Everyone should have a big brother or sister. An older sibling can help raise you, serve as an unofficial teacher, and provide life advice and guidance. He or she can be an example, someone to look up to. He or she can knock you back down to size when you get a little too big for your britches, but can also stand up for you and protect you from bullies. A good big sister or big brother is a priceless treasure.
St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Basil the Great would surely agree. They were brothers, two of the Cappadocian Fathers, who were responsible for advancing our understanding of the Trinity. They are revered as saints. Both of them, however, would give the true credit to St. Macrina the Younger, one of the best big sisters anyone ever had.
Macrina was born around the year 327, the oldest of ten children. Her family was well-established and quite wealthy, and had been deeply committed Christians for generations. Macrina was named for her grandmother, Macrina the Elder, who survived persecution by the emperors Decius and Diocletian.
When Macrina the Younger was 12, her parents arranged for her to be married. But just before the wedding, her fiancé died. This tragedy changed the course of Macrina’s life. From then on, she saw Christ as her husband. Although many men wanted her as their bride, and her parents encouraged her to marry, she refused. Instead, she became a nun and dedicated herself to a life of chastity and asceticism.
Not long after her fiancé’s death, her father also passed away. Though she was still an adolescent, Macrina served as a pillar of emotional strength for her mother and siblings. She resolved to remain by her mother’s side throughout her life.
Macrina was deeply committed to following Christ. She rejected a Classical education, studying Scripture and sacred writings instead. She then provided spiritual education to her siblings, particularly her youngest brother Peter, for whom she served as “father, teacher, tutor, mother, giver of all good advice.”
Her example of holiness and asceticism had a profound influence on her family. She persuaded her mother Emmelia to abandon her lavish standard of living, free her slaves, and embrace a life of simplicity.
Macrina turned the family estate into a monastery and convent, which became renowned for its generosity and charity. When a drought caused the crops to fail in 369, Macrina and Peter searched the countryside looking for starving children who had been abandoned by families that couldn’t feed them. They adopted these children and raised them in the convent.
Macrina treated her brothers with a blend of encouragement and straight talk. When her brother Basil returned from college, he was acting cocky and arrogant and planned to pursue fame as a rhetorician. Macrina called him out and deflated his ego. Instead, she persuaded him to become a monk. Like his sister, Basil focused on an ordinary life of service to others instead of withdrawing from the world. As he said, “How will [a Christian] give evidence of his compassion, if he has cut himself off from association with other persons?”
Macrina gave the same big-sister treatment to Gregory, with whom she shared a belief in universal salvation. When Gregory reluctantly agreed to become Bishop of Nyssa, he found himself assailed by rival factions. When he was banished by Emperor Valens, he bemoaned his plight to Macrina. She pointed out his “failure to recognize the good things which come from God” and reminded him, “Churches send you forth and call upon you as ally and reformer, and you do not see the grace in this?”
Gregory was so inspired by Macrina that he wrote a biography of her, saying that “a life of this quality should not be forgotten for the future.” In Life of Macrina, Gregory said that she had “raised herself… to the highest limit of human virtue.”
In the year 379, Macrina fell ill. True to her ascetic ways, she refused a bed even in illness, choosing to lay on the ground instead. Gregory claimed to have had a deathbed conversation with her, which he recorded in Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection. He said that her final prayer ended with these words, “May my soul be received into your hands, blameless and spotless, as an offering before you.”
Macrina is justly venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions. Her mother and brothers are also saints thanks to her inspiration and guidance. If Basil and Gregory were Cappadocian Fathers, Macrina deserves to be remembered as the Cappadocian Mother. She was a standard of holiness for Early Christian women, and she remains an example of a great big sister to this day.
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