Macrina the Philosopher

This is the third article in a series on St Macrina the Younger. The first article was about the circumstances of her birth and her early life and you can read it HERE. The second article was about her radical social views and the monastic vocation which emerged out of them and you can read it HERE. This article will look at the end of her life and briefly summarize the profound teachings she passed along on her death bed.

We know so much about Macrina because of the diligent work of her brother Gregory. He did not want to see his sister’s legacy fade into obscurity and so he wrote two books about her. The first, which has been the source of the previous two articles, is The Life of Macrina. The second, which will be the source for this article, is On the Soul and Resurrection and shows us Macrina’s theological and philosophical side.

The majority of the book is written as a dialogue between master and student, with Gregory learning at the feet of his teacher Macrina. However, before the dialogue begins, Gregory sets the stage to explain where and under what circumstances they had come together. Their brother Basil had recently died and Gregory, filled with grief, decided to go to his sister’s monastery so they could grieve together. When he arrived he found that Macrina was on her deathbed and that she would not live much longer.

The situation of their coming together is important because the fate of the human soul after death is the central theme of their dialogue. Gregory was in emotional shambles and Macrina, though she herself was dying in that moment, was unshaken by her own mortality or that of her brother. Macrina spoke to Gregory offering him hope and attempting to alleviate his grief through rational discourse and a philosophical discussion on the nature of the soul and resurrection. Gregory, to a certain extent, plays the Devil’s advocate while Macrina tries to remind him of the truth of the faith which they share and which she taught him from his youth.

This book is small in size but packed full of content. We won’t have the space here to go into detail about everything Macrina taught him that day. The topics which Macrina covers are:

  1. The survival of the soul
  2. The nature of the soul
  3. The emotions
  4. The condition of the soul after death
  5. How does the soul recognize the elements of Its body?
  6. The purification of the soul
  7. Why is purification painful?
  8. Transmigration of souls (reincarnation)
  9. The origin of the soul
  10. The doctrine of the resurrection

One of the most notable aspects of Macrina’s teaching, which I will briefly look at here, is her emphasis on universal salvation. Macrina uses psalm 104 as an example of death and resurrection. While referring to various creatures David says

“When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”

This, according to Macrina, is a prophesy to the Church proclaiming the truth of the resurrection. Rather than a personal resurrection for God’s chosen few, this is a universal resurrection. In fact, Macrina says that it will be a resurrection of all rational creatures, not just human beings. This means that even the fallen angels, and Satan himself, will be renewed at the resurrection.

For Macrina, as for many other Christians throughout history, the temple at Jerusalem and the tabernacle within it are metaphors for the human condition. This idea can also be found in the New Testament in Hebrews 8-10. The temple was built with outer areas open to the general public and inner areas only accessible to priests.

There were in fact several layers of access granted to people based on their religious status. Gentiles were not permitted to enter the walls of the temple. Even those who were allowed to come inside the temple were not allowed to progress any further without some ritual purification. Then there was an inner area which only the priests were allowed to enter and the most inner part of the temple was off limits for everyone except the high priest himself.

For Macrina, this meant that the human soul has deeper and deeper mysteries hidden inside it. Each of us is only able to enter the depths of our own souls according to our progress in the spiritual life. Because evil has such a foothold in human society, most of us are separated from the holy of holies deep within our own souls. At the resurrection, this will no longer be the case. Macrina described it like this:

“Since at some time these middle partitions are going to be destroyed (the partitions by which evil has shut us off from the sanctuary which is inside the curtain), when our nature will have its tabernacle pitched again by the resurrection, and all the corruption which has entered in connection with evil will be abolished from the things that are, then the festival around God will be inaugurated in common for those who are covered by the resurrection, so that one and the same joy will be set before all.”

According to Macrina, the resurrection of the dead will entail a restoration of the holy temple which is the human soul. The curtain will be torn and the partitions which separate us from the goodness hidden inside us will be destroyed. The various stages of the spiritual life will disappear and everyone, without exception, will be be given access to the heart of the temple, which is the presence of God herself. Macrina goes on to say:

“No longer will rational beings be divided by different degrees of participation in equal good things. Those who are now outside because of evil will eventually come inside the sanctuary of divine blessedness, and will join themselves with the horns of the altar (that is, with the preeminent powers of heavenly beings). The apostle says this more plainly, expounding the agreement of the universe in the good: ‘To Him every knee will bow’ of heavenly, earthly, and subterranean beings, and ‘every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Though she is certain that every rational being will be resurrected, Macrina does say that the process will be painful for those who are outside the temple. She explains how this is not because of the anger and vengeance of God but rather a natural part of the healing process.

“For it is not out of hatred or vengeance for an evil life (in my opinion) that God brings painful conditions upon sinners, when He seeks after and draws to himself whatever has to birth for his sake; but for a better purpose He draws the soul to Himself, who is the fountain of all blessedness. The painful condition necessarily happens as an incidental consequence to the one who is drawn.”

Macrina explains why suffering is an incidental consequence to the soul being drawn to God’s blessedness by making a comparison to smelting gold. When a person wants to refine gold out of the rock it is mixed with they place it in the fire. The fire is not prepared for the sake of the gold but rather for the removal of everything else which is mixed with it. As the unrefined ore is placed into the fire, the gold naturally feels the presence of the heat but it is not injured by the fire.

The more unhealthy junk we have accumulated in our souls the more time we must spend in the purifying fire. But this is an unavoidable suffering as the evil within us boils to surface and is cleansed away. The purpose of the fire is never revenge but always healing. It is the tearing apart of what has grown together which brings pain to the one who is being pulled. As the gravity of God’s blessedness pulls us into the holy of holies we experience the pain of the sin we have accumulated being torn away from us. But in the end we emerge as pure gold, the same pure gold which was always inside us, and which you might say is the true essence of who we are.

Macrina’s teaching of universal salvation influenced her brother Gregory very much and because of this it has been accepted as orthodox teaching in the universal church. Contrary to popular belief, a hell of eternal conscious torment is not the only orthodox position. I like to imagine what Christian history would have looked like if we had taken the teachings of Macrina and Gregory more seriously. Perhaps we would have a more compassionate society. I have heard it said that we become like the god we worship. If we worship a cruel god of vengeance then we become cruel and vengeful. If we worship a God of goodness and mercy we will begin to live those virtues in our own lives as well.

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