Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins

St Nicholas cover (small)[Copyright 2014. This text may not be re-printed, linked or posted to other sites without my permission. The book was published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press in April 2015.]

by Jim Forest

Once upon a time there was a boy named Nicholas. Today we call him Saint Nicholas, but when he was growing up everyone called him Nick.

Nick lived in a town called Patara where ships came and went every day. You should have seen them! They were made of brightly painted wood with tall masts that seemed to touch the sky and had sails of every color.

The men who made up the crews had an endless supply of tales to tell of their close encounters with fabulous creatures, from sea monsters big as islands to mermaids whose voices could pull a sailor beneath the waves.

The sailors also filled Nick’s imagination with visions of distant ports and great cities — Alexandria, Antioch, Sidon, Tripoli, Carthage, Rome, Syracuse, Ravenna…. Such beautiful names, so many places, all so far away, but at the same time as close as the masts of any ship floating in Patara’s harbor.

It was Nick’s dream to become a sailor and travel to all the far-away ports that were beyond the horizon yet shared the same sea in which he and his friends so often swam. In the meantime, he asked every sailor he met, “Where have you been? What was it like?”

Nick’s uncle was an important man in Patara — the bishop — but for Nick he was also both father and mother as Nick’s own parents had died early in his life. It was his uncle who had taught him to read and write.

It pleased Nick that he had been named after his uncle. Everyone respected the bishop, not only because he helped each person who came to him in need but also for his faith and courage. As a young man, the bishop had been beaten and imprisoned just for being a Christian.

The two of them often went for walks together. His uncle enjoyed listening to Nick retell stories he had heard from the sailors. He had stories to tell as well, some from the Gospel, some from his own experiences as bishop. “You don’t have to go to sea to have adventures,” he told Nick. “I promise you, whoever lives according to the Gospel will have greater adventures than meeting sea monsters or hearing mermaids sing.”

For Nick, just being with his uncle was an adventure and an education. Nearly every day his uncle found time to visit the sick. Nick was often at his side. “It’s a never-ending journey getting to know people,” said Nick’s uncle. “Everyone has a story and no two stories are alike.”

Nick thought of Mark, a neighbor who had lost a leg in an accident on-board ship. His uncle not only changed Mark’s bandages day after day but he also changed Mark’s mind. After his accident, Mark had wanted to die. “My life is over,” he said. “There is nothing for me to do.” By finding a job for Mark mending nets, Nick’s uncle helped him want to stay alive. “Restoring hope can be a resurrection,” his uncle had told him.

Nick also noticed how his uncle would sometimes quietly leave a coin as he was saying goodbye to those he visited. “You know what Jesus said,” his uncle explained. “‘Sell what you have and give it to the poor.’”

Nick knew that in his uncle’s house there was a special chest where his uncle kept a sack of gold coins that had been left for him by his parents — Nick’s inheritance. “Should I give the coins to the poor?” he asked his uncle. “It’s good that you think about these things,” his uncle replied, “but you’re too young to make such decisions.”

By the time Nick was fourteen, he still had his dream of being a sailor but he was also haunted by the example of his uncle’s life. Perhaps the voyages God wanted him to take in life weren’t by ship to distant ports but to people nearby.

Had it not been for the needs of a family living only a few doors away, perhaps Nick would have joined the crew of one of the ships in the harbor. But walking past their front door one evening, Nick heard the mother weeping. This was the home of a husband and wife whose three daughters were old enough to marry — but not one had married yet.

Nick knew about their problem. The family had no money. In those days it was the custom that a father whose daughter was getting married had to provide money or property to help the couple set up the new household. This was called a dowry. But because they were so poor, it seemed none of the daughters would ever be able to marry and start a family of their own.

Nick wondered if he shouldn’t tell his uncle? Perhaps he would find a way to help. But it seemed to Nick that God had put this problem in his hands and no one else’s. His uncle had given him an example of what to do.

Nick made a secret decision. He knew where the key was to the chest where his uncle kept the gold coins left for him by his parents, and he had discovered that three gold coins would be enough for a dowry. Just three coins would make it possible for the oldest daughter, Sophia, to marry. How happy she would be!

One night when his uncle was away, Nick opened the chest, found the bag with his inheritance, took three coins, put them in a cloth sack and tied it closed. In the dark of night, he threw the sack through an open window into his neighbor’s house, then slipped away as quiet as a cat.

Days later the news swept through the town that Sophia was to going to marry Antony, a friend of Nick’s. It was a good match, everyone said — two fine young people, perfect for each other. Sophia’s parents said it was a miracle — a sack of gold coins had been thrown into their home while they were sleeping! “Perhaps an angel sent it,” said Sophia’s mother, her face wet with tears.

It was hard to keep from telling his uncle what he had done, but hadn’t he often said that giving is most pleasing to God when only God knows the giver? “Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing,” his uncle often said, quoting the Gospel. “Let God be the only witness.”

The problem was that there were still two unmarried sisters, Macrina and Zoe. It had been easy giving three coins, but six more gold coins would mean that very little of his inheritance would remain safely locked up in the chest.

It took three months, but at last Nick found the courage to throw a second sack with three coins into his neighbor’s house. Not long afterward Macrina married Paul — and still no one knew where the money had come from.

There was still Zoe, the youngest daughter. Must he help her as well? Hadn’t he done enough? Shouldn’t he keep the money left in the chest for his own future needs?

One day he happened to see Zoe walking home from the market and noticed the sadness in her eyes. What right had he to worry about his own future when Zoe’s needs were here and now? Hadn’t Jesus said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow?”

That night he took three more coins from the chest. With only the light of the moon to guide him, Nick tossed the last sack through the window.

But this time someone spotted him. Zoe’s father had been waiting in the shadows.

“So it’s you, Nick!” he said. “But how is it possible? You’re so young! That a boy should care so much about our troubles. It’s a miracle.”

“I’m only following my uncle’s example,” said Nick. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

Zoe’s father promised not to tell, but of course he told his wife, who felt it necessary to tell her brother, who told his best friend, who whispered it to his next-door neighbor, who mentioned it to her husband. Each person who knew the secret thought of one other person who could be trusted not to tell. Before many days had passed, everyone in Patara knew what Nick had done.

At last the story reached his uncle’s ears. “I’m so proud of you, Nick,” he told his nephew, “and I know your parents would be too. You cared more about your neighbor than yourself.”

Many years passed, then centuries, but the tale has never been forgotten: the story of Nicholas, who wanted to be a sailor but who became Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, a great wonder worker who, when he was only a boy, gave away nine gold coins.

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Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker

Saint Nicholas was born in Patara about 270 years after Christ’s birth and died not far away, in the port city of Myra, on the 6th of December in the year 343. Both Patara and Myra are on the southern coast of what is today Turkey. In Nicholas’s time, the region was part of the Greek-speaking world known as Lycia. Nicholas’s parents died in an epidemic when their son was still a child. Nicholas’s uncle, also named Nicholas, was Patara’s bishop. It was he who took charge of his nephew’s upbringing and education.

As no biography of Nicholas was written until centuries after he died, much of Nicholas’s life is known more from legend than from contemporary sources. What is certain is that he became Bishop of Myra and that, after his death, he was recognized as a saint. Thousands of churches have been named in his memory. He is seen as a model of gift giving and also of pastoral care.

The most popular story about him — the one told in this book — concerns his secret help to a family that had no dowry for their three daughters. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

One of the oldest stories concerning Nicholas is his election as bishop even though he was not yet either a deacon or a priest.

Another story relates how he managed to stop the execution of three men who had been condemned to death by the governor. It was a brave action that led the governor to repentance, but it could have had a much less happy ending for Nicholas. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

Some stories dramatize his commitment to protect young people, for example his bringing back to life three children who had been murdered and cut into pieces by an evil innkeeper. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

Nicholas was probably a participant in the First Ecumenical Council, held near Constantinople at Nicea in 325. One story relates that he so angered by the heretic Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ, that he slapped Arius in the face, for which violent action Nicholas was briefly excluded from the Council.

During a devastating famine that hit his region in 342, Nicholas was able to buy grain that saved the local people from starvation.

Because he was bishop of a port city and was pastor to many sailors, Nicholas is regarded as the heavenly guardian of sailors. According to one story, while on his way back to Myra after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the ship he had boarded encountered a severe storm. Everyone would have drowned had it not been for his prayers. [art: a square illustration based on the typical icon scene]

After his death, Nicholas’s tomb in Myra became a place of pilgrimage. In the spring of 1087, with wars threatening the safety of that region, sailors from Bari, a port on the southeast coast of Italy, removed Nicholas’s bones and brought them home with them. A great church was built over the crypt in Bari to honor a saint who had been a friend to the poor, rescued children and prisoners, and saved sailors and famine victims. The Saint Nicholas shrine became one of Europe’s great pilgrimage centers. To this day many thousands of pilgrims come every year. The bones of Saint Nicholas exude a clear watery liquid that smells like rose water. [interior or exterior photo of the church in Bari?]

Because his feast day, December 6, occurs just nineteen days before Christmas, in some countries the two feasts have become connected. In medieval England, parishes held Yuletide celebrations on Saint Nicholas’ Day. Today the feast of Saint Nicholas is still celebrated in several European countries. In Holland and Belgium, it overshadows Christmas as a day of gift giving.

The Dutch call Saint Nicholas “Sinterklaas,” a name that came with Dutch settlers to New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. By the time New Amsterdam became New York, the name “Sinterklaas” had undergone a small but interesting change. Have you ever heard of Santa Claus?

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