The eldest of ten children, St. Macrina was born into a family that has graced the church with many saints. Her grandmother, St. Macrina the Elder, moved with her husband to Pontus during Galerius’ persecution of the Church; the family had lost its property but were witnesses to the power of Christianity. The younger Macrina’s parents, Basil and Emiliana, were declared saints by the Church, as were three of her four brothers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste. In his work, On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory calls Macrina the Teacher, and, from his Life of the Teacher, it is clear that she was the spiritual influence on and the spiritual center of her family.
Macrina, whose secret name was Thekla, was born c. 327/330. Emiliana had a dream in which her then-unborn child, a daughter, had been called Thekla, after the disciple of St. Paul. Macrina’s parents taught her to read the Scriptures as well as to practice the household arts. At twelve (the minimum age of marriage for girls in the Roman empire), her parents arranged for her to marry a young man of St. Basil the Elder’s choosing, although she preferred a life of celibacy. After her fiance’s death, she persuaded her father that the intended marriage was as good as a marriage. Therefore, she was a widow, and from that time forward, Macrina led a celibate life of asceticism.
After the death of her father, which was coincident with the birth of her youngest brother, Peter, Macrina helped her mother raise her siblings and manage the family’s financial affairs, at the same time persuading Emiliana to live without servants and other “necessities.” Macrina raised her youngest sibling, who became, like their brother Basil, a monastic leader.
After her brothers and sisters were raised, Macrina led her mother, Emiliana, to the ascetic life, and the two established a monastery on the family estate, with their former maidservants as their sister nuns. Legend tells us that the community became a double monastery with Macrina’s younger brother, Peter, the abbot of the men’s section. Her monastic rule does not survive, nor does a full account of the influence that she and Basil exercised upon one another, although Gregory gives Macrina credit for bringing Basil into the monastic life. Each, as can be inferred from accounts of Macrina’s thought and from the Rule of St. Basil, saw the life of the monastery as similar to that of the family.
Macrina shepherded her siblings and her monastic family through the grief that followed the deaths of first Emiliana and later, Basil the Great in 379. When Macrina herself was approaching death later that same year, she comforted Gregory, prepared him for her death, and inspired him with her faith and calmness.
Gregory gives an account of their last conversation in his dialogue, On the Soul and the Resurrection.1 In the dialogue, the Teacher argues that foolishness and misunderstanding are the causes of the grief that attends the death of a beloved one and that often weighs down those who remain on earth. These arise from a failure to comprehend that the flesh passes away; being composite, the body alone is dissolved at death.
The body lies in the grave; the body is insensate. The soul, however, remains sensate. It knows all that it knew when the body lived, and its knowing derives from what the body experienced and what the soul knew. The soul can still contemplate God and will be like God insofar as it sees His beauty.
As he prepared her body for burial, Gregory learned from a nun assisting him that, several years earlier, Macrina had refused medical treatment for a tumor in her breast, despite her mother’s entreaties. When her mother again beseeched her to visit the doctor and have it removed, Macrina simply asked Emiliana to make the sign of the cross on the tumor, which disappeared at her mother’s touch. A small scar was Macrina’s private reminder of the mercy of God.
•Information is taken from: Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, The Life of Saint Macrina. Trans., intro. and notes by Kevin Corrigan. Toronto: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1989.
1. Some scholars have not believed (in spite of Nyssa’s assertions in the opening paragraphs) that the Teacher is Macrina. St. Gregory, they propound, is gallant, and Basil the Great, they propose, is the Teacher. The primary arguments are disbelief that a woman could have said such things and similarities to the thought of Basil. Nyssa himself alludes to this long conversation following the death of Basil the Great in the Life of Macrina. Gregory has said elsewhere that Macrina had influence over the great Basil, who had returned from his studies conceited and became, under the guidance of their sister, a follower of the true philosophy. Macrina was as much the teacher of Basil as she was the teacher of Gregory and Peter. Macrina was well educated and well read in sacred and secular literature. To argue against the identification of Macrina as the Teacher in On the Soul and the Resurrection lacks common sense and cogency.
St. Macrina is commemorated on 19 July.