August 5 – Nonna of Nazianzus; Oswald of Northumbria

Nonna of Nazianzus (d. 374) married a husband (Gregory of Nazianzus (or “Gregory Nazianzen”) the Elder) who belonged to the Hypsisterians (no, not hipsters), a sort of half-pagan, half-Jewish sect that kept some Jewish festivals, but also worshiped fire. This, wrote her son, Gregory of Nazianzus (“the Famous One”) (Jan 25), bugged her, so she prayed for his (hubby’s) salvation. One night, in a dream, he heard someone singing the psalm, “Let’s go to God’s house, yo” (paraphrase). Once awake, he asked to go to Nonna’s church, so she took him. He was baptized, and eventually became a bishop. Nonna herself became a deaconess, and together they served Nazianzus as only a bishop-and-deaconness husband/wife team could. (Alas! How few such teams there are in these decadent times.)

Most of what we know about her we learn from Greg Junior’s writings. In his funeral oration for his father, he says, “This good shepherd was the product of his wife’s prayers and guidance,” and “She was not ashamed to show herself his master in piety,… and he is to be admired all the more for willingly yielding to her.” Smart man. All three of their children are saints of the church, and all the family but Greg Jr. preceded Nonna to the grave. She is (quite understandably) the patron saint “against the death of children,” and (far less understandably) of information services.

Oswald of Northumbria (ca. 604–641) was the son of Æthelfrith, who united Bernicia and Deira into the kingdom of Northumbria, and his wife Acha[1]. Edwin of Deira (Acha’s brother) took umbrage at that, and after some steel clashed, Æthelfrith was dead and Edwin was king. Acha fled with her children to Ireland, where they learned Gaelic, and were converted and baptized. Years later, Edwin and Oswald’s brother Eanfrith were each killed in battle, leaving Oswald to win back his father’s kingdom. He assembled his troops near Hadrian’s Wall, and personally held a big ol’ cross up while his men filled in around its base. They all then prayed to “the omnipotent and only true God.” That night St. Columba (Jun 9) came to Oz in a dream, saying, “Fight, team, fight!” (roughly). Sure enough, the next day Oswald was successful, and within three years, he was the Bretwalda (king) of all Saxon England.

Having created the Pax Northumbrium, Oswald asked Iona* to send missionaries to Christianize his people. (One source pointedly points out that he did not ask Canterbury.) The first bish proved a bit harsh, so they sent him back and asked for another (they had kept the receipt). This time they got (St.) Aidan (Aug 31). Oswald gave him Lindisfarne* for his see, and Aidan liked the place so much he founded a monastery there. He (Aidan) then toured the countryside, preaching the gospel, accompanied by Oswald as translator (those Gaelic lessons came in handy!). People flocked to receive baptism, drawn as much by Oswald’s sanctity as Aidan’s preaching.

On one famous occasion (commemorated in art) (and if you can get just one occasion in your life commemorated in art, you’re doing pretty well) (selfies do not count), the king was told of beggars at the palace gates. He ordered that his own dinner be carried to them, and that they be allowed to take the (silver) dishes home. Thus he did two good deeds: feeding the hungry, and giving the scullery crew the night off. Aidan was deeply moved, and grabbing Oswald’s hand, said, “May this hand never perish.” After Oswald’s death in battle, the hand remained incorrupt for centuries, although it is now lost—only his head remains. There are, however, over 60 churches, wells, and other holy places in England that bear his name.


[1] I did that on purpose.