Macrina was born around the year 327, the daughter of Basil the Elder and Emmelia, both of whom were later revered as saints, and the elder sister of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. She was known as Macrina the Younger to distinguish her from her paternal grandmother, who was known as Macrina the Elder. The elder Macrina had lived during the days of the persecution of the emperor Diocletian, and she and her husband had fled into hiding, living into the time of the emperor Constantine and the legalization of Christianity and eventual imperial favor given to the Christian religion.
Macrina was sought after as a bride because of her beauty, her wisdom, and her illustrious birth. She was betrothed at the age of twelve, after the custom of the day. Upon the early death of her betrothed, she refused all other suitors, devoting herself to a life of virginity, asceticism, and prayer. When her brother Basil returned home from the university at Athens, an accomplished rhetoritician puffed up with youthful pride and supercilious disdain for the local officials, Macrina took him in hand, deflating his ego and persuading him to forsake earthly glory and imperial office for the work and ministry of a bishop in Christ’s Church.
On the death of her father, Basil, Macrina and her mother formed a monastic community of women who devoted themselves to the feeding and care of the poor, the hungry, and the sick. Many of the women for whom they cared joined the community, as did women of worldly means. Macrina’s attention to her younger brothers both before and after the death of their parents led them to give her the affectionate (and descriptive) epithet, “the Teacher”. Three of the brothers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste became bishops. Basil the Great became a leader in the development of Eastern monasticism. Another brother, Dios of Antioch, named in an ambiguous source, was the abbot of a monastery in Antioch, and founded another famous monastery in Constantinople.
Macrina ended her earthly life in the convent that she had founded on the family estate in Pontus, on July 19, 379. Her surviving brother, Gregory of Nyssa, attended her in her dying hours and wrote a moving account of her death in his Vita Macrimae Junioris (Life of Macrina the Younger), the chief source of knowledge of her life. Her ability as a theologian is attested in her dying prayer, as recorded by Gregory:
“You, O Lord have freed us from the fear of death. You have made the end of this life the beginning to us of true life. For a season you rest our bodies in sleep, and you awaken them again at the last trumpet. You give our earth, which you have fashioned with your hands, to the earth to keep in safety. One day you will take again what you have given, transfigurin with immortality and grace our mortal and unsightly remains. You have saved us from the curse and from sin, having become both for our sakes. You have broken the heads of the dragon who had seized us with his jaws, in the yawning gulf of disobedience. You have shown us the way of resurrection, having broken the gates of hell, and have brought to nothing him who had the power of death – the devil. You have given a sign to those who fear you in the symbol of the Holy Cross, to destroy the adversary and save our life.
“O God eternal, to Whom I have been attached from my mother’s womb, Whom my soul has loved with all its strength, to Whom I have dedicated both my flesh and my soul from my youth until now – give me an angel of light to conduct me to the place of refreshment, where is the water of rest, in the bosom of the holy Fathers. You who broke the flaming sword and restored to Paradise the man that was crucified with you and implored your mercies, remember me, too, in your kingdom; because I, too, was crucified with you, having nailed my flesh to the cross for fear of you, and of your judgments have I been afraid. Let not the terrible chasm separate me from your elect, nor let the slanderer stand against me in the way, nor let my sin be found before your eyes, if in anything I have sinned in word or deed or thought, led astray by the weakness of our nature. O One Who has the power on earth to forgive sins, forgive me, that I may be refreshed and may be found before you when I put off my body, without defilement on my soul. But may my soul be received into your spotless and undefiled hands, as an offering before you.”
Gregory records that after saying these words, she sealed her eyes and mouth and heart with the Cross. Gradually, because of the fever and the dryness of her mouth, she was unable to speak, and those with her could recognize that she was praying only by the trembling of her lips and the movements of her hands. When evening came, a light was brought in, and Macrina opened her eyes and looked toward the light, wanting to repeat the thanksgiving sung at the Lighting of the Lamps (the hymn Phos hilaron). Her voice failed, and she contented herself by repeating the hymn in her heart and by lifting up her hands, while her lips moved to the words. When she finished the prayer, she signed herself with the Cross, and “she drew a great deep breath and closed her life and her prayer together.”
prepared from various sources
Merciful God, who called your servant Macrina to reveal in her life and her teaching the riches of your grace and truth: Mercifully grant that we, following her example, may seek after your wisdom and live according to her way; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.