St. Nicholas

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Trying to Find Home—Myra—
St. Nicholas Where Are You?

by J. M. Rosenthal

Reflection on a first visit to Myra in 2002

Stone columns, bare stone walls
St. Nicholas Church
Myra, now Demre, Turkey
Photo: C Myers, St Nicholas Center
An apparently empty church, with empty rock tombs running the coast around the city. This is Demre, also known as Myra, the place where the one we venerate as St Nicholas lived and served as a bishop in the church in the 3rd century. The rock tombs are its second most famous attribute they say. Sadly the church looked like a tomb as well.

How times have changed. The Russian Orthodox Church and other interest groups, likely best not to mention their names as Turkish authorities might frown on their activities, try to maintain a semblance of "once upon a time" and keep the cathedral, now in ruins, at least open. The only sign of the saint is in post cards and small icons that one can buy from enthusiastic young boys selling these and guide books as well. More and more mentions of St Nicholas are being found on Turkish websites, likely with the hope that it would be a tourist temptation. It certainly could be if they wanted to put some money and energy into it!

I paused for a moment and realised that scripture tells us St. Paul visited Myra. It must have been a major port at that time.

Christianity is unknown, at least its practice in worship, and is all but forbidden, in this part of Turkey. The surroundings and the coast are stunning, making one curious as to what the days of past glory were like to behold. When I arrived at my hotel in Antalya (this city has a museum of sorts that "displays" some relics, without any reverence or indication of their importance), I was told there was a Mass on Sunday in the other main hotel. I arrived, as did many Roman Catholics, but alas, it was a USA evangelistic-style service on offer, albeit, in the hotel Pink Flamingo bar!

The museum declined my request quite harshly to photo the relics, even after producing a press card.

Myra—My driver knew just where I wanted to go (sounds luxurious but a car with a driver is about $25 a day). There it stood, with a Santa image in front marking a peace garden, still standing—Nicholas' actual church.

I examined every inch inside. At a stone like altar I opened my USA Prayer Book and placed a small icon of Jesus, Mary and Nicholas in view and said Evening Prayer. A few tourists looked on. I felt very sad. If only this could come alive with the sound of chant and smell of incense. The image of a Eucharist being celebrated is still in my mind. I left my Prayer Book and icons behind.

I visited the office of the Noel Baba Foundation and heard of the liturgy and celebration that is allowed each St Nicholas day [liturgy was outlawed from 2002-2007, ed.], usually with a symposium with the theme of children and peace.

We then drove to Patara, the city of Nicholas' birth, just an hour or so down the coast. The beauty shone with an intensity than made me realise God was still very present, even if not in the more obvious signs we know as Christians.

It is time to let Nicholas' message resound again from Turkey, from the USA, from the UK and everywhere. 'Christian Awake,' says one of the great Anglican Christmas hymns. Maybe we should and take time to recapture our own traditions, whether destroyed by others or neglected by us.

On the way back to Antalya we drove quickly past Myra. I wonder how many Christians have been to enjoy the beauty of Turkey and drove past this little sleepy town. If they only knew. If we could only tell them. It made me think of another little town, one we call 'O Little Town of Bethlehem,' where the greatest man of all came to be one with us, the man Nicholas worshiped and loved. I wonder, with a lump in my throat, if someday the tourist will drive right by Bethlehem and not be told of its significance. With the current state of affairs it could happen.

By J M Rosenthal, founder of the St. Nicholas Society UK/USA.

St. Nicholas Center, together with St. Nicholas Society, works to assist churches, families and schools to recover St. Nicholas traditions.

The Four Faces of Nicholas—Who is he in his hometown?
Demre Today: Church or Museum?
Church of Saint Nicholas: Divine Liturgy in Demre, 2009
St. Nicholas Church, Myra (Demre/Kale, Turkey)
St. Nicholas in the Antalya Museum

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