Macrina the Younger

Born in 327 AD, Macrina’s birth foreshadowed her life. As her brother Gregory related in his biography of his sister, “When the time came for the child to be born, at the end of her labour, Emmelia fell asleep, and dreamt she held in her hands the child still in her womb. A being of superhuman form and appearance stood before her, and addressed the child as Thecla, who is so famous among the virgins. He named the child this three times, then called on Emmelia to witness this after which he eased her labour pains and disappeared. She woke and found her dream had been realized. But in my opinion, it seems that the being spoke that name not to indicate to the mother the right choice of name, but to foretell the life of the child and to indicate that she would live the same kind of life as her namesake.” The family called the child Macrina after her paternal grandmother, who lived with the family.

Her parents were devout Christians and the family had a reputation for their piety, their generosity and their hospitality. Additionally, Basil the Elder was a lawyer and a teacher of rhetoric, and was famous throughout Pontus, for his talent and dedication to his profession. Macrina came from a prestigious family. Her ancestors on her mother’s side had held important government posts, and her grandfathers on both sides of the family had been martyred. Her father’s mother, St. Macrina the Elder, was a confessor of the faith – someone who had suffered grievously for their beliefs, and she lived with the family, helping to raise Macrina and her siblings.

Emmelia and Macrina were close from the moment she was born. Emmelia taught Macrina, using the classical Greek curriculum specifically adapted and altered to use Scripture, particularly the Psalter and the Wisdom of Solomon. According to her younger brother, Macrina was reciting the Psalter by heart at a young age.

Over the next number of years, Macrina was joined by a lot of brothers and sisters. Basil (the Great) was born about 327, followed by Nacrautius, then either a stillborn or miscarried child, or perhaps a sister, Theosebia, and then her brother Gregory (of Nyssa) who came along in 335. There were several other children, and the youngest, Peter, was born around 340 AD. All told, there were nine living children in the family, and Macrina, as the responsible oldest sister, helped look after them all.

When she was twelve, she was betrothed to a young man, possible a distant relation, but before the two could be married, the young man died of a fever. She declared, after his death, that she wouldn’t consider another marriage, and instead, preferred to dedicate her life to God, as a virgin-widow. Contrary to some hagiographers, though, her decision to become a monastic wasn’t because she loved the young man so much she could never consider another in his place – it was because, like most of her forbearers, especially her mother and grandmother, she loved God more than anyone else, and wanted nothing more than to dedicate her life to Him. Eventually, her parents acquiesced, and shortly after that, Macrina’s father died, just before or upon the birth of the family’s youngest son, Peter.

From the time of her father’s death until her mother’s death sometime around 370, Macrina and her mother became even closer. Macrina stepped in and became her mother’s body servant, administrative assistant, constant companion and effectively raised her youngest brother, Peter. Emmelia, for her part, supervised, for a number of years, her daughter’s spiritual development and whatever education remained for the young woman.

Over the years, Macrina’s influence on her mother and the household grew. Gradually, the group of people living on the family estate at Annesi, about a day’s travel from Neocaesarea, grew more like an egalitarian community, living together and sharing food and work and worship, and less like the home of a wealthy Roman family, whose members were waited on hand and foot by servants and slaves. Emmelia and Macrina shared the work of the estate with the servants, and eventually Emmelia freed the slaves and lived with them in total equality. By the time Basil returned from Athens, where he’d been struck by the writings of a friend and wanted to rethink his purposes and his future, the household was very close to a monastery. Macrina’s influence on her brother, combined with Eustathius’s book, convinced him to also live as a monastic. Over the years, the community’s reputation grew and gradually, people, unrelated to the family, arrived at the gates and asked to join the community.

In 369, a famine struck the area, and the community gained a reputation for its generosity. Not only did they feed everyone who came to them, Macrina and her brother Peter, now a young man also dedicated to the monastic life, scoured the roads and lanes for children abandoned by their starving parents. They brought the children back to the monastery and adopted them into the community.

Macrina died in July of 379. She was approximately fifty-four years old, which isn’t old now, and wasn’t then, either. She isn’t known for her wonderworking, or, like her brothers, for her brilliant defence of the Orthodox belief against the Arian heresy or for the depth and brilliance of her theological thinking. She left no letters or books, there are no quotes of hers that show up in other people’s writings that would give us any indication of her intelligence and her beliefs. But for her brother, Gregory’s, biography of her life, we would never have heard of her. Yet she was an immense influence on her family, and her dedication to God has inspired and encouraged her spiritual children for over 1700 years.

For more information about St. Macrina the Younger, these books have more detailed information:

  • 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, Anna M. Silvas, Oxford Early Christian Studies, 2005,
  • Gregory of Nyssa, The Letters, translated and written by Anna Silvas Brill, 2007
  • Wandering, Begging Monks, DF Craner, University of California Press, 2002
  • Virgins of God, 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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