The First Great Female Sharer
Nina (also Nona, Nonna) was perhaps the greatest female sharer of the early church. Through her efforts she introduced an entire nation to the Light. Most of what is written of her remains enshrouded in myth. But all myths have truth at their core. This is her story, and what we can learn from her.
There were some Christian groups in Georgia when Nina arrived there around 330 AD. (The date appears difficult to establish- other traditions indicate that she arrived in 276, 318, 327, or 335 AD.) Nina healed many people, including eventually the King of Georgia. The king then committed himself to the Light, and was advised by Nina to contact Constantine to obtain bishops. She continued to encourage the meeting and share truth until her death. She is responsible for founding the gathering of believers in Georgia.
The tradition of Nina is more expansive than the bare facts. The Georgian Church traditionally dates it's first understanding to the Mother of God, Mary, indicating that the church seems to have had an early psychological acceptance of women in ministry. Nina herself grew up in Jerusalem, and is portrayed as someone of noble birth, who came as a sharer to Georgia, according to Georgian Church record. However, most other sources indicate that she was a slave when she first arrived in Georgia. This would put her in the tradition of Patrick of Ireland, coming to share with the people who had enslaved him. If Nina was of the Patrick tradition, then her sharing of Georgia is even more astounding. As to the Georgian traditions, it would seem more likely that a tradition would arise defending Nina's freedom, rather than Nina's enslavement, as there is less honor in being a slave.
However, the Georgian church believed her to be a nun, perhaps "Nina" being a title rather than a proper name, deriving from her Egyptian order of "Nonnes". Other Georgian sources argue that it was a common name, like Gregory of Nazianzus' mother's name, Nino. According to the traditions, Nina was the niece of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and given up to God by her parents.
She is said to have received the cross of the wood of the vine from a vision of Mary, and this cross still exists today in Georgia. The present primary cross in Georgia is admittedly ancient.
On the way to Georgia Nina shared extensively and was persecuted in Armenia. Upon arriving in Georgia she began her sharing with a prayer against a festival of the gods that was about to begin. A large hail storm then arose that dispersed the revelers and destroyed the idols. The hail storm was ascribed by the natives to the anger of the gods, but three days later Nina started to share the truth of the Light. Nina here demonstrated familiarity with the power encounter, dependence on God, and trust in His miraculous power.
Nina came then to stay with the king's gardener, and there healed the gardener's wife's womb, to allow her to give birth to a son. Following this she healed a widow's son by putting a sackcloth on him. She met the felt needs of the people around her; sons are important in a society where women are degraded, and for a widow, the son is the only thing allowing her to be supported. She related to the Georgians emically, from their perspective and needs.
Tradition then indicates that the work of Nina began to expand through the convincing of the royal house. The queen noticed the healing, and, knowing of Christianity, she asked Nina to pray for her own serious illness. After the queen was healed, Nina began to have her own disciples. Likely this tradition of discipleship is accurate, as it goes against normal church beliefs of the next 1500 years to have disciples attached to a woman. Also, discipleship would have been necessary for Nina's ministry to expand.
The king, Mirian, did not appreciate Nina's success, so he decided to persecute the Christians and become himself more devoted to his gods. Mirian ordered his advisers to lead his wife away from the Gospel or else he would divorce her.
Sources contradict on the next immediate events. Some say that Nina healed the king of a sudden blindness, and others that it got dark suddenly when he was hunting. The king asked for help from his gods, but to no avail, so he asked for help from Nina's God, and promised to proclaim Christianity and worship the cross. It became immediately light. Whatever happened, the king made a promise to turn to the Light in the process of these events.
A beautiful cross was almost worshiped (not just venerated) by the Georgians shortly after these events. And the Armenian traditions concerning Georgia speak of Nina having people bow down before a cross as well. The people refused, however, according to the Armenians, as the cross was ugly, so God sent a cloud and light over it, and made a pleasant smell, and music came from the cross, at which the Georgians gladly worshiped. There seems to be a number of traditions supporting the idea that cross worship occurred, which of course would be heretical. But it does reflect a primitive understanding of Christianity. It appears that Nina, in her pursuit of contextualization, supported this worship.
Interestingly, the Armenian tradition states that Gregory of Armenia had to instruct Nina on her early mission, providing some of the ideas such as throwing down idols and worshiping the cross. This tradition is questionable though, as it comes from Armenia and magnifies the importance of Armenia's patron saint. It also appears to denigrate the abilities of women to make decisions on their own, reflecting the male hegemony of historians. But even if she had the help of Gregory, still, through her sharing, she established the Church of an entire country and people. She was the type of a saint.
After the king turned to Christ, so did the rest of the capitol city. Nina showed an awareness of the importance of leaders in a kinship society. She instructed and taught the leader, and the people followed. There is of course the danger of nominalism in this approach, as the people can follow their leader without making a decision for themselves. There is always also the danger that it would be forgotten that the Gospel is intended first for the poor and downtrodden, and for the wealthy and powerful only secondarily. But this was a more kinship, group-focused society, and it appears that Nina continued to disciple her followers throughout this time, to ingrain deep and not just widespread belief.
The Church of Georgia was then guided by Nina into the greater church. At her request, King Mirian sent to Constantinople for bishops and priests, and shortly thereafter the Patriarch of Antioch arrived with permanent clergy and sacred relics. This was the beginning of a strong tie between Georgia and Antioch, and with the establishment of Georgia as an autocephaly, there was also a strong liturgical link with Antioch for centuries.
Nina was also very vigorous in establishing the Georgian cult of worship. Soon after his conversion King Mirian built a temple, and when the builders could not erect the seventh pillar of the temple, Nina called for angels to help her set it up. Although it is difficult to know if this tradition is accurate, it demonstrates again Nina's awareness that the supernatural was ever present, useful, and could make an impact on people steeped in superstition and the spirit world. The king also encouraged Nina to look for the coat of Christ, supposedly brought to Georgia by the soldier who won it at the cross, and it was miraculously found by her, so a chapel was dedicated to Nina. (Another tradition has Nina sharing the Light with the Jews of Mtskheta and then receiving the coat of Christ from them.) Nina knew from her own cultural setting that physical objects could be imbued with spiritual strength- both holy and evil. She again affirmed the intimate presence of the supernatural.
Nina continued to build temples throughout Georgia. Even though much of her story may never be confirmed this side of eternity, the ideas in the myth show a woman depending on God. She was known as an powerful and constant preacher, and lead many people to the Light. She does not appear to have been afraid to share to men, even though her own culture was against it. She prayed and expected healings and miracles. Nina demonstrated a boldness to obey Christ's commands to share the Gospel. She was not only ethereal and idealistic in her beliefs, but set up practical church structures, to encourage the continuation of the church after her death. She was not only a great female sharer, but a witness to us all on how to do effective love and truth.
Isoelian, P. A Short History of the Georgian Church. Saunders, Otley, and Co., London: 1866.
Myendorff, John. Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY: 1989.