01 August 2009

St Macrina on Death

Reading through St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of St Macrina, as well as the dialogue On the Soul and the Resurrection, I find it very striking that one of the recurring themes in the Cappadocian Father’s portraits of his sister is death. In the Life, the deaths of six different persons are mentioned, and St Macrina’s handling of each one becomes an important lesson about her Christian ‘philosophy’. The dialogue begins with St Gregory describing his grief over the death of his brother, St Basil, and his decision to go speak with his sister, St Macrina, about it, whereupon he discovered that she too was dying. The two deaths, the one already passed and the other impending, provide the entire occasion of and reason for the dialogue. I thought it would be interesting just to mention briefly a few of the things that St Gregory says on this subject in the two works.

1) First of all, the passing of her betrothed when St Macrina was but twelve is mentioned. This would seem to have been the least difficult of all of the deaths in the book to bear since it is likely that she scarcely knew him, and yet, we would do well not to skip too lightly over the lesson St Gregory finds his sister teaching here. In the abridged translation of his Life of St Macrina in The Lives of the Spiritual Mothers: An Orthodox Materikon of Women Monastics and Ascetics, trans. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1993), we read:

She confidently affirmed that the man who had been joined with her, according to her parents’ decision, had not died; he had only departed. He is not dead, but alive in God, through the hope of the resurrection. Persisting, she thought it indecent not to keep faith and prudence with her bridegroom, who was away. (pp. 190-1)

2) When her father, Basil, dies, little mention is made of grief or hope, and St Macrina’s chief response seems to have been increased assistance to her mother: ‘Therefore, since our mother was occupied by the many concerns of the house, because our father had died, her partner in all these cares was Macrina, who would ease the burdens of mother’s heavy tasks’ (p. 191).

3) The first truly difficult blow comes when St Macrina’s brother, Navcratius, who was living the anchoritic life in the vicinity of the family estate, tragically perished ‘without suffering any previous illness or mischief’ while fishing—St Gregory calls it ‘a grave and sad misfortune’, and ‘an assault from the devil, who ushered such profound sorrow among all our kin’ (p. 193). Then we read the following:

Now our mother was at a distance that would require a three-day journey. When she received the news of his death, though she was perfected in the virtues, nevertheless, she was overwhelmed by sorrow which rendered her breathless and speechless. It was then that the courageousness and virtue of the great Macrina were made manifest. She countered her grief with right thinking; thus, keeping herself unmoved by sorrow, she was able to empower our mother in her weakness and bring her up from the depths of mourning. Through her steadfastness and firmness, Macrina was able to instruct her mother to be brave of soul. As a result, Æmilia was straightway delivered from her suffering. She did not conduct herself in a cowardly way; she did not wail, rent her clothing, or lament with funeral dirges. With solemnity and composure, she endured her sorrow, casting out the weakness of nature with her own rational words and right thinking, and those consoling words offered by Macrina. (p. 194)

4) Although the repose of Æmilia at ‘an advanced age’ is described tenderly in St Gregory’s Life, there is little commentary on it, either by the author or by St Macrina. But it is nevertheless clear that he is describing a blessed and holy repose, ‘resting in the hands of her two children, Macrina and Peter’ (p. 197). St Gregory says that what is ‘worthy of remembrance are the words of her blessing’ on her offspring, after uttering which, ‘she gave up the spirit from this life’ (p. 197). He then concludes the account, ‘Macrina and Peter then struggled in asceticism with even greater zeal. They contended against their former record of spiritual achievements, and surpassed it by the addition of new wonders’ (p. 197).

5) The first death that seems truly to effect St Macrina is that of her brother, St Basil the Great, who fell asleep in the Lord in 379. Concerning this, St Gregory writes:

The event was the cause of general mourning, not only in our homeland but throughout the world. When news of it reached our sister, Macrina, in her remote retreat, she grieved from the depths of her soul for the loss. For how was it possible for her not to be distressed, as his sister, since it was felt even by the enemies of truth? Nevertheless, she did not utterly break down, but continued bravely in this calamity. Just as gold is tested in different furnaces, so that if any impurity is not purged in the first furnace, it may be removed in the second, and again in the last furnace of all admixture. In like manner was Macrina tried with various applications of sorrow: First, there was the death of her brother Navcratios; second, there was the separation with her mother; and, third, the departure from this life of the universal glory of our family, I mean, the great Basil. However, she prevailed as an undefeated athlete who, in no way, was tripped up by any attack of misfortune. (p. 198)

It is not clear in the Life of St Macrina, but in the dialogue On the Soul and the Resurrection (I shall refer to Catharine Roth’s translation—St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, trans. Catharine P. Roth [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1993]), St Gregory tells us that it was primarily the death of St Basil that precipitated his visit to St Macrina at her final hour. He writes:

When Basil, the great saint, had passed over to God from the life of men, he gave the churches a common cause for grief. As our sister and teacher still remained in this life, I went in haste to share with her the sad news concerning our brother. My heart was very sorrowful for grief at so great a loss, and I sought to share my tears with someone who would bear an equal burden of anguish. (p. 27)

Thus, it seems that St Gregory may have recalled the way St Macrina had comforted his mother ‘with right thinking’, and gone to her in hope of similar help. Furthermore, it was in this way that he discovered how well she herself had handled the loss of their brother.

6) But the very next line after the passage quoted above reads, ‘But as we came within sight of each other, the appearance of my teacher [St Macrina] stirred up new suffering for me, for she also was already afflicted with a mortal illness’ (Roth, p. 27). Thus St Gregory rather suggests that it was when he first saw her that he became aware of St Macrina’s illness. But it seems likely that this description in the dialogue is a bit dramatised, the more personal and less formal nature of the account in the Life suggesting that the sequence of events there—St Gregory’s forebodings as he approached the monastery, the news given beforehand of her illness, etc.—is the more historical one.

But it is nevertheless interesting, and all the more impressive, that hot on the heels of her own grief for St Basil, St Macrina must face her own coming demise as well as comfort St Gregory for both of them. In the Life of St Macrina, the conversation that ensued is more described than recorded, but is nevertheless suggestive concerning our theme:

She then began to speak cheerful words. She started pleasant topics herself, but suggested them as well by the questions she asked. However, when the conversation led to the great Basil, instantly, my heart was afflicted and my countenance sullen. The blessed Macrina, far from sharing my sorrow, took the saint’s memory as an occasion to mention yet loftier philosophy. She discussed at length human nature and the divine economy which underlies all, yet is concealed inside troubles. As one enlightened by the Holy Spirit, she discoursed extenssively on the future life. My mind, elevated by her words, was borne away from the human realm. Led by her words, I entered up to the sanctuary of the heavens. As we hear concerning the Righteous Job, though his body was riddled with pain, his reasoning was neither impeded nor was his mind prevented from contemplating sublime things. Similarly, this may be seen in the case with the blessed woman. Though the fever was withering all her strength and bringing her to the threshold of death, she, nonetheless, renewed her body, as it were with dew, when her mind, uninhibited and uninjured by the illness, contemplated those heavenly things.

Now if my words to thee would not extend to such a magnitude, I would desire to relate all, holding back nothing. I would tell thee how the ever-memorable one was uplifted when she conversed and sermonized concerning the soul and the causes of our life in the flesh. She spoke about the reason why man came to be and why man became mortal and whence came death; moreover, she discussed the return to life from death. She expounded upon everything with ease, because she was enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the words flowed from her mouth as water gushes from a spring. (Lives, pp. 200-1)

But of course we are clearly led to believe, by the opening chapter of the dialogue On the Soul, that this dialogue constitutes the record of the conversation that we are not given in the Life. Obviously, it is somewhat conventionalised (it is certainly not written in the personal style of the last part of the Life that appeals so much to W.K. Lowther Clarke), and there is no way to know how closely it corresponds to an actual conversation between Ss Gregory and Macrina, but it seems to me that some kind of correspondence seems likely given the connection between the circumstances.

Picking up on the obvious parallels between St Gregory’s dialogue and Plato’s Phaedrus (on which see John Sanidopoulos’s interesting post connecting it with St Sisoes and ἡ μελέτη θανάτου), Catharine Roth writes:

Gregory’s dialogue begins, like Plato’s Phaedo, with the concrete situation: how do we face the death of a loved one, or our own death for that matter? In the Phaedo, as the time for Socrates’ execution approaches, he explains to his friends and disciples how he is convinced that the soul is immortal. Here, while still mourning for his brother Basil’s death, Gregory discovers that his sister Macrina is also about to die. As in the Phaedo, the dying person must console the survivor. (Roth, pp. 14-5)

Thus we come to St Macrina’s final lesson, embodied in her personal example and articulated in her words to St Gregory, for—

She, however, like an expert equestrian, allowed me to be carried away briefly by the momentum of my grief, then tried to rein me in with her words, using her own reasoning like a bit to correct the indiscipline of my soul. She reproached me with the apostolic saying, that we should not grieve concerning those who are asleep, because this emotion belongs only to those who have no hope (I Thess. 4:13). (Roth, p. 27)


Ochlophobist said...

I owe you an email and will get you one this week.

On a bibliographic note, are you familiar with Keven Corrigan's translation of the Life of St. Macrina for Peregina Publishing Co.?

see http://www.peregrina.com/translations/macrina.html

out of print, I am afraid.

If you have seen it, what is your sense of this translation in relation to the others?

Aaron Taylor said...

Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with that translation. Of the 2 that I do know and have referred to here, my sense, informed by Clarke's intro to his trans., is that the Buena Vista abridged text is more literally rendered, which I rather like. But I haven't really consciously compared them.

Sadly, I lack a printed translation of the complete text, which is why I used the 2 together. Like most people, I think, I prefer reading through texts on the page.

I look forward to your e-mail!