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December 23 Saints of the Day – Niphon of Constantia and Thorlac Thorhallsson

On this day in 1938, the first modern coelacanth was discovered in South Africa. Newspapers called it the “living fossil” until they were sued for trademark infringement by people with outdated prejudices.

Niphon of ConstantiaNiphon of Constantia (IV cent.) was born in Paphlagonia (the topmost strip (“loin”) of Anatolia), and was educated in Constantinople, where he fell in with a bad crowd, abandoning his childhood piety for a life of foul language, unclean deeds, and other aspects of juvenile delinquency that we’re just not going to go into on a family website (sorry). He soon became the leader of a gang of hooligans. From time to time he would weep for his sins, but eventually he would think, “I can never be forgiven,” and go back to the gang.

One day Niphon bumped into his old bud Nicodemus, who stood staring at him with a look of horror. “What are you looking at?” Niphon asked. “Your face, dude,” Nick said. “It’s, like, black.” Niphon immediately recognized this as a metaphor for his soul, which had been darkened by sin. After a sleepless night, he went to the church and prayed long and hard before an icon of the Theotokos. The icon smiled at him, which he took to be a sign that God loved him and would accept his repentance. After weeks of fighting with demons in various guises, he fell ill, and in a vision or dream was anointed with holy oil by Anastasia the Deliverer from Potions.

For years he struggled against his passions, and against one obnoxious demon who kept telling him, “There is no God.” (One of the Old Atheists.) Eventually he was tonsured a monk (Niphon, not the atheist demon), and gained power over the demons and the ability to see the departing souls of dying people. On a trip to Alexandria, he was made bishop of Constantia on Cyprus. He died not long after that, but on his deathbed it was granted to him to see both the angels and the Holy Theotokos.

Thorlac ThorhallssonThorlac Thorhallsson (Þorlákur Þórhallsson) (1133 – 1193) was born into the Icelandic nobility (at Hlíðarendi in the Fljótshlíð district). He was educated by the priest Eyjólfur (son of Sæmundur the Learned), deaconified at thirteen, and priested at fifteen. He then spent six years studying abroad, in Paris and Lincoln. He may have visited London, which is an important point because every source mentions it, and with the same degree of reservation. Nothing comes of it in the story, but hey, this is hagiography, not detective fiction.

Once back in Iceland, he astounded his family and friends by refusing to marry a rich widow somebody had set him up with. Instead, he served as parish priest in Kirkjubær á Síðu, then quit to form the first Augustinian monastery in Iceland at Þykkvabær í Veri, of which of course he served as abbot. (Name-dropping is so much fun when you get to use nifty nonstandard letters and ligatures (nonstandard in English; they are of course quite standard in Icelandic (but I digress))!) He was elected Bishop of Skalholt, one of Iceland’s two dioceses, by the Althing (Icelandic parliament), and as soon as he could catch a boat to the continent, he was consecrated (it took three years).

Once bishop, he began reforming with a will, doing his best to stamp out simony, regulate marriage, and end lay patronage (the right of rich benefactors to pick priests (abbots) of parishes (monasteries) they donated to (bought)). The aristocrats were none too happy with this, but Thorlac had something of a Tom Petty complex, if you get my drift.

After his death miracles proliferated, and the Althing recognized him as a saint in 1198. The Church never officially approved his cultus, unless Pope John Paul II did when he made him the patron saint of Iceland in 1984.

Þorláksmessa (Thorlac’s Day) is the last day of preparation for Christmas in Iceland, featuring a traditional a meal of potatoes and “buried and fermented” skate (with a “strong ammonia-infused odor” similar to hákarl (fermented shark, q.v.) — never say Icelanders aren’t hardcore), taken with (and this is important, apparently) a shot of Brennivín (herb-infested (sorry, infused) schnapps).


Copyright © 2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.


Bibliography

This Day in History for 23rd December
The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints, Vol. 4: December (book on paper) – Main source
St Niphon the Bishop of Cyprus (OCA)
Icon of Niphon from OCA (copyright unknown)
Paphlagonia (Wikipedia)
Þorláksmessa – The Day of St. Thorlakur (Christmas in Iceland 2000) – Main source
Saint Thorlak (Wikipedia)
Thorlac Thornalli (St. Patrick DC)
Saint Thorlac Thorhallsson (SQPN)
Thorláksmessa (Wikipedia)
Brennivín (Wikipedia)
Hákarl (Wikipedia)
Patron and Patronage (Catholic Encyclopedia).
Thorlac stamp from Pinterest (copyright unknown)

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About Your Intrepid Blogger

I live in the Tacoma area. When not writing things some people think are funny, I teach technology to 7th and 8th graders at a local middle school.

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