December 23 – Niphon of Constantia; Thorlac Thorhallsson

Niphon of Constantia (IV cent.) was born in Paphlagonia (the topmost strip (or “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 in a family-friendly paterikon (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 (Dec 22).

For years he struggled against his passions, and against one obnoxious demon who kept telling him, “There is no God” (supernatural atheists—now there’s a made-for-TV movie just waiting to be written!). Eventually he was monkified (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 Theotokos.

Thorlac Thorhallsson (1133–1193) (Þorlákur Þórhallsson) was born into the Icelandic nobility (at Hlíðarendi in the Fljótshlíð district). He was educated by the priest Eyjólfur, deaconified at thirteen, priested at fifteen, and spent six years studying in Paris and Lincoln. He may have visited London, which must be important since every source mentions it, and with the same degree of reservation. Nothing comes of it in the story in any of the sources.

Once back in Iceland, he astounded family and friends by refusing to marry a rich widow somebody set him up with. He served as parish priest in Kirkjubær á Síðu, then quit to form and lead the first Augustinian monastery in Iceland at Þykkvabær í Veri. (Name-dropping is so much fun when you get to use these nifty Icelandic letters and ligatures!) He was elected Bishop of Skalholt, one of Iceland’s two dioceses, by the Althing (parliament), although it took him four years to get to the continent, get consecrated, and come back.

Once bishop, he did his best to stamp out simony, regulate marriage, and end lay patronage (the right of rich benefactors to pick priests (or abbots) of parishes (or monasteries) they donated to (or bought)). The aristocrats were none too happy with this, but Thorlac smiled and sang Tom Petty’s hit song, “I Won’t Back Down.”

After his death miracles proliferated, and the Althing recognized him as a saint in 1198. The Church never officially approved his cultus, although Pope John Paul II made him the patron saint of Iceland in 1984. Yeah, me neither.

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).