Traveling to Africa from Chicago almost always means going through someplace else, and these airline pathways usually follow the route of the old colonial powers, centered in England, Germany and Belgium, among others.  My trip to Rwanda is taking me through Brussels, where I stopped a day to make the best plane connections.

Today is St. Nicholas Day (December 6) and yesterday afternoon I spent some time ambling about an old neighborhood in the center of the city, known as Ilot Sacre (the Sacred Island).  Its built up around an ancient church dedicated to St. Nicholas, and the winding cobbled streets at this time of the year are bedecked with a Christmas fair, selling hot mulled wine, carved toys and decorations.  The church itself has roots that go back almost a thousand years, and the life and calling of Nicholas are still very much in play here.

While there is much fantasy that has grown up around him, the historical Nicholas served as bishop in Myra, and attended the Council of Nicaea (he signed the document and was an articulate defender of what emerged as orthodoxy).  He probably did actually help three sisters who, because they lacked a dowry, would have ended up as prostitutes, or at least have been perceived as such.  He also assisted sailors in distress in his city, which is why he is revered as the patron saint of sailors and children.  Our custom of gift-giving at Christmas comes from his own reported generosity, usually done in secret.

The Ilot sacre also had other features yesterday–soldiers who roamed the town in battle gear, armed with powerful weaponry, defending against the terrorism that has gripped Europe in these days, particularly Brussels, the center of so much of it.  The contrasts were striking, and reminded me how the world is in these times, but also how cold and hard it has often been, even in the time of Nicholas.

We are tempted to build our own versions of a ‘sacred island’–a place that is walled off from the troubles and needs of the rest of the world.  But we are not afforded that luxury, especially as Christians.  Those who travel the world, like Nicholas’ sailors, can see how connected we all are, and how we must prayerfully engage the challenges of our own time with hearts of generosity.