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A meditation on the icon of St. Nicholas

30 July, 2010

Gregory Collins shows us how to pray and meditate with an icon of St. Nicholas. As God filled Nicholas with goodness, compassion and light, he also wishes to shed his light in all human hearts to make them shine like living icons before the face of all the earth.

The vibrant red in this icon symbolises the fire and energy of the Holy Spirit. It reminds us that every icon involves both evocation and invocation. Evocation because it calls to mind the saint depicted. Here it is Nicholas of Myra, beloved of mariners and children from Russia to the coast of Galway. Nicholas, guide of sailors, giver of gifts and patron saint of generosity. Every icon is an evocation because it is a reminder that the saints who opened their hearts to God’s transforming grace became themselves living icons of the crucified and risen Jesus. He is the perfect icon of God (Colossians 1:15-20; 2 Corinthians 4:4), ‘the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:3).

St Nicholas is shown here with his features transformed by holiness. His deep-set, compassionate eyes gaze contemplatively upon the believer. His high forehead reveals his great wisdom. It is surrounded by a nimbus or halo symbolising the light of grace. His expression is one of deep serenity, the inner tranquillity of one who keeps the Lord ever in his sight (Psalm 16:8-9).

In every true icon, light emerges from within the person, from the deep well of the sanctified heart. It is there that the Holy Spirit infuses the light of baptismal grace, called by the ancient church, both East and West, Photismos, or illumination. This light comes down from on high from the Father of all light (James 1: 17). It is the light that shone through the body of Christ on Thabor, the mount of Transfiguration, and that shines forever though his risen body (Matthew 17:1-10; 2 Peter 1:16-18). This light of love is poured into the heart of the believer by baptism in the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), into the unconscious centre of the person. It calls out from within, until turning inwards in prayer, the seeker sees and knows it in conscious experience (Romans 6: 1-4). The saint is one who has made this experience his or her own.

Flanking Nicholas on either side are Christ the Lord, and Mary the Theotokos. Their presence indicates that his strength comes form heaven above, from the grace of the Saviour and the prayers of Mary, Mother of the Church. She presents him with his omphorion or stole, a potent reminder that ministry is given by the church for the service of others. Nicholas wears the vestments in which he carried out his ministry before the Lord. All is evocation, a reminder that God’s favour rests upon Nicholas his chosen witness. His special virtue was compassion, which is written in his face. Orthodox spirituality has always seen the gift of tears as the purest sign of union with God. They are tears of repentance, tears of compassion and tears of joy, tokens of that tenderness of heart without which one can never see the Lord. Nicholas has always had a prominent place in popular devotion, especially in the Christian East. A Russian proverb says that even if God himself were to die, at least we would have St Nicholas!

But if the icon is an evocation, it is still more an invocation. It is a privileged place, a locus for the sacred, where the Holy Spirit shines in answer to our prayers. The painter of this icon, an anonymous servant, has put his art at the disposal of the vision he received in prayer. He has received the impression of a heavenly ‘original’, obscurely sensed in the darkness of contemplative prayer and worship.

Expressing it in wood and paint and gold, he has fashioned the likeness of the saint. Since his prayer was pure, the material elements have caught ‘fire’ from the uncreated light. This icon of Nicholas shines with a holiness not of this world. It reveals to the eyes of faith and prayer the mysterious vocation to which all are called in baptism – to catch ‘fire’ in turn from the divine light. ‘Come and receive light from the undying light of Christ,’ sings the Byzantine liturgy in the holy night of Easter. The Holy Spirit, the ‘breath of God’ will fan this tiny flame into a bonfire of love if the heart is repeatedly opened to him in prayer.

In the sayings of the desert monks we read that a young man asked an elder what else he needed to do in his spiritual life, since he kept the round of prayers and duties appointed for him to the best of his ability. The old man stood up, stretched out his hands to heaven, shone like the sun and said, ‘If you want to, you can become fire!’ The undying light that kindles this fire is the joyful light of Thabor. It shone before the eyes of Peter, James and John in the event of the Transfiguration (Mk 9:1-9) and in the holy life of Nicholas. It shone in the eyes of the painter who perceived his presence in pure prayer. This light can shine for us today, in the silent, receptive space we make within ourselves as we pray before the icon of St Nicholas.

Submit to the light: then the gentle compassion of this saint will be yours as well. God wishes to shed his light in human hearts to make them shine like living icons before the face of all the earth (Mt 5:14-16).

Prayers before the icon of St Nicholas

Your saints dwell in everlasting glory!
An immortal name will be their heritage!
(Antiphon from the Glenstal Monastic Office).

Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, by the prayers of your servant Nicholas grant us a childlike heart to know and do your will!
Lord Jesus Christ, gentle and humble in heart, pour out on us the spirit of mercy and compassion!
Lord Jesus Christ, fill with love and understanding the hearts we lift up to you in prayer!

Grant, almighty God, that by means of our prayer to your servant Nicholas, you may increase our love and further our salvation, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Prayer from the Roman Rite Office for Confessors).

Almighty God, listen to our prayers for mercy.  In your goodness, grant us the help of St Nicholas.  By his intersession protect us from all dangers and guide us on our way to you, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Prayer from the Roman Rite, adapted).

We have seen the true light!
We have found the true faith!
We worship the undivided Trinity:
This has been our salvation!
(Byzantine hymn).


This article first appeared in The Word (December 2002), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.