Monday, December 14, 2009

What does St. Nicholas have to do with Christmas?

The feast of St. Nicholas gives us something interesting to think about. On this day we might find gifts in our shoes, gather together with family and friends to celebrate, enjoy a dinner after Liturgy and encounter a visit from the white-bearded “St. Nicholas” dressed in his bishop’s attire. This feast comes in the middle of our “Philip’s Fast,” or “Nativity Fast,” our time of preparation for the birth of Christ. Isn’t it interesting that the feeling of Christmas is tangible on this feast day? We haven’t reached the Nativity, but we glimpse it! Why?

What is it about St. Nicholas that causes this phenomenon? We barely know any facts about the life of St. Nicholas. He wasn’t a theologian and we don’t have a word that he wrote, he isn’t known for any ascetical feats of fasting and he wasn’t a mystic, a prophet or a martyr. There are plenty of legends about the life of St. Nicholas, such as his slugging of the heretic Arius at the first ecumenical council in Nicea or his anonymous gift dropped through the window of a young woman without a dowry. All we know for certain is that he was a fourth-century bishop of Myra in Lycia, known for his defense of the true faith and his good works. We may never know if the particular stories about him are perfectly true, but it doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that he was good!—He possessed the goodness of God Himself.

On the feast of St. Nicholas we participate in the goodness, generosity and joy of this saint by imitating his virtues and receiving the fruits of these virtues from others. Fr. Thomas Hopko explains in his book The Winter Pascha, “The Messiah has come so that human beings can live lives which are, strictly speaking, humanly impossible. He has come so that people can really be good. One of the greatest and most beloved examples among believers that this is true is the holy bishop of Myra about whom almost nothing else is known, or needs to be known, except that he was good. For this reason alone he remains, even in his secularized form, the very spirit of Christmas.”

Sr. Celeste and I hope that this joy and goodness was evident at our St. Nicholas celebration on the evening of December 5. We were certainly uplifted by the singing in our packed chapel for Great Vespers and the spirit of joy throughout the evening. Guests covered our kitchen counter with delicious potluck dishes, joyfully sang “O who loves Nicholas the saintly,” played games with the kids and enjoyed a visit by “St. Nicholas” himself! It was a glimpse of the joy of the Nativity—the joy of heaven!

As we complete the fast and the journey to the Nativity, may we seek little moments of interior silence to prepare a peaceful place in our hearts for Jesus, who desires to rest in us and give us His joy, so that we might overflow in generosity and love. Our prayers are with you!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A much-needed retreat

God is with us! We have embraced and carry that prayer in our hearts as we continue to renovate and organize our future monastery. Even though our “monastery” is a prayerful, joyful and peaceful place, each room has its particular distractions of work yet to be accomplished. We were in need of less distraction and a little more peace and spousal prayer. So Julie and I traveled to Ellwood City, Pennsylvania for a five day retreat at the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration. What a blessing. Mother Christophora and the other mothers and sisters were very warm and welcoming and generously showered us with hospitality. We were uplifted by their beautiful voices of harmony and strengthened as we prayed with them in their holy chapel filled with icons from floor to ceiling.

We stayed at one of the houses on the grounds and enjoyed the gift of silence. At times we listened to CDs of various speakers, mostly of Father Thomas Hopko and Mother Christophora. We also had time to paint icons. I finished one and Julie started another. Even though some days were cold and rainy, we each made an effort to take walks on the grounds. We often visited Reverend Mother Alexandra’s grave (A.K.A. Ileana, Princess of Romania). I especially enjoyed spending prayerful time with her. Since she was the foundress of the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, I especially felt drawn to be with her and humbly asked for her guidance and intercession. I felt bolstered by her motherly presence.

At the end of the retreat, we were refreshed and ready to trek back to Burton, Ohio. We are grateful to the mothers and sisters of the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration and thank Christ our Bridegroom for the intimate encounters, energizing peace and all the blessings undeservedly received. God is (without a doubt) with us!