Macrina the Younger – The Fourth Cappadocian

Basil’s and Gregory of Nyssa’s sister Macrina is less known, in spite of the powerful influence she exercised on her whole family.

Macrina’s enthusiasm for an ascetic life was contagious. When her mother transferred the family to their estate in Annisa, Pontus (on the southern coast of the Black Sea), Macrina persuaded her to turn the place into a religious community. There, the family and some like-minded people lived together, devoting their time to prayer, service to others, and “endless hymnody.”[2] Eventually, Emmelia freed all her slaves, so that everyone in the community could live on equal terms.

 

The Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus) are well known for their theological contributions to the doctrines of the Trinity and the nature of Christ. Basil’s and Gregory of Nyssa’s sister Macrina is less known, in spite of the powerful influence she exercised on her whole family.

Turning the Family in a New Direction

Macrina was born in Caesarea, Cappadocia (in today’s Turkey), around 327 AD. Her family had a reputation for piety. She is called “the younger” because her grandmother – a survivor of the persecutions by emperors Decius and Diocletian – bore the same name. Both of Macrina’s grandfathers had died as martyrs.

When she turned twelve, her parents, Basil the Elder and Emmelia, arranged for her to marry a young man who was planning to become a lawyer. Macrina agreed to the marriage, but her prospective husband died suddenly before the wedding could take place. Apparently, Macrina had no problem finding other suitors, but refused to consider another marriage.

Initially, her decision might have been dictated by her respect for her fiancée’s memory. Eventually, it became a religious choice. Celibacy and ascetism had become increasingly valued as ways of devoting more time to God in a busy world where Christians, no longer persecuted, were easily caught up in the materialistic and prideful ambitions of their age.

At home, Macrina helped her mother in her household duties, which increased in 340 after her father’s death. There were other children in the family (possibly a total of nine), but only four are remembered besides Macrina: Basil, Gregory, Naucratius, and Peter, who was born just before his father’s death. Peter was basically raised by Macrina, who was to him (in Gregory’s words) “father, teacher, tutor, mother, giver of all good advice.”[1] Eventually, Basil, Gregory, and Peter became bishops, while Naucratius became a famous jurist.

Macrina’s enthusiasm for an ascetic life was contagious. When her mother transferred the family to their estate in Annisa, Pontus (on the southern coast of the Black Sea), Macrina persuaded her to turn the place into a religious community. There, the family and some like-minded people lived together, devoting their time to prayer, service to others, and “endless hymnody.”[2] Eventually, Emmelia freed all her slaves, so that everyone in the community could live on equal terms.

Over time, the community became well-known for its radical generosity. For example, in 369, during one of the worst droughts in the region, Macrina did more than feed those who knocked at her doors. Together with her brother Peter, she searched the area for children who were abandoned by their starving parents and adopted them into her community.

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