Macrina the Younger: A Forgotten Mother of the Church

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Header image: “The Cappadocians” by Contemplative Icons. Used by permission.

Much is said of the church fathers, but little of the church mothers. An oft-forgotten mother of the church, and one of the most remarkable women in church history, is Macrina the Younger (ca. 327–379), sister of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Though Macrina vowed celibacy at twelve years old and spent her life caring for her mother and contemplating divine things in a remote monastery, she left a lasting impact on her brothers and all who knew her. When Macrina died, the nuns in her convent erupted into wailing so great that Gregory had to shout over them to make himself heard, and crowds flooded in from neighboring districts to share their grief. Gregory’s words still ring true: “she who had raised herself through philosophy to the highest limit of human virtue should not pass along this way veiled and in silence.”

The Fourth Cappadocian

Macrina’s brothers Basil of Caesarea (ca. 329–379) and Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335–394), along with their friend Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 330–390), are known as the Cappadocian Fathers, after their home region of Cappadocia in modern-day Turkey. The Three Cappadocians are renowned among the Greek or Eastern Fathers and celebrated as saints in both the East and the West. Though born after the Council of Nicaea (325), they defended Nicene orthodoxy and had a formative influence on the enlargement of the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

The inestimable influence of the Cappadocian brothers is owed in part to their older sister and teacher, Macrina.

The inestimable influence of the Cappadocian brothers is owed in part to their older sister and teacher, Macrina. Historian Justo González notes that when speaking of the Cappadocians, “justice requires that we deal with another person just as worthy, although often forgotten by historians who tend to ignore the work of women.” Macrina deserves to be called the Fourth Cappadocian, as she is depicted in the icon that hangs in my office (see the header image).

Much of what we know about Macrina is recorded in the Life of Saint Macrina, a biographical letter written by her brother Gregory between 380 and 383. Nearly two-thirds of the narrative describes Gregory’s final visit to Macrina and the events surrounding her saintly death. Gregory’s work On the Soul and the Resurrection is a dialogue with Macrina based on their conversations at that time. She appears as “the teacher,” a theologian in her own right, with insights so deep, clear, and uplifting that she speaks, by his estimation, “as if she were inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

The Early Life of Macrina

Macrina was born around 327 to a wealthy Cappadocian family with an inspiring Christian heritage. Her grandmother and namesake, Macrina the Elder, had “suffered bravely” in the Great Persecution under Diocletian (303–313). When she was being born, Gregory claims that their mother Emmelia had a vision of an angelic visitor who called the child Thekla (or Thecla), after the legendary virgin in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. Whatever the case, Macrina was an extraordinary child, excelling in all her studies, steeped in the Scriptures, and devoted to reciting the Psalms from morning to night.

At twelve years of age, Macrina’s “famed” and “blessed beauty” attracted “a great swarm of suitors.” Her father, Basil the Elder, arranged for Marcina to marry a young lawyer, but when he died unexpectedly, Macrina determined never to marry another. She reasoned that her “husband” was not really dead, but “living in God because of the hope of the resurrection,” and since he was “simply away from home on a journey and not a dead body,” “it was improper not to keep faith with a husband who was away on a journey”! Though a peculiar thing for anyone to think, let alone a girl of twelve, Macrina’s decision “was more firmly rooted than one might have expected in one of her age,” and within God’s providence, it would shape the future of one of history’s most important families.

Within God’s providence, Macrina’s determination not to marry would shape the future of one of history’s most important families.

Freed from the concern of marriage, Marcina became wholly devoted to her mother Emmelia, who soon faced the death of Macrina’s father. The young Macrina “took an active part helping her mother in all her pressing concerns,” including the instruction of her siblings, “taking an equal share in her worries and alleviating the burden of her sufferings.” When Marcina’s brother Naucratius died in a hunting accident, Emmelia was overcome with grief, and “then above all,” Gregory thought, “the sublime and exalted soul of the young girl made itself manifest.” Despite her own suffering, she lifted her mother up and held the family together.

Towards Monasticism

The family’s wealth made it possible for Macrina’s brother Basil to receive a superb education abroad, but when he returned home from Athens, Basil was puffed up with his new knowledge. “It was then,” writes González, “that Macrina intervened. She bluntly told her brother that he had become vain, acting as if he were the best inhabitant of the city, and that he would do well in quoting fewer pagan authors and following more of the advice of Christian ones.” Basil shrugged her off until the death of Naucratius, which shook him so badly that “he resigned his teaching position and all other honors, and he asked Macrina to teach him the secrets of religious life.” González explains that “Macrina sought to console her family by leading their thoughts to the joys of religious life. Why not withdraw to their holdings in nearby Annesi, and live there in renunciation and contemplation?”

Macrina, her mother, and several other women withdrew to Annesi while Basil, following the desires of his sister, left for Egypt in order to learn more about the monastic life. Since Basil eventually became the great teacher of monasticism in the Greek-speaking church, and since it was Macrina who awakened his interest in it, it could be said that she was the founder of Greek monasticism.

Macrina’s simple, prayerful way of life seemed to transcend description, and Macrina herself, Gregory thought, seemed to “rise above human nature.” She made her maids into “sisters and equals instead of slaves and servants,” and gave away all that she owned, including her share of the inheritance, which she committed to the priest to distribute as he saw fit. In famine, she took those “who had been left prostrate along the roadways” and “she picked them up, nursed them, brought them back to health and guided them personally to the pure, uncorrupted life.” Her deeds were the fruit of her all-consuming philosophy, or love of wisdom, which meant a mind and heart consumed with divine realities, free of worldly fetters.

Contemplating Divine Things to the End

Gregory’s duties as a bishop kept him away from his sister for many years, but at last he determined to visit “the great Macrina” at the “the remote spot in which she spent her angelic, heavenly life.” To his dismay, he found that Macrina was “caught in the grip of a grievous sickness.” Though racked with pain, Macrina did not want to trouble her younger brother, and “tried to stifle her groans and forced herself somehow to hide her tortured gasping for breath.” Determined “to create a more cheerful mood,” Macrina turned the conversation to divine things.

Macrina’s deeds were the fruit of her all-consuming philosophy, or love of wisdom, which meant a mind and heart consumed with divine realities, free of worldly fetters.

Macrina “kept her mind unhindered in the contemplation of divine things,” and spoke of everything from divine providence to the afterlife, “her philosophy of the soul,” the reason for man’s existence, and the resurrection of the dead. Gregory was mesmerized by his sister’s teachings, “uplifted as it was by her words and set down inside the heavenly sanctuaries by the guidance of her discourse.” Twice he notes that she spoke “as if she were inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

The time came when Macrina stopped speaking to those gathered at her bedside and fixed her attention on God alone. Gregory wrote down her beautiful final prayer:

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 the 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.

God Eternal,
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 my 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 reverence for you
and have feared your judgments.
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.

The other Gregory, Nazianzen, would eulogize Macrina:

The dust holds the illustrious virgin Macrina, if you have heard something of her,
the first born of the great Emmelia.
But who kept herself from the eyes of all men,
is now on the tongues of all and has a greater glory than any.

The Miracles of Macrina

After her death, Gregory heard more stories of Macrina’s faith and piety. “Do not let the greatest wonder accomplished by this holy lady pass by unrecorded,” said Vetiana, a woman from the monastery. She recounted how a painful, life-threatening growth had miraculously disappeared from Macrina’s breast after she went to the sanctuary, spent “all night long prostrate before the God of healing,” and asked her mother to make the sign of the cross over the tumor. Sebastopolis, a distinguished military man, reported that he and his wife visited the monastery, “that powerhouse of virtue,” and when they left, their daughter’s severe eye disease was cured by Macrina’s prayers, “the true medicine with which she heals diseases.”

Gregory also reports that in a time of famine, “grain was distributed according to need and showed no sign of diminishing.” But Gregory refuses to name the “other miracles still more extraordinary, the cure of sicknesses, the casting out of demons, true prophecies of things to come,” because he believes that many will consider them “outside the realm of what can be accepted.”

Macrina was a true saint and lover of Christ, venerated for her piety and intellect by all who knew her.

While some think that Gregory’s account is idealistic and embellished, Natalie Carnes notes that “he takes pains to assure the reader that the Macrina she meets in his text is, indeed, Macrina the Younger of Annisa. All the stories in his text come from personal experience, and he insists he delivers them in an unstudied and unstylized manner.” There can be no doubt that Macrina was a true saint and lover of Christ, venerated for her piety and intellect by all who knew her. In death as in life, “it was really towards her beloved that she ran, and no other of life’s pleasures turned her eye to itself away from her beloved.”

Chronology

  • 303–313: Diocletianic Persecution; Macrina the Elder suffers bravely
  • 325: Council of Nicaea condemns Arianism
  • ca. 327: Macrina the Younger is born in Caesarea, Cappadocia
  • 328: Athanasius succeeds Alexander as bishop of Alexandria
  • ca. 329: Macrina’s brother Basil is born
  • 340: Macrina’s father, Basil the Elder, dies
  • ca. 335: Macrina’s brother Gregory is born
  • 341: Macrina’s brother Peter is born
  • 352: Macrina founds the monastery at Annisa by the Iris River
  • 370: Macrina’s mother, Emmelia, dies
  • ca. 379: Macrina dies at Annisa
  • ca. 380/383: Gregory writes Life of Saint Macrina, a biography of Macrina
  • 381: Gregory writes On the Soul and the Resurrection, a dialogue with Macrina
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.