The Life and Influence of our Holy Mother Macrina

 Mother Valentina Hadarau, OSBM


The Historical Context

Speaking today about St. Macrina is like searching through the expanses of history in order to discover the beauty of a vocation, the holiness of a woman and the wisdom of a virgin.

In general, women carry within themselves a measure of eternity, the capacity to be with God and to be like God through their being and actions. They always carry within themselves—in their souls and bodies—the principle of love, i.e., an openness to others.

During St. Macrina’s era women constituted for Christianity a great problem in need of resolution, since many women—especially many of the great female figures within paganism—were examples of corrupt behavior in the eyes of the faithful.[1] In the worldviews of the Jews, Romans and Greeks, women were considered to be less than men. Thus, at this particular point in history, it was necessary to redefine a woman’s dignity and determine her role in society and the Church. It is at this moment, the great personage of St. Macrina appears, a woman of excellence, who stood above the rest.[2]

The historical period in which St. Macrina lived was simultaneously marked by various controversies and by the spread of monasticism, which was a visible sign of the Christian religion and a witness to God.

Therefore, it is interesting to penetrate her world, its culture and daily life, searching for its deeper meaning and nuances in order to draw closer to the great spirituality of her time.

 

Biography

The Life of St. Macrina was the first ever biography written about a woman. Her brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, narrated his sister’s life and gave important testimony to the existence of female monasticism.[3]

Macrina (the Younger) was the eldest child of Emmelia and Basil (the Elder). She was born c. 329 and died in 380.

Her mother chose the name Macrina, despite the fact that “when the due time came for her pangs to be ended by delivery, she fell asleep and seemed to be carrying in her hands that which was still in her womb. And someone in form and raiment more splendid than a human being appeared and addressed the child she was carrying by the name of Thecla, that Thecla, I mean, who is so famous among the virgins.”[4] St. Thecla was a model of virginity and was held in high repute among female monastics.

Little Macrina grew up in her mother’s protective embrace. As she grew, her natural talents became ever more evident. She developed them according to the will of her parents, clearly demonstrating a close relationship between mother and daughter, which carried into their shared view of religious life.

Her mother’s effort to educate her was not according to the secular curriculum of the then pagan culture, but rather based upon Scripture passages easily comprehensible to a young girl. Many times a day she prayed the psalms.

As the eldest daughter, Macrina helped her mother raise her younger brothers and sisters, spin wool and bake bread. By the time Macrina reached the age of twelve—the age of maturity in the East—she was so beautiful that even a painter’s hands could not do justice to her comeliness. [5]

The fame of her beauty spread throughout the land and a great number of suitors seeking her hand in marriage crowded round her parents. Macrina’s father chose for her a young man of good birth and remarkable steadiness, and decided to betroth his daughter to him.[6]

The man, however, suddenly died. This reinforced Macrina’s decision to remain a virgin for the rest of her life. Her parents sought to convince her to marry, but she remained steadfast in her conviction. She continued to care for her soul. Her main occupations were religious duties and prayer.

When St. Basil and his brother St. Gregory began their ascetic experience near the river Iris, they often spoke on the theological themes. St. Macrina also took part in these discussions.

Macrina converted her house into a place of prayer and asceticism. She gathered round herself other devout woman and even servants, treating them as sisters, who belonged to the same rank. Later, her mother joined them. It was the first community. In their communal life, they held all things in common: the conditions of life, food, clothing and dignity.

During the famine, which effected Cappadocia during this period, Macrina fed the poor with extraordinary generosity and love.

An incurable disease affected Macrina’s fragile body. Not wanting to see a doctor, Macrina came to the church and spent the night in prayer and tears, imploring the Lord for healing. After praying with great faith, she took clay, formed by a mixture of dust and tears, and smearing the sore spot on her chest—she was healed.

The community formed by St. Macrina in Anessi consisted mainly of virgins and widows. They had no specific rule to guide them in their chosen life. So Macrina, who was a wise woman, followed the inspiration of the Rules of St. Pachomius and St. Basil. The sisters of the community loved Macrina very much and held her to be an example of perfection.

The basic rule of life was prayer and communal labour. The nuns meditated on Scripture, from which they drew immense joy.

The life of these pious virgins was incessant prayer. Prayer accompanied every labour. It was a community that understood its identity and lived coherently the life to which they were consecrated. These women took pride in their temperance;  their glory was a hidden life; and their wealth, poverty.

The life of St. Macrina was conducted in silence and prayer, in work and charity, constantly growing in the way of perfection.

Her illness and death was made known to her brother Gregory in a dream. He decided to visit his sister and during the long journey, she appeared to him in a vision, which repeated itself three times that the night. Gregory dreamed that he was carrying relics of the martyrs. Arriving at the monastery, Gregory found his sister very ill. She was lying on the floor, a sack had been spread on a board, and another board propped up her head, acting as a pillow

Macrina asked her brother to rest after the toil of his journey, but he said that for him great and genuine rest was to see her and hear her noble words.[7]

Thus Gregory received the interpretation of his vision: “For the image I had seen was indeed true –the relics of a holy martyr which had been dead in sin, but now were resplendent with the indwelling power of the Spirit.”[8]

When they, in a dejected state, were expecting sad tidings, Macrina encouraged them to be of good cheer and to cherish better hopes, for she was already looking “to the prize of her heavenly calling.”

 

The Influence of St. Macrina on Her Brother Basil and Mother Emmelia

After Basil the Great returned from his long period of university studies, Macrina saw that he had become puffed up beyond measure in his capacity as a rhetorician.

Macrina —with much wisdom— soon drew Basil to the ideal of a Christian life. He renounced the glories of this world and despised all fame gained through rhetoric. He chose a life of labouring with one’s own hands, in a spirit of poverty.[9]

Macrina acted as a spiritual guide to Basil, aiding in his conversion.

Macrina persuaded her mother also to leave her familiar life and the services of domestics, to which she had been accustomed, and embrace a life in conformity with that of the virgins.[10]

After Emmelia renounced her old ways, Macrina lead her mother to share in a life of humility, treating all her slave girls and menials as sisters, belonging to the same order of virgins.

In her hour of death, Emmelia blessed her children, touching them with her hands and uttering prayers.[11] She ended her life in prayer together with them.

 

The Virtues of St.Macrina

Saint Macrina was a companion in life, work, communion, charity and responsibility.

In her likeness to God, Macrina became a sign of God’s love for man, a sign of the wholeness found in the mystery of communion. Her natural disposition to be open and give herself to others helped in her walk towards the perfection of Christian charity and the total donation of herself to God.

Her moral and spiritual powers were united to a keen awareness that God gives Himself to man in a special way. She became strong in the knowledge of her mission —to become an indispensable support and a source of spiritual strength for others, who drew from her great energies of spirit.

In God’s eternal dispensation, St. Macrina is the one in whom the order of love of neighbour, in the created world, found ground from which to send forth its rays so that the love of God could reach the hearts of others.

On account of Macrina’s strength of character, wisdom and love, she was able to re-evaluate and stabilize the identity, capacities and virtues of the feminine world.

Macrina acquired virtues deemed masculine [by Greek culture], such as  patience and courage under the guidance of reason, which prevailed in her. She was compared to the angels, because she exceeded “common human nature.”

Macrina was called an athlete of Christ. At the death of her brother Basil, she was invincible. This was the test of her mettle. Through various accessions of suffering, her magnanimous soul was put to the test, proving her sincerity and endurance.[12]

“And just as we learn in the story of Job that the saint did not allow the pain of learning about the death of his children to affect his reasoning power; likewise, the dying Macrina was a model of patience, suffering great physical pain.”[13]

Another example given by her brother Gregory is truly worthy of attention. At the death of her brother Naucratius, Macrina remained strong and was her mother’s greatest support, encouraging Emmelia towards heroic virtue. It is here the virtue of the great Macrina was displayed, for she too felt deeply the pain of her brother’s death.

In all three trials —the death of her mother and her two brothers, Naucratius and Basil—Macrina did not break and she overcame her human weaknesses.

When it came to the inheritance, Macrina kept nothing for herself. After the equal division between brothers and sisters, her share was given over to a priest to be administered.

When Gregory spoke of his own troubles to Macrina — his exile at the hands of the Emperor Valens on account of the faith, she exhorted him to stop behaving in a way incongruent to the divine mysteries.

Approaching her end, with a fever consuming her forces and pushing her ever closer to death, Macrina maintained her freedom of spirit, contemplating higher truths.

On her deathbed, she spoke to those present —among whom was her brother Gregory— on the Christian perspective of why man is born mortal, and from whence comes death and liberation from death.

Gregory marvelled that even in the final moments of her life, Macrina did not show any emotion in anticipation of her death, nor was she afraid of the imminent separation from this life, but philosophized to her last breath about every decision taken from the beginning of her earthly life.

Gregory described her behaviour as that of an angel, a human form penetrated by divine dispositions.

 

Conclusions

With such great wealth of testimony on the life of St. Macrina, I would like to focus on today’s reality. We live in a paradoxical situation. Millions of people are looking for the deeper meaning of life and human existence, while —at the same time— the dominant culture rejects faith as a source. The tendencies that place our communities at risk are:

–       secularization

–       professionalism

–       living the consecrated life in a superficial manner

In order to resist these temptations, we must deepen our vocation by going back to our sources – the virtuous and holy lives of our father Basil and our mother St. Macrina, who in their wisdom and open heartedness, and consciousness of their identity, knew how to face the problems of the Church and contemporary society.

Following the example of our mother Macrina, we are called to live in a community grounded in the Fatherhood of God (Jn 20, 17). We are brothers and sisters, in as much as we are children of the same Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit. We are a community, where all members share an equal dignity (Matthew 23, 8) and where authority is a ministry of service. We are a community of those who do the will of the Father (Mk 3, 33-35) and where the words spoken by Mary are constantly repeated, “Whatever he tells you – do!” (John 2, 5). We are an universal community, open to God’s poor and small people, the anawim, following the example of St. Macrina, since they are icons of Christ (Matt. 25. 40).

The life of the Church, in general, and consecrated life, in particular, always faced major challenges, which had no analogues in history. The post-Christian, post-modern world does not understand the language we are speaking. A new generation is looking for spiritual comfort. There is a need for a radical rethinking of our lives. We must return to the profound traditions of our spiritual and moral lives. We must return to the vertical dimension of the consecrated life, both contemplative and eschatological, which is founded upon the Gospel. We must recover a true monasticism within our communities and in the heart of our local churches. Monasticism is an example of the true Church and Eucharistic life. A return to monasticism will be possible only when we return to the authentic sources of our theology and spirituality — as found in in God’s Word and the Eucharist.


[1] Cf. St. Gregory of Nyssa, Vita di s. Macrina (Life of St. Macrina), ed. Paolina Milano, 1988, 14.

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] Ibid., 26.

[4] Ibid., 84-85.

[5] Ibid., 88.

[6] Ibid., 89.

[7] Ibid., 117.

[8] Ibid., 117.

[9] Ibid., 94.

[10] Ibid., 95.

[11] Ibid., 126.

[12] Ibid., 109.

[13] Ibid., 46.

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