Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This week I’m featuring Part 1 of Amma Macrina the Younger.
“May you who have power on earth to forgive sins, forgive me, that I may draw breath and that I be found in your presence, “having shed my body and without spot or wrinkle” in the form of my soul, and that my soul may be innocent and spotless and may be received into your hands like incense in your presence.”
“May you who cut through the fire of the flaming sword and assigned to paradise him who was crucified with you and entrusted to your pity, remember me too in your kingdom, because I too have been crucified with you…”
In 327 AD, Amma Macrina was born to an aristocratic, Christian family as the first of ten children who would go on to shape Christian theology and practice as we know it. Macrina was older sister to Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, two of the greatest theologians of their age, and of any age in church history. Both were incredibly influential in the fight for orthodox, Trinitarian doctrine, and both were shaped and influenced by their elder sister, Macrina.
Amma Macrina’ parents were Basil the Elder, a renowned saint and bishop of the church, and Emmelia of Caesarea. Near the onset of labor, at the end of Emmelia’s pregnancy, she fell asleep and had a vision. A brilliant figure appeared and prophesied the destiny of the child by repeating the name Thecla three times. Thecla was an influential early church woman who was taught by Paul the Apostle.
Her mother, Emmelia, began her schooling not in the traditional styles of the age, but raised her on a steady diet of the Proverbs and Psalms. Gregory of Nyssa, her brother, said of her as her biographer, “Nor was she ignorant of any part of the Psalter, but at stated times she recited every part of it…the Psalter was her constant companion, like a good fellow-traveller that never deserted her.” Her life as inundated with scripture from a young age. Parents of our age could take a lesson out of Emmelia’s method, what better way to raise a child than on the very words and wisdom of God?
By the age of twelve, Macrina was famous for her beauty and had no shortage of suitors looking to arrange an eventual marriage as was common for the day. Her father selected an eminent young man, known for his character, integrity and ambition. However, the young man died suddenly before a marriage could be finalized. Macrina, determined to serve Christ, rebuffed any other suitor and dedicated her life God. She claimed that the young man was not dead but alive to God, and as such could not marry another.
As Macrina grew, she had a hand in forming the lives of her brothers and sisters. When Basil returned from school convinced of his own worthiness and disdaining all those around him as less than him, Macrina swiftly brought correction to his arrogant attitude. Basil, at Macrina’s behest planted a monastery for men in the same place she had begun mentoring and teaching women in the spiritual life. The format of the community was largely determined by Macrina, and solidified by Basil. Basil’s writings on the spiritual life were in large part informed by his sister.
Upon Basil’s death, Macrina brought comfort to their brother Gregory and taught deeply on the nature of death and resurrection, helping to form Gregory’s own ideas regarding the heavenly and spiritual life. It is a wonder that today the church struggles to build up women leaders when it was women leaders that gave shape to some of the greatest minds in church history.
Amma Macrina convinced her mother to give up the life of riches that they had grown accustomed to. Though there was great wealth in the family, Macrina and her mother lived and served with the hired hands. Forsaking the comforts that they had known in order to live a simple life removed the hindrances wealth can add to the spiritual life. As Jesus counseled the rich, young ruler, “Sell all you have, give to the poor, and follow me.” So was the practice, teaching, and way of life for Amma Macrina.
When describing the life of the community led by Macrina, it was said, “For no anger or jealousy, no hatred or pride, was observed in their midst, nor anything else of this nature, since they had cast away all vain desires for honour and glory, all vanity, arrogance and the like. Continence was their luxury, and obscurity their glory. Poverty, and the casting away of all material superfluities like dust from their bodies, was their wealth.”
Her resolve brought hope to her family and those around her. When her younger brother Naucratius passed away suddenly grief threatened to overwhelm her family and her mother in particular. However, she consistently quieted her fear and grief before the Lord and sought his counsel. Her example helped her family struggle through the tragic loss.
When Gregory was sullen due to the conflict he had with the emperor of the day and the many church conflicts he had been dealing with, Macrina reminded her brother of the incredible call on his life. She said “…you 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 recognise 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?”
When Gregory reflected on the life of his sister, he said, “I think she revealed to the bystanders that divine and pure love of the invisible bridegroom, which she kept hidden and nourished in the secret places of the soul, and she published abroad the secret disposition of her heart – her hurrying towards Him Whom she desired, that she might speedily be with Him…”
Amma Macrina taught that the earthly life was to be spent in anticipation of the heavenly life. The thrust of spirituality was to anticipate the life of the age to come. Of utmost importance was the formation of the interior life. As all of creation speaks of an invisible creator, so does the invisible world of man’s inner life speak volumes to an intelligence far beyond his capabilities.
Psalm 19 declares that all of creation proclaims the glory of its Creator. To Amma Macrina, that could be seen by considering the delicate balance of creation. The way the heat of the sun draws water to the clouds in order to cover the earth with the splendour of rain, the swirl of the planets and the revolution of the earth, are all a Divine spectacle held in balance by a “Divine power, working with skill and method, is manifesting itself in this actual world, and, penetrating each portion, combines those portions with the whole and completes the whole by the portions, and encompasses the universe with a single all-controlling force, self-centred and self-contained, never ceasing from its motion, yet never altering the position which it holds.”
In the same way that the Creator is distinct from creation, working and operating within creation, so the soul of man, his inner life, is distinct from merely his natural existence. She called man, “a little world in himself.” The touch of his hand does not in and of itself communicate knowledge, it is the ability to reason and grasp that allows the individual to grasp knowledge. Thus our eyes and senses interpret the world and betray a higher world of thought. Man’s inner life dominates his existence and gives rise to a groping towards the unknown.
She defined the soul as something higher than mere physical awareness, it was, “an essence created, and living, and intellectual, transmitting from itself to an organized and sentient body the power of living and of grasping objects of sense, as long as a natural constitution capable of this holds together.”
But even if the inner life man, his ability to contemplate think and rise above himself in search of God, demonstrates the existence of God, this does not mean that the inner life of man IS God (as some have postulated). Man is an “image of God” not an exact representation. An image gives likeness and points towards something far grander, but it is not the thing itself. If God is a artist, then man is his painting, indicating something about the one who created. All of creation, including the interior life of man point towards God, the creator of all.
Though all of creation speaks of a Creator, creation cannot perfectly define the One who went before. Creation is limited in its ability to communicate the nature of an unlimited being. By very fact of being the progenitor of all, God must be separate from all. Da Vinci’s paint will never perfectly define the image captured.