St. Nonna, the mother of St. Gregory the Theologian, was the daughter of Christians named Philotatos and Gorgonia, who raised her in Christian piety. St. Nonna was also an aunt of St. Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium.
St. Nonna entered into marriage with Gregory of Arianzus, who was the rich landowner of an estate in the Arianzus and Nazianzos districts. Unfortunately, the marriage caused great misery for the holy soul of St. Nonna. Her husband was a pagan, a follower of the sect of the Supremists (Hypsistarii), who venerated a supreme god and observed certain Jewish rituals, while at the same time worshiping fire.
St. Nonna prayed that her husband would turn to the One True God. Their son, St. Gregory the Theologian, wrote that his mother “… could not bear this, being half united to God, because he who was part of her remained apart from God. She wanted a spiritual union in addition to the bodily union. Day and night she turned to God with fasting and many tears, entreating Him to grant salvation to her husband.”
Through the prayers of St. Nonna, her husband had a vision in his sleep. “It seemed to my father,” wrote St. Gregory, “as though he was singing the following verse of David: ‘I was glad when they said to me, let us go into the house of the Lord’ (Ps. 121/122: 1). He had never done this before, though his wife had often offered her supplications and prayers for it.”
The Psalm was strange to him, but along with its words, a desire also came to him to go to church. When she heard about this, St.. Nonna told her husband that the vision would bring the greatest pleasure if it were fulfilled.
Her husband, Gregory, went to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea, where he made known his conversion to Christ. He was baptized, ordained presbyter, and then Bishop of Nazianzos devoting himself totally to the Church. At the same time as his consecration as bishop, St. 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,” wrote St. Gregory the Theologian, “one thing to be truly noble: to be pious and to know from where we have come and where we are going; and that there is one innate and trusty wealth: to use one’s substance on God and on the poor, especially the impoverished kin. One woman may be distinguished for frugality, and another for piety, while she, difficult as it is to combine both qualities, excelled all others in both of them. In each she attained the height of perfection, and both were combined in her. She did not permit one duty to interfere with the other, but rather each supported the other. What time and place of prayer ever eluded her? She was drawn to this each day before anything else, and she had complete faith that her prayers would be answered. Although greatly moved by the sorrows of strangers, she never yielded to grief to the extent that she allowed any sound of woe to escape her lips before the Eucharist, or a tear to fall from her eye, or for any trace of mourning to remain on a Feast day, though she repeatedly endured many sorrows. She subjected every human thing to God.”
Her final years brought St. Nonna many sorrows. In 368, her youngest son, Caesarios, died, and the following year, her daughter died. St. Nonna bore these losses submitting to the will of God.
In 370 Bishop Gregory, then already an old man, participated in the consecration of St. Basil the Great as Bishop of Caesarea. St. Nonna, who was somewhat younger than her husband, was also ready to enter into the next life, but through the prayers of her beloved son her time on earth was prolonged.
“My mother,” wrote her son, St. Gregory, “ was always strong and vigorous, and free from sickness all her life, but then she became ill. Because of much distress… caused by her inability to eat, her life was in danger for many days, and no cure could be found. How then did God sustain her? He did not send down manna, as for Israel of old; He did not split open a rock, in order to provide water for the thirsty people; not did He send food by ravens, as with Elias, nor did He feed her…, as He once fed Daniel, who felt hunger in the pit. But how? It seemed to her that I, her favorite son (not even in dreams did she prefer anyone else), had appeared to her suddenly by night with a basket of the whitest bread. Then I blessed these loaves with the Sign of the Cross, as is my custom, and I gave her to eat, and with this her strength increased.”
St. Nonna believed in the vision. She became stronger, and more like her old self.
St. Gregory visited her early the next morning, asked what sort of night she had, and if she required anything. She replied, “My son, you have fed me and now you ask about my health. I am well.” At that moment her maids made signs to him that he should not contradict her, but to accept her words so that the actual truth should not upset her.
In early 374, the hundred-year-old St. Gregory the Elder fell asleep in the Lord. After his death, St. Nonna hardly ever emerged from the church. Soon after his death, she died at prayer in the temple on August 5, 374.
St. Nonna was a model wife and mother, a remarkable woman who devoted her life to God and the Church without neglecting her other responsibilities. Because of her spiritual, social, and domestic concerns, St. Nonna is a fitting patron for Orthodox women’s organizations