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How the Church Has Changed the World: Woman and Teacher

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

"What are you writing, my old friend?" said a kindly man, looking with care upon a figure lost in thought, with parchment before him.


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macrina"Ah, it's you, Gregory," he said, and wiped a tear from his eye.

"The good woman, then," said Gregory of Nazianzus.

"More precious than rubies," said his friend, also named Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa.

"I wish we could trade places," said he of Nazianzus.  "You in the field of battle, defending the faithful from the heretics," he said, and he was not speaking metaphorically.

"You're braver at that than I am," said the Bishop of Nyssa.

"We have much to be thankful for, and much to mourn."

Much to mourn indeed.  The man at table had been rocked by the death of his brother, the great Saint Basil, and had traveled for comfort back to the small community of Christians established in northern Cappadocia by his mother and his sister Macrina.  He needed to talk to his sister, because he was a sensitive soul, more given to the poetry of theological insight than to the brutality of war in the world.  When he arrived at their modest home on the River Iris, he found that Macrina too was dying.  It was almost more than he could bear.

Nursery of saints

I don't know what our schools nurse.  It usually doesn't seem to be holiness.  But that's what the Christian family is to be: a seminary of love, human and divine, with its tapestry of relationships reaching to friends, the poor and the sick, and fellow Christians, made one in the worship of God.

Macrina must be the patron saint of big sisters! She was the eldest child in a large and pious family, and among her younger brothers were Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Saint Peter of Sebaste, the littlest of them all.  Macrina received a thorough education in Scripture and theology—which she and her brothers called "philosophy."  It wasn't a dry academic subject.  It was a way of life, the loving pursuit of wisdom.  And what or Who is wisdom, if not the second Person of the Trinity, Jesus the Son of God?

"You know," said Gregory to his friend, "she was a woman of great beauty."

"How could I not know that?" he smiled.  For Gregory of Nazianzus too was like a member of that family.

"Have I told you the story of her marriage?  She was on the verge of womanhood, and our parents betrothed her to a very fine young man, whom she loved.  But God took him away, and one suitor after another came for her, but she turned them all down."

"Your mother and father were not wealthy people."

"No, not at all.  But Macrina said she'd been married once, and that was forever."  And the brother smiled, because he could see in his mind's eye her lovely eyes, set in determination.  Nobody could change Macrina's mind once she saw what God wanted of her.

"She was the most learned woman I ever met."

"Macrina gave me and Peter everything she had.  She was our sister and spiritual mother and teacher.  Basil was a little older than we were, but he too sat at her feet and took in her wisdom."

"She was a Christian Socrates," said her brother Gregory.

"She was a sister and mother to many other people too," said Gregory of Nazianzus, with a grateful heart.  For after their mother died, Macrina became the head of the whole fruitful community, one of constant prayer, study, care for the poor, and worship of God.  The head, but when you went there, you couldn't tell the difference between Macrina and the other maidens, because she was their leader in piety and instruction, not in outward show.  The mountains soared above their land by the river as it flowed into the great Pontic Sea, but their peaks were anthills by comparison with Macrina's elevated mind, and the sea was a puddle by comparison with the capacity of her soul to drink in the love and the wisdom of God.

"She was a Christian Socrates," said her brother Gregory.

Bringing in the sheaves

"You haven't told me what you're writing."

"When I arrived at the house, my mind was troubled.  Basil had died, and I thought, how can I believe in the immortality of the soul when death feels so unnatural to us, something to fear and flee?"

The friend Gregory furrowed his brow.  "You're a Bishop of the Church."

"A station I tried my hardest to avoid."

"Nevertheless."

"Nevertheless, I'm a man, or a worm, take it as you will."

"I meant no harm, my friend."

"I know," said Gregory the brother.  "She lay dying, and it was she who gave me comfort."

"You're writing down your conversation?  On death, and the promises that Christ has made to those who believe?"

"On death, yes.  Not on the promises.  Rather on the nature of the soul, and why it's reasonable to believe that it survives the death of the body, because the soul is not limited to, or composed of, the atoms that make up the body, and since it is not a composite of lesser elements, it does not cease to exist just because the body with which it has been united loses the character of something the soul may fill and employ and direct.  I'm explaining myself imperfectly," he said.

"This is high philosophy," said the friend.

"There was something higher than that," said the brother.

"That must be the resurrection of the body."

"Here is what she said to me," said the brother.  "The Lord has said, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone, but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.  So the seed dissolves in the soil, spongy and porous, mingling with the soil, and is transformed into a root, a shoot that breaks through the earth, then a stalk with its joints like knees, then the ear heavy with corn.  Where were all these before the seed's death in the soil?  Yet they all came from that grain.  So God with the touch of an artist brings forth from the mortal body the immortal body, which is the same as it was before, as the ear of corn is in some sense the same as the seed, but not the same, because it will be raised in glory, exalted, splendid, magnificent.  She could hardly breathe out the words."

"She was a remarkable woman."

"I call her simply the Teacher," said the brother.  "And the Maiden."

Filaments of holiness

Gregory completed that work, a powerful treatise on the soul and the reasonableness of the resurrection of the flesh.  It came to be known in Greek as Ta Makrinia.

If you see an icon of Gregory of Nyssa, you'll probably see his friend Gregory nearby, his brother Basil, and his sister Macrina.  You may also see their grandmother, Saint Macrina the Elder.  The Eastern Orthodox particularly honor the mother and father too, Basil the Elder and Emmelia, known for their piety.

We might add that nothing in the pagan world compares with what this Christian Socrates did, and what praise she inspired in her loyal brother.

Gregory of Nazianzus may have had a young man with him when he and his friend Gregory met in Constantinople two years later, when Emperor Theodosius called a general council, the first at that city, to confirm the truths attested at Nicea in 325.  That young man, his pupil, was Saint Jerome, eventually the translator of the whole of Scripture into Latin.

Theodosius was on fire to drive out the Arians, who had persecuted the orthodox Catholics, but when in 390 he engaged in a massacre at Thessalonika, his long-time associate and friend, the Bishop of Milan, rebuked him sharply and threatened him with excommunication if he did not repent.  The bishop's name was Saint Ambrose, who by that time had baptized and confirmed Saint Augustine, much to the joy of his mother, Saint Monica.

It's impossible to know how wide and how manifold are the effects of one life of holiness.  God has determined to save men by means of men, for it is not good for the man to be alone, and we make up a Church, not a collection of individuals.  The life of Saint Macrina and the many holy lives she touched bear this out.  We might add that nothing in the pagan world compares with what this Christian Socrates did, and what praise she inspired in her loyal brother.

If you go to Cappadocia now, you will still find, after centuries of oppression, some stalwart Christians speaking Greek.  You may see too, in the mountains round the River Iris, "hidden" churches tunneled into peaks and mounds of volcanic rock.  If faithful Christians will someday have to carve out their own hidden places again, we ought to remember the humble and brilliant woman Saint Macrina who in another troubled time sought truth and holiness, not power, and the saints she raised and confirmed.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Woman and Teacher." Magnificat (July, 2019), 211-215.

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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