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Issue Date:  December 21, 2007

St. Macrina, the younger


St. Macrina -- monastic founder, miracle worker and philosopher -- was born about two years after the Council of Nicaea in 325, the eldest of 10 children in a well-off Christian family in Cappadocia. Along with Macrina, this family living in a region now part of Turkey produced an extraordinary number of saints: the girl’s maternal grandmother, for whom she was named; her parents; and three of her brothers, all bishops -- Peter of Sabaste and Cappadocian Fathers Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesaraea.

Gregory wrote a 35-page narrative of his sister’s life around 380-383. In an introduction to The Life of Saint Macrina, scholar Kevin Corrigan calls Macrina the “spiritual guide” in her distinguished family and says that her “influence upon the major currents of her own time is evident on almost every page of the [Life], an influence that goes to the very heart of Christianity.”

According to the Life, the holy woman rejected “a great swarm of suitors,” preferring a life of Christian asceticism. She persuaded her mother to give up their “rather ostentatious lifestyle,” treat her maids as “sisters and equals instead of slaves and servants” and turn their home into a monastery for women. Peter founded a men’s monastery near Macrina’s community on the banks of the river Isis. Basil became the father of a monastic tradition that still forms the basis for much Orthodox monasticism today. But it seems he wasn’t always inclined toward renunciation. Gregory relates that when “the great Basil” returned from school as a young man, “he was monstrously conceited about his skill in rhetoric” until Macrina gave him a talk. “So swiftly did she win him to the ideal of philosophy that he renounced worldly appearance” to follow his life of poverty and virtue.

Gregory heard her last philosophical discourse on a visit he made to his sister at the end of her life. (“I kept wishing that the day could be lengthened so that she might not cease to delight our hearing,” he wrote.) He was with the many women at Macrina’s bedside when she died in 379. News of her death “spread like wildfire,” and crowds of people poured in for the funeral procession, many telling Gregory about miracles “the great Macrina” had performed while she was alive.

Erin Ryan is associate editor of Celebration, a comprehensive worship service of the NCR Publishing Company.

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007

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