St Nicholas and the Virtue of Generosity

St Nicholas of Myra, our patron saint, is perhaps most remembered for his generosity. At a very young age he inherited a sizeable fortune. He is often depicted carrying three bags of gold to represent the help he gave to three young women who were at risk. Our tradition of giving gifts at Christmas has its origins in an earlier practice of giving children gifts on St Nicholas’ Day, the 6th of December.

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Generosity is an important virtue. To understand it, we have to think seriously about what it means to give, and to receive, gifts. It’s very different from buying and selling things. When we buy something, we both give and receive something, and we consider it a fair transaction if what we give and what we receive have a similar value. That is not how gifts work. A gift asks for nothing in return, and is soured by any expectation of recompense.

To become more generous, to develop the virtue of generosity, requires a deep understanding of this. It also requires us to recognise how much of what we have and what we are is, in itself, a gift. There never has been, and never will be, such a thing as a ‘self-made’ person. Children naturally grasp this, since their lives are irreducibly dependent. The nauseating evil we were made aware of in the news last week, the abject horror of the circumstances in which six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes died, is the darkest of demonstrations of this truth.

What is obvious for children is less obvious, but no less true, of adults. The poet John Donne said it best (albeit without an awareness of our sensitivity to gender-exclusive language) when he wrote that ‘No man is an island, / Entire of itself…’ We all exist in a complex network of dependencies in which the generosity of others is essential to our wellbeing.

It’s easy to sentimentalise the generosity of St Nicholas, but I don’t read the great Bishop’s character in that way. True generosity of spirit and of life requires a clear perception of our own dependence alongside our need of others’ kindness to continue to live.

So this weekend, when we celebrate Nicholas and his kindness, my prayer is that we may all have our eyes opened to the infinite ways in which our own lives have benefited from the generosity of God, of our families, of our friends, and of strangers. I pray, too, that we may be made more generous in our own turn, not just with out material wealth, but in our spirits also, judging less harshly and listening more patiently to those around us.

May God bless you all,