In Memoriam: Sr Nonna Verna Harrison (1953-2022)


Sister Nonna Verna Harrison, Nonna Harrison, Verna Harrison, Pappas Patristics Institute

Sister Nonna Harrison, known to many in the field of patristics as a devoted scholar and translator of the Church Fathers, reposed in the Lord on February 7, 2022, at the age of 68, after suffering a stroke on December 28. The Pappas Patristic Institute is grateful to those close to Sr Nonna for the following obituary, through which we wish to honor her memory and acknowledge her contributions to the Institute and to the field as a whole. May her memory be eternal.


Sister Nonna was born Verna Harrison in New Haven, CT, on August 16, 1953. Soon after birth, she suffered the loss of much of her vision, which gradually worsened as she aged. Throughout her life she bore a cross of painful suffering.


Having grown up in suburban Los Angeles, Verna Harrison received a BA from Yale University in 1974, an MA from Oxford in 1977, and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley in 1986. While in Berkeley, during her conversion to Orthodox Christianity, she became ardently dedicated to studying and making accessible the teachings of the Early Christian Fathers, especially the Cappadocians, and to the Church’s life of prayer and liturgical worship; she appreciated these holy wellsprings most deeply, and through them strove to serve God and people as best she could.


Verna’s subsequent teaching work included public lectures, retreats, parish adult education, and teaching positions in three seminaries and a diocesan late-vocations program. Beside numerous articles and translations, she is author or editor of the following volumes:


Grace and Human Freedom According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 30 (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992).[1]


St Basil the Great: On the Human Condition, Popular Patristics Series 30 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005).[2]


St. Gregory of Nazianzus: Festal Orations, Popular Patristics Series 36 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008).


God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010).


Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought, Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016).[3]


In the Foreword to her 2010 book on the image of God, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware stated that:


Sister Nonna writes as an expert in the early Christian world and its literature, but she presents the fruits of her learning in a form that is readily accessible to every reader. Her style is simple yet profound, vivid yet never overstated.


British theologian and patristics scholar Frances Young spoke glowingly of the same work as “a model of how to appropriate the church fathers for Christians today.”


On April 1, 1996, Verna was tonsured a rassaphore nun living in the world, taking the name of Nonna. In an autobiographical essay concerning her conversion, published in the same year, she reflects that,


At the core of my being, I am still that little girl longing for goodness, truth, and love, for our Lord Jesus Christ who is all these things, and longing to give my life to him in adoration and obedient service. At the heart of the Church’s life, through my many sins and mistakes, a little at a time, I am finding my heart’s desire. Glory to God for the blessings he has given me throughout my life, though I am unworthy of them. I have done nothing special to bring about the good things described in this essay. I do not know why God gave me faith when many others do not have it, and I do not know why not everybody has received faith as I have. I can only stand in awe of the mystery and give thanks to God for his gratuitous gifts, praying that all people may receive them. Glory to God in all things. Glory to him forever.


After learning of Sr. Nonna’s repose, a former spiritual father of hers noted that:


Sister Nonna’s scholarly abilities, combined with her life of prayer, enabled her to speak to people in a way which was very helpful to them. People who attended her lectures expressed this. Her disastrously reduced eyesight did not stop her doing all the meticulous research in order to write books that would help people. As with many people, the pain that she endured in her life was a frequent attacker. However, she managed to keep calling on the Lord for help. Like many Orthodox Christians and like most monastics, she was not well understood in “regular” society. Regardless, she persevered, and her faithful perseverance is an example for us.


According to the Julian calendar, Sr Nonna reposed on the feast day of St Gregory the Theologian, the son of St Nonna of Nazianzus. Just two days later the Church celebrated the feast of St John Chrysostom, followed three days after that by the feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs. She was buried at St Barbara Orthodox Monastery in Ojala, CA.


The 40th day of Sr Nonna’s repose is March 18, 2022.

May her memory, dear to many, be eternal!


 

[1] This is the published version of her doctoral dissertation. [2] This includes translations of the De creatione hominis 1-2 (On the Origin of Humanity); the homilies That God is Not the Cause of Evil; Against Anger; On the Words ‘Be Attentive to Yourself’; and Letter 233 to Amphilochius; and selection from the Long Rules. [3] This includes an essay by Sr Nonna: “John Chrysostom on the Man Born Blind (John 9).”