December 6 is the day on the church’s calendar when St. Nicholas is celebrated. The myths around this saint from Myra (in present day Turkey) are many. The bags of gold that he tossed into one home so that the daughters would have dowries and not be sold into prostitution become the origin of the gift-giving tradition we now have at this time of year. He is considered the patron saint of children because one story has Nicholas resurrecting three boys who had been slaughtered during a time of famine and were being prepared to be eaten. And he is credited with saving a ship full of sailors in a storm-tossed sea by calming the waters. These are tales told in many cultures, and of course all relate directly to Christian theology. Are they true? Does it matter?
Where do mystery and reason meet? One might argue, and certainly Joseph Campbell did so in his book and television series “The Power of Myth,” that they meet in theology, as both mystery and reason attempt, in their own ways, to express truth. Where does myth end and truth begin? Do we have to know? There are many truths that can’t be confined to those things we perceive with our five senses and personally, I have never been hobbled by a need for certainty. I enjoy the universalizing process that any story can lead us through.
The danger of myths that feed our misperceptions about race, about various threats to our safety from vaccines to immigrants…well, that’s a topic for another day. There is a big difference between things we absolutely know to be true (but aren’t), and those things we know aren’t really true, but which we acknowledge still have something to teach us. A very provocative TED Talk takes on this very topic, if you are interested.
What matters, it seems to me, are the universal truths that the story of St. Nicholas expresses – the value of generosity, of helping those in need, and maybe most important at this time of year, being the calm during a storm (the quiet voice during a family argument perhaps? A peaceful presence among harried shoppers or co-workers?). These are truths we all could incorporate into our lives.
Close your eyes and return to your early childhood. Was there anything more wonderful than anticipating the return of that greatest of all myths, St. Nicholas in the guise of a gift-bearing Santa Claus? The evolution of our adult happiness hinges on turning that early eagerness for the gifts of things into a mature appreciation for the gifts of spirit – friendship, time, kindness, and, of course, music.
A gift for you then on this St. Nicholas Day – music by Estonian composer Arvo Part, which includes this text in the third part of his choral work Triodion:Ode III:
O Holy Saint Nicolas, Pray unto God for Us A rule of faith and a model of meekness, a teacher of abstinence hath the reality shewn thee unto thy flock; therewithal hast thou acquired: by humility – greatness, by poverty – riches; O Father hierarch Nicolas, intercede before Christ our God that our souls may be saved.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.
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