St. Nicholas? Why?
That question rose, quiet and bright as the moon melting up into the sky over the black and tangled trees. It was Christmas Night. After my week of upholding and returning and conveying the sweetness and blessings of the season, the dark tide of holiday melancholy was catching up; high time to curl up and get some sleep.
But then there was this rising moon, implausibly bright, full at Solstice and now just edging into gibbous wane. And with it came that question. Why St. Nicholas? Why all that devotion by believers the world over?
I knew only the basic basics about him. Born to a Greek family. Lived in the 3rd-4th centuries. Later served as Bishop of Myra. When a desperate destitute elderly father faced starvation, and was pressured to turn over his three young daughters to a brothel so they could have food and shelter, Nicholas intervened in secret in the dark of night by dropping gold coins down the family’s chimney, windfall enough to buy them survival and good dowries for solid upright husbands — effectively buying them a place in society where they would have safe lives and be cared for.
So next day I did some homework, learning a bit about the Nicholas story. (Some details are more peripherally negotiable. The gold coins didn’t go down a literal chimney, and neither did he, since chimneys were really not a feature of Greek houses back then. And Nicholas as an infant might have stood up straight unsupported in the baptismal font for exactly three hours in testimony to the three-fold nature of the Trinity. Or not.) The consensus over centuries and cultures is that Nicholas rescued people who were absolutely lost. And, he did it by any means at hand — appearing in a Tsar’s dream, encouraging his fellow prisoners, exorcising a devil from a storm-tossed ship, slapping an adversary in the face. He charged in to help people unjustly arrested and sitting on death row, travelers by land and by sea, poor folk dying for food and clothes or bereaved and hopeless, girls earmarked for prostitution, boys selected for trafficking. There is a wealth of traditions to learn and ponder But they all agree on a nicholosian stance toward life: attention, charity, courage, and resourcefulness.
Back to Christmas night.
There was still that implausibly bright moon, still making me wonder: Why Nicholas? Why are the Russians, for example, so devoted to him?
So shaking off and crawling out from under the holiday melancholy, I headed to the kitchen for the Orthodox prayer book. It has a 20-page Akathist prayer devoted to St. Nicholas. I’d never glanced at it. But now I turned on the stove light and stood in front of the icons on the fridge, chanting it start to finish.
In Church Slavonic it’s ornate and lovely, all virtues and flowers and lights and skies. Deciphering its dense brocade of images does depend on familiarity with the underlying tradition; each grouping of praises, all the many honorific titles of endearment, contain a hint of some cherished story shared by the reader and the saint: Rejoice! There was the time you interceded for these people here, and then you helped that soul in dire straits there. It’s an intimate tender outpouring, as in any relationship between life partners who have shared many trials and consolations.
The Akathist affirms that this Saint can still represent an idea of help and hope in unsettled times. Both Orthodox Christians and Catholics alike (though not my favorite Lutherans in the church up the street) believe that the saints are still conscious and present, that they care about us and can send us their support. And in a refreshing morsel of agreement, both Western and Eastern Christians are happy to share Nicholas, who came along 700 years before the great schism of 1054 A.D.
Now. This may well be the reverie of a person who really needs to get out more, who belongs out at “The Nutcracker” instead of looking to the 4th Century for companionship.
But there is also The Seven Storey Mountain (Part 3, Chapter 3:iii “The Sleeping Volcano”), where Thomas Merton wrote this:
It is a wonderful experience to discover a new saint. For God is greatly magnified and marvelous in each one of His saints: differently in each individual one. There are no two saints alike: but all of them are like God, like Him in a different and special way…. each one shining with his own particular sanctity, a sanctity destined for him from all eternity….
The saints are not mere inanimate objects of contemplation. They become our friends, and they share our friendship and reciprocate it and give us unmistakeable tokens of their love for us by the graces that we receive through them.
At the last verse of the Akathist, at the stove light, the moment of decision dawned. Could I ask Nicholas to look kindly upon one sheep more, me, starting this Christmas and for the rest of my life?
Taking the answer on faith, I curled up back in bed under the moon. After that, even in deep sleep, the holiday was not sad any more. It felt safer and happier, watched over by a new presence in a new way.
Today I downloaded a 6 x 4″ picture of one of the many conventional artist renditions on the internet. I printed a copy on scratch paper. It fit in a small picture frame thoughtfully left in the trash by the neighbors. Now, as it happens, today a dear co-worker is moving away, traveling to her new life for the next three days over mountains and snow. She is not a religiously inclined person. Still, in cleaning out her desk she delighted me with the gift of a battery powered candle. As her goodbye she laughed “You can light this, and say a prayer for me.”
Tonight I brought home the little paper icon. I set it up on my prayer table in the kitchen with two miniature daffodils and the battery candle. In tonight’s Akathist, the very first traveler by land or by sea prayed for will be this lovely girl, missed and remembered in St. Nicholas’s own new corner. Now he can watch over both of us.