Why do People make up Stories?
Many liberal Protestants and even a few Roman Catholics have believed that the Apostles invented the story of Jesus’ Resurrection: “Hey, guys, let’s make up a tale about Jesus rising from the dead, so we can get chased out of our synagogs and homeland and spend our lives on the road, and finally get killed for it.” People, think! Is that likely?
“Fairy tales” are written to entertain or frighten children. Historical fiction gives us the “feel” of actual historical events. C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia communicated the Faith without using Christian terms, to young people in a society that already was suspicious of Christianity. But no-one was ever tempted to take all this literally, to think the great lion Aslan really existed.
Politicians have long made up false stories to help them gain and retain power. Back in the 1950s the Soviets put out propaganda about themselves and their government that was so absurd that we laughed. We wondered how the Russian people could fall for such stuff. We were grateful for our American free press and media which told us the truth. Above all we were thankful that nothing like that could ever happen here in our country. But now, 60 years later… oh, I must be wandering. Where were we? My point was that politicians have always had a vested interest in making up false stories, propaganda, and then calling the truth “fake news”.
But why would anyone ever invent “fake news” about the saints? Today we’re going to look at a few stories about Saint Nicholas from the Middle Ages through modern times. We could understand if the residents of Bari had made up some stories to draw more pilgrims and more money to the shrine of Saint Nicholas. But these stories didn’t come from Bari. What could people in Constantinople or Ukraine or Greece gain from them? The only reasonable explanation is that they happened.
These are “family stories” passed down – like the story passed down in our family from the northwest Ohio frontier, about how my great…great…great grandfather was away when some “Indians” (as they were called in those days) banged at the cabin door. Great…great…great grandmother, alone with the children, was terrified but let them in. They said nothing, warmed themselves by the fire, she served them some food, and they left without a word. They meant no harm at all, were just cold and hungry. We have no documentation for that story, except that it was included in a book a distant cousin wrote almost 150 years later, in the 1960s – although my mother some years earlier had “passed down” the same story to me, just as she had received it. I believe it. Why would I not?
So with the “family stories” that will follow here.
Devotion to Saint Nicholas Spreads
As we said last time, Nicholas is one of those saints who have done their greatest work on earth after their bodily death. At first pilgrims flocked to Myra, and Saint Nicholas’ fame and his miracles spread first in the eastern Mediterranean and later north into Slavic lands, where in Russia to this day more churches are named after Saint Nicholas than any other saint. This is Saint Nicholas Maritime Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, Russia. After his translation to Bari in Italy, devotion to Nicholas spread through the West – to the far reaches of Spain and Britain, where Nicholas was one of the most popular of saints.
After the Protestant Reformation, when devotion to saints was largely abolished or died out, Nicholas moved on in disguise – for example, known as Sinter Klaas in Holland, who then transmogrified into Santa Claus in America, but that’s another story. (see Blog post 44) America was settled by Protestants, so the true Saint Nicholas is less known here, but some of us are working on it. I suspect we don’t have to. He will do it.
How did this obscure 4th century bishop become the most popular saint in the world, except for Mary the Mother of God herself? Because of his love, which has continued to shine for 17 centuries. Because of his miracles. People asked for Nicholas’ help and often they got it. And, I think, because of his good humor. Some of the stories are just fun to listen to. From all over the world they come. I just went to the internet and googled “Miracles of Saint Nicholas” and got 398,000 results in 63 seconds. There are likely some duplicates here (I haven’t had time to check them all out…), but you see. So sit down, lean back, and let me tell you a few stories about Saint Nicholas.
Nine Wonders of Saint Nicholas
1 There is a quaint story from old Constantinople of a poor old man and woman devoted to Saint Nicholas who always lit a big candle in church on his feast. One Saint Nicholas Day they had nothing left but a cow. The old woman said, “We’re not going to live long anyway; so sell the cow and use the money to buy the candle.” The old man did. He sold the cow, went to church and lit the candle. When he got home he found his wife upset. Said she, “An old priest brought the cow back; he said he was a friend of yours, and then he left. Why didn’t you sell the cow?” She described the old priest – and then they both realized it had been Saint Nicholas. When the emperor heard the story he gave them money to support them for the rest of their lives.
2 A story from Ukraine tells of a young couple who were sailing on pilgrimage to visit a shrine, with their little son. Before they left, they lit a candle to Saint Nicholas, patron of seafarers. The mother fell asleep, and the little boy got away and fell overboard and was lost. They returned home in despair, and turned to Saint Nicholas for consolation. Next morning when the local church was unlocked, crying was heard, and there before the icon of Saint Nicholas lay a very wet little child. They called in the parents, and sure enough it was their boy.
3 In the late 19th century there was a man named John Grazes (the story was recorded just recently by his great great granddaughter) who lived on the island of Patmos – where Saint John the Theologian received his Revelation. He was captain of his own boat and ferried merchandise between Patmos and other islands in the eastern Aegean. Being a seaman he honored and depended on Saint Nicholas. Once when they were off Patmos a great storm came up so quickly that John and his crew realized they would never make it to port. They prepared to die and began to beg the help of Saint Nicholas. Then they noticed something radiant floating towards the boat and realized it was, of all things, the Grazes family icon of Saint Nicholas. John pulled it into the boat, and immediately the waters near the boat were stilled. All about them the storm raged with enormous waves, while around them the sea was calm, and they sailed quietly to shore, with not so much as a drop of rain touching them. (I know a similar mid-20th century account from some fishermen in the Gulf of Alaska involving Saint Herman of Alaska – but that also is another story.) John took the icon back home, but it refused to stay there. Some years later the family noticed the Saint Nicholas icon was missing from the icon corner of their house; they searched, but it was nowhere to be found. Not long thereafter a family friend was walking on the other side of the island, noticed something beside a tree, recognized it as the Grazes’ Saint Nicholas icon, and returned it to them. A few days later it was missing again. John went to the place where his friend had found it before, and there it was for a second time. He took the icon home and said he had concluded that Saint Nicholas wanted a chapel built on that spot. He honored the saint’s wishes. The morning the chapel was to be consecrated, the icon was gone from the house again! They found it in the new Saint Nicholas chapel waiting for them. (There are surprisingly many Orthodox stories of icons that have minds of their own.)
4 In 1890 in Sitka, Alaska, a Russian Orthodox priest, one Father Duhov, was visited by a delegation from the pagan Tlingit Aukwanton tribe of Juneau, a seafaring people, who said their prince Yarkon and all the people wished to be baptized. They promised to donate land and build a church there, but the name of the church had to be Saint Nicholas. They told this story: A young Tlingit man had had a vision of an old white man who advised him to go to Sitka and be baptized. (left: Saint Michael’s Cathedral, Sitka) The young man soon became ill and called the elders of the village and told them the same old man had come to him again, telling him all the people should be baptized. The young man died, but soon other Tlingits began to have the same vision. Bishop Nikolai of the Russian Orthodox Church sent a priest to Juneau and began the baptisms. The entire tribe became Christian and soon built Saint Nicholas Church, for they all believed firmly that the old man who had visited them was Saint Nicholas. They had never heard of him before he had begun appearing to them. Their descendants are Orthodox Christians to this day, have been instrumental in ending feuding among the native peoples of the region, and are still deeply devoted to Saint Nicholas.
5 In Siberia in a midwinter after the Communist revolution when Russia was torn by civil war, the White Army was retreating. Entering a village they seized a man suspected of collaborating with the Reds, locked him up and assigned a lieutenant to take him out next day and execute him. That night the lieutenant was sitting alone writing out the formal accusation when there came a knock at the door. He opened it and in walked an old man wearing a black headdress such as Orthodox monks wear and a black rassa (cassock). “Officer”, the old man said, “you have arrested an innocent man. Do not kill him.” “Who are you?” asked the lieutenant. “I am Father Nicholas from the local church”, he answered, and he left. The lieutenant thought it over and decided to release the prisoner. Early next morning he took the man and told the others he would now kill him. Instead when they got some distance away he gave him some bread and said, “Into the woods with you, and don’t cross our path again.” He returned to the village and went to the church to find the priest. It was locked. He asked a peasant, “Where does Father Nicholas live?” The peasant answered, “He’s dead. The Reds shot him years ago.” The lieutenant, thoroughly puzzled, got keys to the church, went in, and saw on his right an unusual icon of Saint Nicholas, portrayed wearing monastic headdress and a cassock. It was the old man who had come to him the night before.
7 So far as I know, most “weeping” icons are of the Theotokos. However, I have discovered that there are myrrh-bearing icons of Saint Nicholas, as well. This one, at Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Tarpon Springs, Florida, I saw for myself some years ago. Here’s the story: http://http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/weeping-icon-tarpon-springs/
8 There was another at Hempstead, New York, in 2009:
(This comes from the Orthodox Mystagogy Research Center, which has many interesting articles, especially stories of the saints. If I stole any of the above stories from this site, thank you and please forgive me. I first started working on this article for parish use a long time ago, and I can’t remember.)
9 And to my amazement, apparently in 2015 there may have been another at Saint Nicholas Church, Kenosha, Wisconsin, right down the road from me. Why does nobody tell me these things?
I suppose you’re going to ask why the Orthodox Church has so many weeping icons and the like. I don’t know. Last evening I attended a truly beautiful Anglican Mass where the people were clearly “believers”. I was talking with a friend there afterwards, and we pondered why they don’t seem to have these mysterious phenomena, nor do any mainline Protestants, so far as I know. What’s the answer? You tell me.
Next week: Two More Wonders of Saint Nicholas from the American Midwest.