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Give Like Saint Nicholas

Charity ordered towards justice.

St Nicholas of Myra

Some readers of The American Conservative may be aware, through other articles I’ve written, that I am in the process of taking RCIA courses to be baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church. I’ve been a Christian my entire life. Thanks to a Christian education from the age of three to eighteen, I know scripture. But the beautiful thing about joining the Catholic Church is relearning the word anew alongside some who have never cracked open the Word of God before the day they felt compelled to slip into a Catholic parish, looking for answers to some kind of question or prayer.

It’s having me retrace steps in my faith I took as a young boy—revisiting things I felt I’d moved beyond and accepted as truth. And His Truth that transcends and precedes us hasn't changed, just as God is the same yesterday as today and tomorrow. But in calling me to the Church now, as a young man, Our Lord has brought me back to first principles. With the proper guidance, I am rediscovering the deeper beauties of His Truth. Much of this discovery has centered around learning about the lives of the saints.

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Today is Saint Nicholas’s feast day. Yes, the inspiration for that other St. Nicholas, with the red suit and cheeks, twinkling eyes, and a belly like a bowl full of jelly. 

The real St. Nicholas was born to a well-off family in Myra, a seaport in the Asia Minor province of Lycea, around 280 A.D. Though the details of his life are uncertain, given how few records survived that era of Roman persecution and the number of legends surrounding his life, tradition holds that St. Nicholas was orphaned as a boy and became Bishop of Myra at a young age. And his holiness was so apparent to the Christians he served that upon his death in 342, the people instantly recognized him as a saint—similar to Mother Teresa in modern times. Thus, the Church always made sure to keep and protect his remains.

Tradition has given us some wonderful stories of St. Nicholas. Of course, one of the more popular stories of St. Nicholas is from the Council of Nicea. At the time, the heretic Arius had propounded the idea that Jesus was not divine. When Arius argued this point in front of the Nicean Council, St. Nicholas grew so infuriated with Arius that he slapped him in the face. He was censured for striking Arius, but later reinstated, the story goes.

Another story surrounds his efforts to assist a man with three daughters approaching the age to marry. The family was so impoverished that the man did not have any money for a dowry, and the daughters would be left either to go hungry or turn to prostitution. Rather than let this family suffer such a fate, St. Nicholas gathered some money, and slipped it into the family’s house so the father could afford a dowry for his eldest daughter. He repeated the act when the second daughter came of age. And when St. Nicholas went to do it for the third, the father was determined to catch this benefactor in the act to thank him. The father caught St. Nicholas, who attempted to flee, and Nicholas had the father swear to keep the secret. Obviously, the word eventually got out. Now you know why the other St. Nicholas slips down the chimney in the dead of night to leave presents.

St. Nicholas, both in Church tradition and in popular culture, is appropriately associated with charity. St. Nicholas not only devoted money to a cause other than his own, but gave it to causes that were directed towards justice. 

Thanksgiving through Christmas remains a season of giving for even secular people. They throw money at all sorts of faddish causes, and pat themselves on the back for doing something. Just walk around downtown Washington, and you can find offices for nonprofits with every cause you can imagine—while many do wonderful work, others use charity as a disguise for their depravity.

G.K. Chesterton, in his 1908 work Orthodoxy, said the modern world “is full of wild and wasted virtues… The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

This Christmas season, don’t give for the sake of giving. Give like St. Nicholas: with a purpose, directed towards the Lord, who has given you all you’ll ever need.

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