Saint Nicholas, Wonder-working, and Mischievous Joy

I never celebrated—or even knew about—Saint Nicholas Day until I met my wife, but it is now one of my favorite holiday traditions. Observed more widely in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, December 6 is the day that Saint Nicholas comes to give presents—or coal—to the hopeful who put their boots outside. Don’t worry, you still have time to put yours out for tonight!

The celebration originated in the feast day of Saint Nicholas of Myra—a fourth-century bishop nicknamed the Wonder-worker who was known for secret charity to those shunned by “reputable society” (such as prostitutes, thieves, and sailors), and for helping those experiencing poverty, especially young women. But the day’s traditions, and the figure at the heart of it, soon gained an imaginative life of its own outside of the ecclesiastical calendar.

The myths surrounding this secret gift-giver adapted to different cultures and found new faces over the centuries (transforming from the dark-skinned Saint Nicholas to the rosy-cheeked Santa Claus and Father Christmas). However, two core elements remained: selfless compassion, and acts that bring about an almost mischievous, joyful surprise. The original stories surrounding Saint Nicholas are full of these. In one, he secretly tossed bags of gold into a house of an impoverished family over three consecutive nights to help their three daughters (the bags of gold are now represented by the oranges that sometimes fill Christmas stockings). In another story, a terrible storm was sure to destroy the ship on which he traveled and drown all the sailors. In an unexpected turn of events, he rebuked the waves, and all lived to see the shore. In yet another story, three innocent men were about to be executed, but he appeared, pushed the executioner’s blade away, and chastised a juror who had been bribed. What all these stories have in common for me is the power of unexpected wonder and joy—imagine waking up and finding your life utterly transformed with a bag of gold. Imagine the waves crashing—or the executioner’s blade swinging—only to stop, and you realize that your life is saved.

For me, Saint Nicholas Day is a reminder to bring some of that inspirational wonder-working and playful compassion to my daily life and interactions. While our dear Saint Vincent lived more than a millennia after Saint Nicholas, you can see something Vincentian about Saint Nicholas’s attention to the poor and helping the hungry, even if his efforts lacked our namesake’s organizational prowess (and critical collaboration with Saint Louise). Our mission—much like Saint Nick’s—is vital and needed in our world. But we need joyful sustenance to carry it forward and not be overcome by the waves and storms of the times.

What are some ways that you can bring playful, supportive, unexpected joy to your colleagues?[i]

Reflection by: Alex Perry, Program Manager, Division of Mission and Ministry

[i] Vincent said, “Another effect of charity is to rejoice with those who rejoice. It causes us to enter into their joy. Our Lord intended by His teachings to unite us in one mind and in joy as well as in sorrow; it’s His desire that we share one another’s feelings.” Conference 207, “Charity (Common Rules, Chap. II, Art. 12),” 30 May 1659, CCD, 12:222. Available at: https://‌via.library.depaul.edu/‌vincentian_ebooks/‌36/.

Reminder: We will be hosting (virtually and in-person) a festive Day with Vincent on December 15 titled “Inspired by Joy.” Fill your reservoir before the holiday break with a morning retreat grounded in our mission and focused on reconnecting to what brings you joy. You can register and learn more here: https://december-day-with-vincent.eventbrite.com

 

 

Discovering a Resilient Joy

My heart is still overflowing with joy on account of the understanding which, I believe, our good God has given me of the words, “God is my God” … Therefore, I cannot help communicating with you this evening to ask you to assist me to profit from this excess of joy…”1

The ups and downs of the election season and the continued uncertainty that lingers regarding the state of our nation and a public health crisis make evident to us that unless we want to ride an emotional rollercoaster, we need to find a deeper, steadier, and more sustainable source of joy.

As quoted above from a letter to Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac found a source for such resilient joy in the ongoing presence of her God. From her Christian imagination and faith, she spoke with confidence of a belief that even in moments of loss and hardship, there is always the possibility of new life and resurrected hope. This way of making meaning offered her the possibility of a resilient joy that sustained her generative life of service and charity.2

What about you? Where do you seek and find a joy that is not dependent on the daily fluctuations of your external environment, such as the post-election results or COVID numbers, or the inevitably temperamental nature of human emotions and thoughts?

As I have aged, I’ve come to realize that much of the quality of my life is about learning how to live with loss. Whether the loss of a loved one to death, the loss of an idealistic dream or well-designed plan, the loss of a favorite sports team, or even the loss of my hair, losses can sting and leave us flustered, sad, angry, and off-balance. Furthermore, there is often a tendency to turn that hurt or sadness inward on ourselves in the form of self-critique or self-loathing, or outward onto others with blame and judgment. Handling loss like this does not lead to the kind of meaningful joy that Louise speaks of and we desire. Such joy will only come with a willingness to accept what we cannot change or control, to accept reality as it is, even if we would rather it be different.

Staring reality in the face, might we find joy simply in knowing that we can begin again from where we now are? Life offers us an infinite number of opportunities to begin again and ultimately reach our goals. There is joy to be found in re-discovering our freedom and creativity, in finding new ways to shine a light amidst darkness, and in being generative despite uncertainty or difficulty.

I suspect that this is what Louise de Marillac discovered, that with God’s help, the human spirit is resilient and will always rise again.


1) L. 369, To Monsieur Vincent, August 24 (Before 1650), Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac, 341. Online at: https://via.library.depaul.edu/ldm/11/

2) For more on the overflowing joy and generativity of Louise’s life, see: Vie Thorgren, “‘God is My God’: The Generative Integrity of Louise de Marillac,” Vincentian Heritage 12:2 (1991), 201-18. Available at: https://via.library.depaul.edu/vhj/vol12/iss2/7

 

Reflection by: Mark Laboe, Associate VP, Division of Mission and Ministry

 


Join us this coming Wednesday!

Gratitude Workshop

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Noon to 1 pm

The DePaul community is invited to join the College of Communication and the Division of Mission & Ministry for a lunchtime workshop devoted to gratitude practices. Research indicates that cultivating a sense of gratitude in our lives protects us from stress and depression and increases resiliency. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, this is the perfect time to come learn some new approaches to feeling and expressing gratitude. Click here to register for Gratitude Workshop.