Fourth-century Christianity is perhaps best remembered for the Trinitarian controversies that flared with the rise of Arius early on and continued until the Council of Constantinople in 381. In the East, some of the key figures involved in that controversy were the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. Lesser known is the life of Saint Macrina (ca. 327–379), the eldest sister of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, yet her faith influenced her brothers in profound ways. And her brother Gregory memorialized her in an account of her life, The Life of Saint Macrina, which offers readers today a portrait of female piety in the early church.
We find a number of insights into early Christian living in Saint Macrina. What is no surprise is that the Psalms played a significant role in shaping her Christianity—as it has steadily done in the lives of countless other believers for centuries. Gregory records,
There was none of the psalms which she did not know since she recited each part of the Psalter at the proper times of the day, when she rose from her bed, performed or rested from her duties, sat down to eat or rose up from the table, when she went to be or got up to pray, at all time she had the Psalter with her like a good travelling companion who never fails.
The Psalter would likewise constitute the cornerstone of much monastic experience in the centuries to follow, and she herself, no doubt, encouraged this in the monastic community she founded.
This latter point underscores the importance of female agency in Christian history. Macrina was an active woman who took initiative and accomplished much in the service of her Lord (and she did so, one might note, without serving as an ordained elder). Founding a convent near the monastery that her brother Peter founded is just one example—but an important one. Macrina was following the pattern set out by her mother, Emmelia. As a young woman, bereft of her parents, Emmelia, Gregory says, “chose a man known and proven for the uprightness of his life” (22); Gregory depicts Emmelia as the one choosing. In the same way, Macrina was not passive in her life’s decisions but actively responded to life’s circumstances, even to the point of becoming an example for her mother.
Macrina decided not to marry but to serve her mother and siblings with deep devotion. And she did, so much that her mother would often say that she herself “had been pregnant with the rest of her children for the prescribed term, but as for Macrina she bore her always and everywhere, embracing her, as it were, in her womb” (25). After her father’s death, Macrina took “an equal share in [her mother’s] worries” (26). And when Macrina’s brother Naucratius died unexpectedly, it was Macrina who carried her mother through: “With her firm, unflinching spirit she taught her mother’s soul to be brave” (28).
Macrina lived a life of service, first in her home and then in her life in the convent she founded. And she gained a respected reputation because of it. One way to highlight this reputation is to note the way that Gregory himself spoke of her. Gregory called her “the great Macrina” (36, 37, 39) and spoke, after her death, of her “holy body” (46), “holy face” (50), and “godlike face” (50). In a touching phrase, he referred to her as his teacher, and it was his aim, as he said it, that “I might show obedience to my teacher in everything”—an encompassing statement of confidence in her guidance and of respect for her position.
Clearly, Gregory idealizes Macrina’s life to some degree. He is not out to give an objective historical account of her character—flaws and all—but rather to paint a portrait of an exemplary saint. And while we may never know what temptations she struggled against, that should not minimize the genuine respect that Gregory had for his sister or the moral excellence she exhibited that is worth emulating.
One other theme of The Life of Saint Macrina bears mentioning, and that is the important place given to “philosophy” in Macrina’s life. Translator Kevin Corrigan describes Macrina’s understanding of philosophy as “the spirit of living wisdom which embraces the whole of human life . . . , a life entirely given to God. . . . It includes a vibrant intellectuality, life-long study and a spirit of true inquiry, and it culminates in the divine love of a person, Christ” (15–16). This view of philosophy built on but superseded that of the ancient Greek philosophers, and while it prioritized the soul, it recognized the value of the body, resisting Greek dualism.
In Macrina’s way of thinking, the “goal” of life was “philosophy,” moving “little by little to the immaterial, more perfect life” (26). Thus she placed “reason in opposition to passion” (28), which enabled her to rise above nature and move “beyong suffering . . . to patience and courage” (29). Philosophy helped Macrina and her fellow companions to discover “good things which led them on to greater purity” (30). Philosophy gave Macrina perspective in the midst of suffering, enabling her to “[carry] on the struggle” (32), even as she was tested by “successive attacks of painful grief” (33). They allowed her to grasp onto “divine providence hidden in sad events” and to look with hope for “the life to be hereafter” (35). Her explication of philosophy had a staggering effects on others; for example, on hearing her explain life using philosophy, Gregory said, “my soul seemed to be almost outside of human nature, uplifted as it was by her words and set down inside the heavenly sanctuaries by the guidance of her discourse” (35; cf. 52). Put simply, Macrina’s philosophy was a theology of the whole human condition with a view toward its eventual movement through death to new life (36).
At times, Macrina does sound dualistic. For example, Gregory describes her and her companions, saying, “[B]y virture of their affinity with the incorporeal powers they were not weighed down by the attractive pull of the body, but their lives were borne upwards, poised on high and they took their souls’ flight in concert with the heavenly powers” (30). But the discussion of her body as “holy” (46; see 46–49) militates against a raw dualism, as does the final prayer that she uttered before death, which anticipates resurrection.
I close with that prayer here, which gives a taste of her philosophy, her Christian view of all reality (41–42):
You have released us, O Lord, from the fear of death.
You have made the end of life here on earth
a beginning of true life for us.
You let our bodies rest in sleep in due season
and you awaken them again
at the sound of the last trumpet.
You entrust to the earth our bodies of earth
which you fashioned with your own hands
and you restore again what you have given,
transforming with incorruptibility and grace
what is mortal and deformed in us.
You redeemed us from the curse and from sin,
having become both on our behalf.
You have crushed the heads of the serpent
who had seized man in his jaws
because of the abyss of our disobedience.
You have opened up for us a path
to the resurrection,
having broken down the gates of hell
and reduced to impotence
the one who had power over death.
You have given to those who fear you
a visible token, the sign of the holy cross,
for the destruction of the Adversary
and for the protection of our life.
Upon whom I have cast myself from my mother’s womb,
Whom my soul has loved with all its strength,
To whom I have consecrated flesh and soul
from infancy up to this moment,
Put down beside me a shining angel
to lead me by the hand to the place of refreshment
where is the water of repose near the lap of the holy fathers.
You who have cut through the flame
of the fiery sword and brought to paradise
the man who was crucified with you,
who entreated your pity,
remember me also in your kingdom,
for I too have been crucified with you,
for I have nailed my flesh out of reference for you
and have feared your judgements.
Let not the dreadful abyss separate me
from your chosen ones.
Let not the Slanderer stand against me on my journey.
Let not my sin be discovered before your eyes
if I have been overcome in any way
because of our nature’s weakness
and have sinned in word or deed or thought.
You who have on earth the power to forgive sins,
forgive me, so that I may draw breath again
and may be found before you
in the stripping off of my body
without stain or blemish in the beauty of my soul
but may my soul be received
blameless and immaculate into your hands
as an incense offering before your face.