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Saint Nonna, the Mother of Saint Gregory the Theologian


Saint Nonna, the mother of Saint Gregory the Theologian (i.e. Gregory of Nazianzus, + 25 January 389), was the daughter of Christians named Philotatos and Gorgonia. Saint Nonna was also an aunt of Saint Amphilochios, Bishop of Iconium (Comm. 23 November). Her parents raised her in Christian piety.

Saint Nonna entered into marriage with Gregory of Arianzus, the rich landowner of an estate in the Arianzus and Nazianzus districts. The marriage was advantageous by earthly considerations, but grievous for the pious soul of Nonna. Her husband Gregory of Arianzus was a pagan, a follower of the sect of the Supremists (Hypsistarii), under which he venerated a supreme god and observed certain Jewish rituals, while at the same time he worshipped fire. Pious Nonna prayed much, that her spouse should turn to the holy truth.

Saint Nonna’s son, Saint Gregory the Theologian, wrote thus about this: “This was something she could not calmly bear, that the one half be conjoined with God, whilst the other part itself – should remain apart from God. On the contrary, she wanted, that to the fleshly union there should also apply a spiritual union. Wherefore both day and night she recoursed to God, with fasting and many a tear she besought Him to grant the salvation of her husband”.

Through the prayers of Saint Nonna, her husband Gregory had a dream vision in his sleep. “It seemed to my father, – writes Saint Gregory, – as though he (which never before had he done, though many a time his wife had sought and asked it), it seemed as though he was singing the following verse of David: I was glad when they said of me, let us go into the house of the Lord (Ps. 121 [122]: 1). The singing itself was unprecedented, and moreover with the singing was actually the desire to do so! When she heard about this, it was the fulfilling of her wish, and profiting the moment, she explained the vision to good effect, and in which was the complete truth”. The elder Gregory went to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea, where he made known his conversion to Christ. And he was ordained presbyter and then bishop of Nazianzus and devoted himself totally to the Church. At the same time as his ordination to bishop, his spouse Saint Nonna was made a deaconness. With the same zeal with which she had raised her children, she now occupied herself in performing works of charity.

“She knew, – says Saint Gregory the Theologian, – one thing to be truly noble – to be pious and to know, from whence we have come and whither we go; and that there is one innate and trusty wealth – to use up one’s substance on God and on the poor, especially the impoverished kindred.

If one woman be distinguished for frugality, and another for piety, it being difficult to combine both qualities, then she however excelled all both in the one and in the other, and in each she attained the height of perfection, and she had both combined as one in her. In her, the one quality could not suffer impairment without the other, but rather each the other sustained. What time and place of prayer ever eluded her? On this daily was her very first thought. Better it be said, who, in setting about praying, had such trust to receive the besought? But even more amazing is this, that she, although she might be powerfully shaken by sorrows, even those of strangers, yet never did she give herself over to hollow wailing to the extent, that the voice of sorrow should win out over thanksgiving, or that the tears should fall endlessly, secretly sealing their mark, or with the onset of the bright feast to remain in garb of sorrow, though there befell her repeatedly many a sorrow. Wherein for the soul, out of a characteristic love for God, everything human was made subject to the Divine. I refrain from speaking about her deeds more secret, which God alone hath witnessed and about which perhaps knew her faithful servants, being in this her confidants”.

The final years brought Saint Nonna many a sorrow. In the year 368 died her younger son Caesarius, a young man, of brilliant expectations; and in the following year died her daughter. The brave old woman bore these losses with a submission to the will of God.

In the year 370 bishop Gregory, then already an old man already up in age, participated in the ordination of Saint Basil the Great as Bishop of Caesarea. Saint Nonna, who was somewhat younger than her husband, was likewise readied to enter into the next life, but through the prayers of her beloved son was prolonged her time on earth. “My mother, – wrote her son, – always was strong and brave, all her life she never complained of infirmities; but sickness had befallen her. From many a suffering, not mincing words, the least oppressive – was an aversion to food, continuing for many days and untreatable by any of the doctors. How then did God sustain her? He did not send down manna, as to Israel of old; He did not split open a rock, for a spring of water to issue forth for the thirsty people; not through rambling words, as with Elias, not through a prophetic ecstasy, as once with Daniel, languishing with hunger in the pit. But then in what form? It seemed to her that I, her especially beloved son (she presupposed me in her sleep to be no one else), that I had appeared to her suddenly by night with a basket of the whitest bread, and then having pronounced prayer over these loaves and blessing them with the Sign of the Cross, as is our custom, I gave her to eat, and with this her strength returned and increased. And this night-time vision was for her something that actually happened, since she became herself again and was no longer an hopeless case. And what happened with her became apparent in a clear and evident manner. With the break of day I had gone to her early in the morning, and for the first time saw her in her former fine condition, and so I chanced as usual to ask: how was her night and did she need anything? Without a bit of hesitation quite fluently she said: “Thou thyself, beloved son, hath fed me and now thou dost ask about my health. O, how good and caring thou art!” At this moment her attendants motioned to me by gestures, that I should not contradict her, but I have taken her words at face value and so that the actual truth should not distress her”.

Early in the year 374 reposed the hundred year old elder bishop Gregory. Saint Nonna, after this almost never emerging from the church, soon after his death died at prayer in the temple on 5 August 374.

by translator Fr. S. Janos.