There are those who come into our lives and stretch us by example. In their presence, we do things that we can’t imagine we ever would.
I experienced this in my early years in Detroit, as my colleague and friend, Kathy Church, invited (something more like implored) me to join her in the After School Learning Center in Pontiac. “Just come and help a few kids to do their homework”, she encouraged with her characteristic joy and confidence. Begrudgingly, I fit it into an already packed teaching schedule.
It was transformative. Together with students, colleagues, friends and women of the neighborhood, it changed my way of understanding my mission as a Sacred Heart educator: building bridges of relationship between people of difference in pursuit of equal access to education. It wasn’t about giving — it was about receiving. I was the lucky one. I was the one whose life was changed and whose heart was opened. All because someone did what St. Nicholas did…gave from the heart and inspired others to do it with him.
The Feast of St. Nicholas is the contagious presence of another who invites us to be Nicholas-Gnomes — those who guard the treasure of inspiring us to give from the heart because it’s all that matters. Those people in our lives who both inspire us and walk beside us as we open our hearts, make the time, share what we have been storing away, forgive the hurt, reconcile the past, bake cookies for the cranky neighbor, refuse the rage, put on the apron at the soup kitchen and cut the vegetables.
Giving together is contagious and makes the Spirit of this historical man present in the same way that Jesus was on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24). There, our hearts are opened to what matters — and we are broken open by our desire to do as Nicholas did — to generously know the deepest need of another and to invisibly respond — a contagion of goodness which is “caught, not taught” in the unbreakable cycle of God’s action. Such is the Feast we celebrate today
I recall my greatest Nicholas-Gnome teaching moment, just after my father had died, when my two nieces who had cared for my parents for more than a decade were being applauded by a family friend for their generous service. One of them (on behalf of both), without missing a moment, retorted with clarity and definitive proclamation, “No applause. this is just what we do.” It was one my most profound spiritual teachings about what generous love looks like. That’s what the Feast of St. Nicholas is about — invisible and contagious goodness in the face of a time when we believe that only violence and evil permeates.
So, today, let’s celebrate Nicholas — let’s be those goodness Gnomes of Nick who generously and invisibly respond to what comes our way. Perhaps not the lofty visions and actions worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, but the things that change lives — at least that have changed mine.
Thank you Gnomes of Nick — those of you who have taught me how to break open my heart, stop counting the cost or the time, refusing to give way to cynicism and criticism of effectiveness — who have taught me to be like St. Nick — to make “justice for all” the way of miracles made by people like us.