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Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker from Myra in Lycia
By Saint Dimitri of Rostov
The great wonder-worker, swift helper of those in need, and fervent intercessor before God, Christ's holy hierarch Nicholas, was born in Patara, a city in the province of Lycia. His parents were honorable, well-born, wealthy folk and were Orthodox. Nicholas' father was named Theophanes and his mother Nonna. Dwelling together in lawful wedlock, they were adorned with every virtue. Because of their God-pleasing way of life, numerous good deeds, and especially their unstinting almsgiving, they, as holy roots, were deemed worthy to put forth a holy shoot, their blessed child. Like a tree which is planted by the streams of waters, this couple was vouchsafed to bring forth fruit in its season. When their son was born, they gave him the name Nicholas, which means "victor of the nations," and truly, with God's help he proved victorious over evil and became a benefactor of the whole world. After bearing Nicholas, Nonna never again experienced the pangs of birth: this blessed child was her first and last, nature itself confirming that it was impossible she should bear another son like Nicholas. He was sanctified by divine grace while still in his mother's womb, and his piety was made manifest as soon as he appeared in the world. Prodigies and his love of fasting were in evidence even while his mother was still suckling him. From the moment he was put to the breast, it was clear that he would become the mightiest of miracle-workers. He took milk only from his mother's right side because he would one day stand on the Lord's right hand with the blessed. Showing that he would become a great faster, on Wednesdays and Fridays he suckled just once, in the evening after his parents had completed their usual rule of prayer. Theophanes and Nonna understood that he would one day be a strict ascetic, and they marveled exceedingly. Having grown accustomed to abstinence while still in swaddling clothes, Nicholas fasted every Wednesday and Friday until his blessed repose. Similarly, when placed in the font of Holy Baptism shortly after his birth, he stood for three hours without assistance, thereby glorifying the Holy Trinity, Whose eminent servant he would become and before Whom he would be a mediator for all.
As the child grew, his understanding increased, and he was instructed in the rules of good conduct by his parents. The seed of Christian teaching sprang up in his heart as though in a fertile field, every day bearing the fruit of excellent conduct. The time soon came for him to begin the study of the divine Scriptures, and due to his natural intelligence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he quickly achieved a profound understanding of their contents, such as befits a skillful helmsman of the ship of Christ's Church and an experienced shepherd of rational sheep. He also proved himself perfect in the life of virtue, distancing himself from vain acquaintances and conversations. He carefully guarded himself from familiar speech with women and from looking women in the face. Attentive to preserving true chastity, he gazed upon God with a pure mind and was always to be found in the Lord's holy church, fulfilling the word of the Scriptures: I have chosen rather to be an outcast in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of sinners. He frequently spent the whole day and night in church, reading sacred books and engaging in mental prayer to God, exercising himself in reflection upon edifying themes, and profiting from the descent of the grace of the Holy Spirit, for Whom he had made of himself a worthy dwelling-place, in accordance with the saying: Ye are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you. Since the Spirit of God dwelt in Nicholas, he was entirely purified and became altogether virtuous and spiritual, his heart ever burning with love as he labored for the Lord. No childish traits whatsoever could be seen in him, but only those characteristic of old age. Because of this everyone was astonished at him and regarded him with deep respect. Truly, if an old man's behavior is like a youth's, he becomes a laughingstock, because frivolity is unseemly in a person of advanced years. However, if a youth's demeanor is like that of a respected elder, he is held in honor since gravity is pleasing and worthy of esteem, especially in the young.
The blessed one had an uncle who was also named Nicholas and was Bishop of Patara. It was for him that the younger Nicholas was named. Seeing his nephew advancing in the life of virtue and distancing himself from everything worldly, the uncle advised Nicholas' parents to dedicate the young man to God's service. They obeyed him, presenting their son to the Lord Who entrusted him to them. In ancient books it is written concerning Nicholas' father and mother that prior to the saint's conception they despaired of having a child, so they had continually besought God with tears to grant them a son, and distributed abundant alms in the hope of winning His favor. Therefore, they did not hesitate to return Nicholas to the Lord. The Bishop took the young elder, who was adorned with the gray hairs of wisdom and the unspotted life of old age, and elevated him to the sacred rank of presbyter. During the ordination the Bishop was filled with the Holy Spirit, and turning to the people in the church, prophesied, "Lo, brethren, I see a new sun rising over the earth, which shall become the consolation of those who sorrow! Blessed is the flock deemed worthy to haveNicholas as its shepherd! He shall tend well souls that have gone astray, pasturing them on the fields of piety, and be the ready helper of those in affliction." This prophecy was later fulfilled, as will be seen from this narrative.
As a priest Saint Nicholas added to his labors, always fasting and keeping vigil, praying without ceasing and striving to emulate the life of the bodiless powers although he was clothed in flesh. His soul shone brighter with virtue every day. At that time his uncle, Bishop Nicholas, wished to visit Palestine and venerate the Holy Places there, and he entrusted the entire administration of the Church of Patara to his nephew. God's priest Nicholas gave to the Church's affairs the same close attention as did his uncle. While Saint Nicholas was administering the diocese, his parents departed this fleeting existence for life eternal. They left their possessions to their son, who distributed them among those who begged alms of him. Nicholas himself had no concern for transient wealth and gave no thought to its increase, having renounced all earthly desires in order to surrender himself wholly to God, to Whom he cried, Unto Thee, O Lord, have I lifted up my soul. Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God. On Thee was I cast from the womb; from my mother's womb Thou art my God. Like a mighty river from which flow many streams, his hand was always stretched out to give to those who asked. And now the time has come to tell of one of his numerous deeds of compassion, as a testimony to his generosity.
There was a man living in Patara who was once wealthy and renowned, but his fortune waned. He fell into poverty and was scorned by those who before had regarded him highly. This man had three beautiful daughters, and when the necessities of life began to fail him, he decided to make his house a brothel and sell their bodies. Oh, what wicked schemes are born of destitution! The man had already devised his unseemly plan and was making preparations to fulfill it when God, Who loves us and does not wish to see us perish, sent down grace into the heart of His favorite, the holy priest Nicholas, mystically inspiring him to assist the wretch and turn him away from sin. Hearing of the father's poverty and learning by divine revelation of his foul scheme, Nicholas felt deep pity for him and resolved to snatch him and his daughters from penury and sin as if from fire, by giving them generous alms. However, the saint did not want to help the man openly, for two reasons. Firstly, obedient to the words of the Gospel, Take heed that you do not your alms before men, he sought to avoid the empty praise of men. Secondly, since the man was once rich and had only recently fallen on bad times, Nicholas did not wish to humiliate him. Knowing how mortifying it is for someone who once enjoyed wealth and renown to accept alms (since he is reminded of his former prosperity), the saint thought it best to obey Christ's words: Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. So great was Nicholas' desire to avoid praise that he attempted to hide himself even from those whom he assisted! He went at midnight to the man's home, threw a large bag of gold into the house through a window, and fled. The next morning, when he rose, the man found the bag and untied it. Seeing the gold, he became frightened, thinking it was an illusion, since he knew of no one likely to aid him so generously. Only when he touched it did he become convinced that what he saw was real and permit himself to weep with happiness. Although he wondered for a long time who might be his benefactor, he could think of no one. Ascribing his good fortune to providence, he thanked God unceasingly, glorifying the Lord Who cares for all men. Without delay he married off his eldest daughter, using the gold to provide her dowry. Learning what the man had done, the wondrous Nicholas was very pleased and prepared to assist the second daughter. He made ready another bag of gold, of the same value, and unknown to all, went by night and threw it into the man's house through the same window. When the father rose the next morning and found the second bag, he was even more amazed than before, and falling to the floor, wept and cried, "O merciful God, Who didst purchase my salvation with Thy precious blood, Thou hast ransomed my home and children from the snares of the enemy! I beseech Thee to reveal to me who it was that accomplished Thy will and served as minister of Thy kindness and love for man. Show me the earthly angel that hath prevented us from perishing in sin, delivering us from destitution and my base plots. Behold, Lord, because Thy favourite hath assisted me so generously, I am now able to find a husband for my second daughter and escape the nets of the devil, who hoped to multiply mine evil deeds, which even before this merited eternal punishment."
Thanking the Lord for his kindness, the man celebrated the wedding of his second daughter. He trusted that God would provide a lawful husband for his third child and again send him the money he needed. Because he wished to know who was bringing the gold, he did not sleep at night, but watched in the hope of catching sight of his secret patron. It was not long before Christ's favorite came a third time, walking very quietly, and again cast a bag of money through the window. The father heard it striking the floor and ran as fast as he could in pursuit of the saint. When he caught up with him, he recognized Nicholas, who was known to all because of his virtuous life and noble ancestry. He fell at the holy priest's feet and kissed them, calling the saint his helper and deliverer and the rescuer of souls. "If the merciful Lord had not inspired you to come to my aid," he exclaimed, "my daughters and I, the wretch, would have perished in the fires of Sodom. But glory to God, you have saved us from a grievous fall!" Only with the greatest difficulty did Nicholas succeed in raising him to his feet and compelling him to swear that he would tell no one what had occurred as long as his benefactor remained alive. After speaking to the man at length about things profitable to the soul, the saint permitted him to return home.
From this story it is evident what deep sympathy Saint Nicholas had for the poor. It would be impossible to tell every example of his generosity to beggars or to enumerate the hungry people he fed, the naked he clothed, or the debtors he delivered from usurers.
Some time later, our venerable father decided to visit Palestine and venerate the Holy Places in the land where our Lord and God Jesus Christ once walked. While his ship was sailing off the coast of Egypt, Saint Nicholas foresaw that a violent tempest was about to arise although no one else suspected this. The godly one told the others what would occur, explaining that he had seen the devil himself enter the ship, intending to sink it and drown the passengers. At once black clouds appeared in the sky and a violent storm arose, churning up the sea. All were seized with fear and entreated Nicholas to rescue them. In despair they cried, "Unless you pray God to save us, O favorite of the Lord, we shall certainly be swallowed by the deep!"
Advising passengers and crew to take courage and put their hope in God, the saint sent up fervent supplication to the Lord. A great calm at once settled upon the waters, and the passengers' terror turned to joy. They thanked God and His favorite, our holy father Nicholas, marveling at how he had both foretold the storm and accomplished their deliverance. Then, however, one of the sailors, who had climbed to the top of the ship's mast to attend to a sail, fell to the deck as he was descending and was killed. But Saint Nicholas, ever ready to help even before called upon, restored the man to life as though he had merely been asleep. A fair wind filled the sails, and the boat quickly made for the port of Alexandria where it docked. There God's favorite healed many sick people and cast out demons, bringing consolation to the afflicted. Eventually he resumed his journey to Palestine.
When he arrived in the holy city of Jerusalem, Saint Nicholas went to Golgotha, where Christ God stretched out His most pure hands upon the Cross to save the race of man. Oh, what fervent prayers did he pour out there from a heart burning with love, sending up thanks to our Saviour! He then went to all the other Holy Places, worshipping unhurriedly at each of them. One night, when he wished to enter the church on Mount Zion to pray, its locked doors swung open to him for whom the gates of heaven were also open. Having remained for some time in Jerusalem, Nicholas was preparing to travel into the desert, but a voice from heaven commanded him to return to his homeland. God, Who orders all things for our benefit, did not wish that the lamp He had prepared to illumine Lycia be hidden beneath a basket. The saintfound a boat supposedly bound for his homeland and arranged with its crew for his passage. The sailors, however, had devised a wicked scheme and intended to sail not to Lycia but to another country. Shortly after the boat cast off, Saint Nicholas realized that it was not headed in the right direction, and he fell at the feet of the sailors, beseeching them to change their course. Paying him no heed, they continued on, not understanding that God would never forsake His favorite. Suddenly a storm arose, driving the ship swiftly toward Lycia. Thus borne across the sea by the might of God, Nicholas reached his destination. Since the saint was a stranger to malice, he did not seek revenge on the treacherous sailors, nor was he angry with them. He did not utter a single word of accusation; instead, after giving them his blessing, he let them depart.
Upon his return to Lycia, the saint went to the Monastery of Holy Zion founded by his uncle, the Bishop of Patara. The brethren were overjoyed to see him and greeted him with the reverence due one of God's angels. Taking delight in his divinely inspired words and greatly edified by his way of life, which indeed rivaled that of the heavenly powers, they sought to emulate the virtuous conduct that was the adornment of the Lord's faithful servant. Saint Nicholas found the monastery to be a haven of silence conducive to reflection on the Divinity, and hoped to remain there in seclusion for the rest of his life. But God was not pleased that the great treasure-chest of every excellence, which He intended to use to enrich the world, should remain hidden in a little cell in a monastery, buried, as it were, in the ground. It was His will that it be revealed to all creation and employed to make spiritual purchases and gain numerous souls. Thus it was that one day while the saint was standing at prayer, he heard a voice say, "Nicholas, if you wish to receive a crown from Me, labor for the good of others." The saint had still not regained his composure when he heard the voice again, saying, "Nicholas, this is not the vineyard where you will bear fruit for Me. Return to the world and glorify My name there." Saint Nicholas realized that it was God's will that he abandon his solitude, and strive for the salvation of men. He was still uncertain, however, whether he ought to return to Patara or go elsewhere.
After pondering the matter, the saint decided it best to go to a city where he was unknown, since he knew that in Patara he was held in esteem by everyone. Now in the land of Lycia there is a renowned city named Myra, the provincial capital, to which the Lord guided Saint Nicholas. No one knew him there, so he made it his home and lived among the poor without a place to rest his head. His sole haven was the house of the Lord God.
At this time John, the Archbishop of the city, died, and the bishops of the land assembled in Myra to elect a worthy successor. Several noble, respected men were nominated, but the bishops could not reach agreement on any of them. Then some of the hierarchs, moved by divine zeal, declared that the Archbishop of the country ought not be selected by men, but by Providence. If they turned to prayer, they maintained, the Lord Himself would reveal who was worthy to assume the rank of archbishop and become chief shepherd of Lycia. This good counsel met with general approval, and the bishops devoted themselves to fervent prayer and fasting.
The Lord, Who hearkens to the entreaty of those who fear Him, deigned to reveal His will in the following manner to one of the eldest bishops. While the Bishop was praying, a radiant man appeared, commanding him to stand that night by the doors of the church and observe who entered the building first. "That man," said He, "is filled with My Spirit. Receive him with honor and make him archbishop; his name is Nicholas."
The Bishop informed the other hierarchs of the divine vision and told them what he had been commanded. Hearing this, they redoubled their prayers. Then the Bishop went to the church and stood by the doorway, awaiting Nicholas' coming. When the time for Matins drew near, Saint Nicholas, who always rose at midnight to pray, went to the church, arriving as usual before the other worshippers. The Bishop stopped him as he entered the narthex and asked, "What is your name, child?"
At first the saint did not reply, but since the Bishop repeated the question, he answered, "My name is Nicholas, Master, and I am Your Holiness' servant."
Both from his name and the meek, humble, and calm manner in which the reply was made, the holy Bishop knew that the man who stood before him was the one chosen by God to be Archbishop of Lycia. Recalling the Scripture which says that the Lord will look upon the man who is meek and quiet and humble of heart, the Bishop rejoiced exceedingly, as though he had found a great treasure. He took Nicholas by the hand and said, "Follow me, child."
Nicholas was presented to the bishops, who, filled with spiritual delight because God had revealed His choice, escorted the saint back to the church. Word of what had happened spread rapidly, and a multitude assembled in God's temple so quickly it seemed borne there on wings. The Bishop who saw the vision addressed the congregation with these words: "Receive, brethren, your shepherd, whom the Holy Spirit has anointed and to whom He has entrusted the care of your souls. He was chosen not by an assembly of men but by God Himself. We have found him whom we sought, and under his good guidance and instruction, we shall never lose hope of standing before the Lord on the day of His return."
The great assembly gave thanks to God, and the people's joy knew no measure. Saint Nicholas, however, who hated the praise of men, at first refused the hierarchal rank. Nevertheless, he had seen a vision before the death of the last Archbishop in which he was commanded to accept consecration, so in the end he submitted unwillingly to the persistent entreaties of clergy and laity. Concerning this vision Saint Methodius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, writes, "One night, Saint Nicholas saw our Saviour standing before him, radiant with glory. The Lord gave him a gospel adorned with gold and pearls. Beside him the saint beheld the most holy Theotokos, who placed upon his shoulders an omophorion, the symbol of episcopal dignity. A few days later John, the Archbishop of Myra, breathed his last, and Nicholas became his successor."
Remembering the vision and bowing to God's will, the saint accepted the faithful of Myra as his flock. The bishops, assisted by other clergy, performed the usual rite of consecration, and all the people celebrated the appointment of their divinely chosen shepherd. Thus a brilliant luminary was given to God's Church, not to be hidden beneath a basket, but to be set in a fitting place whence it could shine brightly. And indeed, at all times this holy hierarch of Christ rightly divided the word of truth, instructing his flock in the teachings of Orthodoxy.
At the very beginning of his episcopal service God's favorite said to himself, "Nicholas, the rank you hold demands that you conduct yourself differently from other men. Now you must live for others." Wishing to instill the virtues in his flock, he did not conceal his good deeds as before. His way of life became known to everyone, not because he wished to enjoy adulation, but so that the Christians might be edified and glorify God. In him the words of the Gospel were fulfilled: Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. The saint served as an example to all, and was, in the words of the Apostle, an example to the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. He was meek and forgiving, humble in spirit, and fled everything vainglorious. His clothing was simple, his food lenten, and he ate only once daily, in the evening. The whole day long he occupied himself with the responsibilities of his office, and was always willing to give an audience to those who came to him with requests. The doors of his house were never shut, for he strove to be accessible to all: a father to orphans, a charitable patron of the needy, the helper of the wronged, and the benefactor of every Christian soul entrusted to his care. To assist him in his pastoral labors and the administration of the Church, Nicholas appointed two prudent counselors, men known and respected even by the unbelievers of Myra: Paul of Rhodes and Theodore of Ascalon, both priests.
Seeing Saint Nicholas tend well the rational sheep of Christ's flock, the devil, that evil serpent which never ceases to bring temptations upon God's servants, grew ever more envious. Unable to endure the sight of piety flourishing, he incited the Roman emperors Diocletian and Maximian to initiate a persecution of Christ's Church. The rulers issued throughout their domains an edict commanding the faithful to renounce Christ and worship the idols. Whoever refused to obey was to be fettered and imprisoned, tortured and executed. The evil storm soon reached Myra, but the blessed Nicholas, who was ready to suffer for the Lord, continued to preach the faith of Christ openly. It was not long before he was seized by the persecutors and imprisoned with many other Christians. Nicholas remained in confinement for a long time, suffering greatly from hunger and thirst and the overcrowded condition of the dungeon. His fellow prisoners, however, he nurtured constantly with the word of God, giving them the sweet waters of piety to drink and confirming them in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. He set their feet upon the unshakable foundation of trust in the Lord, and exhorted them to remain firm in their confession of Christ and to suffer eagerly for the truth. In time the storm of persecution ended, and the tranquility of freedom returned for the Christians. The truth of the Gospel shone again like the sun breaking through dark clouds, and Christ, Who loves mankind, looked upon His inheritance and put an end to heathen rule. The Lord raised up a horn of salvation for His people, the holy Cross, which appeared to the new Emperor Constantine, who assumed authority over the Roman Empire. Acknowledging the one God and placing his trust in Him, Constantine prevailed over his enemies by the power of the Cross. He commanded that pagan temples be leveled and Christian churches be built, thus destroying the vain hopes of his predecessors. Those imprisoned for Christ's sake were honored as courageous soldiers of the Lord. The released Christians returned to their homes, and the city of Myra received back its pastor, the great hierarchNicholas, who, as a confessor, wore the crown of martyrdom though his blood was not shed. By the grace of Christ he continued as before to heal the passions and infirmities of believers and unbelievers alike. Because God's grace was abundantly present in him, he was greatly esteemed and loved, and everyone marveled at him. He labored for the Lord in holiness and righteousness, and shone with purity of heart and every divine gift.
At that time numerous pagan temples remained in use, and the demons continued to entice the unbelievers to worship in them, so bringing about the perdition of many citizens of Myra. Moved by divine zeal, the godly hierarch began travelling through the district, demolishing the heathen temples and cleansing the land of demonic defilement. As Saint Nicholas was battling in this way, he came to the enormous, beautifully adorned sanctuary of Artemis, the especially beloved abode of his invisible enemies. When he destroyed this vile temple, the saint did not hesitate to pull up the very foundations. Quaking with fear every time they saw Christ's invincible servant approach, the devils would cry out and moan; and unable to resist the prayers of the holy hierarch, would take to their heels.
Some time later, the right-believing Emperor Constantine, wishing to strengthen the Christian faith, commanded that an ecumenical council be held in the city of Nicaea. The holy fathers who assembled there clearly defined the doctrines of Orthodoxy, anathematizing both the Arian heresy and Arius, that corrupter of the faith and sower of the tares of impiety. They proclaimed the Son to be equal in honor and of one essence with the Father and reestablished peace in the apostolic Church. The wondrousNicholas was one of the 318 fathers attending this Council, at which he valiantly struggled against Arius. With the other holy fathers, he upheld the dogmas of the faith, delivering them intact to his flock.
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