A Model of Discipleship in St. Nicholas of Tolentino

A Model of Discipleship in St. Nicholas of Tolentino

by Spencer Thomas, O.S.A.

A reflection on Luke 10:1-11 and Sirach 2:1-9

By his prayer he was pleasing to the Lord, and by his acts of loving service he was pleasing to his neighbor.”………“He was a joy to those who were sad, a consolation to the suffering, peace to those at variance, refreshment for those who toiled, support for the poor, and a healing balm for prisoners.”

Peter de Monte Rubiano (The Life of St. Nicholas)

Written by a 14th century friar, these elegant words encapsulate the life of a man who has come to be seen as the exemplar par excellence of our Order and of Augustinian religious life. The man to whom these words refer is our first recognized Saint, Nicholas of Tolentino.

A seeker after God’s own heart, Nicholas was an ardent proclaimer of the Word, a compassionate confessor of penitent hearts, a gentle consoler of the afflicted, a stalwart champion of the poor and most vulnerable around him. From his proclivity to fasting, penance, and prayer, to his compassion for the sick and notable generosity to the poor who sought out the monastery…from his visceral beating from the hands of the Devil, to his powerful intercession for souls in purgatory, from miraculous bread, to the quelling hand rescuing mariners doomed to the depths…there exists before us countless stories, legends, records of miracles, and page after page of laudatory testimony of this singular brother of ours, whose life was lived out in its majority in a discreet monastery in the little town of Tolentino, Italy.

But rather than indulging his rap-sheet of life, let me recall that simple comment from his confrere: “By his prayer he was pleasing to the Lord, and by his acts of loving service he was pleasing to his neighbor.” Prayer and service…love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:37), the active and the contemplative…coupled together in the harmony of this singular witness of Christian discipleship.

It should come as no surprise that through the wisdom of our Church and our Order, we have these particular readings. In them we are given a missionary mandate for apostolic witness and a contemplative guide to cultivate spiritual fortitude. The call given by Jesus in Luke 10:1-11 is a mission of participation in guiding the wayward gaze of humanity onto the subtle movement of the Kingdom of God. It is a mission entrusted to the 12 Apostles and then to these 70 nameless disciples who, by their anonymity, have come to stand in for all of us believers baptized into the living Body of Christ: for Nicholas…for you…for me…our Lord breathes forth our very names into the lives of these nameless ones…and so we have received our mission.

And yet…as Jesus cautions the 70…this call into missionary discipleship is not without costs, not without risks inherent to the preaching of the light of Truth, that is Jesus Christ, to a world that all to often prefers the darkness.

Our Lord says, “behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3).

Is this chilling statement not meant for us as well?

Like those 70 disciples, like Nicholas, Christians have chosen to pursue a way of life that propels us into positions of Gospel presence and witness, fully cognizant of the fact that we are sent out into the world as lambs in the midst of wolves. Nicholas was sent into a world ripped apart by factionalism between popes and kings, not to mention the persistence of plague and recurrent famine…As for us, we are being sent into a world marked by a growing secularism that dilutes the sacral character of human living…a world quaking in the fear wrought by the scourge of pandemic…

But despite the weight of such gravity…the 70 were still sent, Nicholas was still sent…we are still being sent… How do we take up this call to enter into the mess of the world around us so as to proclaim the Gospel and not forfeit our very self?…how does a lamb enter a dark forest of wolves and not get eaten alive, becoming completely disintegrated?…that’s what common sense tells us, and we’ve all seen what it looks like when that happens…in the ministers, friars, and people around us whose spirits have been eaten up by the world and churned out as jaded souls with deflated resolve.

So what enabled the 70, or Nicholas…what enables us to step into the dark…to move into the night as lambs among wolves? What are we being equipped with in order to carry out such a perilous mission?

In the words of Sirach: “remain in justice”…when injustice rules the day…“Set your heart right”… “incline your ear”…“cling to him”…when there’s nothing else to cling to…“wait for his mercy”…“Trust in him”…“hope for good things”…when the TV doesn’t show many good things…hope against hope.. for everlasting joy and mercy”…“love him”…

On the surface, it’s so simple, seemingly naive or childlike…in the eyes of the world it seems foolish, and yet we know that this food has fortified the spirits of apostles, disciples, martyrs & mothers…of Nicholas’ in every time and place for millennia…enabling the witness of their lives to be radiant amidst wolves…such discipleship is only sustained by an interior fortitude, clung unto God in faith…hope…and love…

May we, like Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, courageously carry out the mission entrusted to us of proclaiming Christ, clinging to our God…and in so doing, may our hearts be made radiant in the manner of our holy brother of Tolentino.

St. Nicholas of Tolentino…pray for us.

Editors note:  Br. Spencer originally delivered this reflection to a group of Friars on the Feast of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino on September 10th, 2020.  

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