In our shared human experience, we frequently find ourselves carrying other people’s burdens, seeking, if we can, to alleviate them, with others doing the same for us. This is mercy. By showing mercy, we take another’s misery and seek to alleviate it as if it were our own.
St. Thomas Aquinas calls the bishop St. Nicholas an exemplar of the virtue of mercy. One story in St. Nicholas’s life particularly encapsulates this. A poor father with three daughters could not afford dowries for any of them, and they were likely to resort to prostitution. After learning of their plight, one night St. Nicholas dropped three purses of gold through their window.
Why throw gold through a window? Why does anyone concern himself with another’s misery? Each of us, inasmuch as we can, takes care of our own needs: we eat when we are hungry, we sleep when we are tired, we seek healing when we are wounded, and we generally seek to obtain the means to fulfill all our own needs. Sometimes we do things for others because through contract or friendliness we expect some payment. Yet with some people, especially family and friends, we are elated when they prosper and weep when they suffer. Whenever these people are in misery, we wish on our own accord to grieve with them and remedy their sorrow. When we do this for another, making their joys and miseries our own, Aristotle would say we have identified that person as another self: we have made him a friend. Thus mercy is an act of friendship.
Why throw gold through a window? Because to do so remedied the misery of a father and three daughters. St. Nicholas wished to save them from their misery because he had mercy, because he loved them. It is fitting that popular culture has wedded St. Nicholas, albeit a caricature of him, to our celebration of Christmas. God, in being born man, has shown us great mercy.
Yet our human friendships and the human mercy we show within these friendships usually only extend to those with whom we regularly associate, and as far as we know St. Nicholas showed mercy to complete strangers. In doing so, he responded to the mercy of God, accepting divine friendship. Just as to love another human being is in some way to love what and whom they love—though excluding what is harmful to that person or what is evil—so even more, to love God is to love what and whom God loves. About this love we hear: “The compassion of man is for his neighbor, but the compassion of the Lord is for all living beings.” (Sirach 18:13) and “…as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did to me.” (Matthew 25:40).
Why throw gold through a window? Because God loves that father and his daughters. You love God, and so you love them. You see their misery, and by loving them you show mercy to them.
Why does St. Nicholas matter? He reminds us that just as our happiness matters to God, the happiness of others, even complete strangers, matters to us. St. Nicholas, both in this famous story and in others, is an example of mercy. It is good, then, to be like St. Nicholas and to think of him when we celebrate the Incarnation. We should look upon the miseries of all, as the Lord has looked upon our own.
O triune light that in a single star
Twinkling in their eyes, so satisfies the Blessed.
Look upon our tempest here below! (Dante Alighieri, Paradiso XXXI)
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., St Nicholas (used with permission)