Saturday, July 18, 2015

Saint Macrina the Elder

The Bridge of Theology

The Holy family and Saint Macrina the elder at its head
   She is called “confessor of the Faith.” In her family there are so many saints that she is known as the “mother and grandmother of saints”. She should be given another title­ - Bridge of Theology - for her invisible contribution to the understanding of our faith and its expression in the world.
   Born about AD 270, Saint Macrina the Elder grew up as a pagan. Most of the city she lived in was pagan until Saint Gregory Thaumaturgis arrived.

   The Heritage of Saint Gregory
   Saint Gregory Thaumaturgis and his brother, both pagans and thirsty for learning, traveled to Alexandria as young men to study philosophy. It was there that some of the most influential meta­physical work was being conducted. The two men arrived at the peak of the "flowering of a tradition that had flourished at Alexandria" since the first century of Christian thought - the melding of early Christian thought and pagan philosophy that has given rise to our modern understanding of Christian faith and theology.

   Once there, they fell under the influence of a man who might be described as one of the most difficult theologians the Church has ever dealt with. By turns strikingly orthodox and breathtakingly heretical. Origen was undoubtedly a brilliant man, and some of his work has been widely influential. Certainly he made a lasting impres­sion on Saint Gregory and his brother. For five years, they studied and worked under Origen, examining the seeds of truth found in the pagan philosophers before moving on to the fullness of philosophy that is the Christian faith. Saint Gregory gained a solid base in both Christian thought and theology and Greek pagan philosophy and rhetoric. More importantly, his studies, and his exposure to Origen, converted him to the faith.
   Once ordained priest, Saint Gregory traveled to the city of Neocaesarea area, in the region of Pontus. Set in rolling, forested mountains near fast-flowing rivers, Pontus was located south of the Black Sea in what are now the region of Amayra and Tokat in Turkey.
   Saint Gregory, zealous and, as it turned out, influential, arrived in a place where “no more than seventeen were present who committed them­selves to the faith”, in both the city and the surrounding countryside. When he died, it is said that there were just seventeen pagans left in the area.
   One of the pagans he encountered in his work was a young woman named Macrina. She and her husband so preferred the company of Christians and Saint Gregory's friendship to the delights and conversation of her pagan family and friends that they ended up “estranged from the properties of their parents because of their faith.” Over the years of their association, Saint Gregory the Wonderworker adopted Macrina as his spiritual daughter. Saint Macrina so loved and revered him that she kept his relics her entire life, finally settling them in a chapel at her estates at Annesi, on the river Iris. She cherished the wisdom he passed on to her.

   Confessor of the Faith
   Saint Macrina lived almost half her life under what could be considered some of the worst persecutions of the early Christian era. Diocletian and Maximian were determined to wipe out every evidence of Christianity and Christians, even if they had to kill every person in the empire to do it. Saint Gregory Nazianzen describes the last persecution under Maximian as “the most frightful and severe of all.”
   Neither the name of Saint Macrina's husband nor his date of death is known. Nor do we know how much of her suffering her two children, Saint Basil (the Elder) and Gregory, shared.
   Spared the fate of the martyrs, Saint Macrina nevertheless suffered for her beliefs. She and her husband escaped to the forests surrounding their city and hid for seven years. In spite of being disowned by her family, Saint Macrina was a wealthy patrician. Rich Roman disdained manual labor and counted it a point of pride to have never baked, woven, or farmed. It is likely that the hardest physical labor she'd undertaken before her exile was giving birth.
   Certainly neither she nor her hus­band knew anything of hunting or fishing, carpentry, or skinning and tanning hides to make shelters, clothing, and shoes. They’d have been lost in the woods, a walking storehouse for the human and animal predators that lurked in the copses and thickets of the mountainous region. That he survived is due solely to God’s miraculous intervention. At this funeral oration for his close friend, Saint Basil the Great (Saint Macrina's grandson), Saint Gregory Nazianzus described God's provision for Saint Macrina:
   ... their quarry lay before them, with food come of its own accord, a complete banquet prepared without effort, stags appearing all at once from some place in the hills. How splendid they were! How fat! How ready for the slaughter! It might almost be imagined that they were annoyed at not having been sum­moned earlier. Some of them made signs to draw others after them, the rest followed their lead. Who pursued and drove them? No one. What riders? What kind of dogs, what barking, or cry, or young men who had occupied the exits accord­ing to the rules of the chase? They were the prisoners of prayer and righteous petition. Who has known such a hunt among men of this, or any day?.
   Once the persecution had died down, Macrina and her family re­turned to Neocaesarea. A short time later, the Roman authorities stripped them of everything they owned and turned them out into the streets. With nothing more than the clothes on her back to call her own, Saint Macrina was forced to rely on the generosity and mercy of God in order to survive. Begging in the streets, telling stories for the few paltry coins it brought, and accepting the cast-off food and cloth­ing of her former equals, she endured their pity, and the insults and mockery of the pagans in her town. She must have learned valuable lessons in humility.
   If Saint Macrina's husband did die early, then she raised her two children, Gregory and Saint Basil (the Elder), as a single parent. In spite of the obstacles, she succeeded in passing on her faith and tradition to them.
   Gregory disappears very early in the histories - in fact all we have left of him is his name, and the fact that he was a bishop of some renowned city in Cappadocia.
   Saint Basil the Elder, a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric, married Saint Emmelia, a beautiful and devout Christian. Their household, including Macrina, was notable “throughout Pontus and Cappadocia for many reasons, especially for generosity to the poor, for hospitality, for purity of soul as the result of self-discipline, for the dedication to God of a portion of their property.”
   Saint Basil and Saint Emmelia's children, Saint Macrina's grandchildren, nine of whom survived to adulthood, were raised in an intensely Christian atmos­phere, taught to read from the Psalms and thoroughly immersed in a Chris­tian manner of living.
   Saint Macrina the Elder taught her grandchildren to read from the Bible, trained them in piety and practical Christian values, and told them stories of her spiritual father, Saint Gregory Thaumaturgis (the Wonderworker).
   Saint Gregory of Nyssa, one of these grandchildren, recorded a creed given to the Wonderworker in a vision of Saint John the Theologian and the Theotokos (if true, which is disputed by Saint Basil the Great, it is very likely the first-ever vision of the Theotokos in Christian history). Even if the tale wasn't true, it indicates that Macrina passed on her spiritual father's under­standing of our faith and his theologi­cal beliefs, forming bedrock upon which their later educations were based, as Saint Basil himself confirms:
   What clearer proof of our faith could there be than that we were brought up by our grandmother, a blessed woman, who came from among you? I have reference to the illustrious Macrina, by whom we were taught the words of the most blessed Gregory, which, having been preserved until her time by uninter­rupted tradition, she also guarded, and she formed and molded me, still a child, to the doctrines of piety?.

   Grandmother of Saints
   The four eldest grandchildren held so strongly to the faith their grandmother taught that we recognize them today as saints: Saint Macrina the Younger, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian (or Saint Gregory of Nyssa), and Saint Naucratius.
   Saint Macrina's firstborn grandchild was marked for a devout life while still sheltered beneath her mother's heart. Saint Emmelia, in labor with her first born, fell into a deep sleep. She dreamed she was walking along a street, carrying her child in her arms, when she met an angel, who called the child “Thekla” after Saint Paul's faithful friend. After repeating the name three times, the angel disap­peared. Saint Emmelia woke, and delivered with remarkable ease the daugh­ter they baptized Thekla. Still, her family and friends knew her as Macrina after her grandmother.
   Young Macrina's education was primarily supervised by her mother, although her grandmother undoubtedly had an influence on her. She swore herself to virginity after the death of her fiancé when she was twelve, claiming that the betrothal was as serious as the marriage, and since they were married in heaven, she would wait to be reunited with her chosen husband there.
   The young woman helped her mother and grandmother in the education of the younger children, including Basil and Gregory. Her zeal to submit to God grew as she did, and eventually she opened a monastery at the family estate at Annesi, several years before Basil became interested in monasticism. Her life was so exem­plary and she had such an influence on her brother Gregory that he wrote her biography soon after she died.
   We celebrate for Saint Macrina the Elder on January 14 and for Saint Macrina the Younger on July 19.
   May their prayers be with us always.

   Cooke B. (2006), St. Macrina the Elder: Bridge of Theology, AGAIN Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 25-29.