There was a remarkable family in fourth century Cappadocia (what is now Turkey) that had a profound impact on the formation of Christianity as we know it today. That family produced a number of saints, monastic founders, and theologians who paved the way for centuries of Christians to follow.
The most famous members of this family are Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, who were brothers. Along with their friend Gregory of Nazianzus they are known as the Cappadocian Fathers. They are most famous for their work at the council of Constantinople and the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity as we understand it today. This article will not be about the Cappadocian Fathers, however. Instead, I want to look at their less known, but equally important sister, Macrina the Younger.
The only information we have about Macrina comes from her brother Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory wrote two books about her, the story of her life and a book of her philosophical teachings. He referred to Macrina as his teacher and wrote his book On the Soul and Resurrection as a dialogue between teacher and student clearly mirroring Plato and Socrates with Macrina playing the part of Socrates and Gregory writing in similar fashion to Plato. And so Gregory thought of Macrina as his mentor.
This means that Macrina was not only a fountain of virtue and blessing for the family, but she was also essential in the formation of her brothers’ thought, and therefore of Nicene Orthodoxy. But I am saving her philosophy of universal salvation for another article. First I will introduce Macrina more fully. Macrina was the oldest of the siblings and helped her mother raise the many children in their family. Both Macrina’s parents are canonized saints and their mother’s father had been martyred for the faith. Macrina was named after her grandmother, her father’s mother, but she also carried a secret name which was very important to her up until the day she died.
When Macrina was being born, her mother Emmelia had a vision. Before Macrina had emerged from her womb, while she was still in the midst of labour and all the pain that entails, she fell peacefully asleep and laid quietly in her bed as if she held in her arms the child who was still in her womb. While she was dreaming of holding her child (still in the middle of labour) an angelic looking person appeared to her and gave the child the name of Thecla. Thecla was a famous disciple of Paul who was a female ascetic and preacher of great renown in Cappadocia. You can learn more about her HERE.
And so the child was named publicly after her grandmother, who was another famous Christian that had suffered under the persecutions, but she kept the name of Thecla as her secret spiritual name. This spiritual name was a sign of the holiness she was to embody and the style of life which she was to choose. Following in Thecla’s footsteps, Macrina was to become a great monastic leader.
Macrina acted like a monk even as a small child. She studied the scriptures diligently and memorized the book of Psalms, keeping her psalter with her always as if it was a teddy bear. She even observed the monastic hours, reciting each part of the psalter at the proper times of the day. In between her study and prayers she became a master seamstress proficient in the working of wool.
When she reached the age of twelve, as was the custom of that time, she was old enough to have a marriage arranged for her. She was known all throughout Cappadocia for her exceptional beauty and charm and because of this (and no doubt the fact that her family was very rich) she had many suitors. Her father chose for her a young man of good reputation with mild manners and they were be married when she came of age.
This young man was well loved by the family but he died unexpectedly before the wedding took place. Macrina declared that her engagement was as good as a marriage and that she was therefore a widow. As a widow, she chose not to marry and so avoided the social pressure to have another marriage arranged for her. She said that her husband was not dead but that they would be reunited at the resurrection and be together then. And so, she was free to dedicate her life to the monastic calling which her secret name entailed.
Macrina became her mother’s servant, out of her own free choice, and spent her early life raising her younger siblings and teaching them the ways of the faith. Among those younger siblings were Basil and Gregory. Despite being incredibly wealthy, Macrina chose to do the work of a servant in the household, making the bread with her owns hands and helping her mother maintain the family investments. A remarkable thing for a wealthy teenager to choose of their own volition!
Gregory, who wrote the life of his sister Macrina, described the way Macrina and her mother became spiritual companions like this:
“Her mother often said to her that she had been pregnant with the rest of her children for the prescribed term, but as for Macrina she bore her always and everywhere, embracing her, as it were, in her womb. But sharing her life with her daughter was not hard for the mother nor was it without benefit. For, instead of her many maidservants, there was now the attentive care of her daughter and a true exchange was realised between the two of them…
Under the guidance of her mother, she kept her own life spotless, being directed in everything by the approval of her mother’s eyes; and at the same time by the example of her own life she provided great guidance to her mother towards the same goal, namely that of philosophy, drawing her on little by little to the immaterial, more perfect life.”
In my next few articles I will look at Macrina’s life as a monk and her teaching as a philosopher. I will also look at the two brothers she raised and the contributions they made to Christianity. We will see a family of great wealth and power who took to heart the gospel call to sell their possessions and follow Christ. We will see a theological legacy which was grounded in universal salvation. We will see that at the heart of Christian orthodoxy is a radical commitment to social justice and a remarkable woman who has been mostly forgotten.
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