Macrina the Monk

This is the second article in a series on Macrina the Younger. The previous article told the story of Macrina’s early life, her association with Thecla, and the importance of her relationship with her mother. You can find that article HERE. This article will continue the story of Macrina by focusing on her life as a monk, her radical views on social equality, and the way she led her family to renounce its substantial wealth in order to follow Christ.

Macrina’s family, being as wealthy as they were, had a household with a full staff of servants and slaves. When Macrina’s siblings had all grown up and her father had passed away, she was alone with her mother and their slaves in their large family estate. At this point in Western history, nobody, Christian or otherwise, had ever suggested the abolition of slavery as an institution.

While many Christian and pagan preachers at the time would encourage slaveowners to treat their slaves well, no one had considered the idea of a society in which there is no longer slave or free. Even Paul, it seems, who had written that there is no slave or master in Christ Jesus, only meant that in spiritual terms as he also told slaves to obey their masters as they would obey Christ. Macrina had a radical idea and Gregory (Macrina’s brother who wrote the story of her life) described it like this:

“Macrina persuaded her mother to give up their accustomed way of life, their rather ostentatious life-style and the services she had previously been accustomed to receive from her maids, and she also persuaded her to put herself on equal footing with the many in spirit and to share a common life with all her maids, making them sisters and equals instead of slaves and servants.”

Up until this point, Macrina had been the student of her holy mother but with this brave act Macrina grew into the fullness of her wisdom and began to instruct her mother in the ways of virtue. When speaking of the way Macrina grew into the role of teacher in their household Gregory described his sister’s way of life as one in harmonious imitation of the lives of angels.

This new way of being in community was a radical shift away from an inherently hierarchical society towards a life of justice and humility. Gregory described this angelic way of life which Macrina instructed her mother in as such:

“The life of the maiden (Macrina) became for her mother a guide towards the philosophical, immaterial way of life. Turning her away from all she was accustomed to, she led her to her own standard of humility, prepared her to put herself on an equal footing with the community of maidens, so as to share on equal terms with them one table, bed and all the needs of life, with every difference of rank eliminated from their lives.”

This community of ex-slaves led by Macrina in her mother’s estate became the model for the kind of monasticism which her brother, Basil, would eventually establish. The Great Basil of Caesarea, perhaps the single most influential person in Christian monasticism, came home from school when he was a young man studying rhetoric. When he arrived he found that his sister and mother had radically changed the way the household was run.

Gregory makes a point of how arrogant Basil was at this point in his life. He had become very famous as a rhetorician (a public speaker) and his fame had puffed him up. While he was home on break he had a chance to visit with Macrina and she spoke so eloquently of her vision for a Christian lifestyle that Basil changed his ways, left behind his life of fame and wealth, and chose the simple life of manual labour and prayer.

The monasteries which Basil would go on establish based on Macrina’s vision were different from the monasticism of the desert which was the standard at the time. The desert monks sought to remove themselves from the corruption of Roman society, living alone in the desert. The form of monasticism which Macrina and Basil established was not on the outskirts of society away from the world of sin but rather in the populated areas, at the heart of the people’s need.

These monasteries used Macrina and Basil’s immense family wealth to create the first public hospitals and food banks. There was a great famine during those times and Basil not only renounced his family inheritance to give to the poor but he also wrote a series of compelling sermons condemning the rich and powerful who were failing to share their resources in that time of great famine. I will be writing more about those sermons during Lent this year as I continue my series on the desert practice of Talking Back to Demons.

Macrina’s teaching laid the foundation for modern hospitals and food banks as well as forming the communal monastic model which has been the standard ever since. May we all seek to emulate her holiness and humility and work to establish a society of true equality. While we do not have household slaves in our society today, the phone you are reading this on was likely made in a sweatshop overseas. The work which Macrina calls us to is not yet finished, well over a thousand years later. May we pick up her torch and work towards a truly just society.

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