Saint Macrina, the Teacher
Commemorated July 19
Saint Macrina is best known as the eldest sister of the renowned Church fathers and brothers in the flesh, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Although she did not share her brothers’ place in the limelight of Church history, that she was of like spiritual stature is evident from the life that has come down to us, written by her brother Grego.ry. Acknowledging the great influence she had upon the whole family, he calls her “the Teacher.”
The holy virgin Macrina was born c. 327 AD, in Caesarea of Cappodocia or in Neo-Caesarea of Pontus — history is uncertain. She was the first child of pious parents, Basil and Emilia. A dream her mother had when she was ready to be delivered inspired the parents to call her Theela, after Saint Paul’s companion, the virgin-martyr. However, the rest of the household and her kinsmen preferred to call her Macrina, after her devout grandmother, and that is how she came to be known.
Emilia took great care in her daughter’s upbringing, in teaching her to read, she used the Holy Scriptures as a primer, choosing passages that the young girl could understand. Thereby Macrina became familiar from an early age with the inspiring psalms of King David, and the wise teachings of Solomon and Sirach. So too the young girl became accustomed to look to the word of God for guidance, to seek there counsel and instruction, and to find there consolation and joy.
As the eldest of ten children, Macrina was never idle. When she was not studying, she busied herself with handiwork, helped her mother about the house, and looked after her younger siblings. She grew to be meek, modest and hard-working. She was also graced with rare beauty, and it is not surprising that when she was still quite young she attracted many suitors. Her parents selected from among them a youth of noble character, whom they betrothed to their daughter. The wedding was postponed, however, until Macrina reached marriageable age. Meanwhile, it pleased God, “Who orders all things well,” to take Macrina’s fiance from this transitory world into the eternal habitations. Macrina nevertheless considered the betrothal to be binding, and resolved not to marry another. With a wisdom that far exceeded her years, she explained to her parents, “Just as there is but one birth and one death, there should be but one marriage. Therefore I do not feel free to marry another, for in the hope of resurrection my betrothed is not dead but is alive in God; he has merely departed to a distant land.” Holding firm to such reasoning, she was able persuasively to decline the proposals of marriage that once again presented themselves. Moreover, she had not personally been inclined to marry, and so she was more than content to accept God’s will, which guided her along a different path.
Macrina’s father died just when her youngest brother, Peter, was born. In addition to the large household, the family also owned several properties, and Emilia was grateful for Macrina’s able assistance in shouldering these new responsibilities. To Peter, Macrina was a second, mother, caring for him from his infancy and later teaching him and guiding his moral development. Basil, although not much younger than his sister, also benefited from her instruction. He came home after many years of study abroad with his head swelled by the pride of learning, and it was Macrina who, by her wisdom, delivered him from spiritual peril and brought him to such humility that he forsook all and entered the monastic life. (Later, as a bishop,-he was able to put his God-given intellectual talents to use for the benefit of the Church.)
There was no task which Macrina considered too demeaning. She would often work side by side with the maidservants, and by her conduct encouraged her mother to likewise regard these servants as sisters. Emilia, who had so carefully nurtured her daughter in Christian virtues, now became her pupil in the spiritual life. When her son Naucratius suddenly died at the age of twenty seven, she would have grieved unconsolably had not Macrina reminded her that it does not become a Christian to mourn “as those who have no hope.” With her steadfast spirit and words of consolation, Macrina greatly relieved her mother’s suffering, and they both endured their loss with courageous hearts.
Desiring to be wholly devoted to God, Macrina became increasingly detached from the world, and after her brothers had left home and her sisters were married, she persuaded her mother to enter with her upon the monastic path. Emilia divided the family property among her children and set at liberty her slaves, and she and Macrina, retaining only some meagre possessions, withdrew to a secluded family property in Pontus, picturesquely located on the banks of the Iris River and not far from Basil’s wilderness abode. A number of liberated female slaves were moved to join the holy pair, and a convent was formed. They all lived under one roof, and held everything in common: they ate together, worked together, and prayed together, serving the Lord in oneness of mind. So keen were they to advance in virtue that they regarded fasting as food and poverty as riches. Neither anger, nor jealousy, nor hatred, nor pride spoiled the harmony of this model community of women. Indeed, apart from their physical bodies, there was little that separated them from the life of the angels.
Living in this manner for many years, Emilia reached old age, and when an illness signalled the time of her departure from this world, her son Peter came and, together with Macrina, tended to his mother in her last days. As the oldest and the youngest, Macrina and Peter held a special place in Emilia’s heart. Before committing her soul to the Lord, she raised her voice to heaven, saying, “To Thee, O Lord, do I give the first fruits and the tithe of the fruit of my womb: the first fruit is my first-born daughter; and the tithe is this, my youngest son ….
Let these be for Thee a right-acceptable sacrifice, and let Thy holiness descend upon them!” Emilia was buried as she had requested, with her husband in the chapel of their estate in Annesi, where Naucratius had also been laid to rest.
It was then, in 370, that Basil became bishop of Caesarea, and he elevated his brother Peter, who did not lag behind him in virtue, to the same rank, as Bishop of Sebaste. His brother Gregory, whom Macrina had also persuaded to abandon secular pursuits in favor of what is eternal, he obliged to occupy the small bishopric of Nyssa. Basil’s own labors on the front lines of the battle against Arianism,coupled with his strict asceticism, precipitated his death before the age of fifty, just nine years after his mother. This time, Macrina could not restrain her grief, but she mourned less for her personal loss than for what the Church had lost in such a worthy hierarch.
Nine months later, Gregory was returning from a council in Antioch when he decided to make a short detour and visit Macrina, that he might have a partner in lamenting Basil’s death, for his heart was still wounded by grief. To his dismay, he arrived at the convent to find his sister so weakened by fever that she was scarce able to raise herself up in order to ask his blessing. She was in pain and it was evident that her life was ebbing rapidly. Nevertheless, she was overjoyed to see her brother and, courageously ignoring her suffering, she uplifted his spirits with her cheerful and edifying conversations. Far from commiserating with his grief, she launched into a brilliant philosophical discourse concerning the immortality of the soul, so skillfully constructing her arguments as to impress even a convinced skeptic. She spoke for God’s wondrous providence, about the purpose for which man was created, about his passage form this temporal, sorrowful life into life eternal. Gregory wished he had power to delay the night in order that her soul-profiting conversation might be prolonged; but the bells rang for evening prayers and he had to take his leave.
When Gregory returned to Macrina’s cell the next morning, he understood that he was seeing his “teacher” for the last time. Seeing him downcast, Macrina consoled him, for she herself was brimming with spiritual joy: love for God and a clean conscience had cast out all fear of death. About noon she noticeably weakened and began to pray aloud quietly, while those present stood in breathless silence. “I thank Thee, O Lord, for from the end of our temporal life Thou hast fashioned the beginning of eternal life! And thereby Thou hast removed from us the fear of death. With the sleep of death, Thou givest rest for a time to our bodies, which Thou wilt rouse again with the last trumpet!…O eternal Lord God, to Whom I have attached myself since childhood, Whom I have come to love with all the powers of my soul, remember me in Thy kingdom, as Thou didst remember the wise thief who commended himself to Thy merciful kindness; and forgive me wherein I have sinned before Thee, whether by word, deed or thought.” Finishing her prayer, Macrina crossed herself and gave her soul to God, as peacefully as if she had fallen asleep.
When the time came to clothe her body for burial, Gregory asked one of the sisters if Macrina had some garments in readiness. “Nothing,” was the reply. “She gave everything away. Here is her hairshirt, here is her patched cassock and her ragged mantia. She kept nothing else on earth; rather, she concentrated on storing treasures in heaven.”
Saint Gregory buried his sister in the grave of their parents, in the nearby family chapel in Annesi.
He concludes his account of her life by touching upon various miracles she had wrought while still alive. He purposely does not expand upon these wonders for fear that those of weak faith might accuse him of exaggeration, so extraordinary was her power of prayer: she healed the sick, exorcised demons, and foretold future events.
Through the example of her pure life, may the wise and holy Macrina be our “teacher” also, inspiring our progress on the path to salvation.
Sources: The Lives of the Spiritual Mothers, Holy Apostles Convent, Buena Vista CO, 1991; Life from the Menology of St. Dimitri of Rostov, trans. In Living Orthodoxy, Liberty TN, July-Aug, 1987,Izbranniye Zhitya Sviatikh, compiled by A.N. Bakhmeteva, Moscow, 1872.