Saint Macrina the Younger was born in Cappadocia in the 4th century. She was the sister of Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory of Nyssa, two of the greatest theologians in the history of the church. Despite being from a wealthy family and having many suitors, she became a nun. Her brother, Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote about her life, and held her in high regard, recording her simple lifestyle, acts of piety, and her miracle-working. In this episode we will reflect on Saint Macrina's life, and read passages from Saint Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Macrina.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Macrina the Younger
Saint Macrina the Younger was born in the 4th century in Cappadocia, a city in mordern-day Turkey, to an illustrious Christian family. Both her parents, Basil the Elder and Emilia are recognized as saints, as were four of her eight siblings: her brothers Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Paul of Sebaste, and Saint Naucratius. Saint Macrina the Younger was named after her grandmother, Macrina the Elder, who was also a saint, a martyr for her faith during one of the Roman Empire’s persecutions of Christians. Her brothers Basil and Gregory, in particular are two of the most important theologians in the history of the Christian faith. We have discussed the life of Saint Gregory of Nyssa in our 12th episode. I haven’t done one on Saint basil the great yet, that is definitely on my to-do list.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote a biography of his sister, and this is the main source we will use for this podcast. In her early life Saint Macrina was noted for her piety. However, she had to endured tragedy early in life, as the man she was betrothed to died before they could marry. Here is an excerpt from Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s life of Saint Macrina: (translation by Roger Pearse)
In Emilia’s first confinement she became the mother of Macrina. 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 some one 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.3 After doing this and testifying to it three times, he departed from her sight and gave her easy delivery, so that at that moment she awoke from sleep and saw her dream realised. Now this name was used only in secret. But it [962C] seems to me that the apparition spoke not so much to guide the mother to a right choice of name, as to forecast the life of the young child, and to indicate by the name that she would follow her namesake's mode of life.
Well, the child was reared. Although she had her own nurse, yet as a rule her mother did the nursing with her own hands. After passing the stage of infancy, she showed herself apt in acquiring childish |22 accomplishments, and her natural powers were shown in every study to which her parents' judgment directed her. The education of the child was her mother's task; she did not, however, employ the usual worldly method of education, which makes a practice of using poetry as a [962D] means of training the early years of the child. For she considered it disgraceful and quite unsuitable, that a tender and plastic nature should be taught either those tragic passions of womanhood which afforded poets their suggestions and plots, or the indecencies of comedy, to be, so to speak, denied with unseemly tales of "the harem." 4 But such parts of inspired Scripture as you would think were incomprehensible to young children were the subject of the girl's studies; in particular the Wisdom of Solomon, and those parts of it especially which have an ethical bearing. Nor was she ignorant of any part of the Psalter, but at stated times she recited every part of it. When she rose from bed, or engaged in household duties, or rested, [964A] or partook of food, or retired from table, when |23 she went to bed or rose in the night for prayer, the Psalter was her constant companion, like a good fellow-traveller that never deserted her.
lling her time with these and the like occupations, and attaining besides a considerable proficiency in wool-work, the growing girl reached her twelfth year, the age when the bloom of adolescence begins to appear. In which connection it is noteworthy that the girl's beauty could not be concealed in spite of efforts to hide it. Nor in all the countryside, so it seems, was there anything so marvellous as her beauty in comparison with that of others. So fair was she that even painters' hands could not do justice to her [964B] comeliness; the art that contrives all things and essays the greatest tasks, so as even to model in imitation the figures of the heavenly bodies, could not accurately reproduce the loveliness of her form. In consequence a great swarm of suitors seeking her in marriage crowded round her parents. But her father----|24 a shrewd man with a reputation for forming right decisions----picked out from the rest a young man related to the family, who was just leaving school, of good birth and remarkable steadiness, and decided to betroth his daughter to him, as soon as she was old enough. Meantime he aroused great hopes, and he offered to his future father-in-law his fame in public speaking, as it were one of the bridegroom's gifts; for he displayed the [964C] power of his eloquence in forensic contests on behalf of the wronged.
But Envy cut off these bright hopes by snatching away the poor lad from life. Now Macrina was not ignorant of her "father's schemes. But when the plan formed for her was shattered by the young man's death, she said her father's intention was equivalent to a marriage, and resolved to remain single henceforward, just as if the intention had become accomplished fact. And indeed her determination was more steadfast than could |25 have been expected from her age. For when her parents brought proposals of marriage to her, as often happened owing to the number of suitors that came attracted by the fame of her beauty, she would say that it was absurd and unlawful not to be faithful to the marriage that had been arranged for her by her father, but to be compelled to consider another; since in the nature of things there was but one marriage, as there is one birth and one death. She persisted that the man who had been linked to her by her [964D] parents' arrangement was not dead, but that she considered him who lived to God, thanks to the hope of the resurrection, to be absent only, not dead; it was wrong not to keep faith with the bridegroom who was away.
Saint Macrina remained in their family home, serving as an overseer, and helping in the education of her siblings. When their father, Saint Basil the Elder passed, her role became even more important. When all the children had grown up and left home, Saint Macrina convinced her mother to set their family’s slaves free, give up the trappings and comforts of their wealthy existence and dedicate their lives to God at a monastery. Saint Gregory of Nyssa delves into this relationship between his mother Saint Emlia and his sister Saint Macrina, after the tragic death of his brother Naucratius at a young age:
Some one came to our mother telling the bad news. Perfect though she was in every department of virtue, yet nature dominated her as it does others. For she collapsed, and in a moment lost both breath and speech, since her reason failed her under the disaster, and she was thrown to the ground by the assault of the evil tidings, like some noble athlete hit by an unexpected blow.
And now the virtue of the great Macrina was displayed. Facing the disaster in a [970A] rational spirit, she both preserved herself from collapse, and becoming the prop of her mother's weakness, raised her up from the abyss of grief, and by her own steadfastness and imperturbability taught her mother's soul to be brave. In consequence, her mother |33 was not overwhelmed by the affliction, nor did she behave in any ignoble and womanish way, so as to cry out at the calamity, or tear her dress, or lament over the trouble, or strike up funeral chants with mournful melodies. On the contrary she resisted the impulses of nature, and quieted herself both by such reflections as occurred to her spontaneously, and those that were applied by her daughter to cure the ill. For then was the nobility of Macrina's soul most of all conspicuous; since [970B] natural affection was making her suffer as well. For it was a brother, and a favourite brother, who had been snatched away by such a manner of death. Nevertheless, conquering nature, she so sustained her mother by her arguments that she, too, rose superior to her sorrow. Besides which, the moral elevation always maintained by Macrina's life gave her mother the opportunity of rejoicing over the blessings she enjoyed rather than grieving over those that were missing. |34
When the cares of bringing up a family and the anxieties of their education and settling in life had come to an end, and the property----a frequent cause of worldliness---- had been for the most part divided among the children, then, as I said above, the life of the virgin became her mother's guide and led her on to this philosophic and spiritual [970C] manner of life. And weaning her from all accustomed luxuries, Macrina drew her on to adopt her own standard of humility. She induced her to live on a footing of equality with the staff of maids, so as to share with them in the same food, the same kind of bed, and in all the necessaries of life, without any regard to differences of rank. Such was the manner of their life, so great the height of their philosophy, and so holy their conduct day and night, as to make verbal description inadequate. For just as souls freed from the body by death are saved from the cares of this life, so was their life far removed from |35 all earthly follies and ordered with a view of imitating the angelic life. For no anger or [970D] jealousy, no hatred or pride, was observed in their midst, nor anything else of this nature, since they had cast away all vain desires for honour and glory, all vanity, arrogance and the like. Continence was their luxury, and obscurity their glory. Poverty, and the casting away of all material superfluities like dust from their bodies, was their wealth. In fact, of all the things after which men eagerly pursue in this life, there were none with which they could not easily dispense.5 Nothing was left but the care of divine things and the unceasing round of prayer and endless hymnody, co-extensive with time itself, practised by night and day. So that to them this meant work, and work so called was rest. What human words could make you [972A] realise such a life as this, a life on the borderline between human and spiritual nature?
Saint Macrina and her mother were to live together at a woman’s monastery, until her mother’s death. Saint Macrina continued in the monastery, and distinguished herself by her faithfulness and good conduct, and even ocassionally performing miracles. Saint Gregory of Nyssa shared this story of how his sister miraculously healed the sight of a sick child.
On my way I met a distinguished soldier who had a military command in a little city of Pontus named Sebastopolis, and dwelt [996C] there with his subordinates. He met me in friendly fashion when I reached the town, |74 and was greatly disturbed to hear of the calamity, for he was linked to us by ties both of relationship and friendship. He told me a story of a marvellous episode in her life, which I shall incorporate into my history and then close my tale. When we had ceased our tears and had entered into conversation, he said to me----
"Learn what manner of goodness has been taken away from human life."
With this prelude he began his narrative.
"My wife and I once had an earnest desire to pay a visit to the school of virtue. For so I think the place ought to be called, in which that blessed soul had her abode. Now there [996D] lived with us also our little daughter, who had been left with an affliction of the eye after an infectious illness. And her appearance was hideous and pitiable, the membrane round the eye being enlarged and whitish from the complaint. But when we came inside that divine abode, my wife and I separated in our |75 visit to those seekers after philosophy according to our sex. I went to the men's department, presided over by Peter, your brother; while my wife went to the women's side and conversed with the saint. And when a suitable interval had elapsed, we considered it time to depart from the Retreat, and already our preparations were being made for this, but kind protests were raised from both sides equally. Your brother was urging me to stay [998A] and partake of the philosophers' table; and the blessed lady would not let my wife go, but holding our little girl in her bosom, said she would not give her up before she had prepared a meal for them and had entertained them with the riches of philosophy. And kissing the child, as was natural, and putting her lips to her eyes, she saw the complaint of the pupil and said----
"'If you grant me this favour and share our meal, I will give you in return a reward not unworthy of such an honour.'
"'What is that? ' said the child's mother.
"'I have a drug,' said the great lady, 'which is powerful to cure eye complaints.' |76
"And then news was brought me from the women's apartments, telling me of this promise, and we gladly remained, thinking little of the pressing necessity of starting on our journey.
[998B] "But when the feast came to an end and we had said the prayer, great Peter waiting on us with his own hands and cheering us, and when holy Macrina had dismissed my wife with all courtesy, then at last we went home together with glad and cheerful hearts, telling one another as we journeyed what had befallen us. I described to her what had happened in the men's room, both what I had heard and seen. She told every detail as in a history, and thought nothing ought to be left out, even the smallest points. She told everything in order, keeping the sequence of the narrative. [998C] When she came to the point at which the promise was made to cure the child's eyes, she broke off her tale.
"'Oh, what have we done?' she cried.
'How could we have neglected the promise, that salve-cure that the lady said she would give?' |77
"I was vexed at the carelessness, and bade some one run back quickly to fetch it. Just as this was being done, the child, who was in her nurse's arms, looked at her mother, and the mother looked at the child eyes.
"'Stop,' she said, ----she cried aloud with joy and fright. 'For, see! Nothing of what was promised us is lacking! She has indeed given her the true drug which cures disease; it is the healing that comes from prayer. She has both given it and it has already proved efficacious, and nothing is left of the affliction [998D] of the eye. It is all purged away by that divine drug.'
"And as she said this, she took up the child and laid her in my arms. And I understood the marvels of the Gospel that hitherto had been incredible to me and said----
"'What is there surprising in the blind recovering their sight by the hand of God, when now His handmaiden, accomplishing those cures by faith in Him, has worked a thing not much inferior to those miracles?'"
Such was his story; it was interrupted by |78 sobs, and tears choked his utterance, So much for the soldier and his tale.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa clearly had a lot of respect for her sister. In fact, one of his theological works, on the soul and resurrection, is written as a dialog between himself and Saint Macrina, and Saint Macrina is referred to in this text as the teacher, giving wise answers to the theological questions Saint Gregory asks of her.
Saint Greogry was able to visit her shortly before her death, and shares this account of their last meeting:
[984B] Most of the day had now passed, and the sun was declining towards the West. Her eagerness did not diminish, but as she approached her end, as if she discerned the beauty of the Bridegroom more clearly, she hastened towards the Beloved with the greater eagerness. Such thoughts as these did she utter, no longer to us who were present, but to Him in person on Whom she gazed fixedly. Her couch had been turned towards the East; and, ceasing to converse with us, she spoke henceforward to God in prayer, making supplication with her hands and whispering with a low voice, so that we could |55 just hear what was said. Such was the prayer; we need not doubt that it reached [984C] God and that she, too, was hearing His voice.
"Thou, O Lord, hast freed us from the fear of death. Thou hast made the end of this life the beginning to us of true life. Thou for a season restest our bodies in sleep and awakest them again at the last trump. Thou givest our earth, which Thou hast fashioned with Thy hands, to the earth to keep in safety. One day Thou wilt take again what Thou hast given, transfiguring with immortality and grace our mortal and unsightly remains. Thou hast saved us from the curse and from sin, having become both for our sakes. Thou hast broken the heads of the dragon who had seized us with his jaws, in the yawning gulf of disobedience. Thou hast shown us the way of resurrection, having broken the gates of .hell, and brought to nought him who had the power of death----the devil. Thou hast given a sign to those that fear Thee in the symbol of the Holy Cross, [984D] to destroy the adversary and save our life. |56 O God eternal, to Whom I have been attached from my mother's womb, Whom my soul has loved with all its strength, to Whom I have dedicated both my flesh and my soul from my youth up until now----do Thou give me an angel of light to conduct me to the place of refreshment, where is the water of rest, in the bosom of the holy Fathers. Thou that didst break the flaming sword and didst restore to Paradise the man that was crucified with Thee and implored Thy mercies, remember me, too, in Thy kingdom; because I, too, was crucified with Thee, having nailed my flesh to the cross for fear of Thee, and of Thy judgments have I been afraid. Let not the terrible chasm separate me from Thy elect. Nor let [986A] the Slanderer stand against me in the way; nor let my sin be found before Thy eyes, if in anything I have sinned in word or deed or thought, led astray by the weakness of our nature. O Thou Who hast power on earth to forgive sins, forgive me, that I may be refreshed and may be found before Thee when I put off my body, without defilement on my soul. But may my soul be received |57 into Thy hands spotless and undefiled, as an offering before Thee."
As she said these words she sealed her eyes and mouth and heart with the cross. And gradually her tongue dried up with the fever, she could articulate her words no longer, and her voice died away, and only by the trembling of her lips and the motion of her hands did we recognise that she was praying.
Meanwhile evening had come and a lamp [986B] was brought in. All at once she opened the orb of her eyes and looked towards the light, clearly wanting to repeat the thanksgiving sung at the Lighting of the Lamps. But her voice failed and she fulfilled her intention in the heart and by moving her hands, while her lips stirred in sympathy with her inward desire. But when she had finished the thanksgiving, and her hand brought to her face to make the Sign had signified the end of the prayer, she drew a great deep breath and closed her life and her prayer together. |58
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Christian saints podcast. Look for the Christian Saints podcast page on Facebook or Instagram, or look for us on Twitter at podcast_saints. All music in this episode was composed by my good friend, James John Marks of Generative sounds. Please check out his music at https://generativesoundsjjm.bandcamp.com/
Saint Macrina is venerated by all Christian traditions that venerate saints, in the East and in the West, with her feast day celebrated on July 19.
Let us end this episode with the Eastern Orthodox Troparion for that day
The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Mother, / for you took up the Cross and followed Christ. / By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away, / but to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. / Therefore your spirit, O Holy Mother Macrina, rejoices with the Angels!