Tuesday, December 6, 2016

St. Nicholas the Kind-Hearted

(Gentile da Fabriano)
Nicholas, bishop of Myra, is one of the few saints revered by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, even those of the Evangelical variety. The story of his physical altercation with the arch-heretic Arius at the council of Nice has revived his popularity in recent years, even though earlier times focused on the greatness of his generosity and kind-heartedness for the downtrodden. The story of him redeeming three young sisters from the slavery of prostitution is retold in the Golden Legend thusly:
And it was so that one, his neighbour, had then three daughters, virgins, and he was a nobleman: but for the poverty of them together, they were constrained, and in very purpose to abandon them to the sin of lechery, so that by the gain and winning of their infamy they might be sustained. And when the holy man Nicholas knew hereof he had great horror of this villainy, and threw by night secretly into the house of the man a mass of gold wrapped in a cloth. And when the man arose in the morning, he found this mass of gold, and rendered to God therefor great thankings, and therewith he married his oldest daughter. And a little while after this holy servant of God threw in another mass of gold, which the man found, and thanked God, and purposed to wake, for to know him that so had aided him in his poverty. And after a few days Nicholas doubled the mass of gold, and cast it into the house of this man. He awoke by the sound of the gold, and followed Nicholas, which fled from him, and he said to him: “Sir, flee not away so but that I may see and know thee.” Then he ran after him more hastily, and knew that it was Nicholas; and anon he kneeled down, and would have kissed his feet, but the holy man would not, but required him not to tell nor discover this thing as long as he lived.
The holy bishop was also known for having raised to life three boys who had been butchered by an evil man and placed in a barrel. He also was said to have calmed a tempest at sea when asked to do so by troubled mariners, and has since been invoked against storms at sea. He accepted the bishopric of Myra only under the greatest protest, and the Legend briefly describes his character as bishop: "He woke in prayer and made his body lean, he eschewed company of women, he was humble in receiving all things, profitable in speaking, joyous in admonishing, and cruel in correcting."

One of the oriental akathist hymns declares his glory:
Through power given thee from on high
thou didst wipe away every tear from the face of those in cruel suffering,
O God-bearing Father Nicholas;
for thou wast shown to be a feeder of the hungry,
a superb pilot of those on the high seas,
a healer of the ailing,
and thou hast proved to be a helper to all that cry unto God:
The popularizing of the holy bishop into various folk figures—Sinterklaas, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Father Frost, and so on—are fascinating in their own right, but clearly have little to do with the man himself. This writer is more forgiving of the folk appropriation of the saint than of the appropriations of corporations and governments (Coca-Cola's chubby cookie-eater and the Soviet Union's push of Ded Moroz as a non-religious winter figure come to mind). The revival of Santa Claus's dark mirror figure of Krampus in modern pop culture is also fascinating, but probably not indicative of a healthy folk revival.

The revival of St. Nicholas as a hammer of heretics is a good sign, even if it does tend to overlook his other fatherly qualities. We should only be so lucky as to deserve a bishop as great as Nicholas, today.

St. Nicholas, all-luminous lamp, beloved of all, pray for us!



  1. I would like to get your opinions on the Golden Legend.
    The missus and I tend to read from it on certain feast days. Now, while I find all the thaumaturgy interesting, most of the saints' lives we read seem to present them as ready-made saints, some almost even from the cradle. That doesn't inspire me, or give me hope, when it comes to my personal struggles. Perhaps it's just me. I find the Doctor of Hippo's Confessions way more edifying than stories of saints and the miracles they performed.
    Do any of you get anything edifying/spiritually nourishing out of the Golden Legend? I often wonder if medieval man did, and if so, how his mentality differed from ours.

    1. I think the difference in mentality is a huge barrier for the modern Catholic when approaching medieval texts like the "Legend." There was a kind of naivety that was assumed by writers like Jacob de Voraigne, and though that term can be used insultingly, I do not mean it as such.

      There was also a patristic practice of overlooking or making an apologetic for the faults of the saints, which continued into the middle ages. When reading patristic commentary on the Old Testament, for instance, one often finds the Fathers arguing against the ancient Patriarchs having committed sins, unless the Holy Writ condemned them clearly for some particular action. I suspect this hermeneutic principle carried over into the hagiographies of Catholic-era saints, and that is why they so often ignore any moral flaws in the men and women raised to the altars.

    2. It's not that surprising. We don't like telling about other people's sins, so how was a pious Christian supposed to tell about the sins of a venerated saint? It would have felt impious. That's what the style of the [i]Golden Legend[/i] abounds with, a piety for the saints.

      St. Augustine's case is different, because he confessed his own sins, which is a virtue rather than a vice. I think St. Therese is a good example too, because though she perhaps never committed a single grave sin, she is open about her faults, her weakness, her temptations, so that you know that the perfect lives of the perfect saints are just as fraught with difficulties as any other. A lot of hagiography will speak of the saints growing up as model Christians, spotless, etc.; St. Therese prefers to speak about her vanity in dress, and her stubbornness to her parents.

  2. St. Nicholas was outspken in his faith and eventually he was imprisoned by the other bishops. St Constantine, not yet Christian I think, got him out. Story goes he changed from there and also the bishops saw his side vs Arius's. I recall imprisoned priests' said facts, during commies' torture that aimed to destroy Christianity (meat given after starvation on Wednsdays and Fridays, sessions of education reguarding the Inquistion and how the Church had power but now lost it, medical experiments etc). Once a priest was told by fellow inmates that the suffering and the cold was too much - they hated the brainwashed tortioners, they hoped God damnes them. The priest said "what are you talking about? They are our brothers". And from then on refferred to the commie tortioners as 'the brothers'. Later on he said he only learned how to pray in prison. He knew the words and rites but didn't know HOW to pray.
    There is no true evil that can happen to us as long as we are Christians, that's how I see it.
    Sometimes predicaments help us rise even higher. Demons are there to be ignored...and thus destroyed.