Saint Denis and the Pot of Basil

by Catherine Heloise

It was Rusticus who wanted to convert the heathen Parisii, not Denis.

(It was certainly not Eleutherius.)

Denis had been quite content ministering to the small community of believers that met in his house church in a small village not far from Athens. They were a close-knit and harmonious group, and he had looked forward to growing old with them, as they helped and encouraged one another, and shared a friendly sort of hospitality with their neighbours.

(Their neighbours returned this kindness by turning a blind eye to their unwholesome monotheism. What the Romans didn’t know, it was generally felt, could not hurt anyone. And didn’t the Empire have enough to do, with all the troubles in Rome, the assassinations, and the civil wars, and rumours of barbarians in the north? There was no need to bother them about two dozen or so religious eccentrics who were harming nobody.)

And so Denis had spent his days peacefully, growing vegetables and herbs and olives, tending the goat and the chickens, who rewarded his care with milk and eggs, and turning this bounty into stews and soups to share with the poor of the village. Feeding the poor was one of the corporeal acts of mercy, but cooking, for Denis, was prayer itself, a way to approach the Creator through a prosaic act of creation.

(Denis had, in the first ecstasy of conversion, manumitted his slaves, for all men and women were his brothers and sisters now. He did not regret this decision, but since he could also not afford servants, and had never been trained in the housewifely arts, the first months of fending for himself had been dispiriting and somewhat exhausting. Denis gave thanks daily for the grace that had turned one chore, at least, into both joy and blessing.)

Ah, but then there was Rusticus, Denis’ godson, the child of his oldest friend, who had dedicated him to his care on his deathbed. Rusticus, who was all but a son to him, and who had got it into his head that God was calling him to Gaul to convert the Parisii and the other tribes there. And when Rusticus felt he had a calling, he was relentless in his enthusiasm, babbling to Denis and Eleutherius at every opportunity about the intricacies of Gaulish grammar (as revealed to him by a slave in his father’s household), the doomed courage of the Parisii at the battle of Alesia (well over a century ago, mind you, but that was Rusticus for you), and… well, to tell the truth, once Rusticus got started on the history of Lutetia, Denis generally found somewhere else to be, at least in his head.

(In retrospect, thinking about his garden, and whether he might be able to convince a colony of bees to build a hive near the citron tree, a nice, sheltered space where they might go undisturbed for much of the year, had probably been a mistake. Rusticus had taken his smiles for agreement and gone straight off to write another letter to the Pope.)

And then Pope Fabian had given the mission his blessing, and it was obvious to both Denis and Eleutherius that Rusticus would not last a week in Lutetia without saying something unforgiveable, and so Denis had sold his chickens and his goat and given his house to the church, and Eleutherius had sold his smithy so that they would have money for the journey, and the three men left Greece to make the long journey into Gaul.

(In his more cynical moments, Denis wondered if Pope Fabian had sent the three of them to Lutetia simply so that he wouldn’t have to read any more letters from Rusticus. But this was not a charitable thought, and Denis did try to be charitable.)

Fabian must have had his doubts about Rusticus too, because when they reached Rome to be blessed in person for the journey, it was Denis who was appointed Bishop to the Parisii and given charge of the precious scroll containing Luke’s Gospel, and Eleutherius who was made treasurer of their small fund and sent out to find guides to convey them across the Alps. But Rusticus had his blessing and his mission, and he was more than content.

(They didn’t die crossing the Alps, even though it was the middle of winter. Rusticus called this a miracle and even Eleutherius was impressed, so presumably this really was God’s will. Denis did his best to be gracious, even though he had contracted the first of what would be many catarrhs due to the inhospitably cold weather, and humbly asked Rusticus for lessons in Gaulish. Latin was theoretically the lingua franca in the Gallic Empire, but the Gauls had never really appreciated Roman rule—rumour had it that one small village in Armorica was still holding out—and given the unstable political climate, it seemed to Denis that it would be prudent on both evangelical and pragmatic grounds not to be limited to the tongue of the Romans.)

Denis was pleasantly surprised by Lutetia, a prosperous and well-constructed town built on the island in the middle of the Sequana and connected to both north and south banks by wooden bridges. The water from the Sequana was clear and pleasant to drink, vineyards had been cultivated on the nearby hills, and work was underway on the south bank to transform it into a truly Roman town, with a forum, baths, an arena, and the ubiquitous temples to Isis, Mercury and Jupiter. Denis missed his garden terribly, but he would not have known how to grow food in the cold, marshy soil, and the local market was good. They would be comfortable here, he thought.

(Eleutherius, always prudent, would have settled them in the tiny settlement on the hill north of the river, from which it would be easier to escape should the Romans decide they were a threat to the public peace, but Rusticus was determined to live on the island, in the town built on the foundations of old Lucotocia, and Denis, reluctantly, agreed that it was more becoming for missionaries to live in the middle of their prospective congregation, and not safely removed from it. They leased a small apartment on the island not far from the Temple to Jupiter, part of a villa that had once belonged to a wealthy Roman family. It was not by chance that theirs was the part which contained the kitchen.)

The markets, for Denis, were a bright spot in that first bitterly cold Lenten season. True, their offerings were as meagre as one might expect in March—mostly herbs and bitter greens, with sacks of dried legumes, and pyramids of root vegetables, tough from their months in storage and requiring long cooking to become edible—but the stallholders and fellow market-goers were a delight. Denis spoke Gaulish only hesitantly, but food, it seemed, was a universal language, and one in which the Lutetians were both fluent and enthusiastic. He began to make friends, and because Denis could not love someone without wanting to feed them, their little house began to be full of Parisii, talking loudly in Gaulish, gesturing with their hands to explain new words, and wandering into the kitchen to poke spoons into pots of stew cooking over the hearth. It wasn’t his house church, but it was quickly beginning to feel like home.

(Denis wasn’t making any converts yet, but he secretly suspected that his Lord would have approved anyway. After all, his very first miracle had been turning water into wine at Cana, and then there were the loaves and fishes. Nor had it escaped Denis’ notice how many parables focused on food, be it yeast, or bread, or mustard seeds, or fatted calves, or even olive oil. The Christos, Denis felt, had clearly understood the power of sharing food—such a quintessentially human thing—to express love and build a community. And had he not told the disciples to feed his flock?)

Eleutherius and Rusticus were quite amused by this state of affairs, though Eleutherius did have some qualms about the effect of all this hospitality on the household budget. Rusticus was more concerned that the others were not making enough of this opportunity for mass conversions, but Denis counselled patience.

“We can’t just go in and tell people what to believe,” Denis reminded him. “They won’t listen, and in any case, it’s rude. Far better simply to show by our lives that we love God and our fellow men and women, and that we know ourselves loved in return. Believe me, people will ask when they are ready to ask, and then we can tell them our good news.”

Rusticus frowned. “But what of those who don’t ask? Or who die before they have the chance? We were sent to spread God’s word—surely it is our duty to do so.”

“Do you believe that a loving God would condemn people who have the misfortune to die before they can learn to trust him? I do not. We spread God’s word better through our deeds than through speeches, in any case.”

“And this way, the soldiers can’t come after us,” Eleutherius added, somewhat grimly. The most recent news from Rome had been alarming, as those in power, feeling threatened by political turmoil on the one hand and marauding tribes on the other, had chosen to crack down on religious dissidents, demanding public sacrifices to the Roman gods. Many had chosen to die rather than renounce their faith.

(The Church taught that such martyrs were with God, which was surely a reason to rejoice, and Denis obediently thanked God in his prayers that these beloved brothers and sisters were now in paradise and free from mortal sin and pain. Nonetheless, he couldn’t help thinking that such a blessing had been dearly bought. He hoped, fervently, that God would not require such a sacrifice of him, and lying awake and fearful in the quiet of his bed, he often found himself praying the familiar words from Luke’s Gospel: “If it is possible, let this cup pass away from me,” before surrendering with a sigh: “But not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” He never slept well on those nights.)

In the end, Denis was right. Their evening meals brought friends to their door, and as they broke bread together, some asked what had brought the three men to Lutetia. Camilla, the fishmonger’s daughter, alarmingly assured in her opinions and confident in her faith, was the first to ask for baptism, but her parents, Caturix and Abella, soon followed. Their neighbours, Titus and Prisca, soon joined the congregation, and then Eleutherius brought home Korisos, a fellow journeyman at the forge. Ivomaros and Latumaros came next, two very tall, broad Parisii with whom Rusticus had worked on the subterranean aqueduct leading to the new baths. Gesataia and Obalda, two widows who shared a house next to the bakery, and frequently contributed bread to the meals, were frequent visitors, with shy Augusta joining them on the few occasions that her husband, the winemaker, permitted it.

And so the community grew, encompassing Parisii, Romans and expatriates, men and women, slave and free, and Denis had the satisfaction of seeing his largest pot nearly licked clean at the end of every meal. He began making some of his stews to sell at the market, the better to afford more ingredients.

(This business venture was doomed to failure from the start. Word rapidly spread that Denis was an easy mark, one who would give food away to anyone who looked hungry and lacked coin, and so profits from his new market stall quickly dwindled and became losses. But when Eleutherius tried to rebuke him for this, Denis merely spread his hands. “They were hungry,” he said, simply, and Eleutherius knew that there was no more to be said. Instead, he wrote privately to Fabian and to their friends in Athens, and when their gifts of coin arrived, he hid them away where Denis would not find them and give them to the first beggar who asked for help. Denis was a good man—a better Christian, perhaps, than Eleutherius—but someone had to make sure the rent was paid.)

A year went by quickly, and the household settled into a routine. Members of the community met at the home of the three men nearly every day, but the evening of the Day of Venus, when the local markets closed early, was reserved particularly for house church. This began, as any evening at their home began, with a shared meal and a prayer of thanksgiving for the bounty that the Lord (and Denis) had provided.

On this particular evening, the community had gathered around the table to enjoy a hearty stew of lentils, carrots and mint, with bread, honey and curd cheese to go around. There was fish, too—Caturix had donated a large mullet for the feast, which Camilla and Abella had prepared in a sauce with leeks to make it go further—and a barrel of wine from Augusta’s husband. Truly, a feast worth celebrating.

(Camilla and Abella often arrived early on these evenings, to help make the house ready for company. Denis suspected that Abella did not entirely trust three men living alone to keep house according to her standards, but he could not refuse a gift of service offered in love. He would not, perhaps, have chosen to live in a house that was so meticulously tidy as Abella preferred, but his visitors could be relied upon to re-establish a more comfortable level of disorder over the course of the evening, and so far Camilla had forestalled her mother’s offers to stay and clean again when the evening ended. She always shot Denis an amused look when she did so, leading him to fear that his discomfort with Abella’s cleanliness regime was more apparent than was charitable. And indeed, he did enjoy the women’s company and kindheartedness, and Camilla made an efficient and comfortable kitchen hand, peeling carrots and picking over the lentils without complaint.)

Denis had led the group in a brief prayer of thankfulness for the food and had just picked up the bread to pass around, when they heard the knock at the door. It was a very official-sounding knock. He shot a glance at Eleutherius, who went out into the hallway to see who was there.

The congregation went very silent, even Rusticus looking worried. There was an inaudible murmur, and then Eleutherius spoke loudly. “Christ-lovers? I’m not sure what you mean, sir.”

Rusticus went red and stood quickly, as if about to speak. Denis, with a speed he had not known himself capable of, pushed him back down with a hand on his shoulder. “Hush,” he muttered. “Now is not the time.”

He glanced around the room, his heart beating a terrified tattoo. White, scared faces stared back at him, looking to him, God help them, for guidance. Which was, he realised in some horror, absolutely and unequivocally his job right now. God help them, indeed.

“Lord,” he prayed in a whisper, shutting his eyes tightly, “of your mercy, protect these, your people, who look to you now for aid and for comfort. Grant them courage and strength, and save us from destruction now, as you have promised to save us in the last days.”

He kept his eyes closed for another moment, trying to will calm and courage into his little flock. After all, there was nothing here to show what they believed. Just wholesome food, and good friends, gathered together around a table. So long as nobody said anything stupid… They were being remarkably silent now, but that was fear, and if Rusticus regained his tongue…

He opened his eyes, and froze. He was alone in the room, the big table empty but for the basket of bread, the stew, the fish and the curd cheese, and in the centre of the table, a large terracotta pot that he had never seen before. The pot contained a basil plant, incongruous in this chilly climate, but as glowingly healthy as any he might have seen in his native Greece. Denis sat down heavily. A miracle, certainly, but what did it mean? And what was he supposed to do about it?

He prayed, silently, for guidance, but God had apparently provided, and the rest was up to him.

Eleutherius spoke again, closer, a warning tone to his voice. “Of course you may come in. We are just sitting down to dinner. I hope you don’t mind?”

And then there were six—no, ten—soldiers crowded into their central room, somehow making it seem more full than when it had contained nearly two score Christians. Eleutherius’ eyes widened in astonishment, but he said nothing.

Denis gathered himself and stood. “Friends. How may I serve you?”

The centurion, a young man with olive skin that made Denis think of home, regarded him sternly. “Your name, sir?”

He spoke Latin with a Greek accent, and Denis gave a quick prayer of thanks. He found a smile. “Denis—Dionysus, rather, of Aphidnae. And you would be a countryman, if I am not mistaken.”

“I am a Roman citizen, as you are,” the centurion said, repressively.

Denis felt himself redden a little. “So we are, indeed. And what brings you here?”

“We have heard that you host a community of Christians in this house on the Day of Venus every week. You must know that this religion has been proscribed by the Emperor.”

Denis exchanged a glance with Eleutherius, who looked very white. He gave thanks for his darker complexion. His face tingled in a manner that he knew presaged faintness, but the centurion could not see it. He put one hand on the table, discreetly, for support. “I do know this, sir. However, as you see, this is the Day of Venus, and yet my house is empty.”

“Then you will not object if my men search the premises?”

“Certainly I will not. We have nothing to hide, do we, Eleutherius?”

Their Gospel of Luke was, as it happened, tucked into his robe, and with the congregation gone, there was nothing else that could betray them.

Eleutherius looked at him helplessly. “Nothing that I can think of,” he agreed, in a voice that indicated the opposite. Denis tried to smile at him reassuringly. Which was difficult with a houseful of Roman soldiers and a congregation that had apparently been transformed into a pot of basil.

The soldiers separated to noisily search the bedchamber and outbuildings, but the young centurion remained in the main room, eyeing Denis with suspicion. “If you are not expecting guests, then why have you cooked so much?” he asked suddenly.

Eleutherius laughed. To Denis’ ears, the laugh held an edge of hysteria, but it was genuine for all that. The soldier turned to glare at him. “I’m sorry. But to ask Denis why he has cooked so much… He always cooks this much. He can’t help it. We give most of our food to the poor, and then he cooks more. It’s a disease with him.”

The young soldier almost smiled. Denis did smile. “Please, you and your men must join us for dinner. It is as Eleutherius says—I enjoy cooking, and I always make far too much. We Roman citizens must look after each other.”

The centurion cracked a smile at last. “I am from Parnassus, myself,” he confessed. “They call me Loukas.”

“A good name,” Denis agreed, the scroll burning a hole in his robe. “Will your men stay?” He winced at a loud crash from the bedroom. “They seem rather… zealous.”

“We are all zealous, sir. These Christians… well, I do not know if it is true that they sacrifice infants in their rites, but it is certainly the case that they do not perform the required sacrifices to the Gods. Rome needs her citizens to stick together.”

“Indeed it does, but I confess, I can’t see how a handful of religious dissidents are such a threat. And I can’t believe they sacrifice babies. Why, that is the accusation of every religion against its rival since the dawn of time.”

“Perhaps so, but it is a depraved superstition nonetheless, and it is my duty to protect the Empire by following my orders.”

He moved over to the table. “That is a noble basil plant you have growing here. I did not know it would grow so far north.”

Denis swallowed and prevaricated. “I brought the cutting with me from home, and keep it in the sun by day and by the hearth at night. It is doing far better than I had hoped.”

“It smells wonderful. May I?” Loukas reached out his hand and broke off a leaf.

Denis watched, helpless, as the young centurion chewed the basil leaf, wondering whether the plant was the congregation as a whole, or whether each leaf represented a person, and if the latter, who had just been consumed. An odd sort of martyrdom, that… could a plant feel pain? He trusted not…

The soldiers trooped back in, interrupting this rather fruitless train of thought. Loukas tilted his head, enquiringly, and they shook theirs.

“Nothing, sir.”

Loukas nodded. “I’m glad to hear it.” He turned to Denis. “Thank you for your hospitality. We will not stay. But perhaps I might visit another time? Your kitchen smells like home,” he added in a low voice, and Denis smiled, a little queasily.

The soldiers trooped out, and Eleutherius closed the door behind them, then returned to the main room and sat down at the table.

“Well,” he said.

“Quite,” agreed Denis.

“That was unpleasantly close.”

Denis nodded.

“You did well to get everyone out, though. Incidentally, how did you get everyone out?”

“Ah…” said Denis. The words that had come so glibly when he had prevaricated for the soldiers seemed to have deserted him. He gestured vaguely at the pot of basil.

Eleutherius’ brows drew together. “Where did that come from?”

Denis put his head in his hands. “I believe it is what remains of our congregation.”


Denis shrugged. “A miracle, apparently. I prayed for God to protect our congregation, and when I opened my eyes, they were gone and this was here instead.”

Eleutherius looked at him blankly. “I see,” he said, doubtfully.

“Do you? I don’t.”

“Didn’t that centurion eat one of the basil leaves?”


“Ah.” There was a short silence. “Any idea who?”

Denis stared at him. “How on earth would I know?”


Denis waved a hand forgivingly.

“So, what happens now? Do we pray for them to be themselves again?”

“That sounds like a plan,” Denis agreed.

They both bowed their heads. Denis waited, but no words came. He sighed. “God… help us?” he tried.

And just like that, the room was full of noise.

It took a while for everyone to settle down. Life as a basil bush had apparently been invigorating. And green. And strange. Denis recounted what the soldiers had said, and then the congregation broke bread and gave thanks to God for sparing them. Oddly, the incident had made many of them more fervent about spreading the good news. It had mostly given Denis heart palpitations, but then, he had always known that he was not a courageous man.

Still, courage was not everything. The little community had drawn together in shared excitement and elation at being so miraculously spared, but Caturix and Abella sat a little apart. Camilla had not been restored, and there was no sign that she had ever been there—even the congregation’s memories of her seemed hazy, or perhaps shock and sadness were simply buried under the euphoria. Laughter and tears could be very close, Denis knew. He felt unsettlingly near to both of these extremes. Evidently, Camilla had been the leaf eaten by Loukas, and the miracle had not extended to restoring her to life. Denis drew the fishmonger and his wife into one of the side chambers where they could grieve in peace, and brought them stew and bread and wine, and water to wash their faces. It was the only way he knew how to minister to them.

(They knew that Camilla was with God now, but somehow it was little comfort to say so. Had God not been with her during her life, also? Denis knew that God was good and his will was perfect, but it was hard to understand how this could be part of his plan.)

After supper, the little community said prayers for the soul of Camilla, and the two widows went home with Caturix and Abella, to comfort them as best they could. The congregation disbanded for the evening, sad, elated, and more than a little tired. Denis just felt exhausted.

The knock at their door came a little after midnight.

Denis did not want to answer it. But Rusticus was sleeping the sleep of the inspired, and practical, down-to-earth Eleutherius still seemed overwhelmed by the miracle of the basil.

Besides, Denis had a feeling he knew who was at the door.

He opened it a crack, then set it wide, ushering Loukas into the house.

“You’ll need to be quiet,” he whispered. “The others are sleeping.”

The young soldier nodded. “I’m sorry. I had to come. Something… changed tonight.”

Denis spread his hands in a gesture of welcome. “Tell me.”

“I’m hoping you will tell me. You see, I had the strangest moment of… insight, I suppose, on my way back to the barracks, and I think… No. I know. I feel like there is something inside me that knows this already. A voice, telling me to repent. That I am loved, but I need to be clean. Dionysus—father—will you baptise me?”

Denis thought about that one. “I thought Christians were the enemy of Caesar,” he commented, mildly.

“I… don’t know.”

Denis regarded his midnight visitor with some concern. He didn’t think the man was trying to trap him—he seemed far too confused for that. Still, even if Loukas was sincere, it was unlikely that he had thought through all the implications of this visit.

“It’s always a bad idea to try to understand religion on an empty stomach,” he said, finally. “Or politics, for that matter. Come. There is still stew from earlier, and good bread from the bakery, and curd cheese that I made fresh this morning. You’ll feel more like yourself when you have eaten something.” Though, it occurred to him belatedly, eating something was almost certainly what had brought about this change of heart. Or of soul? Was this still Loukas, with Camilla whispering in his ear?

All questions for another day, Denis thought. In the meantime, feeding people was something he definitely knew how to do, and Loukas was still of an age to always be hungry. Denis smiled a little as he led him to the table. Already, he felt a certain fondness for the young man who was sniffing so hopefully at the smell of stew that still lingered in the air. He already knew that he could not love someone without feeding them; it seemed that the converse was also true—he could not feed someone without loving them.

Perhaps it was not so surprising that Love had entered Loukas in the form of a basil leaf.

Denis turned back to the hearth, ladling still-warm stew into a bowl and setting it in front of Loukas. He broke off a chunk of bread and poured wine into an earthenware cup for his guest. Then he did the same for himself, to keep him company. He had not had much appetite at dinner.

Silently, the words of the Mass ran through his head, as they always did when he broke bread with someone. This is my body you eat. Do this in remembrance of me.

There was no basil in the stew, but for a moment its sweet, aniseed scent filled the air.

Camilla, he reflected, had always been an efficient woman. With another silent prayer for her soul, he turned back to his guest.

Catherine Heloise works in a medical research institute, sings as a chorister and a soloist in a very large and ecumenical array of churches, and blogs about cooking and about Australian politics. She reads (and sometimes reviews) fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, romances and mysteries, and believes passionately that escapist, optimistic fiction can be a vital source of hope and resilience in difficult times. But mostly she just reads it because it’s fun. She also reads history, theology, popular science, and, if she wants to be horrified and appalled, the news. Catherine loves Paris, and history, and started writing stories inspired by the stations of the Paris Metro a few years ago at This particular story was originally inspired by Basilique de Saint Denis station. Basilique in French means a Basilica or a basilisk, but basilic means basil, and the idea of a quiet, unassuming sort of saint who really just wants to potter around the kitchen and feed people was irresistible. She isn’t quite sure whether saints or miracles—or, indeed, God—work like this, but she’d like it if they did.

This is Catherine’s first professional fiction sale.

“Saint Denis and the Pot of Basil” by Catherine Heloise. This story first appeared in Stories Under Paris. Copyright © 2016 by Catherine Heloise.

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