Nikolai was born in Demre, Turkey, formerly known as Myra. Nikolai was born into a wealthy family, but he was orphaned at a young age and raised by monks at a local orphanage.
When he came of age, Nikolai travelled to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage. While there, he saw first hand the places that Jesus had once walked desecrated by division and violence, and he was deeply moved. One story of the saint tells of a time when he was visiting the West Bank, when a mortar fell on a settlement there. He met a pair of parents searching frantically for their son. Nikolai told them, “Wait here!” and ran off, to their astonishment returning about an hour later with the boy, who appeared dazed but otherwise unharmed. Nikolai said that he had prayed to the boy Jesus whose parents lost him in the temple when he was twelve, and Jesus showed him where to find the boy. Later legend reports that the boy was found dead, and that Nikolai restored him to life; but neither Nikolai nor the boy would ever confirm the claim, preferring to emphasize the power of prayer.
On his journey home, Nikolai stopped at the seaside region of the Bodrum peninsula. While there, he witnessed the arrival of refugees from Syria. One day, as the waves grew larger, he saw firsthand the human cost of the civil war and terrorism in that place as a boatload of refugees was capsized, and many washed up drowned on the shore. One boy, a three-year-old, was shared around the world as an image of the terrible loss that the refugees suffered. That night, Nikolai stood vigil on the beach, by turns blessing and cursing the sea; begging it to be kind to its travellers; cursing its cold indifference to their plight. Long after the young boy’s name was forgotten by the world, Nikolai continued to pray for him and his family. He used part of his family money to organize a mission from the monastery to the refugee camps in the area, improving conditions and providing comfort as he could, while they waited to journey to safer havens. New families would be surprised to find, sometime after their arrival, new shoes for all of the children, and a bag of necessities. Rumours circulated that families that were granted a visa to travel on would find packets of money hidden in the socks at the bottom of their packs on reaching their destination, in the currency of the country to which they were travelling.
Nikolai built a prayer house at each camp, which was used in turn by people of all religions. One Good Friday, he recounted the miracle of Muslims and Christians praying together their Friday prayers of lament and loss, and hope for the resurrection.
As his reputation for philanthropy grew beyond his home region, Nikolai received many calls upon his compassion. He was particularly drawn to endeavours that assisted young women, having seen how vulnerable they were to trafficking and other dangers in the camps. He established schools for girls in areas where women’s education was deficient, and in a controversial move, he set up a mission to the United States to promote women’s health and protect women’s health clinics.
There was another side to the gentle saint. At an international church convention, Nikolai was caught on video striking a fellow bishop. The delegates had been discussing recent violent events in their host country of America, and how the church might help to diffuse the explosion of gun violence and disaffection that seemed to be taking place. A bishop had risen to propose the the convention pass a resolution to the effect that their thoughts and prayers were with all victims of violence, when Nikolai, shouting, “Enough, already!” jumped up and punching him in the nose. The subsequent YouTube viral video storm was a low point in Nikolai’s life, although even as he apologized for his outburst, he maintained that if Jesus could turn over the tables in the temple, his fellow Christians could at least turn over a ballot sheet and demand sensible reform to reduce incidents of mass violence.
Nikolai died on December 6th, and was mourned in his home country of Turkey and around the world as a patriarch, prophet, and saint. In the years that followed, countless people came forward to describe his influence in their lives; influence they sometimes described as “a miracle.” He is remembered in many denominations as a patron saint of sailors, refugees, children, especially orphans, the city of Liverpool, and, ironically, non-violence.
In a documentary made shortly after his death, Nikolai’s charitable fund manager described his “open eyes and open heart” view of the world. The success of his philanthropy, he said, was due less to Nikolai’s inexhaustible wealth and more to his inexhaustible wealth of compassion. “The man never knew when he was beaten,” said the fund manager. “If he couldn’t save the world, he would save the family down the street. If he couldn’t save the family, he’d save them a Sunday dinner.”
A consulting psychologist believed that something was arrested in Nikolai when he was orphaned at such a young age. His parents had always insisted to him that he was loved beyond measure, and that God loved him as God’s own child. Nikolai never lost that childlike wonder and trust in that early experience of love.
The documentary interviewed an ancient monk, who had known Nikolai all of his life, and who said simply, “He really, really loved Jesus.”
Because of the proximity of his feast day to Christians, Nikolai is often portrayed in icons offering gifts to the infant Jesus; although the YouTube video from the new Council of Nicaea remains his most-viewed image, as is the way of the world.