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.” 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.” 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.
Macrina and Basil
By the time her brother Basil returned from Athens, where he had gained a reputation as rhetorician after a long course of classical and forensic studies, his home was a far cry from the original, wealthy Roman domus of his youth. According to Gregory, Basil’s success had made him rather smug and arrogant, and Macrina had no hesitation in pointing it out, while encouraging him to pursue a humble, monastic life.
Basil had already been attracted by the new ideal of monastic life, particularly through the writings of the monk Eustathius of Sabaste, but Gregory mentions only Macrina’s intervention, which had probably a deeper and more personal impact on Basil’s life.
Eventually, after spending some time visiting newly-founded monastic centers in Egypt and Syria, Basil concluded that the model of monasticism Macrina had founded at home – an ordinary life of housework, prayer, and service to others – was more congenial to a true Christian life. “How will [a Christian] give evidence of his compassion,” he asked, “if he has cut himself off from association with other persons? And how will he exercise long-suffering, if no one contradicts his wishes?”
With this new vision, Basil founded or reformed several monasteries, compiling two Scripture-based books of instructions (Shorter Rules and Longer Rules) for their members. After becoming bishop of Caesarea, he continued his charitable activities. Through a persistent program of fund-raising, he was able to build a large complex of facilities which included a hospital and convalescent home, a home for the orphans and elderly, and the first hospital for lepers, all staffed by physicians and nurses.
Macrina’s influence became manifest not only in her brother’ life decisions, but also in his understanding of Christian compassion in a selfish culture where land-owners cherished their goods to the point of turning calamities into opportunities for profit.
Macrina and Gregory
Gregory has no qualms in recognizing Macrina’s positive influence on his life. In 377, when Emperor Valens banished him from his position as bishop of Nyssa, it was Macrina who snapped her brother out of his whining by reminding him to count his blessings and recognize God as the sole reason for any of his achievements. “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 recognize 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?”
Macrina died in 379 of an illness after a long life of service. Gregory wrote two works about her: The Life of Macrina, a short biographical description, and On the Soul and Resurrection, an account of the Socratic-style dialogue he held with her while she laid on her deathbed. The hagiographic nature of the first work has led some to doubt its historical accuracy, while others have reduced the second to a literary device used by Gregory to express his thoughts. By presenting himself as the questioning disciple and Macrina as the steadfast teacher, in fact, Gregory was able to explore his natural, contradictory feelings in the face of death, while providing a balance in her rational answers.
In any case, this is the Macrina Gregory wants us to know: a strong, resolute woman who was firmly committed to the welfare of others and the glory of God, and an active participant in the ongoing exchange of ideas which characterized the lives of Basil, Gregory, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus. If so, she fully deserves the designation of “fourth Cappadocian.”
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of St. Macrina, Richard Clay & Sons, 1916, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/gregory_macrina_1_life.htm
 Basil of Caesarea, Longer Rules 7, as quoted in Michael Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2011, p. 110
 Gregory, The Life of St. Macrina.
Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.