Monday, July 19, 2010

Macrina: The "Great Sister"

St. Macrina the Younger (c. 327-379), as distinguished from her maternal grandmother, Macrina, was the eldest of ten children and was part of the third generation of an illustrious, gifted and courageous Christian family. Among her brothers were St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste. According to Gregory's account of her life and death, Macrina was obviously the "alpha" sibling, "the Teacher",  to whom her brothers came for advice, a wise and mature woman from her young adulthood. She'd been engaged early on to a young lawyer, but when her fiancĂ© died suddenly, she consecrated her life to God, encouraged her brothers in their vocations as monks and priests, and later as bishops, and helped form a monastic community of women along with her mother and abbess, Emmelia, whom she herself succeeded as abbess. Gregory described her as both beautiful and brilliant. From Gregory's account, it's obvious how deeply he loved and respected his unusual sister.

Gregory of Nyssa had barely recovered from the untimely death of his brother, Basil the Great, at age 50, when, nine months later, word came that Macrina had fallen seriously ill.  He hadn't seen her for eight years, so it was an emotional reunion.  Gregory's own words describe it best:

"...But when I came to the actual place, rumor had already announced my arrival to the brotherhood.
Then the whole company of the men came streaming out to meet us from their apartments...But the band of virgins on the women's side modestly waited in the church for us to arrive. But when the prayers and the blessing were over, and the women, after reverently inclining their head for the blessing, retired to their own apartments, none of them were left with us. I guessed the explanation, that the abbess was not with them.

A man led me to the house in which was my great sister, and opened the door. Then I entered that holy
dwelling. I found her already terribly afflicted with weakness. she was lying not on a bed or couch,
but on the floor; a sack had been spread on a board, and another board propped up her head, so
contrived as to act as a pillow, supporting the sinews of the neck in slanting fashion, and holding up
the neck comfortably. Now when she saw me near the door she raised herself on her elbow but could
not come to meet me, her strength being already drained by fever. But by putting her hands on the
floor and leaning over from the pallet as far as she could, she showed the respect due to my rank. I ran to her and embraced her prostrate form, and raising her, again restored her to her usual

Then she lifted her hand to God and said, 'This favor also You have granted me, O God. You have not deprived me of my desire, because You have stirred up Your servant to visit Your handmaid.'' Lest she should vex my soul, she stilled her groans and made great efforts to hide, if possible, the difficulty of her breathing. In every way she tried to be cheerful, both taking the lead herself in friendly talk, and giving us an opportunity by asking questions. When in the course of conversation mention was made of the great Basil, my soul was saddened and my face fell dejectedly. But so far was she from sharing in my affliction that, treating the mention of the saint as an occasion for yet loftier philosophy, she discussed various subjects...

When our conversation was finished, she said 'It is time, brother, for you to rest your body awhile,
since it is wearied with the great toil of your journey.' And though I found it a great and genuine rest to see her and hear her noble words, yet since she wanted it so much, that I might in every particular seem to obey my mistress, I found a pretty arbor prepared for me in one of the neighboring gardens, and rested under the shade of the trailing vines. But it was impossible to have any feelings of enjoyment when my soul within me was constrained by gloomy anticipations...We were, as one might guess, feeling dejected, expecting sad tidings, when Macrina, somehow or other divining our condition of mind, sent to us a messenger with more cheerful news, and bade us be of good cheer and have better hope for her, for she was feeling a change for the better. Now this was not said to deceive, but the message was actually true, though we did not know it at the time. Accordingly, feeling happy at the good news, we began to enjoy the sights that lay before us. For they were very varied and the arrangements gave much pleasure, since the great lady was careful even of these trifles.

But when we saw her again...she began to recall her past life, beginning with childhood, and describing it all in order as in a history. she recounted as much as she could remember of the life of our parents, and the events that took place both before and after my birth. But her aim throughout was gratitude towards God, for she described our parents' life not so much from the point of view of the reputation they enjoyed in the eyes of contemporaries on account of their riches, as an example of the divine blessing...

As I told [her] my own trouble and all that I had been through, first my exile at the hands of the Emperor Valens on account of the faith, and then the confusion in the Church that summoned me to conflicts and trials, my great sister said, 'Will you not cease to be insensible to the divine blessings? Will you not remedy the ingratitude of your soul ? Compare your position with that of your parents. And yet, as regards worldly things, we make our boast of being well born and thinking we come of a noble family. Our father was greatly esteemed as a young man for his learning ; in fact his fame was established throughout the law courts of the province. subsequently, though he excelled all others in rhetoric, his reputation did not extend beyond Pontus. But he was satisfied with fame in his own land.
But you, she said, are renowned in cities and peoples and nations. Churches summon you as an
ally and director, and do you not see the grace of God in it all ? Do you fail to recognize the cause of
such great blessings, that it is your parents' prayers that are lifting you up on high, you that have little
or no equipment within yourself for such success?' Thus she spoke, and I longed for the length of the day to be further extended...But the voice of the choir was summoning us to the evening service; sending me to church, the great one retired once more to God in prayer, and thus spent the night...

But when day came it was clear to me from what I saw that the coming day was the utmost limit of
her life in the flesh, since the fever had consumed all her innate strength. But she, considering the
weakness of our minds, was contriving how to divert us from our sorrowful anticipations, and once
more with those beautiful words of hers poured out what was left of her suffering soul with short and difficult breathing. Many, indeed, and varied, were the emotions of my heart at what I saw...

Most of the day had now passed, and the sun was declining towards the West. Her eagerness
did not diminish, but as she approached her end, as if she discerned the beauty of the Bridegroom
more clearly, and hastened towards the Beloved with the greater eagerness, such thoughts as these did
she utter... Her couch had been turned towards the East, and...she spoke henceforward to God in prayer, making supplication with her hands and whispering with a low voice, so that we could
just hear what was said. Such was the prayer...

'You, O Lord, have freed us from the fear of death. Thou hast made the end of this life the beginning to us of true life...You give our earth, which You have fashioned with Your hands, to the earth to keep in safety. One day You will take again what You have given, transfiguring with immortality and grace our mortal and unsightly remains...You have shown us the way of resurrection, having broken the gates of
hell...You have given a sign to those that fear You in the symbol of the Holy Cross...O God eternal,...give me an angel of light to conduct me to the place of refreshment...remember Your kingdom... forgive me, that I may be refreshed and may be found before You...may my soul be received into Your hands spotless and undefiled, as an offering before You.'

As she said these words she sealed her eyes, mouth and heart with the cross. Gradually her tongue dried up with the fever, so that she could articulate her words no longer, and her voice died away, and
only by the trembling of her lips and the motion of her hands did we recognize that she was praying.
Meanwhile evening had come and a lamp was brought in. All at once she opened...her eyes and looked towards the light, clearly wanting to repeat the thanksgiving sung at the Lighting of the Lamps. Though her voice failed, she fulfilled her intention in the heart and by moving her hands, while her lips stirred in sympathy...Having finished the thanksgiving, and bringing her hand to her face to make the sign that signified the end of the prayer, she drew a great deep breath, then closed her life and her prayer together...

...My mind was becoming unnerved in two ways: from the sight that met my gaze, and the sad wailing of the virgins that sounded in my ears. So far they had remained quiet and suppressed their grief... But when they could no longer subdue their anguish in silence, and grief like some inward fire was smoldering in their hearts, all at once a bitter and irrepressible cry broke out; so that my reason no longer remained calm, but a flood of emotion, like a watercourse in spate, swept it away, and so...I gave myself up to it. Indeed, the cause for the maidens' weeping seemed to me just and  reasonable...

I do not think it advisable to add to my narrative all the...things that we heard from those who
lived with her and knew her life accurately. For most men judge what is credible in the way
of a tale by the measure of their own experience. But what exceeds the capacity of the hearer, men
receive with insult and suspicion of falsehood, as remote from truth...There are happenings still
more surprising, of which I might tell: healings of diseases, and casting out of demons, and true
predictions of the future. All are believed to be true, even though apparently incredible, by those who
have investigated them accurately...[But] lest the unbeliever should be injured by being led to disbelieve the gifts of God, I have abstained from a consecutive narrative of these sublime wonders, thinking it sufficient to conclude my life of Macrina with what has been already said."

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