May 30, 2020

Life of Saint Macrina the Elder, Grandmother of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa

St. Macrina the Elder (Feast Day - May 30)

Saint Macrina the Elder was from Neocaesarea in Pontus and was born in the middle of the third century to a noble family. Her teacher in the doctrines and piety of the Christian faith was Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus, the first Bishop and Enlightener of Neocaesarea, who died between 270 and 275. There Macrina married a man, whose name we do not know, and among her children was Basil the Elder, who later became the father of a holy family, which includes such renowned saints as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Macrina the Younger.

During the persecution of Maximinus, Macrina fled from her native town with her husband, and had to endure many privations for around seven years. She was thus a confessor of the faith during the last violent storm that burst over the early Church. Saint Gregory the Theologian describes what she and those with her endured in his Funeral Oration to Basil the Great:

"There was a persecution, the most frightful and severe of all; I mean, as you know, the persecution of Maximinus, which, following closely upon those which immediately preceded it, made them all seem gentle, by its excessive audacity, and by its eagerness to win the crown of violence in impiety. It was overcome by many of our champions, who wrestled with it to the death, or nearly to the death, with only life enough left in them to survive their victory, and not pass away in the midst of the struggle; remaining to be trainers in virtue, living witnesses, breathing trophies, silent exhortations, among whose numerous ranks were found Basil's paternal ancestors, upon whom, in their practice of every form of piety, that period bestowed many a fair garland. So prepared and determined were they to bear readily all those things on account of which Christ crowns those who have imitated His struggle on our behalf...

They betook themselves to a thicket on the mountains of Pontus, of which there are many deep ones of considerable extent, with very few comrades of their flight, or attendants upon their needs. Let others marvel at the length of time, for their flight was exceedingly prolonged, to about seven years, or a little more, and their mode of life, delicately nurtured as they were, was straitened and unusual, as may be imagined, with the discomfort of its exposure to frost and heat and rain; and the wilderness allowed no fellowship or converse with friends, a great trial to men accustomed to the attendance and honor of a numerous retinue."

In the Life of Macrina the Younger, written by her brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa, he writes of his grandmother and why his sister was named after her:

"Some time ago, there had been a celebrated Macrina in our family, our father's mother. At the time of the persecutions she had suffered bravely for her confession of faith in Christ, and it was in honor of her that the child was given this name by her parents."

Before Saint Macrina the Elder died, probably in the 340's, we are informed by Saint Basil the Great that she played a crucial role in the education of her grandchildren and their spiritual formation, making sure to impart upon them the blessed teachings of her spiritual father Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus. The first quote comes from Basil's Letter 204 to the Church in Neocaesarea and the second from Letter 223:

"What clearer evidence can there be of my faith, than that I was brought up by my grandmother, a blessed woman, who came from you? I mean the celebrated Macrina who taught me the words of the blessed Gregory; which, as far as memory had preserved down to her day, she cherished herself, while she fashioned and formed me, while yet a child, upon the doctrines of piety."

"The teaching about God which I had received as a boy from my blessed mother and my grandmother Macrina, I have ever held with increased conviction. On my coming to ripe years of reason I did not shift my opinions from one to another, but carried out the principles delivered to me by my parents. Just as the seed when it grows is first tiny and then gets bigger but always preserves its identity, not changed in kind though gradually perfected in growth, so I reckon the same doctrine to have grown in my case through gradually advancing stages. What I hold now has not replaced what I held at the beginning."

It can be safe to say, therefore, that Saint Macrina the Elder played a pivotal role in establishing a sanctified foundation for a family in which all its members are glorified and commemorated in the Church as Saints and Fathers.