St. Nicholas of Tolentino, Confessor
St. Nicholas was born at St. Angelo in the March of Ancona, but is called Nicholas of Tolentino, from having resided during the last thirty years of his life at the latter place. His parents, Campanus and Amata, were long without issue, and desiring to be blessed with a child, they made a pilgrimage to Bari, to the shrine of the holy bishop St. Nicholas. Having most fervently performed their devotions, they were favored with an apparition of the Saint, who told them that they would have a son, whom they should call Nicholas, and who would become a man of eminent virtue. The truth of this prediction was soon made known. Amata gave birth to a son, who, in accordance with the command of the Saint, was named Nicholas. It was a striking fact, that from his early childhood, Nicholas possessed, in an eminent degree, the spirit of prayer, and when, as is the habit of children, he shed tears, nothing could pacify him more easily than to be told that they would carry him to church. When there he was always quiet, and as he became older, he showed a reverence that was truly angelical. He never spoke a word while in the house of God; never looked curiously about. In his whole conduct there was never seen any childishness or frivolity.
When he was old enough to begin his studies, he displayed remarkable eagerness for gaining knowledge, and made great progress: in consequence of which, he was, when yet quite young, admitted among the Canons of the church of St. Salvador. But one day, hearing a sermon on the words of the Apostle: “Do not love the world, or what is in the world,” delivered by an Augustinian hermit, he perceived an inner desire to leave all that is temporal, and serve God more perfectly in a religious state. Hence he went, immediately after the sermon, to the superior of the above-named Order, and requested to be received as a novice. His request was granted; and fulfilling the prophecy of St. Nicholas, he gave, already in the year of his probation, manifestations of truly eminent virtues, which caused him to be allowed to make his profession earlier than was usual. His constant mortification excited the admiration of all with whom he came in contact. He had heard, when only seven years of age, that his holy patron, St. Nicholas, had, when an infant, abstained every Wednesday and Friday, from his mother’s breast, and had begun immediately to pass the same two days without any food. To these two fast-days, he, in the course of time, added two more. During thirty years, he never touched either flesh or fish; he even abstained from eggs, milk, and fruit, contenting himself with bread, vegetables and water. Even when seriously sick, he deviated not from this austerity. Once when the physicians prescribed meat for him, and the General of the Order commanded him to follow their advice, he obeyed, but having taken a little, he begged to be excused from eating more, saying that he would regain strength without it, which did not fail to happen. Besides these continual fasts, the holy man chastised his innocent body in various ways. He constantly wore a hair-shirt, and scourged himself every night with an iron chain. He took a short rest at night on the bare floor, and never allowed his body the slightest recreation. One day, when someone told him not to be too severe upon himself, he said: “I have not entered the religious state to indulge in my own comfort.”
The Evil One, endeavored vainly to disturb the pious zeal of the servant of God, by terrible visions and cruel ill-treatment; but Nicholas adhered faithfully to the path he had selected. His solicitude for the salvation of souls was indefatigable, and he reformed a great many by his sermons and private discourses. To visit the sick and prisoners and to comfort and assist them, was his greatest pleasure. Not less deep was his compassion for the souls in purgatory, and as he offered daily his prayers, his penances and holy Mass for them, he released a great many from their suffering. To Mary, the divine Mother, he was most fervently devoted from his early childhood, and therefore, he received many and great favors from her. Once, when suffering from a severe fever, he thought that his last hour had arrived, and he was overcome with fear while meditating on the judgments of the Almighty. He appealed to his beloved mother, the Blessed Virgin, who deigned to appear to him, telling him to put aside all fear and be hopeful. She, at the same time, blessed a crust of bread that was lying beside him, and told him to eat of it, which he had no sooner done, than the fever left him. This is the origin of the so-called Tolentine bread, which is blessed on the feast of this Saint, and is often very beneficial to the sick. He himself wrought many miracles in favor of the sick and poor, as may be seen in his more circumstantial biography.
We will only add a few lines about his happy death, the hour of which God had revealed to him, but which was preceded by a painful sickness that lasted six months. During this time, he derived an indescribable consolation from heavenly music which he heard during the night or towards morning. Several times this was heard also by those who were with him. He received the Holy Sacraments with wonderful devotion, shedding many tears. The crucifix, which enclosed a particle of the wood of the holy Cross, he kissed most fervently, praying to the Almighty to assist him in his last combat, and to guard him from all danger by the power of the holy Cross. Besides this, his heart was filled with the desire to behold God in heaven, whom he had loved above everything on earth. Hence he called aloud several times: “Oh! that I might be dissolved and be with Christ!” Shortly before he expired, a holy joy was seen on his countenance, and when asked the cause of it, he replied: “Our Lord, Jesus Christ, leaning upon His beloved mother and St. Augustine, calls me to Him with these words: “Come, thou pious and faithful servant! enter into the joys of thy Lord!” Having said this, he fixed his eyes upon the crucifix, saying: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and expired. He is represented with a lily in his hand and a star on his breast. The lily represents the angelic purity and innocence which he kept inviolate; the star, the holy life of the great servant of the Almighty. St. Nicholas was, during his life, a bright star in the church of God, on account of his many and great virtues. His tomb shines yet, in our days, with a divine light, on account of the many and great miracles with which God there honors His faithful servant.
We also find this day, in the Roman book of Martyrs, a record of the life of the holy empress, St. Pulcheria. This Saint was a daughter of the emperor Arcadius, who, at his death, left four daughters and one son. The latter succeeding him upon the throne; reigned most gloriously under the name of Theodosius the younger. Pulcheria, though hardly two years older than her brother, supplied to him the place of a counselor, without whose advice he did not undertake anything. God had gifted her with such wisdom, that she administered the most important affairs of the state, to the universal satisfaction and great benefit of the people. She instructed her brother, the emperor, most carefully, how to lead a holy life, not only for himself, but also as an example to his subjects, whose happiness she taught him to consider his greatest study. She had a peculiar way of correcting his faults, of which the following may serve as an example: The emperor had the most implicit trust in some of his counselors, and used to sign, without reading them, ill the orders and letters they placed before him. Pulcheria, desiring to break him of so dangerous a habit, prepared an order, by force of which, his imperial spouse, Eudoxia, was to be delivered to Pulcheria as a prisoner. This order was laid before the emperor, among many others, and he signed it with the rest. Pulcheria took it, invited the empress into her apartments, and presenting the imperial order to her, said that she was and should remain her prisoner, until the emperor would countermand his order. Somewhat later, Theodosius sent for the empress, but Pulcheria returned for answer that Eudoxia was her prisoner, and that, as such, she would not release her. The emperor, surprised, hastened to his sister for an explanation of her answer. Placing before him the order he had signed, she said: “Behold, my brother and emperor, what may happen, when we are too hasty in our affairs, and sign what we have not read and examined.” The emperor, kindly receiving the admonition, promised in future, to be more guarded.
For several years, all went well, and God visibly blessed what the emperor, advised by his sister, had done. At length, however, Chrysaphius, a wicked counselor, succeeded in prejudicing the emperor against Pulcheria to such an extent, that he desired to be free from her presence, and to govern his people without her guidance. When Pulcheria became aware of this, she withdrew from the affairs of the government, and leaving the court, she went to a country-seat, not far from Constantinople, where she served God most fervently in peaceful solitude. She had long since taken the vow of perpetual chastity, and had persuaded her three sisters, Flaccilla, Arcadia and Marina, to do the same. Hence it became no difficult task for her to leave the pleasures and honors of the court, and occupy herself only with Him whom she had chosen as her spouse.
The imperial court, however, soon wore a different aspect. Omitting many other disgraceful acts which were performed there, we will mention only a new heresy, which was allowed to spring up and thrive at Constantinople. Its author was a certain Eutyches. Chrysaphius, won by him, imparted the poisonous doctrines to the emperor and empress, who, favoring the heresiarch, soon began to persecute the faithful Catholics. Pulcheria, when informed of it, was deeply distressed that her brother had allowed himself to be so unhappily seduced, as to become, from a zealous protector of the true church, its persecutor. She prayed ceaselessly to the Almighty to enlighten and convert her brother, and requested the prayers of other pious servants of the Lord, to the same effect God granted her request, and bestowed upon Theodosius the grace to recognize and correct his error. As, at the same time, it became clear to him that he never would have become guilty of so grave a fault, if his pious sister had been near him with her counsel, he besought her to return to court. Although Pulcheria was happy and contented, and had no desire to return to the tumult of the world, the wish to lead her brother in the right path, and to guard him from again wandering from it, determined her to consent. She returned, therefore, to the court and city, and after having entirely restored her brother to the true faith, she endeavored, to the utmost of her power, to exterminate the new heresy, employing the same means which she had used when Nestorius began to disseminate his heretical errors. The bishops at the Council of Chalcedon hence called her a protector of the faith, an exterminator of heresy, and another St. Helena. The holy Pope, Leo I., thanked her, and congratulated her on account of the twofold victory she had won over those two heretics.
On the death of Theodosius, Pulcheria remained mistress of the empire. To assist her in this difficult position, she chose Marcian, who had been an officer of high rank under the late emperor, and was a man of distinguished merit and great sanctity of life. To him she gave her hand in marriage, but with the condition that both should live in continency, as she had consecrated her virginity to the Almighty. Marcian promised to respect her vow, and faithfully kept his word. The benefit which the holy church and the state derived from this union, cannot be described in the limited space allowed to us. The sole desire of the people, was, that Pulcheria and Marcian might be spared to reign over them for many years. But it pleased the king of all kings to call his faithful handmaid, Pulcheria, to her heavenly home, A. D., 453, before she had completed her fifty-fifth year. As she had never set her heart on temporal things, it was not hard for her to leave the world; indeed, when she felt that death was approaching, her desire to be united with Christ, whom she had served in chastity and faithful love, became more and more intense. Having devoutly received the Holy Sacraments, she ended her holy life calmly and peacefully.
The poor, to whom this incomparable empress had always been a most loving mother, became, by her will, her heirs. She had built, and richly endowed many churches and hospitals. Although in the midst of constant gaieties, she exercised herself in various penances, read daily in a devout book, and frequently rose at midnight to honor the Almighty by chanting the Psalms. She paid due reverence to the Saints and their relics, and was deeply devoted to the Queen of Heaven. She defended the honor of the Blessed Virgin, especially against the heresiarch, Nestorius, who blasphemously pretended that although Mary was the mother of Christ, she was not therefore the mother of God. The council of Ephesus condemned this blasphemy, and St. Pulcheria, on this account, built a magnificent church, in honor of the Blessed Virgin. May the Almighty give to His church many such protectors, and guard and keep those who endeavor to follow the example of this Saint in her zeal, her generosity and magnanimity.
I. Meditation on the words: “Do not love the world, or what is in the world,” and the sermon on the vanities of the world, drew Nicholas from all temporal things and led him to the path of holiness. If you also considered the vanity of temporal honors, riches and pleasures, you would not seek them so eagerly, nor be so foolishly devoted to them. Reflect within yourself what all that seems great in the world, really is and how long it lasts. “Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity,” said he who had experienced it, Solomon the wise, after he had partaken of all the joys and good things of this world. He found in them only vanity and vexation of spirit, and saw that nothing is stable on this earth. All pleasures, honors and riches vanish, and often so quickly, that they are already gone when we think we are just beginning to enjoy them. And what do they leave? What do they bestow upon man? How much happier than before is he after partaking of them? Truly, not in the least. What they leave behind, what they bestow upon man, is nothing but anxiety of conscience, sadness of heart, and a just fear of divine punishment. “Mourning taketh hold of the end of joy,” says the Holy Ghost. And what becomes of the lovers of the world and worldly vanities? St. Bernard writes: “Tell me, where are the lovers of the world, who not long ago, were among us? What remains of them but dust, ashes and worms? Consider what they are now and what they were. They were men like you; they eat, drank and enjoyed themselves, and were precipitated, in one moment, into the depths of hell!” Is it possible that you believe this, and yet can love the world, and be a slave to the desires of the flesh? If you desire joys and possessions, strive to gain those which are everlasting.
II. The holy Empress, St. Pulcheria, evinced an intense longing to be united to her heavenly spouse, when she felt that death was approaching. St. Nicholas also made use of the words of St. Paul, expressing a desire to be with Christ. We are created for heaven and for God; we are here in exile; heaven is our home. We are in the world like pilgrims on the road. The end of this road is heaven, which we shall reach by walking straight onward. Why then do we not long more after heaven? Why do we not sigh more to see the face of the Almighty? We surely do great wrong by thinking so seldom of heaven, and by manifesting no desire to see heaven and God, or that we do not sufficiently esteem so great a blessing. Both are wrong.
Hence, endeavor, in the future, frequently to awaken a desire for heaven, a longing to see God, the Supreme Good. Say with attention the following words of the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come.” Say with the holy King David: “When shall I come and appear before the face of the Lord?” (Psalm xli.) or, with St. Nicholas, after the example of St. Paul: “I desire to be dissolved, and to be with Christ.” (Philipp. i.) “How negligent, thoughtless and slothful are we in not endeavoring to sigh more frequently for heaven, for the blessed company of the Saints, and the contemplation of the Supreme Goodness!” says St. Paulinus. This is a sign, either that we do not believe the teachings of our faith in regard to heaven and God, or that we do not sufficiently esteem so great a blessing.
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.