Mud and Miracles
Saint Macrina the Younger was born in approx. 327 AD and died in 389 AD. She and her brother St. Basil worked together to establish and regularize the monastic movement in the Orthodox Church in Asia Minor. This is a fictional story based on an episode recorded by Macrina’s younger brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, in The Life of Macrina.
It was late – late for the household at Annisa, anyway. Monastics went to bed early, just after sunset. They had to get up early, to pray, so when the sun went down, so did they. But Macrina prowled the grounds, in too much pain to be able to sleep, too perturbed in her mind to be able to relax, unable even to give proper thanks to God for the quiet, the warmth, the scent of the flowers from the garden around her and the soft moonlight giving the plants a soft white glow so unlike the bright, glowing colours in the sunlight of the day.
Maybe her mother, Emmelia, was right. She should see a doctor about the lump in her breast. It was growing almost by the day, definitely bigger and more painful than it had been a week or two ago, but she couldn’t imagine letting a stranger see her unclothed. No one, except her mother, ever had and she shrank even from the thought of someone’s eyes on her unclothed skin, never mind his hands, probing and checking the lump. It didn’t matter that it was medical and impersonal, she couldn’t bear the idea of it.
She whimpered with the pain. It was with her all the time, and it took every ounce of self-control she had not to show how much it hurt, not to burst into tears from the intense ache and the sharp stabbing throbs that pierced through her chest. The women would be upset if they thought she was hurting and they’d want to do more than pray.
The church was just ahead, and she quickened her steps, opened the door and fell to the dirt floor in front of the iconostasis, letting the tears flow as she prayed soundlessly, curling around the pain, hugging herself as the her tears spoke for her. Maybe God meant for her to die this way. That was all right – she wasn’t afraid of death, of dying. It simply meant that she would exist some other way, that she would finally see him. The tears were her weakness, her inability to bear this pain, but that too was all right. God knew how weak she was, how often she faltered. He knew all the dark secrets of her, and still loved her.
As the sun began to lighten the sky, Macrina’s tears dried. The pain was no less, but the night of prayer, of lying in the holy space of the church, surrounded by the memory of prayer and the unseen, but gentle, reassuring presence of the angels and saints calmed her, gave her strength to master her weakness. She’d be fuzzy and tired today, but she could sleep tonight, perhaps.
Moved by an impulse she didn’t understand, but had learned to trust, Macrina touched the ground by her head. She’d cried so much a puddle had formed, and her fingers mixed the salty water with the dirt. She sat up, pulled the neck of her worn, old robe down and daubed some of the mud on the skin over the lump. The door to the church opened and Emmelia came in, holding a small lamp. The sky was lightening, but the sun was not yet above the horizon.
“What are you doing here, now? Oh, Macrina!” Emmelia knelt down by her daughter and hugged her, held her close. “Please, see a doctor. Even Basil says monastics are permitted to use medicine. And you’ve got mud all over your chest! What have you been doing?”
Even now, as a mature woman, it still felt good to be held by her mother, to feel her hand stroking her hair. Even the gentle scolding felt good. “It’s all right. Make the sign of the cross over it, please?”
“The sign? I don’t understand.”
“Please? Just make the sign of the cross over the mud poultice and it will be all right.”
In the weak light, Macrina could barely make out her mother’s features, but she didn’t need to see them to know the expression on Emmelia’s face – one eyebrow cocked upward, the eye squinted almost shut. Her brow would be furrowed with puzzlement, the lips pursed and the corner of her mouth curled up. It’s how she always looked when she didn’t understand what was wanted or needed, and was trying to figure it out. Macrina chuckled and kissed her mother’s hand. “Please? For me?”
Emmelia shook her head and sighed, but did as Macrina asked. She gasped in relief as the pain subsided, disappearing as she felt the lump shrink and wither, took Emmelia’s hand and placed it on the place where the lump had been.
“Glory to God! It’s gone.”
Macrina nodded. “How could you doubt it? God is good.”
Emmelia frowned. “I never doubted it. But he heals as he wishes, and – ”
“Yes, I know, Mama. Doctors are all right, but God understood my weakness. He knew I couldn’t bear to let a stranger see me. God is good.”