An Essay On Macrina


In 249 AD, Rome’s coveted scepter of power was taken up by the stern hand of Decius.  His new governing authority ended nearly fifty years of relative calm for the early Church.  Decius, desiring to restore the past glory of Rome, believed that it had become lost because the historically worshipped pagan gods were no longer being honored.  Convinced that the future of Rome was dependent upon the worship of its pagan gods, Decius decreed that Rome’s constituents must sacrifice to these gods, and burn incense before a statue of himself.  Christianity, a faith that historically had not, and theologically could not, participate in such practices, stood in the way of Decius’ desire for a sweeping pagan revival of Rome.  Although Decius began a persecution of Christians, he did not follow the precedent set by his predecessors.  Decius seemed to recognize that persecuting Christians to the death only seeded their faith.  Therefore, his response to Christians who would not bow to his pagan edict was to consider them outlaws, subjecting them to arrest, imprisonment, and torture.

It was during this period of trial that one family’s faith, passing through the crucible, became hardened as steel, and created a legacy that would be important for the Church.  Exiled into the forests to escape the persecution, the family would produce two eminent sons of faith – Gregory, who would later become a bishop, and Basil, who became a famous lawyer and teacher of rhetoric.  The latter son married the daughter of a Christian martyr, deepening the family’s ties with a Christian heritage that was already charged by their experiences in exile.   From this union were born several children who would make deep imprints into the historical pathway of the Church.

Macrina, daughter of Basil, was twelve years old when her parents made arrangements to have her marry an aspiring young lawyer who was a relative of the family.  However, before the marriage could take place, the bridegroom unexpectedly died.  Macrina responded by taking a vow of celibacy, and pledged to lead a life of contemplation.

As Justo González records, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Christian men and women began living solitary lives of contemplation2.  However, the concept of a monastic lifestyle, at the time of Macrina, was becoming quite commonplace.  Various themes such as persecution, rejection of the Church’s eventual ties with state power, and even traces of Gnostic philosophy encouraging a denial of physical comfort, contributed to a great exodus to the deserts, and other places of solitude, of both Christians and non-Christians alike during the early part of the third century.  Most sought to escape the noise and distractions of social life, in exchange for contemplative quietude fostered by remote living.  Worldly riches seemed to many a hindrance to salvation, and so an abandonment of gain often marked the lives of the anchorite.  By reducing life to its barest essentials, those who flocked to the deserts sought to open their minds and hearts to God.  Indeed, this lifestyle seemed to spark wisdom and holiness in the lives of the truly devoted, but it also brought about a pride in the hearts of some who looked down upon those engaged in worldly employment, or who held plush offices in the Church.

Macrina eventually retreated to a family-owned home in Annesi, where she lived out the remainder of her life in monastic service.  Although the historian González does not describe the details of Macrina’s lifestyle, we might well conclude, by how she would influence others, that it was a life marked by a denial of the extravagances of life, and a deep commitment to prayer and study.

While Macrina lived her life of solitude and reflection, and Decius continued his reign of persecution, the Church faced a hard-fought theological battle raging from within.  This battle was known as the Arian controversy – a controversy that indirectly was affected by the life of Macrina.  The conflict began between Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, and Arius, a prominent priest.   They disagreed on the substance of the Word (The second Person of the Trinity, God the Son), and whether the Word had been created before all of creation (Arius’ position), or whether the Word was eternal like God the Father (Alexander’s position).  A deep schism grew between those who agreed with Alexander, and those who sided with Arius, so that it “threatened to divide the entire Eastern church.3”

A council of bishops in Nicea, in 325 AD, attempted to address, among other things, the theological issue of the Arian controversy.  After much heated discourse, the majority agreed to address the issue by means of a stated formula – today known as the Nicene Creed.  However, the creed did not totally squelch Arian thought.  Rather, the heresy continued to survive, being strengthened by any Arian bishop or emperor who came to power.

At a casual glance, it seems that Macrina’s monastic life was far removed from the Arian controversy.  But her influence would touch upon it.  Naucratius, one of her brothers, died unexpectedly in his retirement.  His death had a significant impact on the life of another brother, Basil.  Basil, a younger brother to Macrina, had been provided with the finest opportunities for education, and carried the hopes of his father of becoming a lawyer.  Schooled in Caesarea, Antioch, Constantinople, and Athens, Basil returned to Caesarean society “puffed up in his own wisdom4.”  He had shrugged off Macrina’s warning that he had become prideful and needed to heed the Christian wisdom of the day.  Then, when news of his brother’s untimely death reached him, he was deeply dismayed.  He turned to Macrina for support and counsel.

Macrina centered Basil’s faith on “the joys of religious life5.”  True joy, she taught, came from abdicating worldly pleasures, assuming simple garb and food, and seeking God through a prayerful lifestyle.  Following the death of his brother, Basil was finally able to receive the counsel of his sister.  Resigning from his teaching position, and leaving the accolades of the worldly intelligentsia, he left for Egypt and became “the great teacher of monasticism in the Greek-speaking church6.”  After retiring in Caesarea, Basil became bishop under the reign of an Arian emperor, Valens.  Their differing doctrines clashed, but Basil’s orthodox posture remained steadfast under contest, and he “made significant contribution to the final Trinitarian doctrine7,” and to the defeat of Arianism.  Clearly, his contributions were rooted in the faithfulness of his sister, Macrina, who quieted his proud spirit, and helped shape him during a most formative time.

Macrina had another brother who made remarkable strides for the cause of orthodoxy, Gregory of Nyssa.  Gregory of Nyssa gives us an indication of the reverence and fame that the Church accorded his sister, Macrina, when after a visit with her, he recorded that he had spent time with  “the Teacher8” – a name by which the Church had come to recognize Macrina.

Macrina’s death may give us a glimpse into the life she had lived.  For, on her deathbed she offered consolation to her brother Gregory, who suffered at the sight of her condition.  She let him share his tears and pain with her, and comforted him in his loss.  He left her funeral with the purpose of continuing the work that she, and their brother Basil, had conferred to him.  Clearly, Macrina’s simple, monastic lifestyle had become for others a source of inspiration, and a pool of motivation.

Based on González’ historical account, it does not seem that Macrina left the Church with any significant theological treatises, nor did she become a famous apologetic of her day.  Rather, as portrayed by González, Macrina was a remarkably quiet woman, “often forgotten by historians9.”  Yet, in spite of her hermit-like lifestyle, Macrina was able to leave an indelible mark on the history of the Church through her love, words of counsel, desire to serve, willingness to sacrifice all for Christ, and devotion to the monastic life.  In considering her life, I am reminded of another woman, who, having been placed by God in the appropriate place at the correct time, saved a nation from destruction.  That woman – Esther – was asked by her uncle, Mordecai, “Who knows if you have attained royalty for such a time as this?10”  A similar question might be asked concerning Macrina who was used mightily by God: Who knows if God did not raise her for such a time as that into which she was born?

1 Based on the work of Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol.1, (HarperSanFranciso ©


2 Ibid., pg. 138.

3 Ibid., pg. 162.

4 Ibid., pg. 182.

5 Ibid., pg. 182.

6 Ibid., pg. 183.

7 Ibid., pg. 185.

8 Ibid., pg. 183.

9 Ibid., pg. 181.

10 Esther 4:14 (NAS)