I’m sort of thinking aloud here and may not be expressing myself well.

This is more than a day late for the feast of Saint Nicholas, and the things I had been considering saying on the punching of heretics will have to wait. But as I drove around Cape Town yesterday, seeing flags flying at half mast and feeling shaken by the news of Nelson Mandela’s death, I couldn’t help being moved by the appropriateness of him dying on the eve of the feast of the great saint of Myra. (Sister Catherine Wybourne has some thoughts on this connection here and Deacon Stephen Hayes has written on what it means to speak of Madiba as an icon here).

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this seems appropriate – they were, after all, two very different figures and comparisons are probably dangerous. There is also a danger in viewing Madiba in ecclesial terms which are inappropriate for him – to speak of a secular saint is a contradiction in terms.  Plus there is the real danger of trivializing his legacy as those who once did everything in their power to work against him now seek to co-opt the once-banned image.

But as I drove around thinking about this, I kept being reminded of Father Thomas Hopko’s words about Saint Nicholas. In The Winter Pascha, he writes that Saint Nicholas is not known for anything extraordinary, but that what stands out about him was that he was a genuinely good man. Father Hopko continues:

We use that term “goodness” so lightly in our time. How easily we say of someone, “He is a good man” or “She is a good woman.” How lightly we say, “They are good people.” A teen-age girl takes an overdose of drugs, and the neighbors tell the reporters, “But she was always such a good girl, and her parents are such nice people!” A young man commits some terrible crime, and the same rhetoric flows: “But he was always such a good boy, and his family is so nice.” A man dies on the golf course after a life distinguished by many years of profit-taking and martini-drinking, and the reaction is the same: “He was a good man, yeah, a real nice guy.” What do “good” and “nice” really mean in such cases? What do they describe? What do they express?

In Saint Luke’s gospel it tells us that one day a “ruler” came up to Jesus and asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” … However we choose to interpret Christ’s words, at least one point is clear. Jesus reacts to the facile, perhaps even sarcastic, use of the term “good” by referring it to its proper source. There is only one who is good, and that is God Himself. If you want to speak of goodness, then you must realize what – and Whom – you are talking about!

Like God, and like Jesus, Saint Nicholas was genuinely good. Real goodness is possible. For, to quote the Lord again, “with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible …

The Messiah has come so that human beings can live lives which are, strictly speaking, humanly impossible. He has come so that people can really be good. One of the greatest and most beloved examples among believers that this is true is the holy bishop of Myra about whom almost nothing else is known, or needs to be known, except that he was good. (39-40)

Father Hopko is writing about a Christian saint and I am aware of the dangers of simply applying his words to a secular leader, and a non-Orthodox one at that. I am not suggesting that Nelson Mandela was a saint. Yet the concept of virtue is broader than the Church and I don’t think that Orthodox Christians should have a problem recognizing it wherever it is found. Indeed, the active pursuit of a life of virtue is an area where many of the Fathers draw on, relate to, and ultimately enrich and deepen, the ideas and commitments found among their contemporaries. In a Christian understanding, such virtue is possible precisely because we are created in God’s image and as we grow in virtue we are really growing into His likeness.

I suspect that one of the reasons many of us are so saddened at Madiba’s passing is that he was the last of a generation and represents an ideal that all-too-often appears to be crumbling. However much lip service people pay to a life of sacrifice and integrity, the reality is that such ideals are quickly undermined by the temptations of self-enrichment and easy pleasure. A virtuous life has never been easy, but it often seems as if we live in a world in which it is becoming more difficult.

I mentioned previously that I had been reading Sister Nonna Harrison’s God’s Many-Splendored Image (which I hope to review soon) and one of the points that she makes is that, for the Fathers, virtue is something that we learn through sustained practice and through struggling to overcome our passions. Virtuous people, like saints, are made not born. And they are made through a life of prayer and asceticism, always undergirded by the grace of God.

This process takes vastly different shapes and we cannot speak about what goes on in the heart of another. But, while there are obvious differences, I found myself reflecting yesterday on the relationship between the prison cell and the monastic cell. While I would not want to deny the continuity with his earlier life – and what he stood for was already well established in his speech from the dock – the twenty seven years during which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned were hardly wasted years, horrendous though his incarceration was. Instead it appears that they served as a sort of secular furnace of transformation in some ways akin to the twenty years that Saint Anthony the Great spent in his desert fortress and from which he emerged “as one initiated into sacred mysteries and filled with the spirit of God.” Saint Athanasius tells us that “he had himself completely under control – a man guided by reason and stable in his character.”

I am not equating Nelson Mandela with either Saint Anthony, or Saint Nicholas, or any other saints of the Church. Rather, I am trying to point out that it is striking that many of the things for which he is most revere d–  such as his selfless commitment to the cause of liberation, his obedience to the movement and willingness to lay aside his own will, his ability to make rational and strategic judgments even if they involved a certain compromise, not lashing out in self-defense when threatened, and ultimately forgiving one’s enemies and thus ensuring that bitterness does not destroy what one has struggled for – none of these just happen because we decide to make them happen, but are the fruit of a long process of choosing how we engage adversity, struggling with the passions, overcoming the ego, and disciplining not only our bodies but also our thoughts.

Just as Saint Anthony emerged from his desert fortress radiating light, so too Madiba emerged from Pollsmoor radiating something very powerful. A good life is something beautiful and ultimately self-authenticating. And it is such beauty that our society is in need of today. It is all very well telling people that they must be ethical – and may God preserve us from the sort of superficial goodness Father Hopko mentions above – but people need to be captured by the beauty of a virtuous life. And they also need to be given the tools that will enable them to engage in a sustained practice of transformation, especially when we are daily bombarded by messages that seek to incite our passions and lead us away from virtue. That is no easy task, but I suspect that our society needs a far reaching discussion of the meaning of virtue and a formation in how to achieve it.