Icons, pictures, and mosaics of the “Three Holy Hierarchs”, also called “the Cappadocians”, are common in churches throughout the east—three theologians immortalized as wise figures with books in hand. Indeed, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa deserve admiration for many of their contributions to the church: they aided in the theological formulations that led to the Creed at Constantinople (known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed), created one of the first welfare hospitals (the Basiliad), and combated the unorthodox theology of Eunomius and Apollinarius. But, one of the unfortunate effects of this portrayal is who it leaves out: the fourth Cappadocian, Macrina the Younger, the sister and teacher of these Hierarchs.
A ‘Mother’ and a Teacher
Macrina the Younger was the oldest of 10 children, born to Basil Sr. and Emmelia in 327. Basil of Caesarea was born second (b. 329) and Gregory of Nyssa was the fifth born (b. 335). Apparently, strong female Christian influences were already a part of her family’s culture—her grandmother, Macrina the Elder taught them theology and spiritual formation (see Basil of Caesarea, Letter 204.6). It became clear very early that Macrina was a devout follower of Christ. When she was 12, her father began making plans for her to be married, but her betrothed suddenly died. Rather than find another suitor, she dedicated herself to a life of virginity, claiming that she was legally a ‘widow’, despite her parent’s pleas for marriage. From this point on, Macrina started to make a profound spiritual impact on this home. She became a spiritual and physical aide to her mother, especially after her father died in 345. “Under the guidance of her mother, she kept her own life spotless… and at the same time by the example of her own life she provided great guidance to her mother towards the same goal, namely that of philosophy, drawing her on little by little to the immaterial, more perfect life (Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of St. Macrina, 26). During this time, her younger brother Basil was sent off to school in Caesarea of Cappadocia, Constantinople, and Athens, where he met his close friend Gregory of Nazianzus. After Basil came home though, he was, to say the least, a bit snobbish.
“Although when she took him (Basil) in hand he was monstrously conceited about his skill in rhetoric, contemptuous of every high reputation and exalted beyond the leading lights of the providence by his self importance, so swiftly did she win him to the ideal of philosophy that he renounced worldly appearance … preparing for himself by means of his complete poverty a way of life which would tend without impediment towards virtue” (The Life of St. Macrina, 26).
In other words, Macrina sent Basil on a completely different trajectory, from pompous rhetorician to pious monk and bishop. She also became the teacher and a ‘mother’ of Gregory of Nyssa, her younger brother. In one of his letters, he writes,
“We had a sister who was for us a teacher of how to live, a mother in place of our mother. Such was her freedom towards God that she was for us a strong tower (Ps 60.4) and a shield of favour (Ps 5.13) as the Scripture says, and a fortiﬁed city (Ps 30.22, 59.11) and a name of utter assurance, through her freedom towards God that came of her way of life. (Gregory of Nyssa, Letter 19.6).
Macrina may not have been directly involved in church councils, but Macrina’s role as a church leader through her teaching of Basil and Gregory is manifold. First, she taught them about spiritual discipline, prayer, reading scripture, and a life of contemplation. She had the psalm memorized from constant repetition and her “only care was for divine realities, and there was constant prayer and the unceasing singing of hymns, extended throughout the entire day and night” (The Life of St. Macrina, 30). Second, she is a philosophical and theological teacher, particularly to Gregory who did not seem to get the same extensive education as his brother. In On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory has a discussion with his sister (on her deathbed!), where she picks apart his understanding of the resurrection and articulates a philosophically and scripturally robust depiction of the new creation. While it is impossible to glean how much of this text came from Macrina’s mouth, we have little reason to doubt that she was a theological teacher to Gregory—in fact, he refers to her as his teacher throughout the text. Third, her monastic influence over these men should not be overlooked. This was a pivotal time in the history of monasticism, especially in the transition of the monastery from the desert to the city. While Basil is often credited as one of the first to make this switch and to make a formal monastic rule (that is, a set of expectations for the monastic community), we should acknowledge that Macrina first modeled this sort of life to them in their estate at Annisa (See the exceptional work of Anna M. Silvas for a fuller account of this).
Credit Where Credit is Due
From the discussion above, one might get the sense that Macrina’s main contribution to church history is her formation of her brothers and friends—a teacher who was eventually overshadowed by her pupils. Her relationship with her brothers was certainly pivotal and we should all look to our spiritual mothers with gratitude, acknowledging their role in our spiritual lives. Some of the most important spiritual directors are faithful women who don’t have a public facing role—women who faithfully show a life of devotion, a model for young men and women. But, this is also not a fair summation of Macrina’s influence. In one of the final and moving scenes of On the Life of St. Macrina, Gregory recounts her funeral procession. So many grieving religious leaders and lay people flooded in that the procession could hardly walk to Macrina’s final resting place—it took them a day to walk just shy of a mile (The Life of St. Macrina, 50). Macrina was a spiritual and theological giant to this community, many of whom were priests and bishops, in a time where women were not granted extensive public roles. Yet, through her spiritual discipline and devotion to God and loving neighbor, she became a foundation for her brothers and for the community around her. Macrina is like so many women throughout the church—a faithful follower of Jesus Christ who shaped the church in ways that we have not fully realized, perhaps we never will. And while Macrina never received as much credit as the other Cappadocians, her influence and piety seemed to rival them all. Perhaps this is one of the main takeaways here—the heroes of the faith are not only those who attract the public attention of the church, but those who devote their lives to God, away from the fanfare in small communities such as Annisa. Christians like Macrina, who show us what it means to follow God well.
Anna M. Silvas, Macrina the Younger: Philosopher of God (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008)—she has done us all a massive service in placing the relevant texts about Macrina in one publication. Unfortunately, it comes with a hefty price tag (curse academic publishing!). I would suggest asking your library to snag a copy for you.