01 August 2009

'In Thy Presence the Night Became to Us as Day'—St Macrina the Younger

Today, 19 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Macrina the Younger (c. 327-380), sister of Ss Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa and, as Fr John McGuckin tells us, the ‘granddaughter of Macrina who had been the disciple of Gregory Thaumaturgos, the great Origenist theologian whose authority was almost “patronal” in Cappadocia’ (‘Macrina’, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology, by Fr John A. McGuckin [London: SCM, 2005], p. 211; see the full text of this article here). Catharine Roth notes that St Gregory of Nyssa’s acknowledgements of his sister’s authority ‘puts her in a class with Augustine’s mother Monica as one of the great spiritual mothers of the early church’ (Introduction, On the Soul and the Resurrection, by St Gregory of Nyssa, trans. Catharine P. Roth [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1993], p. 9). Finally, in his book on the great Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century, Jaroslav Pelikan calls St Macrina ‘the Fourth Cappadocian’ for her influence on her brothers and her striking rôle in St Gregory’s dialogue, On the Soul and the Resurrection (Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism [New Haven, CT: Yale U, 1993], p. 8).

It is providential that we possess a Life of St Macrina which is not merely a later record of tradition, but a work of her great theologian brother, St Gregory of Nyssa himself. Pelikan quotes von Harnack as having written of this Life that it was ‘perhaps the clearest and purest expression of the spirituality of the Greek Church’, which, as Pelikan paraphrases him, ‘anyone looking for an epitome of Greek Orthodoxy should consult at the outset’ (pp. 8-9). Unless otherwise noted, I shall quote the abridged translation in The Lives of the Spiritual Mothers: An Orthodox Materikon of Women Monastics and Ascetics (Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1993), pp. 188-217. The complete text of W.K. Lowther Clarke’s unabridged translation, however, is available here, on Roger Pearse’s site.

St Macrina was born of a wealthy, respected, and pious Christian family in Asia Minor. St Gregory tells us she was named ‘Macrina’ after their paternal grandmother, ‘who had confessed Christ like a good athlete in the time of the persecutions’ (Clarke). But he also tells of a ‘secret name’, given—in addition to the one by which she was called—to St Macrina as a result of a vision her mother Æmilia had of St Thecla. It is thus suggested that this new ‘Thecla’ too had a call to virginity. Of the young girl’s education, St Gregory then writes:

After passing infancy, Macrina showed herself skilful in learning all those things which chilren of her age might grasp; and she also advanced in whatever her parents taught her. [Here is omitted the lines: ‘The education of the child was her mother's task; she did not, however, employ the usual worldly method of education, which makes a practice of using poetry as a means of training the early years of the child. For she considered it disgraceful and quite unsuitable, that a tender and plastic nature should be taught either those tragic passions of womanhood which afforded poets their suggestions and plots, or the indecencies of comedy, to be, so to speak, denied with unseemly tales of “the harem”.’] Our mother zealously pursued in teaching her daughter the God-inspired words of holy Scriptures and whatever else was suitable for children of Macrina’s age. Macrina’s studies included the Wisdom of Solomon and whatever else contributes to the useful ethics of life. The words of the Psalter, also used as lessons for Macrina, applied at the appropriate time of day. When she awoke from sleep, or was about to commence any work, or when she went to sleep, the words of David were on her lips, as a good companion. (p. 189)

Adding that she was also taught to make ‘handicrafts and embroidery for the church’ (p. 190), St Gregory then tells of her gradually unfolding beauty, which was such as to bring a ‘crowd’ of suitors. Of these, her father Basil chose a ‘noble young man’, ‘about to complete his studies’, who was ‘distinguished for his wisdom and prudence’ (p. 190). They were betrothed when St Macrina only twelve, but sadly, the young man died before they could be married. But the pious virgin regarded herself bound by the betrothal, and, arguing that ‘one marriage, one birth, and one death are appointed unto humanity’ (p. 190), remained by her mother’s side and refused to consider any more suitors. St Gregory paints a moving portrait of the relationship of the mother and daughter, writing:

Therefore, each was well replenished by the other: The mother ministered unto all the spiritual needs of the daughter; and the daughter undertook all the physical needs of the mother. . . . [B]ecause she believed that it was proper for one professing virginity to be occupied with holy labors. (p. 191)

In the meantime, St Macrina’s father, Basil, died, and, as Roth summarises, ‘Macrina persuaded her [mother] to start a little monastic community on the family estate in company with the former serving-women’ (Introduction, p. 8). Thus the holy virgin seems also to have taken on the spiritual needs of her mother as well. St Gregory tells us:

At the same time, Macrina upheld a pure and irreproachable life with the instructions of her mother. Also, by Macrina’s conduct of life, she was an example to her mother, sso she might emulate her daughter’s asceticism. Thus, little by little, she attracted her mother to that immaterial and perfect life of the monastics. (p. 191)

Æmilia had given birth to nine more children after St Macrina (St Basil was born in 330, St Gregory in 331), and as so many other things had fallen on the latter since her father’s death, so too did she take a keen interest in the upbringing and education—physical, intellectual, but especially, spiritual—of her siblings. There is a famous passage in the Life where St Gregory tells of the return of St Basil to the family home from the university in Athens. St Gregory writes:

He receieved instruction for many years in secular knowledge. The marvelous Macrina took him and in a short while she drew him to the object of true philosophy and asceticism. Now Basil had high-minded thoughts from his knowledge of secular philosophy and oratorical skill; thus, he disdained the local officials. Despite all this, the holy woman, having him separate himself from worldly splendor, brought to contemn the laudation received from external philosophy and studiess. Whereupon, all were astonished that he took up working with his hands, living a life of the utmost poverty. It was through poverty that he prepared himself, to be unencumbered, for the road leading to a virtuous life. (p. 192)

Fr McGuckin points out that St Macrina’s monastery ‘was the site of Gregory of Nazianzus’s and Basil’s construction of the rule of monasticism (the 'Asceticon' attributed to Basil), which had great subsequent influence in the Eastern churches’ (‘Macrina’, p. 211). The monasticism she practiced there seems to have been inspired by by a friend of the family named Eustathius of Sebaste, a heretic in theology but a tremendous organiser of monastic life, who is also believed to have influenced St Basil directly (see Fr McGuckin, ‘Eustathius of Sebaste’, pp. 130-1). Among other traces of Eustathius’s influence, St Gregory writes that the daughter persuaded the aristocratic Æmilia ‘to abandon her customary life of appearances and ostentation, and to take up the work performed by the handmaids . . . and her former handmaids were held in the same honor as sisters’ (p. 192).

At this point in the Life, St Gregory gives us an instructive account of his sister’s and mother’s progress together in the virtues of the monastic life:

The life of Macrina and our mother was estranged from every worldly vanity, thus emulating the life of the angels. . . . For them, continence was a sumptuous fare; obscurity was glory; poverty and the saking off of every material object, like some particle of dust, was wealth. (194-5)

All those occupations zealously pursued in this present life were to them incidental. Their only occupations were divine contemplation, ceaseless prayer, and endless chanting, coincident with time itself, both day and night. To them this was both their handiwork and their relaxation. . . . In this conduct of life they passed many years. With the passage of time, their virtues ever increased; for they were always advancing to what was loftier with the addition of new virtues. (pp. 195-6)

Because of limited space and my desire to focus on St Macrina herself, I must leave out the stories of St Macrina’s brothers, Navcratius and St Peter of Sebaste, and the blessed repose of her mother, Æmilia. Finally, St Gregory tells of St Macrina’s brave struggle with grief at the death of their brother, St Basil, over which ‘she prevailed as an undefeated athlete who, in no way, was tripped up by any attack of misfortune’ (p. 198). But I recommend that all read the full Life to find these stories and more.

At this point, beginning with his departure, as Bishop of Nyssa, from a Synod in Antioch nine months after St Basil’s repose in 379, St Gregory tells of events leading up to and following the repose of St Macrina herself. Clarke describes this as the most wonderfully told and moving part of the Life, contrasting it with the more artificial narrative preceding it:

But when Gregory gets to grips with his subject and describes his arrival at the monastery, the narrative becomes so clear and straightforward as to present no difficulties to the translator. A literal version of the artless and beautiful tale is all that is needed. That Gregory’s style should undergo so remarkable a transformation at this point is a convincing proof that he is giving a true account of actual facts, written down shortly after their occurrence.

It is surprising that a story of antiquity, so charmingly told and full of human interest, should have attracted so little attention. Hitherto it has not been accessible to any but scholars. The Latin version in Migne is a useful guide to the meaning of the Greek, but cannot be relied on, as in places it is merely a paraphrase. Had the story been written in the Greek of the fourth century BC instead of that of the fourth century AD, it would probably have been one of the world's classics. (Clarke)

Leaving the Synod, St Gregory determines to go visit his sister, and along the way has a series of dreams that suggest to him what is to come, a suggestion confirmed when he learns en route that she is ill. He arrives at the convent, is greeted by the monastics, and is finally ushered in to see the holy woman. St Gregory finds her greatly weakened and scarcely able to lift herself up and take his blessing. They begin to speak, and ‘when the conversation led to the great Basil’, St Macrina begins to speak words of comfort to her younger brother on the future life, and he writes, ‘Led by her words, I entered up to the sanctuary of the heavens’ (p. 200). Their holy conversation seems to have provided the seed for St Gregory’s dialogue, On the Soul and the Resurrection, wherein, in Fr McGuckin’s words, ‘he presents her, like the dying Socrates, musing on the immortality of the soul from her deathbed’ (‘Macrina’, p. 211). Another day passed similarly, with happy conversation between the blessed siblings. Then the last day came. St Gregory writes:

By all that took place, my soul passed through sundry emotions. According to nature, I was inclined to feel sadness—which is to be expected—because there was no hope that I would hear her voice again. Moreover, in a short while, the common boast of our family would depart.

Again, in another way, my soul was filled with joy, for it considered what I saw; that is, my sister would rise above the natural condition and become beyond nature. (p. 204)

The two spoke for a while, but then, St Gregory writes:

Most of the day now had already passed, and the sun was in the west, but the eagerness of that blessed woman remained uneclipsed. In fact, even more so did she hasten with an ardent impulse to the dessired One, seeing clearly the beauty of her Bridegroom. Therefore, she did not look upon me at all, but upon Him. Her bedding was turned towards the East. She then left off altogether conversing with me and, through prayer, she spoke with God. (pp. 204-5)

St Gregory records a long prayer that he hear his sister say, concluding with the petition, ‘O Thou Who hast authority to forgive sins, pardon me, that I might be refreshed and found before Thee when I put off this body, without any spot in the comeliness of my soul; but receive my soul into Thy hands, pure and blameless, as incense before Thee’ (p. 206). Then, the holy Father tells us that she made the sign of the Cross ‘over her eyes, her mouth, and her heart’; when a lamp was bright on, she silently prayed ‘the Vespers hymn of thanksgiving’ (‘O Gladsome Light’), giving ‘thanks in her heart by the movement of her lips’ (p. 206). Then, St Gregory concludes, ‘When she finished the prayer of thanksgiving, she made the sign of the Cross over her face. She then drew a great and deep breath, and finished her life’ (p. 206).

I leave the reader to read for him- or herself of the events after St Macrina’s repose, including St Gregory’s account of the funeral, his discovery of her miraculous healing from breast cancer, and a miracle she performed among ‘many other miracles’ which he does not relate (p. 217). But here is a lament recorded by St Gregory, sung the nuns for their abbess (Clarke):

The light of our eyes has gone out,
The light that guided our souls has been taken away.
The safety of our life is destroyed,
The seal of immortality is removed,
The bond of restraint has been taken away,
The support of the weak has been broken,
The healing of the sick removed.
In thy presence the night became to us as day,
Illumined with pure life,
But now even our day will be turned to gloom.

St Gregory himself calls his sister, St Macrina, ‘a woman who raised herself by “philosophy” to the greatest height of human virtue’ (Clarke), and concludes with the words, ‘Through her intercessions may we be counted worthy of the Kingdom of the heavens. Amen’ (p. 217).

No comments: