18 December 2009

'Thou Didst Fulfill the Word of the True Shepherd'—St Nicholas the Wonderworker

Today, 6 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Bishop of Myra, who may well be ‘the most popular non-biblical saint in Christendom’.[1] Last year I blogged briefly about St Nicholas (here), and he came up again quite recently (here), but I’ve never given him a proper Logismoi treatment. As Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourette, OSB has written, in his charming book, A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery, ‘At the outset of Advent, a season that speaks to us deeply of hope because “the Lord is near”, as the Liturgy announces, we celebrate the feast of St Nicholas’, which he calls ‘an important pause on our Advent journey, for his life is an example of Gospel living for Christians of all times and places.’[2] In his famous Menologium, St Demetrius of Rostov has written:

For the character of the saint was as a child-loving father, and his countenance shone with Divine grace like an angel of God. From his face, as from the face of Moses, emanated a bright ray, and to him who only looked at him there was great benefit. For him who was burdened with some kind of passion or affliction of soul, it was enough to fix his gaze on the saint in order to receive consolation in his sorrow; and he who conversed with him already improved in good. And not only Christians, but also non-believers, if any of them came to hear the sweet and mellifluous discourses of the saint, came to compunction and, noting the evil of unbelief which was implanted in them since infancy and accepting in their heart the right word of truth, entered upon the way of salvation. [3]

Here is the account of St Nicholas’s life in the Prologue from Ochrid:

This saint, famed throughout the entire world today, was the only son of his eminent and wealthy parents, Theophanes and Nona, citizens of Patara in Lycia. They dedicated to God the only son He gave them. St Nicholas was instructed in the spiritual life by his uncle Nicolas, Bishop of Patara (see below) [he is also commemorated today], and became a monk at ‘New Sion’, a monastery founded by his uncle. On the death of his parents, Nicolas distributed all the property he inherited to the poor and kept nothing back for himself. As a priest in Patara, he was known for his charitable works, fulfilling the Lord’s words: ‘Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth’ (Matt. 6:3). When he embraced a life of solitude and silence, thinking to live in that way until his death, a voice from on high came to him: ‘Nicolas, set about your work among the people if you desire to receive a crown from Me.’ Immediately after that, by God’s wondrous providence, he was chosen as archbishop of the city of Myra in Lycia. Merciful, wise and fearless, Nicolas was a true shepherd to his flock. He was cast into prison during the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian, but even there continued to instruct the people in the Law of God. He was present at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325, and, in his zeal, struck Arius with his hand. For this act, he was removed from the Council and from his episcopal duties, until some of the chief hierarchs had a vision of our Lord Christ and His most holy Mother showing their sympathy with Nicholas.

This wonderful saint was a defender of the truth of God, and was ever a spirited champion of justice among the people. On two occasions, he saved three men from undeserved sentences of death. Merciful, trustworthy and loving right, he walked among the people like an angel of God. People considered him a saint even during his lifetime, and invoked his aid when in torment or distress. He would appear both in dreams and in reality to those who called upon him for help, responding speedily to them, whether close at hand or far away. His face would shine with light as Moses’ did aforetime, and his mere presence among people would bring solace, peace and goodwill. In old age, he sickened of a slight illness, and went to his rest in the Lord after a life full of labour and fruitful toil. He now enjoys eternal happiness in the Kingdom of heaven, continuing to help the faithful on earth by his miracles, and to spread the glory of God. He entered into rest on December 6th, 343. [4]

Having written at length about the veneration of St Nicholas in the West, Wheeler & Rosenthal note, ‘Without question, St Nicholas’s greatest bastion remains what it has always been—the far-flung world of Orthodox Christianity.’ [5] But, say they, Westerners may find ‘St Nicholas’s place in the daily spiritual life of Orthodox Christians’ somewhat surprising, since we primarily revere him, ‘not for his gift-bringing, but for his being the ultimate pastor, the ultimate shepherd, second in that respect only to Christ Himself.’ [6] Finally, they add, ‘Perhaps it is because of this pastoral dimension that Orthodox Christianity, in its weekly liturgical cycle, singles out only three persons by name: Mary, the mother of Christ, John the Forerunner, and St Nicholas.’ [7] St Demetrius of Rostov gives us a good example of what Wheeler & Rosenthal have noted:

Desiring to instruct his rational sheep in the virtues, he did not hide his virtuous life as before. For formerly, he passed his life secretly serving God Who Alone knew his ascetic feats. But now, after receiving the Episcopal office, his life was open to all, not by vainglory before the people, but for their benefit and the increase of God’s glory, so that the word of the Gospel be fulfilled: ‘Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 5:16). By his good deeds St Nicholas was like a mirror for his flock and, according to the word of the apostle, ‘an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in love, in spirit, in faith, and in purity’ (I Tim. 4:12). In character he was meek and forgiving, humble of spirit, and shunned all vainglory. His clothing was simple, his food—fasting fare, which he always ate only once a day, and that in the evening. All the day long he spent in labor proper to his office, listening to the requests and needs of those who came to him. The doors of his house were open to all. He was kind and affable to all, to orphans he was a father, to the poor a merciful giver, to the weeping a comforter, to the wronged a helper, and to all a great benefactor. [8]

As another illustration of the focus on St Nicholas ‘the ultimate pastor’ in Orthodox piety, consider the sessional hymn in Tone 8 at the Glory after the second kathisma during Matins for the Saint:

Having received the source of miracles from the Lord, O wise Father, thou gushest forth honeyed waters for all the faithful, O blessed one; for as thou art a shepherd and preacher of the faith, thou didst fulfill the word of the True Shepherd. Wherefore, having boldness before Him, thou didst save people from death, O blessed Hierarch Nicholas. Entreat Christ God to grant remission of sins to those who with love honour thy holy memory. [9]

Logismoi is of course a very poetic blog. But still, I’m afraid the most famous poem about St Nicholas—‘A Visit from St Nicholas’, more commonly known as ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas’, by professor of Oriental & Greek literature at Columbia, professor of Biblical learning at General Theological Seminary, and compiler of a Hebrew & English Lexicon (1809), Clement Clarke Moore—is not really Logismoi material. Fortunately, Paul Claudel, about whom I posted here, has written a delightful poem on St Nicholas. I found it (along with the original French) here, taken from Coronal.

Now it is winter indeed and Saint Nicholas tramps among the pines
With two full sacks on his donkey stuffed with toys for the children's designs.
Autumn has fallen to dust. The snow has come for good.
Yes, we surely have finished with autumn and with summer and the seasons as they stood.
(Oh, all that we have not finished and the tortuous black road of yesterday
Which wound beneath the tattered birch and the oak that scented mists of grey!)
All is white, all identical. Everything is free of stain.
The earth is fair in heaven's robe that over its rags has lain,
Bad and good both are annulled, everything is new and starts afresh.
The absence of being lies below and overhead the shadows' mesh.
But in a world of white only Angels can thoroughly be at their ease.
There is not a man alive in all of the diocese,
There is not a soul awake, not a single youthful admirer,
At the hour when you come in the night, O powerful Bishop of Myra!

O gauntleted Pontiff in the night! Expectation of the children at play,
Who have studied their lessons so hard, who have been so good . . . since yesterday!
Saint Nicholas, to whom at one stroke God gave the power to change
By a single moment's work, this world so vexingly strange,
With a pother of twinkling stars and pendants of rose and of blue,
Into a gay paradise and a vast hall of pleasures, too,
Let us with eyes tight-closed tap three times running on your pack,
O Carrier of future things who cram all creation in your sack!
Other people may have the soldiers and the dolls and the railroad trains!
As for me, give me just this box, tight-shut, at the bottom of what remains!
I have only to make a hole to see in it small living sights:
The Deluge; the Golden Calf; the punishment of the Israelites;
A whole interior world with a sun that goes all alone;
A scene where two men are dueling while a widow is making moan;
To the bottom of the house that will be mine, with its lights and the children and my wife:
I gaze in advance through the chimney on all of its intimate life! [10]

Of course, the supreme poetry in St Nicholas’s honour is that of the divine services of the Church. Here, for example, is the sticheron in Tone 6 at Glory during Great Vespers for the Saint:

The adornment of hierarchs, and the glory of the fathers, the fount of wonders and the great protector of the faithful, let us, O feastlovers, having gathered together, hymn with songs of praise, saying: Rejoice, guardian of the people of Myra, and honored chief hierarch, and pillar immovable. Rejoice, all-radiant lamp that maketh the ends of the world shine with wonders. Rejoice, divine joy of those that sorrow, and fervent advocate of the wronged. And now, all-blessed Nicholas, cease not to entreat Christ God for those who with faith and love honor thine ever-gladdening and renowned memory. [11]

Thus truly is fulfilled the first verse from the reading from Proverbs (10:7) appointed for Vespers for the Saint: ‘The memory of the righteous man is praised.’ [12] But even as we celebrate the memory of this most righteous man, let us also look forward to the coming great Feast of our Lord, as we do in the Theotokion in Tone 6 at the end of the same service:

O unwedded Virgin, whence camest thou? Who gave thee birth? Who was thy mother? How dost thou carry the Creator in thine arms? How was thy womb not corrupted? O great and marvelous and terrible mystery on earth we see accomplished in thee, O all-holy one; and we make ready thy worthy due, on earth a cave, and heaven we ask to give the star, and the Magi come from the land of the East to the West to see the Salvation of mankind, wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. [13]

[1] Joe Wheeler & Jim Rosenthal, St Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas (Nashville: Nelson, 2005), p. 93.

[2] Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourette, OSB, A Monastic Year Reflections from a Monastery (Dallas: Taylor, 1996), p. 12.

[3] Service, Akathist, Life and Miracles of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1996), p. 83.

[4] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), pp. 292-3.

[5] Wheeler & Robinson, p. 209.

[6] Ibid., p. 210.

[7] Ibid., p. 212.

[8] Service, p. 74.

[9] Ibid., p. 18.

[10] Taken from Paul Claudel, Coronal, trans. Sister Mary David, SSND (NY: Pantheon, 1943), pp. 192-195

[11] Service, pp. 8-9.

[12] Ibid., p. 9.

[13] Ibid., p. 16.


thebrainkid said...

In your references, you switch from Wheeler and Rosenthal to wheeler and Robinson. Just wanted to point out the typo.

By the way, as always, great post!

Aaron Taylor said...

brainiac> Thanks for pointing this out. What a funny mistake!

Oh, and thanks for your kind words.