St. Augustine of Hippo is one of the best-known saints in the Catholic Church. Although he was born in the 4th Century, his writings—like Confessions and The City of God—continue to inspire spiritual seekers to this day. For his contributions in theology, Augustine is also considered a Doctor of the Church. Beyond these accolades, Augustine’s personal character and self-proclaimed “restlessness for God” have inspired numerous men and women to take up his search for truth. One of these people is St. Nicholas of Tolentine, whose feast we celebrated on September 10th.
Growing up in an Augustinian parish in Staten Island, NY, I knew there were at least a few saints from the Augustinian family, including: Augustine’s mother, St. Monica; St. Rita of Cascia; St. Thomas of Villanova (there’s a basketball-loving university named after him!); and St. Clare of Montefalco. I also knew of a church in the Bronx named St. Nicholas of Tolentine, but I must admit, I knew very little about him.
A few years after college, and after some time away from my family parish, I found myself in a state of constant restlessness and spiritual doubt. Desiring a change, I reconnected with my past by joining the Augustinian Volunteers, a year-long volunteer program in which I traveled across the country, lived in intentional community, and learned about the greater Augustinian family. This experience confirmed a special place in my heart for the Augustinian saints, and I have been pleased to learn more about this man Nicholas who “sought for God by means of a deep interior life… [and] the practical love of neighbor.”
According to a brief biography, Nicholas “was a simple priest and Augustinian friar who touched the lives of many.” Born to a poor family in Italy in the year 1245, Nicholas became an Augustinian friar at an early age (likely 16 or 18) after being inspired by another Augustinian preacher in his hometown.
The Augustinian history states Nicholas was “full of charity towards his brother Augustinians as well as towards the people to whom he ministered. He visited the sick and cared for the needy. He was a noted preacher of the Gospel. He gave special attention to those who had fallen away from the Church. People considered him a miracle worker.”
Nicholas fasted often and received visions during his lifetime, including that of angels repeating “to Tolentino,” where he moved and worked for the remainder of his life. In the tradition of Augustinian hospitality, Nicholas is said to have been over-generous in his duties feeding the poor at his monastery; so much so that his superiors asked him to hold back a bit.
Nicholas (like many medieval saints) is linked through legend to miraculous incidents involving food. Once after weakening himself through prayer and fasting, he had visions of The Blessed Virgin and St. Augustine imploring him to eat some bread marked with a cross and dipped in water. This bread immediately regenerated his strength, and he went on to give the same bread to the ill while invoking Mary – thus beginning the Augustinian custom of distributing Saint Nicholas Bread. Another legend, perhaps inspired by contemporary Franciscan values and love of animals, tells of Nicholas vowing not to eat meat the rest of his life. When served a roasted fowl, Nicholas prayed and the bird returned to life, flying away from the table.
Nicholas died on Sept. 30, 1305, and was canonized by Pope Eugene IV (also an Augustinian) in 1446. He was the first Augustinian to be canonized. At this ceremony, Nicholas was credited with about three hundred miracles.
St. Nicholas is typically depicted in the black Augustinian habit, often with embroidered stars or a sun emblazoned on his chest, which seems to point to the great quote from his inspiration, St. Augustine: “Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
In these days in which so many of us are searching for answers, let us pause to remember a kind saint who encouraged patience and prayer as ways of knowing and being.
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