(Written earlier this year, this essay is dedicated to the newly baptized handmaid of God, Nina Tauck.)
It’s New Year’s Day morning and human hope abounds. People everywhere are making resolutions or are reflecting on resolutions already made at the stroke of midnight. Some of these will be private—unexpressed intentions to be a better friend, start jogging a couple of days a week, or get a garden in by May. Others, perhaps made with more confidence for success, are being shared as public self-improvement announcements. Photos of freshly minted bullet journals are being shared all over social media today.
For someone who is entering this new year without a single resolution, I am strangely hopeful and lighthearted, something that has to do with a study I’ve been making of the life of St. Nina and with my visit to a monastery last Sunday. A visit that started with confession.
There are times when under the Christ-graced stole of a confessor all the specialness of your failings and weaknesses is lost and they look like what they are: plain, ordinary sin. On Sunday morning I had one of those moments, and far from the frightening experience it sounds, it was wonderful, amazing. I felt dazed when it was over, wobbled a little as I found my way back into the main church, where in my absence the deacon had been censing the congregation. I got myself together just in time to see him give a last flick of his wrist, a final swing of the censor before returning to the altar. He left us cloaked in a swirl of sweet-smelling clouds that soon headed for the dome and heaven. I inhaled deeply, eyes wet with thankful tears. Always in confession I state my intention to be less cavalier with time, more liberal with compassion and tenderness, ultra-conservative with criticisms, among other things. And always I have known God believes me. That day, for the briefest, flashing moment, as I bent my neck for absolution, I had believed myself.
Standing outside after the service, blinking in the stark daylight, I was still somewhat dazed, but also invigorated. Suddenly it seemed that hope was everywhere. It was just down the hill in the monastery cemetery, where bodies sown in the same earth from which they were made lay waiting for the Lord’s return. It was inside the chapel, where monks had just finished singing a moleben to a wonderworking icon. It was behind me in the dining hall, where children sat at tables devouring donuts, eager to be outside on this unusually mild winter’s day, to run and play where saints have walked. It was in the gentle range of mountains that keeps the monastery cradled in an eternal, motherly embrace. That morning the hills lay in dark silhouette, a wide scalloped ribbon on the hem of an overcast sky. Poised, it seemed to me, to move on command.
It has occurred to me to wonder, as the days pass and my elation fades like the scent of paradise from a growing baby’s skin, how St. Nina kept her hold on otherworldly hope, how it became the unfading, mountain-moving kind. The answer, it turns out, can be found in the details of her life, distilled in a few key illuminating words in her troparion:
“O handmaid of the Word of God, who in preaching equaled the first-called Apostle Andrew, and emulated the other Apostles, enlightener of Iberia and reed pipe of the Holy Spirit, holy Nina, pray to Christ our God to save our souls.”
Handmaid of the Word of God. Preacher. Emulator of the Apostles. Enlightener of Iberia. These small apt titles carry in them some of the large, impressive things we know about St. Nina. But it’s the last title in the list, the one that calls St. Nina, poetically, a reed pipe of the Holy Spirit, that I found significant to my question. This description casts light on the other four, explaining how it is that someone who seems to have her share of self-doubt, referring to herself as a “worthless and ignorant woman”, topples a pagan temple, causing its idols to blast apart on command, and converts the hearts of an entire nation to Christ.
Organs are reed pipe instruments. In organ pipes, air under pressure (wind) is directed towards a brass reed, which vibrates at a specific pitch. But at the time of St. Nina there were no organs. In her day a reed pipe would have been simple, a single, hollow tube with a hand-carved reed. I have not heard the song such a reed pipe makes, but I can imagine it would have a haunting, holy sound, sweet and piercing. The kind of sound to wound the heart of a king and send him in search of the healing love of Christ.
In an essay on the distinguishing traits of saints, theologian Father Dimitru Staniloae says they are people who have reached our full potential. What we can be, they are. The chief difference between them and us is the alacrity with which they give themselves completely to God. Saints are not just willing to be hollowed out, they are eager. Cheerfully, joyfully so. In the oldest record of the life of St. Nina, in the church history by Rufino, it is the novelty of such a joyful poverty that first catches the notice of the pagan Iberians. Word began quickly to spread of the virtue of this humble young captive woman (noblewoman, in the later Georgian version) whose life was one of bright, cheerful sobriety and constant, unceasing prayer, who “nourished herself with fasting as if with food”. Is it any wonder that when we express a longing to go deeper and further in the life in Christ, we are encouraged to read and study the lives of the saints? In their strength is revealed our weakness. And our hope.
The unexpected gift in my brush with otherworldliness that day at the monastery is that it brought me to look closer at the life St. Nina, and to see that in her, as in all the saints, the true nature of hope is revealed. In the saints the hope of Christ shines in all its radiant glory. And seeing St. Nina’s life of unceasing prayer, humility, obedience, compassion, poverty—her eager holy hollowness—stand in stark, gritty contrast to a mountaintop dream, my own hope feels a little truer, stronger and readier to endure.
God is wondrous in his saints.
Holy Saint Nina pray to God for us!