Macrina the Elder
She’s called “Confessor of the Faith”. Her family contains so many saints she’s known as the mother and grandmother of saints. She should be given another title – Bridge of Theology – for her invisible contributions to the understanding of our faith, and its expression in the world.
Born about 270 AD, St. Macrina the Elder grew up a pagan. Most of the city she lived in was pagan, until St. Gregory Thaumaturgis arrived. St. Gregory studied under Origen, a man who by turns was strikingly orthodox and breathtakingly heretical, and undoubtedly brilliant.
After Gregory’s studies, he became bishop in the city of Neoceasarea, in the region of Pontus, located south of the Black Sea in what are now the regions of Amayra and Tokat in Turkey.
Macrina and her husband became acquainted with him, and she eventually became his spiritual daughter. St. Macrina so loved and revered him she kept his relics her entire life, finally settling them in a chapel at the family’s estates at Annesi, and cherished the wisdom he passed on to her.
St. Macrina lived under some of the worst persecutions of the early Christian era. St. Gregory Nazianzen describes the last persecution under Maximian as “the most frightful and severe of all.” Spared the fate of the martyrs, St. Macrina nevertheless suffered for her beliefs. It’s believed by some that her husband was martyred. She and her household escaped to the forests surrounding their city, and hid for seven years. That she survived is due solely to God’s miraculous intervention. At his funeral oration for his close friend, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus described God’s provision for St. Macrina: “. . . their quarry lay before them, with food come of its own accord, a complete banquet prepared without effort, stags appearing all at once from some place in the hills.”
Once the persecution had died down, Macrina and her family returned to Neocaesarea. A short time later, the Roman authorities stripped them of everything they owned and turned them out into the streets. With nothing more than the clothes on her back to call her own, St. Macrina was forced to rely on the generosity and mercy of God in order to survive. Begging in the streets, telling stories for the few paltry coins it brought, and accepting the cast-off food and clothing of her former equals, she endured their pity, and the insults and mockery of the pagans in her town. She must have learned valuable lessons in humility.
She raised her child, St. Basil (the Elder), as a single parent. In spite of the obstacles, she succeeded in passing on her faith and tradition to him. He became a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric, married St. Emmelia, a beautiful and devout Christian. Their household, including Macrina, “was notable for many reasons, especially for generosity to the poor, for hospitality, for purity of soul as the result of self-discipline, for the dedication to God of a portion of their property,” throughout “. . . Pontus and Cappadocia . . .”
St. Basil and St. Emmelia’s children, St. Macrina’s grandchildren, nine of whom survived to adulthood, were raised in an intensely Christian atmosphere, taught to read from the Psalms and thoroughly immersed in a Christian life. She taught her grandchildren to read from the Bible, trained them in piety and practical Christian values and told them stories of her spiritual father, St. Gregory Thaumaturgis.
The four eldest held so strongly to the faith their grandmother taught that we recognize them today as saints: St. Macrina the Younger, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Peter of Sebaste.
Her namesake, Macrina the Younger, was educated by Emmelia, although the elder woman undoubtedly had an influence on her. The grandaughter swore herself to virginity after the death of her fiancée, when she was twelve, and gradually transformed their family estate into a full double monastery, which Basil and Gregory often visited.
Two of St. Macrina’s grandsons comprise two-thirds of the trio we know today as the “Cappadocian Fathers.” St. Basil, older of the two, was first educated at home, in rhetoric, by his father, and in the Christian faith by his mother and grandmother, as he noted when accused of heresy: “But the concept of God which in childhood I received from my blessed mother and from grandmother Macrina . . . I have held within me, for, on arriving at full reason I did not exchange one teaching for another, but confirmed those principles which they had handed over to me.” After a period in Caesarea, follwing his father’s death, he finished his education in Athens, where he was exposed to the best of the pagan philosophers, and the cream of the rhetoricians. He scandalized his family with his secular ways, and his swelled head caused no end of trouble. “High-minded and disdainful of local officials,” is how his younger brother, St. Gregory, charitably put it.
St. Macrina the Younger, concerned for his worldly ambitions, spoke to Basil seriously and at length about their shared heritage. Ashamed, and contrite, he quit the law and rededicated himself to the faith and the church. His interest in monasticism, sparked by the writings of a family friend, were fostered by his sister’s wise words and her life as a contemplative, and after some travel, he entered a period of retreat and contemplation on the family estate. Basil became a priest, was elevated to the bishopric, and defended orthodox Christianity against the Arian heresy, corruption, and calumny with vigor and passion.
St. Gregory of Nyssa did not travel to Athens, but remained closer to home, studying and also following, for a time, a monastic path. More mystical and contemplative than St. Basil, St. Gregory was content to pursue his monasticism and his philosophical studies, teaching in Caesarea. St. Gregory developed and extended Origen’s ideas on the otherness of God, and our ability to adequately explore His nature. He stood for the faith against the Arian heresy, most notably at the Council of Constantinople in 381, where his, St. Basil’s and St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ contributions would make a lasting impact on the Christian understanding of the Trinity.
It is in large part due to these men that the final version of the creed was accepted at the Council in 381 AD.
St. Macrina the Elder died in approximately 340 AD, when her eldest grandchild was only twelve. She never lived to see her grandchildren’s successes, or their spirited defense of our faith.
She made no new insights into our understanding of the faith. She left no letters, homilies or books. But by simply living what she believed, by simply being a mother and a grandmother, by teaching her children and grandchildren by word and example, by telling her children stories of her spiritual father and through her steadfast faith, St. Macrina the Elder became a bridge of theology, passing on the Tradition entrusted to her, and enabling two brilliant men to take the next steps in theology.
For more information about St. Macrina the Elder, check these books and papers:
- Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series II, Volumes 2 (Sozomon), 5 (Gregory of Nyssa), 7 (Gregory Nazianzus), 8 (Basil)
- The Cappadocians by Anthony Meredith SVS Press, 1995
- The Asketikon of St. Basil the Great by Anna M. Silvas, Oxford Early Christian Studies, 2005,
- Gregory of Nyssa, The Letters, translated and written by Anna Silvas Brill, 2007
- Wandering, Begging Monks by DF Craner, University of California Press, 2002
- Virgins of God by Susanna Elm, Clarendon Paperbacks, 1994
- Macrina the Younger, Philosopher of God, by Anna Silvas, Brepols 2008
- Fathers of the Church, St. Gregory Ascetical Works translated by Virginia Wood Callahan, CUA Press, 1967
- The Life of St. Macrina by Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, translated by Kevin Corrigan, Peregrina Publishing Company 1996
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