December 11 – Nicon the Dry; Pope Damasus I

Nicon the Dry (d. ca. 1101), of noble Kievan stock, monastitized at the Monastery of the Caves, whence he and (St.) Eustratius were kidnapped for ransom by the Cumans (Polovtsy). A compassionate Kievan with some spare change went down to Cumanland to spring them, but Nicon said, “Nah, I’m good.” The rich man shrugged, redeemed Eustratius, and headed back to Kiev. Next, Nicon’s family went to Polovtsiland, but he shooed them away, saying, “If God wants me free, he’ll free me.” Shaking their beards and muttering in their heads, they returned to Kiev full-handed. At this juncture, Nicon’s captors got downright nasty, starving him for days at a time and leaving him exposed to the blazing winter sun and freezing summer snow, resulting in the skin condition that gives him his name (this was before Nivea). Through it all, Nicon was uncomplaining, praying unceasingly to God in thanks for all things. After three years, Nicon told his captors that Eustratius had informed him (vision? dream? monkgram? we aren’t told how) that he would be leaving in three days. Thinking he was going to try to escape, his captors cut the tendons in his legs. At noon on the third day, he was surrounded by his captors when suddenly he wasn’t. All he left behind were his words ringing in the air: “Praise the Lord from the Heavens!”

Next thing he knew, he was in the Church of the Most Pure Theotokos in Kiev. He tried to be inconspicuous, but the sudden appearance of a leather-hided man with iron shackles and unhealed wounds was not something the monks saw every day (for which they were thankful). At first he demurred at having his fetters removed, but the abbot said, “If God wanted you to keep wearing these, you’d still be back in Cumanovtsia.” Nicon couldn’t argue with that.

After a while the Cumans made peace with the Rus’, and some of them visited the Caves, among them Nicon’s former master. He told the abbot and the brothers about how Nicon had healed him from a nasty disease, and was (finally) moved to repentance. He was baptized, tonsured a monk, and became the apprentice and servant of his former prisoner.

Pope Damasus I (ca. 305–384) was born in Lusitania, which was a province in Roman Iberia and not yet a watery conveyance. His father was a priest in Rome, and there Damasus was deaconified. (Actually very near Rome, in the Church of St. Lawrence Outside-the-Walls. Which is why when he commissioned frescos, he always paid for an extra mural.) (Let the reader understand.) Upon the death of Pope Liberius, both Damasus and one Ursinus were elected to replace him. The supporters of Ursinus were outraged, and started a riot in which 137 people were killed. The emperor had to actually step in (well, he sent guards in—prudent leaders lead from the rear) to quell the disorder.

Thus thwarted, Ursinus’ supporters accused Damasus of adultery and murder. After an investigation, Ursinus was banished to Gaul, which quelled the disorderliness, until he came back again, whereupon it once again reared its ugly head (we’re talking Medusa here). Finally a synod in 378 condemned Ursinus and declared Damasus pope.

Once in office, Damasus proceeded to hire Jerome (to translate the Vulgate (Latin Bible)), restore the catacombs, speak out against Arianism, encourage veneration of martyrs, and coordinate pilgrim bus routes to reduce congestion at traffic choke points. It was during his pontificate that the Empire became officially Christian. Among the many epitaphs he wrote for the graves of the martyrs, he included one for himself, saying, “I want to be buried here but not at the risk of offending the martyrs.” He was buried somewhere else. He is the patron saint of archaeologists.