"From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines, going where I list, my own master total and absolute, Listening to others, considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me."
Walt Whitman (1819-92)
"When I look back now over my life and call to mind what I might have had simply for taking and did not take, my heart is like to break."
Akhenaton (d. c.1354 BC)
And now, the current weather, from some random person we pulled off the street:
Monday, December 20, 2004
The Real One (Part 5)
in-ter-ces-sion Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French or Latin; Middle French, from Latin intercession-, intercessio, from intercedere
1 : the act of interceding
2 : prayer, petition, or entreaty in favor of another
3 : an act not hampered by being living or dead, perhaps
Nicholas was dead.
It was 343AD, and the town of Myra on the Mediterranean coast mourned the passing of its beloved Bishop. They knew him for a man who loved children, loved the sea, and above all loved God. So many stories had surrounded him when he was alive.
There was the story of him rescuing three innocent men from hanging just in the nick of time, stopping the executioners sword just as it began to fall, and exposing a corrupt official who had taken bribes.
There was the story of him finding the remains of three slaughtered children in a pickle barrel in an inn, where an evil innkeeper had placed them after killing them. When Nicholas prayed for them, God resurrected them and restored them to wholeness.
And there were many stories of the great conflicts the Bishop had fought with the pagan temple of Artemus in Myra, finally driving all of the demons from it in the name of Christ and uprooting the very foundations from the ground.
Above all of the rest, however, Nicholas was remembered for his special concern for seafarers and for his love of unselfish giving.
They interred his remains in a tomb in Myra.
It wasn't long before people were making pilgrimages to the tomb. In the manner of many people of the time, they did not make any distinction between asking a living person to pray for them and asking a dead one to interceed for them.
Why not, they reasoned, ask someone who had a special interest or a special love of something to be their patron? Thus, many began praying for Nicholas to interceed in their behalf, knowing that he had a special love for children and sailors. Soon the church began the custom of singling out particular people as "saints," or people who lived a life devoted to God, a worthy example of holiness, virtue, or kindness and charity, someone who lets God's love shine through them to the world. Bishop Nicholas had been seen that way since long before his death.
So Bishop Nicholas became Saint Nicholas.
St. Nicholas was the most revered saint in the church (aside from Mary, of course.) His story spread with the spread of Christianity. And his example shone through the stories told of his life.
It's hard to say when the miracles started, though some sources say they began immediately.
From the tomb of the saint, a clear liquid began to seep. This liquid (called "oil" or "manna") was collected and reportedly was miraculous in nature. In the year 1087, Italian sailors came for the bones of Nicholas and took them to Bari, Italy. (The issuance of the "manna" continues to this day, including a period when the bones were exhumed for the tomb to undergo maintenance in the 1950's during which they soaked a linen blanket in the bottom of the sealed urn in which they temporarily lay.)
Many hundreds of churches were dedicated to the saint, including one in about the year 1000 by Norse Vikings, the first Europeans to visit North America.
In the 1100's, French nuns began giving candy and gifts to needy children on December 6th, the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas.
In the 1150's, scenes from St. Nicholas' life were sculpted to decorate Winchester Cathedral's baptismal font.
In 1492, Columbus named a port in Haiti for him, and Spaniards named an entire settlement for him in Florida.
During the 16th century, Protestant reformers attempted to eliminate the customs related to St. Nicholas. Martin Luther demanded that attention not be paid to "Sankt Niklaus" as he had become known, but to the Christ Child. The word for the Christ Child Luther used? "Kris Kringle."
Puritan Christians in the United States sought to outlaw Christmas celebrations altogether, inadvertently opening the door to the secular materialistic version of the holiday we now know.
Saint Nicholas continued to be almost unknown the New World until 1809, when Washington Irving published a book referencing him, not as a saint, but as a short stout dutchman with a clay pipe that came down chimneys to bring gifts.
In 1823, "T'was the Night Before Christmas" was published and the image of St. Nicholas was forever fixed in our imagination, reindeer and all. It wasn't long before terms such as the German "Sankt Niklaus" and the Dutch "Sinter Klaas" merged into "Santa Claus" and finally just "Santa."
And the red suit? Added by artists for Coca Cola in the 1930's.
Yet, behind all of this, there still is a real man who loved God dearly, served Christ with all his heart and soul, and was beloved by God as well.
And, our story is not over yet.
First Lieutenent Eugene Nikolaevich Dolmatev was cold to his bones, sick of being in Siberia, sick of serving in the White Army, and he really didn't trust the peasants in this area at all. Besides, his old wound hurt.
All in all, he didn't see any reason not to be in a foul mood.
There was a scuffle in the camp, and some of his partisans drug in a local peasant, throwing him to the ground at Dolmatev's feet. "This man is collaborating with the Reds," a soldier said. The soldier was Cossack, with an ugly squat face and large horselike teeth. The peasant looked terrified and kept denying the charge, but every time he tried to profess innocence he was brutally kicked and struck by the soldiers.
"Penalty for being a traitor is execution. We'll do it in the morning, lock him up for the night."
The peasant turned pale, and the soldiers hauled him off.
That night Dolmatev sat in one of the peasant's homes, appropriated for his use. The family had been told to find lodgings elsewhere. By the light of a lantern he was writing out the accusation against the peasant. Proper form, after all, must be followed. There was a knock at the door.
"Enter," he said, distractedly.
The door opened and a gust of cold winter air came in, blowing snow through the small room. In came an old man, wearing a skoufia like those worn by monks, and an old cassock.
"Mister officer," he said. "You have an arrested peasant here. Don't kill him. He's innocent."
"And who are you?" asked Dolmatev.
"I am the rector of the local church, Father Nicholas," said the old man, who then turned and left.
During the night Dolmatev thought it over, and decided to release the peasant. "Bind him and place him in a sleigh," he told his soldiers. "I am going to take him into the woods and shoot him. Also, bring me some bread for the trip." When he had gone deep into the woods, he freed the peasant, gave him the bread and told him to go far, far away and never come back.
When he returned to the village, Dolmatev went to the church. It was locked. "Where is the Father?" he asked a peasant who was passing by.
"Dead. The Reds shot him long ago."
Startled, Dolmatev decided to have a look around the church anyway. He found someone to unlock the door, and went inside.
To his right he saw an icon of St. Nicholas, and recognized him immediately as his visitor from the night before. He had even been depicted wearing the very same skoufia.
The old woman had never experienced times as bad as this. First one army, then another swept over the city of Kiev, each one stripping it further of any resources it had left. Her only source of comfort was when she went to the Cathedral of St. Nicholas every day to pray to God, and to entreat the Saint to watch over her son.
Her son eventually became an officer in the army holding the city. But when the next army took control, all of the officers were arrested, and were to be executed.
The old lady went to the church to pray.
The next morning, the son returned home dirty, beaten, and tired. According to him, he was among a group being led under armed guard to Pechersk, an area where Peter I had built rampart trenches. It was at these trenches that they were to be executed.
They were nearing the destination when suddenly a little old man stepped out from around a corner. "Where are you taking them?" he asked the officer in command.
The officer replied, rudely, "To Dukhonin's H.Q.!" This was slang and meant that the prisoners were going to be shot. "Go away, old man!"
The old man left, but in so doing he took the old woman's son by the hand and said "Let him go, I know him." No one paid any attention whatsoever as the old man led the old woman's son away.
When they rounded the corner out of sight of the troops, the old man said "Go home to your mother," and left.
On hearing this the old woman took her entire family to the church to give thanksgiving for the miracle. The son stared transfixed at an image of Saint Nicholas, and ashen faced, turned to his mother and said "Mother, that's the very same elder who led me to freedom..."
Times were hard for the churches in Italy under the Fascists, particularly in the early 1930's when the entire world was in a depression.
"Is this all you have?" the unknown priest said to the monks at the Athonite Monastery. "No more? There is only about 400 pounds of wheat here. This is December, and the harvest comes in July. How much will it take to feed you until then?"
"About 14,000 pounds."
"How many can you buy?" the old priest asked.
"Not one pound." The monks were grave.
The priest took a few kernels in his hand, and prayed to God to bless them. He tossed them on the top of the pile. Then he asked God to bless the pile, he prayed for all four points of the horizon, the monastary, and the sea. He prepared to leave.
"Where do you come from? Stay and have some bread and olives."
"I come from very far away, from Myra in Lycia." Then he left.
The remaining 400 pounds of wheat lasted the monastery until the next summer when the crop came in.
Father Elias Warnke didn't expect December 6th, 1996 to be a life changing day, a day that would border on the miraculous.
He was wrong.
Early that morning, about 6:30 or so, Father Warnke and Reader Timothy Tadros trudged through the winter snow to the Russian Orthodox Church of St. George the Great Martyr in Michagan City, Indiana. When they opened the door to the vestibule, they found the church filled with the scent of roses in the hot summer sun.
They both began to search for the source of the fragrance, and when they opened the door to the nave, the scent became even stronger. "We opened the door to the nave and the fragrance became even more powerful," said Warnke, "but not overbearing, it was like it was inside you so that you felt it."
Father Warnke turned on the lights, and when he looked towards the Royal Doors, he froze.
"I saw that the Icon of St. Nicholas that was on the analogion stand from Sunday's Liturgy had three glistening streams pouring from it. My whole body became flushed and rigid, feeling as if my heart seemed to fall through the floor. Through my tears I said, 'It's St. Nicho1as.' I could not even tell if it was me saying it, I seemed to be rooted to the spot, unable to approach the icon."
After a few minutes of praising God for what he felt was a miracle, he approached the icon. The scent of roses was very strong. There were three streams of liquid coming from just above the eyes on the icon. One was going straight down, the other two to either side of the eyebrows.
Father Warnke put on an epitrachilion (part of the priestly vestiment) and examined the back of the icon. It was dry. The icon itself was a paper reproduction, laminated with plastic and glued to a board. The liquid appeared to be coming right through the laminate.
Determining that the liquid was the source of the fragrance, they placed cotton balls at the base of the icon to soak up the liquid, which Father Warnke suspected to be myrrh.
As of today, the myrrh continues to flow from this icon, defying explanation (see picture at beginning of post.) Several miracles have been attributed to it as well. A woman was healed by touching Jesus' robe; could God also use this substance and this icon as a healing vehicle? Can Nicholas, through something as paltry as a paper icon, still serve his Father in heaven?
Through the haze of the centuries, we know the man named Nicholas to be one who loved giving, loved children, loved tending God's flock. Along the way, miracles have had his name ascribed to them, and many thousands have asked his patronage in times of distress.
And here we are, presented with a chubby jolly guy, marshalling an army of elves to deliver gifts to every single child on Earth on the one special night when we were given the greatest gift of all.
Every child who knows the magic loves Santa, and every one of them knows that Santa loves them in return.
I think that Nicholas would be immensely pleased.
May you give this year in the spirit of Christmas, and may it infuse you every day of the year, just as it did Nicholas. The real one.
And Nicholas, if you are truly watching, thanks for not letting us forget the very best parts of ourselves.
Each of the accounts related in this series are based on either legends handed down through the ages, or in the case of more recent events, on eyewitness accounts. Parts of this series were based on information from the following web sites: