St. Macrina (327 – 379 A.D.) was born at Caesarea, Cappadocia, in present day Turkey. Her parents were Basil the Elder and Emmelia, and her grandmother was Macrina the Elder. Among her nine siblings were two of the three Cappadocian Fathers of the Church, Saints Basil and Gregory. She was certainly a member of a Middle Eastern family very significant in the history of Christian theology. Although St. Macrina left no written works, her ideas are presented in two treatises by her brother St. Gregory: the biographical Life of Macrina and a dialogue On Soul and Resurrection. The biography is devoted to her piety, the conversion of her family members to a life of Christian devotion, and her miraculous deeds. The dialogue represents her as a philosopher arguing for the immortality of the soul, even as she lies on her own deathbed.
While St. Macrina is an emphatically Christian philosopher, who confirms all her conclusions in light of Scripture, her proofs for the soul’s immortality are rational ones and not grounded directly in revelation. She understands the human soul to be primarily its rational part. The lower powers of the soul relate it to the body and its passions, but she encourages a turn away from bodily concerns and an identification with intellectual pursuits. In doing so, the soul discovers and increases its similarity or “likeness” to God. The soul’s likeness to God also confirms its incorruptible nature. As an immaterial and intellectual substance it can no more be destroyed than God can, and it relates to the human body much as God does to the world, as a pervading immaterial presence that accounts for good order in the physical realm. Obviously, St. Macrina can be seen as one of the late ancient Christians who adopted and adapted Plato’s ideas within a Christian context.
After the death of their parents, St. Macrina was chiefly responsible for the upbringing of her ten younger brothers. When they tended to be conceited about their intellectual accomplishments, she deflated them with affectionate but pointed jibes. Her example encouraged some of them to pursue the monastic ideal, and to found monastic communities for men. Her brother Dios founded one of the most celebrated monasteries in Constantinople. Three brothers became bishops (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Peter of Sebaste), and all of them were leading defenders for the true faith against the Arians at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.
St. Macrina gradually changed the family household at Annisa into the proto-monastic community that became the model of the monasticism that has come down under St. Basil’s name. St. Basil the Great is remembered as the founder of Eastern monasticism. All Eastern Orthodox monks are Basilian monks and follow a variation of the monastic rule that he outlined. However, it is often overlooked that the community of monks organized by St. Basil was preceded and inspired by a community of nuns organized by his sister, St. Macrina. She had been betrothed at the age of 12, after the custom of the day, but when her fiancé died, she determined to devote her life to prayer and contemplation and works of charity.
After the death of her father, she and her mother formed a community of women who shared her goals. She often brought poor and hungry women home to be fed, clothed, nursed, or otherwise taken care of, and many eventually joined the community, as did many women of means.
St. Macrina is significant in that she set the standard for being a holy, early Christian woman. She contributed to her brothers’ writings and the belief that virginity reflected the “radiant purity of God.” Modern Universalists cite passages from the “Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection” which they believe demonstrate her conviction that all sinners and demons will at last be purified and confess Christ, an idea never embraced by the Church. When St. Basil died in 379, St. Gregory, in grief for his brother, went to visit his sister. He had not seen her for eight years and she was almost on her death bed. She consoled St. Gregory in his grief with thoughts of the resurrection, quoting John 12:24: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
God’s abundance, she adds, continues to multiply. St. Macrina was so poor when she died that Gregory had to provide a shroud in which to bury her. Her feast day commemorates her holy death, July 19, 379 A.D.
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