The Life of St. Nina, Enlightener of Georgia
In the years following the Resurrection of Christ, the Apostles spread the Good News across most of the known world in remarkable fashion and established the foundation upon which the church was built. They traversed great distances across deserts, mountains, and rough seas. They were exposed to the elements while traveling only to endure mockery, beatings, and torture at many of their destinations. And yet, the Gospel was preached, people were baptized, and the church grew in number and strength. Since then, a number of individuals have followed in their footsteps and equally excelled in the witness and proclamation of the Good News of the Resurrection of Christ. The title “Equal-to-the-Apostles” is bestowed upon them. One such saint is Nina, the Enlightener of Georgia.
Although her story has varied over the centuries, the original story written in 403 AD by Tyrannius Rufinus is the one closest to Nina’s time. Rufinus included Nina’s tale in chapter 10 of his Historia Ecclesiastica. When Rufinus was traveling through Palestine in 395 AD, he learned of Nina’s story from a man named Bakurius. Bakurius was a member of the royal house of Iberia and Rufinus later referred to him as “a most trustworthy man.” Bakurius had learned the story orally through his grandparents and great grandparents that had lived in Nina’s time.
Little is known of Nina’s childhood. It was likely that she was born in Cappadocia before being taken captive and taken to Iberia around 324 AD. The Kingdom of Iberia was located in what is now the eastern region of the country of Georgia. Western Georgia had recently been evangelized by Orthodox Christians that lived along the coast of the Black Sea. But to the east the Kingdom of Iberia remained seated in pagan darkness.
Through captivity, Nina remained true to her faith and lived a virtuous and prayerful life. She endured hardships with joy and always gave glory to God. The Iberians who captured Nina eventually became curious about her ways and asked for an explanation. Nina told them that she worshiped our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. She shared with them the Good News of the Resurrection but they remained set in their pagan ways.
Then one day, the mother of a sick child visited Nina. She explained that she had visited all the doctors and pagan healers and yet none could heal her child of his infirmities. She wanted to know if Nina’s God could help. Nina said yes, and after placing the child on her cloak and praying to Christ, she returned the child to the mother fully healed.
By 328 A.D. word had spread about the miracles wrought through Nina’s prayers. Nina began preaching to the people as more sought help. It was then that Nana, the queen of Iberia, heard of the wonderworking captive. The queen suffered from an illness and in desperation she travelled to meet Nina and ask for a cure. Through her prayers Nina also healed the queen and proclaimed the Christian faith.
The queen returned home deeply moved and edified and shared her story with her husband, King Mirian the III. The king wanted to send presents and lavish Nina, but the queen remarked that Nina would not accept such gifts due to her austere way of life. “The only reward she wants,” said the queen, “is for us to worship her God.”
The king remained unconvinced until he experienced a remarkable occurrence on a hunt deep in the forest in 330 AD. During the light of day, darkness fell and a murky cloud enveloped the king. His guards scattered in fear and left the King wandering alone and lost in the dark cloud. The king prayed to his pagan gods without result. Terrified, he turned to Christ with a prayer for illumination and the promise that he would thereafter glorify Christ’s name. Suddenly the dark cloud vanished and the light of day returned. The King returned home shaken, but convinced, giving glory to God.
The king met with Nina and asked for her instructions on how to worship. He summoned the people of his kingdom and told them all that had happened. He also granted Nina’s requeste that a church be built in the capitol of Mtskheta. Construction began right away, with walls being raised and the first two of three pillars being placed. But despite all efforts, the workers were unable to place the third column and so work stopped. During the night, Nina went alone and prayed at the site until daybreak. When the king and the people arrived, they saw the pillar standing upright and freely suspended about a foot above its pedestal. They gazed in amazement as the pillar slowly descended into place without anyone touching it. All became convinced about the faith and glorified God. They named the cathedral Svetitskhoveli, meaning “living pillar” because of the great miracle that occurred.
As the church grew, the king sent emissaries to Emperor Constantine who in turn sent priests and catechists to Iberia. Nina travelled extensively across the area too and greatly aided in the conversion of the people. Her efforts reached fulfillment when Iberia adopted Christianity as its state religion in 337 AD.
Nina bore great fruit in Iberia through her witness and earned a place of silence and solitude in her final years. She retreated to a cave on a mountain at Bode in 338 AD, where she later died and was buried. Her tomb is still located in the local cathedral.
Nina is loved and revered by the people of Georgia. She is commemorated on Jan. 14 with prayer processions across Georgia called “St Nina’s Way”. She remains a powerful example of the transforming affect of Christian witness in the world.
St. Nina, Enlightener of Georgia and Equal to the Apostles, pray to Christ our God that he may save our souls.
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas