference. The third effected a complete recovery.
'So now we know,' said Helena.

Evelyn Waugh, Helena (1950)