“Will you not put an end,” she asked, “to your failure to recognise the good things which come from God?”
—The Life of Macrina by Gregory of Nyssa
Every Christian needs an older sister, at least figuratively, someone who has gone into the world ahead of us and can share wisdom in words we can hear. We need someone who can look us in the face, use her own spit to wipe something off our face, fix our hair, and gently encourage us to ‘get back out there!’
Macrina, who lived from around 330-379, is that literal older sister to Gregory of Nyssa. While both end up with ‘saint’ prefixed to their names, Gregory is the more famous. His writings and speeches helped to shape the Nicene Creed, and his theology still rings out in its originality, thoughtfulness, and generosity. But when Gregory, discouraged by interminable church debates, needed to be refreshed and reschooled on the essential qualities of his faith, he turned to his older sister.
What we know of Macrina comes from Gregory’s letter about her death. It’s not too long and fairly readable if you want to engage his writing directly. Here’s a reasonable translation with a long introduction if you’d like to read it.
Macrina was the leader of her household at time when such service was expected of women of her socio-economic class, but she refused to let her life be measured solely by whether she could produce children and perpetuate her name. She felt the same call to monastic life that resonated with many of her brothers (she was one of ten children, and three of her brothers also became saints), and with great faith and confidence, she persuaded her mother to transform their household into a monastery.
Indeed, she became a teacher, leader, and superior of a monastic community there, in a space where differently gendered people lived out their monastic professions. She served as big sister not only to Gregory but to a whole monastic community and, through her brothers, to the whole Eastern pattern of monastic life, which is heavily shaped by their writings. Her life offers inspiration to those of us who lament how little was recorded of early women leaders in the church. One suspects, reading of Macrina’s life, that she was both remarkable and not the only one.
In celebrating her life today, we would be helped to remember the importance of our own big siblings of the faith. These are the people in our life who see us as we are—not our pretentions, or the masks we put up, or the performances we offer, but just us. Loving us without remainder, they also see our shortcomings and know exactly what to say to lift our chins, give us a break, or bring out a smile. I remain persuaded, along with Gregory of Nyssa, that we find our way to faith not through the Nicene Creed but through each of our Macrinas, people whose love opens our eyes to the divine qualities of love.
As I write these words in the middle of the ongoing COVID pandemic, I am finding that we all need a little encouragement from our Macrinas, our big siblings of the faith, both historic and alive. Caring for kids is exhausting (and who even knows about school next year!); we haven’t quite managed to learn a language, or finished our novels, or started a successful sourdough, or learned how to knit, or any of our other goals for lockdown; our finances look rockier than they have in a long time. Our Macrinas see us as we are—God sees us as we are—and, without judgment, are ready to offer some words of encouragement.
[Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Who are your big siblings in faith?
How have they helped you find your way to God?