Today is the Feast of St Nicholas. In our house, St Nick fills newly polished shoes with treats and puts them up somewhere high so the Big Nose Dog can’t plunder them before we do. My parents’ explanation for this tradition was quite jolly, fit for young children. Recently, the Butler and I came across a slightly less festive version at Mt Grace Priory, told by historian John White in the character of Mr Meakin.
According to Meakin, Nikólaos was a wealthy Greek who lived during the 4th century in what is now Turkey. Among his extended family were three sisters in poor circumstances. The common solution for young women without a dowry was to put them to work as prostitutes. To save his kinswomen, Nikólaos dropped coins down the chimney and into their stockings hung by the fire to dry. An odd way to deliver the goods, but it got the desired results.
A few of John White's characters
More recently, there was a woman in Florida, Gretchen Molannens who suffered Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder and couldn’t work. She exhausted her appeals for a denied disability claim, was refused Medicare because she’d inherited her parents’ house, and was dependent on her boyfriend to pay her bills. Gretchen felt too embarrassed to discuss her condition with family and friends, and as a result, became isolated by their criticism of her lifestyle.
A Tampa Bay Times journalist, Lenora LaPeter Anton, wrote an article about Gretchen which prompted offers of free medical and legal help. However, a few days before that article went on line, Gretchen killed herself. Her boyfriend didn’t find Gretchen for two days and Anton didn’t hear of the suicide until after the article was published.
My last story is about a priest who, during a funeral mass, asked the congregation to pray for Cork’s former lord mayor. A non sequitur at a funeral, you might think, but not a bizarre request unless you know that the former lord mayor was on trial for sexually assaulting a teenage girl, starting when she was thirteen.
The article referenced above asked if we would have walked out of Mass, had we been there. Probably most of us wouldn’t because of social constraints, respect for the primary mourners or because we were mourners ourselves. Which is why this was such a perfect situation for doing what that priest did, the sly bastard.
Here’s the cognitive dissonance for me: those 4th century sisters, Gretchen, and that teenage sexual abuse victim lived in cultures that devalued them, yet individual members of those cultures were moved to help them. So, who made up these barbaric societal rules and why are they allowed to continue?
This week in the UK, we’ve had the Autumn Report. Essentially, fiscal mumbo jumbo which says austerity's working, even though households are worse off than they were in 2010. Labour says this government is a group of wealthy people out of touch with the population they’re meant to serve. One of the people they’re meant to serve who was canvassed by the media, said that there’s not going to be a revolution and we have to endure.
I’m troubled by this statement, this bovine acceptance that we should deny medical care to a woman with a debilitating condition while the Prime Minister puts on his white tie finery and tells the rest of us that we need to be permanently austere. Yet I feel as helpless as the man who said it.
It’s hard to have a revolution when you’re working your ass off for austerity. But perhaps we can have mini-revolutions in our own lives, be the person who offers Rosa Parks a seat next to us on the bus or sets a place at dinner for the trans-woman down the street rejected by her family. It’s those mini-revolts that can give us the courage to stand up and say respectfully, ‘I don’t think so, Father. Lord Mayor. Prime Minister.’