Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This week I’m featuring Part 2 of Amma Macrina the Younger.
The Spiritual Life
As mankind is made in the image of God, the thrust of the spiritual life is in obtaining that image. This principle is laid out in Genesis 1, every created being is to replicate according to its kind. So man in the image of God replicates God, “as every being is capable of attracting its like, and humanity is, in a way, like God, as bearing within itself some resemblances to its Prototype, the soul is by a strict necessity attracted to the kindred Deity.”
Amma Macrina taught that it was by love that man would unite with God, “For this is what love is; the inherent affection towards a chosen object. When, then, the soul, having become simple and single in form and so perfectly godlike, finds that perfectly simple and immaterial good which is really worth enthusiasm and love, it attaches itself to it and blends with it by means of the movement and activity of love, fashioning itself according to that which it is continually finding and grasping.” Love gives rise to desire, and desire gives rise to pursuit. As man pursues the object of his affection he takes on characteristics of that object. When that object is God, the individual assimilates the nature of God and bears his image.
The spiritual life, simply put, is becoming like God: “For truly herein consists the real assimilation to the Divine: in making our own life in some degree a copy of the Supreme Being.”
The clearest way this is seen is in the ability to choose between good and evil. Man’s ability to choose is what gives him the potential to rise to God: “…the soul preserves within itself the image of the divine grace; since our reason surmises that divinity itself, whatever it may be in its inmost nature, is manifested in these very things,— universal supervision and the critical discernment between good and evil.”
The two facets of the inner life that hinder this formation are anger and lust. Anger and lust cannot be part of man’s original design, she reasons, because so many great men and women of God have overcome anger and lust. All things that mar the image of God in man can be boiled down to these two characteristics. To Macrina, anger is “the impulse to hurt one who has provoked us,” and desire is, “a seeking for that which is wanting, or a longing for pleasurable enjoyment, or a pain at not possessing that upon which the heart is set, or a state with regard to some pleasure which there is no opportunity of enjoying.”
Both of these impulses can, however, benefit the spiritual life. It is by desire that man rises to God, and anger can give rise to righteous justice. Again, the formation of man is in his choices, and those choices will dictate whether man can re-acquire the image of God lost at the fall.
Amma Macrina taught that shame was the greatest hindrance to the spiritual life. Shame keeps the heart focused upon failure and robs the individual of hope. Hope creates the passion for change, shame kills perseverance. Shame was derived when the individual pursued what would only ever temporarily placate desire, “but if hope has seduced the soul with some phantom only of the Good, and the excellent Way has been missed, then the memory that succeeds what has happened becomes shame, and an intestine war is thus waged in the soul between memory and hope, because the last has been such a bad leader of the will.” Shame is the internal war between hope and the history of failure.
Overcoming and rising above shame, and the baser instincts of anger or desire will be difficult and painful. The degree of pain is the degree of sin, “when God is drawing it, His own one, to Himself, and the foreign matter, which has somehow grown into its substance, has to be scraped from it by main force, and so occasions it that keen intolerable anguish.” The foreign matter of our soul is that which we have attached ourselves to that is not God. Anger, drugs, pornography, etc…all draw man away from the spiritual life.
“That, is my meaning; and also that the agony will be measured by the amount of evil there is in each individual.” The degree of suffering when it comes to the forming the inner life is the degree of sin. God, in his patient, gracious love, allows us to walk through difficult, trying circumstances that often seem too difficult to bear. But that can be precisely the point, he brings us to the end of ourselves in order to show us how much our sense of worth is derived from our own faulty and lofty opinion of ourselves. As James said, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.”
However, given all that has been said, Amma Macrina had a high value for the mystery of God. We can expound on the spiritual life and the purposes of God as much a possible, but ultimately, what we know and what we can see is a mere shadow and reflection of what is to come. She likened the study of the heavenly life to a group of standing around arguing about the sunrise in the dead of night. When the sun actually rises, all of their debates will be silenced.
Ultimately, the purpose of of God was to bring healing and wholeness to the individual, and in doing so, that person would reflect, into a broken world, the image of God: “When such, then, have been purged from it and utterly removed by the healing processes worked out by the Fire, then every one of the things which make up our conception of the good will come to take their place; incorruption, that is, and life, and honour, and grace, and glory, and everything else that we conjecture is to be seen in God, and in His Image, man as he was made.”
When Macrina was preparing to depart this present world, her brother Gregory visited her. While he was but a day away from seeing her, Gregory fell asleep and had a dream. In his dream he was carrying a martyr’s relics and light as if it was the reflection of the sun came from the items and blinded him. The visions repeated itself 3 times.
As he sat with her and awaited her death, he was struck with her anticipation of Jesus. He wrote, “Her eagerness did not diminish, but as she approached her end, as if she discerned the beauty of the Bridegroom more clearly, she hastened towards the Beloved with the greater eagerness. Such thoughts as these did she utter, no longer to us who were present, but to Him in person on Whom she gazed fixedly.”
As she spent her final days teaching and exhorting Gregory, the meaning of the visions dawned upon Gregory. Macrina was the martyr’s relics and she was illuminating deep truths to him.
Amma Macrina passed away in the year 379 AD. Her last recorded words are of a prayer she uttered shortly before passing. “O You Who has power on earth to forgive sins, forgive me, that I may be refreshed and may be found before You when I put off my body, without defilement on my soul. But may my soul be received into Your hands spotless and undefiled, as an offering before You.”