Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-d.c.395):
Life of Macrina
- Migne, Patrologia graeca, 46:960-1000
- ed. and Fr. tr. Vie de Sainte Macrine [par] Grégoire
de Nysse. Introduction, texte critique, traduction, notes et index,
by Pierre Maraval (Paris, Editions du Cerf, 1971) Sources chrétiennes,
- Callaghan, Virgina Woods, in St. Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical
Works, Fathers of the Church 58, (Washington DC: 1967), 159-191
- Corrigan, Kevin, The Life of Saint Macrina, (Toronto:
- Petersen, Joan, M., Handmaids of the Lord, (Kalamazoo,
MI, 1996), 51-86
- Lowther Clarke, W.K., The Life of St. Macrina, (London:
SPCK, 1916) [The text here]
- Ital. Trans. Giannarelli, E., S. Gregorio di Nissa. La
Vita di S. Macrina, (Milan 1988)
- Clark, Elizabeth, A. Ascetic Piety and Women's Faith: Essays
in Late Ancient Christianity. Lewiston, NY: 1986.
- Clark, Elizabeth A. "Authority and Humility: A Conflict
of Values in Fourth-Century Female Monasticism," Byzantinische
Forschungen 9. 1985, pp. 17-33.
- Clark, Elizabeth A. "Ideology, History and the Construction
of 'Woman' in Late Antique Christianity," Journal of Early
Christian Studies 2. 1994, pp 155-184.
- Clark, Elizabeth. A. "Early Christian Women: Sources
and Interpretation," That Gentle Strength. Historical
Perspectives on Women in Christianity, ed. L. L. Coon, K.
J. Hardone, E. W. Sommer. Charlotesville, Virginia: 1990, pp.
- Clark, Elizabeth A. Women in the Early Church. Wilmington,
Delaware: Michael Glazier Inc., 1983. Message of the Fathers of
the Church, vol. 13.
- Clark, Gillian. "Women and Asceticism in Late Antiquity:
The Refusal of Gender and Status," The Ascetic Dimension
in Religious Life and Culture, ed. V. L. Wimbush and Richard
Valantasis. New York: OUP, 1995
- Clark, Gillian. Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian
Life-styles. Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Cloke, Gillian. This Female Man of God. Women and Spiritual
Power in the Patristic Age AD 350-450. London & New York:
- Elm, Susanna K. The Organization and Institutions of Female
Asceticism in Fourth-Century Cappadocia and Egypt. Oxford
D. Phil. thesis, 1987.
- Elm, Susanna K. 'Virgins of God': The Making of Asceticism
in Late Antiuqity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
- Gilchrist, Roberta. Gender and Material Culture. The Archaeology
of Religious Women. New York: 1994.
- Gould, Graham "Women in the Writings of the Fathers:
Language Belief and Reality," Women and the Church.
Ed. W. Sheils and D. Wood, Studies in Church History, 27. Oxford:
Blackwell, 1990, pp. 1-13.
- Momigliano, A. "The Life of St. Macrina by Gregory of
Nyssa" in The Craft of the Ancient Historian. ed.
Eddie and Ober, 443-458.: See also
Momigliano, A. "The Life of St. Macrina by Gregory of Nyssa,"
in Ottavo contributo alla storia degli studi classici e del
mondo antico. Rome: Storia e Letteratura, 1987, 333-347.
- Van Loveren, A. E. D. 'Once again: "the monk and the
martyr": St Anthony and St Macrina", Studia Patristica,
vol 17:2, ed by E Livingstone 1982,528-538
- Wolfskeel, C. "Makrina" in M.E Waithe, (ed.). A
History of Women Philosophers, i. Ancient Women Philosophers
600 BC-AD 500. (Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1987), 139-168.
- Wilson-Kastner, Patricia. "Macrina: virgin and teacher"
, Andrews University Seminary Studies 17 (1979), 105-117
ABSTRACT: In two major works which provide a personal and intellectual
portrait of his sister Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa depicts his sister
as a woman sage, the ideal Christian philosopher. In the Life
of Macrina she is shown as a second Thecla, the strong teacher
who guides others to the angelic life" and in On the Soul
and Resurrection Macrina's death parallels Socrates' in Plato's
the Phaedo, modelling Macrina as the Christian Socrates. Macrina
perfectly exemplifies the virgin-philosopher, a role open to women
or men who would enter this arduous but deifying life in Christ.
by W.K. Lowther Clarke
I. THE LIFE OF GREGORY OF NYSSA
READERS to whom the subject is unfamiliar, should be quite clear
in their minds from the outset as to the distinction between the
three Gregories who played an important part in the Church history
of Asia Minor.
(1) Gregory Thaumaturgus (i. e. " Worker of Wonders).
[note: See the article on him in the Dictionary of Christian
Biography, and Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, II, 349-352)]
He was born of heathen parents at NeoCaesarea in Pontus; having
gone to Palestine for his education, he came under the influence
of Origen, then living at Caesarea, and was converted to Christianity.
He became bishop of his native city in 240, and carried out the
work of evangelising the district most thoroughly. Basil, brother
of Gregory of Nyssa, was brought up on the family estate at Annesi,
near NeoCaesarea, by his grandmother Macrina, who used to
repeat to him the very words used by Gregory Thaumaturgus.[note;
See Basil, ep. 223] Gregory of Nyssa wrote the life of Gregory
Thaumaturgus, and to the latter's influence may be ascribed the
strong element of Origenism in his writings. Through the same
channel Origen's teaching reached Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus,
who during their stay at their monastery in Pontus compiled the Philocalia, or collection of choice passages from Origen.
(2) Gregory of Nazianzus
was the friend and contemporary of Basil at the University of
Atl1ens, in the pioneer monastery in Pontus, and later on as brother
bishop. Soon after Basil became bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia
in 370 he forced his friend to accept the see of Sasima, a dusty
village where the post changed horses. In 379 he went to Constantinople
as orthodox bishop, his sermons preached there have become famous.
He died about 390.
(3) Gregory of Nyssa was the younger brother of Basil and author of the present book.
A brief sketch of his life must now be given.
He came of a race of landed proprietors, who had estates in Cappadocia
and Pontus and had won honourable distinction by their steadfast
devotion to the faith under persecution. His parents, Basil and
Emmelia, had ten children, of whom four sons and five daughters
survived infancy. The eldest child, Macrina, is the subject of
this biography; the other four daughters all made satisfactory
marriages. St. Basil the Great was the eldest son. Next to him
came Naucratius, who was killed on a hunting expedition in Pontus.
Gregory and Peter, the two youngest sons, became bishops eventually
of Nyssa and Sebaste. It would be difficult to find in the whole
of Church history a family so uniformly brilliant.
Gregory was born about 335, probably at Caesarea. Apparently he
showed no special promise as a boy, nor did he share Basil's educational
advantages. See p. 51 of this book, where Macrina, speaking of
his fame, says: ;; You that have little or no equipment within
yourself for such success." His first serious religious impressions
seem to have dated from a service at the chapel of the Forty Martyrs.
As he slept in an arbour near the chapel he dreamed that the martyrs
beat him with rods. When he awoke, he was filled with remorse,
and soon afterwards became a Reader. But presently, much to the
disgust of Gregory of Nazianzus, he deserted his post in order
to become a professor of rhetoric. [note: 1 Greg. Naz., Ep. 1,
translated in Nicene Fathers series Vol. VII, p. 459.]
About this time he married a Lady named Theosebeia, if this is
the true interpretation of some difficult passages. But his growing
seriousness, and the example of his brothers and sister, led him
before long to espouse the ascetic life and become a member of
the monastery in Pontus, where he spent some quiet and studious
years. Indeed, he was by nature far better fitted to be a student
than a man of affairs. A striking example of the simplicity of
his character is afforded by the methods he adopted in order to
heal a quarrel between his brother Basil and their uncle Gregory.
He actually forged a letter purporting to come from the latter
and asking for a reconciliation. In Basil's 58th Epistle may be
read the crushing rebuke administered by the elder brother.
In 370 Basil ha(l become bishop and metropolitan of Caesarea.
He found the post one of great difficulty, especially in view
of the opposition of some of his suffragans. In 372, wishing to
strengthen his position by surrounding himself with men whom he
could trust, he forced his friend Gregory to accept the bishopric
of Sasima, and his brother that of Nyssa. We need not recount
in detail the troubles that pursued Gregory during his episcopate.
He was deposed and banished in 376, but was recalled on the death
of the Emperor Valens in 378.
On Januarv 1, 379, Basil died; in September of the same year Gregory
attended a Council at Antioch, after which he determined to visit
his sister Macrina in the monastery at Annesi. The visit is described
at length in the present book. When the funeral ceremonies were
over, he returned to his diocese, only to find a sad state of
confusion. Having introduced a certain measure of order, he set
out on his travels once more, and visited Babylon with a view
of reforming the Church there. After this he went to the holy
places of Palestine, where nothing but disillusionment awaited
him. In 381 he was present at the Council of Constantinople, and
on several subsequent occasions we find him at that city. His
death occurred about 395.
Gregory of Nyssa is a figure of great importance in the history
of Christian doctrine and the eventual triumph of Nicene orthodoxy.
For a sketch of his doctrinal system the reader is referred to
J. H. Srawley's edition of The Catechetical Oration, uniform
with the present volume.
II. THE LIFE OF ST. MACRINA
Gregory's account of his sister's Life is couched in the form
of a letter addressed to the monk Olympius, who had been with
him at the Council of Antioch.
There is as yet no critical edition of this part of Gregory's
works, and it has been necessary to use the text given in Migne's Patrologia Greaca, XLVI, 960 ff. [Note: 1 For some remarks
on the text of Gregory, see the introduction to Srawley, The
Catechetical Orations of Gregory of Nyssa (Cambridge, 1903).
The absence of a good text is a serious drawback in a theological
treatise where much depends on niceties of language, but in the
present case the narrative is so straightforward that no special
inconvenience arises. With very few exceptions there is little
margin for doubt as to the meaning of the Greek. To reproduce
it satisfactorily in English is another matter. In the opening
pages of his letter Gregory indulges his well-known rhetorical
tendency so freely that it is difficult to find suitable equivalents
in English for all the synonyms which he employs. Accordingly
in a few places a synonym that adds nothing to the sense has been
omitted in the present translation. Occasionally a sentence has
been recast with some freedom, in order to make a readable narrative
for the English reader.
But when Gregory gets to grips with his subject and describes
his arrival at the monastery, the narrative becomes so clear and
straightforward as to present no difficulties to the translator.
A literal version of the artless and beautiful tale is all that
is needed. That Gregory's style should undergo so remarkable transformation
at this point is a convincing proof that he is giving a true account
of actual facts, written down shortly after their occurrence.
It is surprising that a story of antiquity, so charmingly told
and full of human interest, should have attracted so little attention.
Hitherto it has not been accessible to any but scholars. The Latin
version in Migne is a useful guide to the meaning of the Greek,
but cannot be relied on, as in places it is merely a paraphrase.
Had the story been written in the Greek of the fourth century
BC instead of that of the fourth century AD, it
would probably have been one of the world's classics.
No attempt has been made to break up the matter into numbered
sections; this will be the task of a future critical editor. But
the pages of Migne are given in the margin, and a number of paragraph
headings provided for the convenience of the reader.
III. THE MONASTERIES OF PONTUS
The motherland of monasticism was Egypt. The movement there assumed
two main forms, the eremitic and the coenobitic.
St. Antony (c. 290-346) was the pioneer of the former, the devotees
of which led solitary lives in their cells, either quite independently,
or grouped around some central church, as at Nitria or Scete.
In some cases there was a considerable amount of organisation,
but the solitary or eremitic life lived in common was always quite
different from the true common life.
Pachomius (c. 290346) was the originator of coenobitism,
which was first put into practice at his monastery of Tabennisi.
In 357-8 Basil visited Egypt and returned home, resolved to initiate
the Pachomian mode of life in his own country. Eustathius of Sebaste
was already working on the same lines, and the unorganised ascetic
life in the world, to which Gregory of Nazianzus refers in his
works, had paved the way for monasticism proper. Basil called
his friend Gregory to fulfil a promise made in student days at
Athens and join him in the ascetic life. This Gregory eventually
did, though he was unable at first to pay more than a brief visit.
Basil chose for his experiment a spot of much natural beauty on
the banks of the Iris. At Annesi, on the opposite side of the
river, his mother Emmelia and sister Macrina were living on the
family estate. Basil lout himself at the head of a community of
men like-minded with himself, while Macrina, as described in the
present book, began to organise a monastery on her side of the
river. Basil took Pachomius' coenobium at Tabennisi for his model,
with certain modifications suggested by his own original and practical
In the Life of St. Macrina we find a double monastery,
the men presided over by Peter, the women by Macrina. This seems
to have been a natural development of the earlier ascetic family
life to which Macrina had drawn her mother after the death of
Naucratius. We do not know to what extent it conformed to the
regulations for double monasteries prescribed by Basil in his Rules. It is not clear whether Basil's monastery on the
far side of the Iris was still existing when Gregory visited Macrina.
It may be surmised that, when Basil became bishop of Caesarea
and Peter reaehed man's estate, the brethren were transferred
to the opposite bank and came under the joint rule of Macrina
The subject of the Basilian coenobia and their place in the history
of monasticism has been worked out in two recent monographs, St.
Basil and his Rule (Oxford, 1912), by E. F. Morison, and St.
Basil the Great: a Study in Monasticism (Cambridge, 1913),
by the present writer. Through the Latin version of Rufinus Basil's Rules became known in the West and influenced St. Benedict.
The Life of St. Macrina throws a light on the arrangements
of a double monastery in primitive times, and supplements the
account given in the Pachomian and Basilian Rules. This
subject has not yet been worked out with any completeness, so
far as the writer is aware. It is not clear what influence, if
any, Rufinus' version of Basil's Rules had upon the origin
of double monasteries in Ireland and elsewhere. Perhaps the system
arose independently in different lands and centuries under similar
conditions of primitive enthusiasm. Reference may be made to a
paper by Sir William Hope, The Gilbertian Priory of Watton (London, 1901, reprinted from The Archoeological Journal, LVIII, No. 229). The rules governing the relations of monks
and nuns in this priory bear so close a resemblance to those found
in St. Basil, that the student will probably not be far wrong
if he assumes that the plan of the buildings as sketched by Dr.
Hope in his monograph fairly represents the topography of the
scenes described in Gregory's Life of his sister.
GREGORY OF NYSSA: Life of Macrina
[TO THE MONK OLYMPIUS]
[960 A ] THE form of this volume, if one may judge from its heading,
is apparently epistolary, but its bulk exceeds that of a letter,
extending as it does to the length of a book. My apology must
be that the subject on which you bade me write is greater than
can be compressed within the limits of a letter.
I am sure you do not forget our meeting, when, on my way to Jerusalem
in pursuance of a vow, in order to see the relics of the Lord's
sojourning in the flesh on the actual spots. [note: Reading [Greek:
en tois topois] Migne has [Greek: en tois tupois] "in
their impressions." The intention was not fulfilled until
a year or two later, after his visit to the Church of Babylon.]
I ran across you in the city of Antioch; and you must remember
all the different talks we enjoyed, for it was not likely that
our meeting would be a silent one, when your wit provided so many
subjects for conversation. As often happens at such times, the
[960 B] talk flowed on until we came to discuss the life of some
famous person. In this case it was a woman who provided us with
our subject ; if indeed she should be styled woman' for I do not
know whether it is fitting to designate her by her sex, who so
surpassed her sex. Our account of her was not based on the narrative
of others' but our talk was an accurate description of what we
had learned by personal experience nor did it need to be authenticated
by strangers. Nor even was the virgin referred to unknown to our
family circle' to make it necessary to learn the wonders of her
life through others, but she came from the same parents as ourselves'
being' so to speak 'an offering of firstfruits' since she
was the earliest born of my mother's womb. As then you have decided
that the story of her noble career is worth telling' to prevent
such a life being unknown to our time, and the record of a woman
who raised [960 C] herself by " philosophy '' [note: ' The
use of the word " philosophy " to designate Christianity
is common in the writings of the fourth century, and may perhaps
be traced back to Origen's synthesis of the Gospel and philosophy.
It is employed in a twofold sense, of the Christian religion generally
and of asceticism in particular. Cf. Greg. Naz., Or., VII, 9 (describing
the asceticism of his brother Cæsarius): " As philosophy
is the greatest, so is it the most difficult, of professions,
which can be taken in hand by but few, and only by those who have
been called forth by the divine magnanimity." See a careful
note in Boulenger, Gregoire de Nazianze, Discours funèbres (Paris, 1908), p. lvi.] to the greatest height of human virtue
passing into the shades of useless oblivion, I thought it well
to obey you' and in a few words, as best I can' to tell her story
in unstudied and simple style.
The virgin's name was Macrina; she was so called by her parents
after a famous Macrina some time before in the family' our father's
mother' who had confessed Christ [962 A] like a good athlete in
the time of the persecutions. This indeed was her name to the
outside world' the one used by her friends. But another name had
been given her privately' as the result of a vision before she
was born into the world. For indeed her mother was so virtuous
that she was guided on all occasions by the divine will. In particular
she loved the pure and unstained mode of life so much that she
was unwilling to be married. But since she had lost both her parents,
and was in the very flower of her youthful beauty, and the fame
of her good looks was attracting many suitors, and there was a
danger that, if she were not mated to some one willingly, she
might suffer some [962 B] unwished for violent fate' seeing that
some men' inflamed by her beauty' were ready to abduct her-on
this account she chose for her husband a man who was known and
approved for the gravity of his conduct' and so gained a protector
of her life.
THE BIRTH OF MACRINA
At her first confinement she became the mother of Macrina. When
the due time came for her pangs to be ended by delivery' she fell
asleep and seemed to be carrying in her hands that which was still
in her womb. And some one in form and raiment more splendid than
a human being appeared and addressed the child she was carrying
by the name of Thecla, that Thecla, I mean, who is so famous among
the virgins. [note: Thecla was a contemporary of St. Paul, according
to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which may well have been
founded on fact. See article " Thecla " in Dictionary
of Christian Biography, and the chapter on Thecla in Sir W.
M. Ramsay's Church in the Roman Empire. ] After doing
this and testifying to it three times, he departed from her sight
and gave her easy delivery, so that at that moment she awoke from
sleep and saw her dream realised. Now this name was used only
in secret. But it [962 C] seems to me that the apparition spoke
not so much to guide the mother to a right choice of name' as
to forecast the life of the young child' and to indicate by the
name that she would follow her namesake's mode of life.
Well, the child was reared. Although she had her own nurse, yet
as a rule her mother did the nursing with her own hands. After
passing the stage of infancy, she showed herself apt in acquiring
childish accomplishments' and her natural powers were shown in
every study to which her parents' judgment directed her. The education
of the child was her mother's task ; she did not' however, employ
the usual worldly method of education, which makes a practice
of using poetry as a [962 D] means of training the early years
of the child. For she considered it disgraceful and quite unsuitable,
that a tender and plastic nature should be taught either those
tragic passions of womanhood which afforded poets their suggestions
and plots, or the indecencies of comedy' to be' so to speak, defiled
with unseemly tales of " the harem." [note: [Greek:
tois asemnoterois tOn gunaikeiOn diEgEmasin]] But such parts of
inspired Scripture as you would think were incomprehensible to
young children were the subject of the girl's studies ; in particular
the Wisdom of Solomon, and those parts of it especially which
have an ethical bearing. Nor was she ignorant of any part of the
Psalter' but at stated times she recited every part of it. When
she rose from bed, or engaged in household duties' or rested,
[964 A] or partook of food' or retired from table, when she went
to bed or rose in the night for prayer, the Psalter was her constant
companion, like a good fellowtraveller that never deserted
Filling her time with these and the like occupations, and attaining
besides a considerable proficiency in woolwork, the growing
girl reached her twelfth year, the age when the bloom of adolescence
begins to appear. In which connection it is noteworthy that the
girl's beauty could not be concealed in spite of efforts to hide
it. Nor in all the countryside, so it seems, was there anything
so marvellous as her beauty in comparison with that of others.
So fair was she that even painters' hands could not do justice
to her [964 B] comeliness; the art that contrives all things and
essays the greatest tasks, so as even to model in imitation the
figures of the heavenly bodies, could not accurately reproduce
the loveliness of her form. In consequence a great swarm of suitors
seeking her in marriage crowded round her parents. But her father
- a shrewd man with a reputation for forming right decisions-picked
out from the rest a young man related to the family, who was just
leaving school, of good birth and remarkable steadiness, and decided
to betroth his daughter to him, as soon as she was old enough.
Meantime he aroused great hopes, and he offered to his future
fatherinlaw his fame in public speaking' as it were
one of the bridegroom's gifts; for he displayed the [964 C] power
of his eloquence in forensic contests on behalf of the wronged.
DEATH OF TIIE YOUNG MAN
But Envy cut off these bright hopes by snatching away the poor
lad from life. Now Macrina was not ignorant of her father's schemes.
But when the plan formed for her was shattered by the young man's
death, she said her father's intention was equivalent to a marriage,
and resolved to remain single henceforward, just as if the intention
had become accomplished fact. And indeed her determination was
more steadfast than could have been expected from her age. For
when her parents brought proposals of marriage to her, as often
happened owing to the number of suitors that came attracted by
the fame of her beauty, she would say that it was absurd and unlawful
not to be faithful to the marriage that had been arranged for
her by her father, but to be compelled to consider another ; since
in the nature of things there was but one marriage, as there is
one birth and one death. She persisted that the man who had been
linked to her by her [964 D] parents' arrangement was not dead,
but that she considered him who lived to God, thanks to the hope
of the resurrection, to be absent only, not dead; it was wrong
not to keep faith with the bridegroom who was away.
MACRINA RESOLVES NEVER TO LEAVE HER MOTHER
With such words repelling those who tried to talk her over, she
settled on one safeguard of her good resolution, in a resolve
not to be separated from her mother even for a moment of time.
So that her mother would often say that she had carried the rest
of her children in her womb for a definite time, but that Macrina
she bore always, since in a sense she ever carried her about.
But the daughter's companionship was not a burden to her mother'
nor profitless. For the attentions received from her daughter
were worth those [966 A] of many maidservants, and the benefits
were mutual. For the mother looked after the girl's soul, and
the girl looked after her mother's body, and in all respects fulfilled
the required services, even going so far as to prepare meals for
her mother with her own hands. Not that she made this her chief
business. But after she had anointed her hands by the performance
of religious duties- for she deemed that zeal for this was consistent
with the principles of her life-in the time that was left she
prepared food for her mother by her own toil. And not only this,
but she helped her mother to bear her burden of responsibilities.
For she had four sons and five daughters, and paid taxes to three
different governors, since her property was scattered in as many
districts. In consequence [966 B] her mother was distracted with
various anxieties, for her father had by this time departed this
life. In all these matters she shared her mother's toils, dividing
her cares with her, and lightening her heavy load of sorrows.
At one and the same time, thanks to her mother's guardianship,
she was keeping her own life blameless, so that her mother's eye
both directed and witnessed all she did ; and also by her own
life she instructed her mother greatly, leading her to the same
mark, that of philosophy I mean, and gradually drawing her on
to the immaterial and more perfect life.
BASIL RETURNS FROM THE UNIVERSITY
When the mother had arranged excellent marriages for the other
sisters, such as was best in each case, Macrina's brother, the
great Basil, returned after his long period of [966 C] education,
already a practised rhetorician. He was puffed up beyond measure
with the pride of oratory and looked down on the local dignitaries,
excelling in his own estimation all the men of leading and position.
Nevertheless Macrina took him in hand, and with such speed did
she draw him also toward the mark of philosophy that he forsook
the glories of this world and despised fame gained by speaking,
and deserted it for this busy life where one toils with one's
hands. His renunciation of property was complete, lest anything
should impede the life of virtue. But, indeed, his life and the
subsequent acts, by which he became renowned throughout the world
and put into the shade all those who have won renown for their
virtue, would [966 D ]need a long description and much time. But
I must divert my tale to its appointed task.
Now that all the distractions of the material life had been removed,
Macrina persuaded her mother to give up her ordinary life and
all showy style of living and the services of domestics to which
she had been accustomed before, and bring her point of view down
to that of the masses, and to share the life of the maids, treating
all her slave girls and menials as if they were sisters and belonged
to the same rank as herself.
But at this point I should like to insert a short parenthesis
in my narrative and not to pass over unrelated such a matter as
the following, in which the lofty character of the maiden is displayed.
THE STORY OF NAUCRATIUS
The second of the four brothers, Naucratius by name, who came
next after the great Basil, excelled the rest in natural endowments
and physical beauty, in strength, speed and ability to turn his
hand to anything. When [968 A] he had reached his twentyfirst
year, and had given such demonstration of his studies by speaking
in public, that the whole audience in the theatre was thrilled,
he was led by a divine providence to despise all that was already
in his grasp, and drawn by an irresistible impulse went off to
a life of solitude and poverty. He took nothing with him but himself,
save that one of the servants named Chrysapius followed him, because
of the affection he had towards his master and the intention he
had formed to lead the same life. So he lived by himself, having
found a solitary spot on the banks of the Iris-a river flowing
through the midst of Pontus. It rises actually in Armenia, passes
through our parts, and discharges its stream into the [968 B]
Black Sea. By it the young man found a place with a luxuriant
growth of trees and a hill nestling under the mass of the overhanging
mountain. There he lived far removed from the noises of the city
and the distractions that surround the lives both of the soldier
and the pleader in the law courts. Having thus freed himself from
the din of cares that impedes man's higher life, with his own
hands he looked after some old people who were living in poverty
and feebleness, considering it appropriate to his mode of life
to make such a work his care. So the generous youth would go on
fishing expeditions, and since he was expert in every form of
sport, he provided food to his grateful clients by this means.
And at the same time by such exercises he was taming his own manhood.
Besides this, he also gladly obeyed his mother's wishes whenever
she issued a command. And so in these two ways he guided his life,
[968 C] subduing his youthful nature by toils and caring assiduously
for his mother, and thus keeping the divine commands he was travelling
home to God.
In this manner he completed the fifth year of his life as a philosopher,
by which he made his mother happy, both by the way in which he
adorned his own life by continence, and by the devotion of all
his powers to do the will of her that bore him.
THE TRAGIC DEATH OF NAUCRATIUS
Then there fell on the mother a grievous and tragic affliction,
contrived, I think, by the Adversary, which brought trouble and
mourning upon all the family. For he was snatched suddenly away
from life. No previous sickness had prepared them for the blow,
nor did any of the usual and wellknown mischances bring
death upon the young man. [968 D] Having started out on one of
the expeditions, by which he provided necessaries for the old
men under his care, he was brought back home dead, together with
Chrysapius who shared his life. His mother was far awas, three
days distant from the scene of the tragedy. Some one came to her
telling the bad news. Perfect though she was in every department
of virtue, yet nature dominated her as it does others. For she
collapsed, and in a moment lost both breath and speech, since
her reason failed her under the disaster, and she was thrown to
the ground by the assault of the evil tidings, like some noble
athlete hit by an unexpected blow.
MACRINA THE ONE SUPPORT OF HER MOTHER
And now the virtue of the great Macrina was displayed. Facing
the disaster in a [970 A] rational spirit, she both preserved
herself from collapse, and becoming the prop of her mother's weakness,
raised her up from the abyss of grief, and by her own steadfastness
and imperturbability taught her mother's soul to be brave. In
consequence, her mother was not overwhelmed by the affliction,
nor did she behave in any ignoble and womanish way, so as to cry
out at the calamity, or tear her dress, or lament over the trouble,
or strike up funeral chants with mournful melodies. On the contrary
she resisted the impulses of nature, and quieted herself both
by such reflections as occurred to her spontaneously, and those
that were applied by her daughter to cure the ill. For then was
the nobility of Macrina's soul most of all conspicuous ; since
[970 B] natural affection was making her suffer as well. For it
was a brother, and a favourite brother, who had been snatched
away by such a manner of death. Nevertheless, conquering nature,
she so sustained her mother by her arguments that she, too, rose
superior to her sorrow. Besides which, the moral elevation always
maintained by Macrina's life gave her mother the opportunity of
rejoicing over the blessings she enjoyed rather than grieving
over those that were missing.
MOTHER AND DAUGHTER MAKE FURTHER PROGRESS IN THE ASCETIC LIFE
When the cares of bringing up a family and the anxieties of their
education and settling in life had come to an end, and the property-a
frequent cause of worldliness- had been for the most part divided
among the children, then, as I said above, the life of the virgin
became her mother's guide and led her on to this philosophic and
spiritual [970 C] manner of life. And weaning her from all accustomed
luxuries, Macrina drew her on to adopt her own standard of humility.
she induced her to live on a footing of equality with the staff
of maids, so as to share with them in the same food, the same
kind of bed, and in all the necessaries of life, without any regard
to differences of rank. Such was the manner of their life, so
great the height of their philosophy, and so holy their conduct
day and night, as to make verbal description inadequate. For just
as souls freed from the body by death are saved from the cares
of this life, so was their life far removed from all earthly follies
and ordered with a view of imitating the angelic life. For no
anger or jealousy, no hatred or pride, was observed in their midst,
nor anything else of this nature, since they had cast away all
vain desires for honour and glory, all vanity, arrogance and the
like. Continence was their luxury, and obscurity their glory.
Poverty, and the casting away of all material superfluities like
dust from their bodies, was their wealth. In fact, of all the
things after which men eagerly pursue in this life, there were
none with which they could not easily dispense. [note: [Greek:
ergon tOn kata tEn zOEn tautEn spoudazomenon ouden, hoti mE parergon.] The play on words is hard to reproduce.] Nothing was left
but the care of divine things and the unceasing round of prayer
and endless hymnody, coextensive with time itself, practised
by night and day. So that to them this meant work, and work so
called was rest. What human words could make you realise such
a life as this, a life on the borderline between human and spiritual
nature ? For that nature should be free from human weaknesses
is more than can be expected from mankind. But these women fell
short of the angelic and immaterial nature only in so far as they
appeared in bodily form, and were contained within a human frame,
and were dependent upon the organs of sense. Perhaps some might
even dare to say that the difference was not to their disadvantage.
since living in the body and yet after the likeness of the immaterial
beings, they were not bowed down by the weight of the body, but
their life was exalted to the skies and [972 B] they walked on
high in company with the powers of heaven.
The period covered by this mode of life was no short one, and
with the lapse of time their successes increased, as their philosophy
continually grew purer with the discovery of new blessings.
PETER, THE YOUNGEST BROTHER
Macrina was helped most of all in achieving this great aim of
her life by her own brother Peter. With him the mother's pangs
ceased, for he was the latest born of the family. At one and the
same time he received the names of son and orphan, for as he entered
this life his father passed away from it. But the eldest of the
family, the subject of our story, took him soon after birth from
the nurse's breast and reared him herself and educated [972 C]
him on a lofty system of training, practising him from infancy
in holy studies, so as not to give his soul leisure to turn to
vain things. Thus having become all things to the lad - father,
teacher, tutor, mother, giver of all good advice-she produced
such results that before the age of boyhood had passed, when he
was yet a stripling in the first bloom of tender youth, he aspired
to the high mark of philosophy. And, thanks to his natural endowments,
he was clever in every art that involves handwork, so that
without any guidance he achieved a completely accurate knowledge
of everything that ordinary people learn by time and trouble.
Scorning to occupy [972 D] his time with worldly studies, and
having in nature a sufficient instructor in all good knowledge,
and always looking to his sister as the model of all good, he
advanced to such a height of virtue that in his subsequent life
he seemed in no whit inferior to the great Basil. But at this
time he was all in all to his sister and mother, cooperating
with them in the pursuit of the angelic life. Once when a severe
famine had occurred and crowds from all quarters were frequenting
the retreat where they lived, drawn by the fame of their benevolence,
Peter's kindness supplied such an abundance of food that the desert
seemed a city by reason of the number of visitors.
DEATH OF THE MOTHER
[974 A] It was about this time that the mother died, honoured
by all, and went to God, yielding up her life in the arms of her
two children. It is worth while to give the words of blessing
which she used over her children, mentioning each of the absent
ones in loving remembrance, so that no single one was deprived
of the blessing, and commending especially to God in her prayers
those who were present with her.
For as these two sat by her on each side of the bed, she touched
them with her hands, and uttered these prayers to God with her
" To Thee, O Lord, I give the fruit of my womb as both firstfruits
and tenths. For this my eldest is the firstfruits and this
my lastborn is the tenth. Each is sanctified to Thee by
the Law, and they are votive offerings to Thee. Therefore let
Thy sanctification [974 B] descend on this my first and this my
As she spoke she indicated by gestures her daughter and son. Then,
having ceased to bless, she ceased to live, having first bidden
her children lay her body in their father's grave. But they, having
fulfilled the command, clave to philosophy with still loftier
resolve, even striving against their own life and eclipsing their
previous record by their subsequent successes.
BASIL DIES AFTER A NOBLE CAREER
Meanwhile Basil, the famous saint, had been elected bishop [note:
[Greek: prostatHs]] Of the great church of Caesarea. He advanced
Peter to the sacred order of the priesthood, consecrating him
in person with mystic ceremonial. And in this way a further advance
in the direction of dignity [974 C] and sanctity was made in their
life, now that philosophy was enriched by the priesthood.
Eight years after this, the worldrenowned Basil departed
from men to live with God, to the common grief of his native land
and the whole world. Now when Macrina heard the news of the calamity
in her distant retreat, she was distressed indeed in soul at so
great a loss-for how could she not be distressed at a calamity,
which was felt even by the enemies of the truth?-but just as they
say that the testing of gold takes place in several furnaces,
so that if any impurity escapes the first furnace, it may be separated
in the second, and again in the last one all admixture of dross
may be purged away-consequently it is the most accurate testing
of pure gold if having gone through every furnace it shows no
refuse. So it happened also in her case. When her noble character
had been tested by these different accessions of trouble, in every
respect the metal of her soul was proved to be unadulterated and
undefiled. The first test was the loss of the one brother, the
second the parting from her mother, the third was when the common
glory of the family, great Basil, was removed from human life.
So she remained, like an invincible athlete in no wise broken
by the assault of troubles.
GREGORY RESOLVES TO VISIT HIS SISTER
It was the ninth month or a little longer after this disaster,
and a synod of bishops was gathered at Antioch, in which we also
took part. And when we broke up, each to go home before the year
was over, then I, [976 A] Gregory, felt a desire to visit Macrina.
For a long time had elapsed during which visits were prevented
by the distraction of the troubles which I underwent, being constantly
driven out from my own country by the leaders of heresy. And when
I came to reckon the intervening time during which the troubles
had prevented us meeting face to face, no less than eight years,
or very nearly that period, seemed to have elapsed.
Now when I had accomplished most of the journey and was one day's
journey distant, a vision appeared to me in a dream and filled
me with anxious anticipations of the future. I seemed to be carrying
martyrs, relics in my hands ; a light came from them, such as
[976 B] comes from a clear mirror when it is put facing the sun,
so that my eyes were blinded by the brilliance of the rays. The
same vision recurred three times that night. I could not clearly
understand the riddle of the dream, but I saw trouble for my soul,
and I watched carefully so as to judge the vision by events.
When I approached the retreat in which Macrina led her angelic
and heavenly life, first of all I asked one of the servants about
my brother, whether he were at home. He told us that he had gone
out four days ago now, and I understood, which indeed was the
case, that he had gone to meet us by another way. Then I asked
after the great lady. He said she was very ill, and I was the
more eager to hurry on and complete the remainder of the journey,
for a certain anxiety and premonitory fear of what was coming
stole [976 C] in and disquieted me.
GREGORY COMES TO THE MONASTERY AND FINDS MACRINA ON HER DEATH
But when I came to the actual place, rumour had already announced
my arrival to the brotherhood. Then the whole company of the men
came streaming out to meet us from their apartments. For it was
their custom to honour friends by meeting them. But the band of
virgins on the women's side modestly waited in the church for
us to arrive. But when the prayers and the blessing were over,
and the women, after reverently inclining their head for the blessing,
retired to their own apartments, none of them were left with us.
I guessed the explanation, that the abbess was not with them.
A man led me to the house in which was my great sister, and [976
D] opened the door. Then I entered that holy dwelling. I found
her already terribly afflicted with weakness. she was lying not
on a bed or couch, but on the floor; a sack had been spread on
a board, and another board propped up her head, so contrived as
to act as a pillow, supporting the sinews of the neck in slanting
fashion, and holding up the neck comfortably. Now when she saw
me near the door she raised herself on her elbow but could not
come to meet me, her strength being already drained by fever.
But by putting her hands on the floor and leaning over from the
pallet as far as she could, she showed the respect [978 A] due
to my rank. I ran to her and embraced her prostrate form, and
raising her, again restored her to her usual position. Then she
lifted her hancl to God and said -
" This favour also Thou hast granted me, O God, and hast
not deprived me of my desire, because Thou hast stirred up Thy
servant to visit Thy handmaid.''
Lest she should vex my soul she stilled her groans and made great
efforts to hide, if possible, the difflculty of her breathing.
And in every way she tried to be cheerful, both taking the lead
herself in friendly talk, and giving us an opportunity by asking
questions. When in the course of conversation mention was made
of the great Basil, my soul was saddened and my face fell dejectedly.
But so far was she from sharing in my affliction [978 B] that,
treating the mention of the saint as an occasion for yet loftier
philosophy, she discussed various subjects, inquiring into human
affairs and revealing in her conversation the divine purpose concealed
in disasters. Besides this, she discussed the future life, [note:
In the long dialogue, De Anima et Resurrectione (Migne,
XLVI, 11160), Gregory purports to reproduce this conversation.]
as if inspired by the Holy spirit, so that it almost seemed as
if my soul were lifted by the help of her words away from mortal
nature and placed within the heavenly sanctuary. And just as we
learn in the story of Job that the saint was tormented in every
part of his body with discharges owing to the corruption of his
wounds, yet did not allow the pain [978 C] to affect his reasoning
power, but in spite of the pains in the body did not relax his
activities nor interrupt the lofty sentiments of his discourse-similarly
did I see in the case of this great woman. Fever was drying up
her strength and driving her on to death, yet she refreshed her
body as it were with dew, and thus kept her mind unimpeded in
the contemplation of heavenly things, in no way injured by her
terrible weakness. And if my narrative were not extending to an
unconscionable length I would tell everything in order, how she
was uplifted as she discoursed to us on the nature of the soul
and explained the reason of life in the flesh, and why man was
made, and how he was mortal, and the origin of death and the nature
of the journey from death to life again. In all of [978 D] which
she told her tale clearly and consecutively as if inspired by
the power of the Holy spirit, and the even flow of her language
was like a fountain whose water streams down uninterruptedly.
SHE SENDS GREGORY AWAY TO REST HIMSELF
When our conversation was finished, she said " It. is time,
brother. for you to rest your body awhile, since it is wearied
with the great toil of your journey."
And though I found it a great and genuine rest to see her and
hear her noble words, yet since she wanted it so much, that I
might in every particular seem to obey my mistress, I found a
pretty arbour prepared for me in one of the neighbouring gardens,
and rested under the shade of the trailing vines. But it was impossible
to have any feelings of [980 A] enjoyment when my soul within
me was constrained by gloomy anticipations, for the secret of
the vision of my dream seemed to be now revealed to me by what
I had seen. For the image I had seen was indeed true- the relics
of a holy martyr which had been dead in sin, but now were resplendent
with the indwelling power of the Spirit. I explained this to one
of those who had heard me tell the dream before.
We were, as one might guess, in a dejected state, expecting sad
tidings, when Macrina, somehow or other divining our condition
of mind, sent to us a messenger with more cheerful news, and bade
us be of good cheer and have better hope for her, for she was
feeling a change for the better. Now this was not said to deceive,
but the message was [980 B]actually true, though we did not know
it at the time. For in very truth, just as a runner who has passed
his adversary and already drawn near to the end of the stadium,
as he approaches the judge's seat and sees the crown of victory,
rejoices inwardly as if he had already attained his object and
announces his victory to his sympathisers among the spectators-in
such a frame of mind did she, too, tell us to cherish better hopes
for her, for she was already looking to the prize of her heavenly
calling, and all but uttering the apostle's words: " Henceforward
is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the righteous
Judge shall give me'', for " I have fought the good fight,
I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.''
Accordingly, feeling happy at the good [980 C] news, we began
to enjoy the sights that lay before us. For they were very varied
and the arrangements gave much pleasure, since the great lady
was careful even of these trifles.
GREGORY RETURNS TO MACRINA, WHO RECALLS THE EVENTS OF HER CHILDHOOD
But when we saw her again, for she did not allow us to spend time
by ourselves in idleness, she began to recall her past life, beginning
with childhood, and describing it all in order as in a history.
she recounted as much as she could remember of the life of our
parents, and the events that took place both before and after
my birth. But her aim throughout was gratitude towards God, for
she described our parents, life not so much from the point of
view of the reputation they enjoyed in the eyes of contemporaries
on account of their riches, as an example of the divine blessing.
My father's parents had their goods confiscated for confessing
Christ. Our maternal [980 D] grandfather was slain by the imperial
wrath, and all his possessions were transferred to other masters.
Nevertheless their life abounded so in faith that no one was named
above them in those times. And moreover, after their substance
had been divided into nine parts according to the number of the
children, the share of each was so increased by God's blessing,
that the income of each of the children exceeded the prosperity
of the parents. But when it came to Macrina herself she kept nothing
of the things assigned to her in the equal division between brothers
and sisters, but all her share was given into the priest's hands
according to the divine command. Moreover her life became such
by God's help that her hands never ceased to work according to
the commandment. Never did she even look for help to any human
being, nor did human charity give her the opportunity of a comfortable
existence. Never were petitioners turned away, yet never did she
appeal for help, but God secretly blessed the little seeds of
her good works till they grew into a mighty fruit.
As I told my own trouble and all that I had been through, first
my exile at the hands of the Emperor Valens on account of the
faith, and then the confusion in the Church that summoned me to
conflicts and trials, my great sister said-
" Will you not cease to be insensible to the divine blessings?
Will you not remedy the ingratitude of your soul ? Will you not
compare your position with that of your [982 B] parents? And yet,
as regards worldly things, we make our boast of being well born
and thinking we come of a noble family. Our father was greatly
esteemed as a young man for his learning ; in fact his fame was
established throughout the law courts of the province. subsequently,
though he excelled all others in rhetoric, his reputation did
not extend beyond Pontus. But he was satisfied with fame in his
" But you,', she said, " 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
recognise 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 ? ''
Thus she spoke, and I longed for the length of the day to be further
extended, that she might never cease delighting our ears with
sweetness. But the voice of the choir was summoning us to the
evening service, and sending me to church, the great one retired
once more to God in prayer. And thus she spent the night.
THE EVENTS OF THE NEXT DAY: MACRINA'S LAST HOURS
But when day came it was clear to me from what I saw that the
coming day was the utmost limit of her life in the flesh, since
the fever had consumed all her innate strength. But she, considering
the weakness of our minds, was contriving how to divert us from
our sorrowful anticipations, and once more with those beautiful
words of hers poured out what was left of her suffering soul with
[982 D] short and difficult breathing. Many, indeed, and varied,
were the emotions of my heart at what I saw. For nature herself
was afflicting me and making me sad ; as was only to be expected,
since I could no longer hope ever to hear such a voice again.
Nor as yet was I reconciled to the thought of losing the common
glory of our family, but my mind, as it were inspired by the spectacle,
supposed that she would actually rise superior to the common lot.
For that she did not even in her last breath find anything strange
in the hope of the Resurrection, nor cven shrink at the departure
from this life, but with lofty mind continued to discuss up to
her last breath the convictions she had formed from the beginning
about this life-all this seemed to me more than human. Rather
did it seem as if some angel had taken human form with a sort
of incarnation, to whom it was nothing  A strange that the
mind should remain undisturbed, since he had no kinship or likeness
with this life of flesh, and so the flesh did not draw the mind
to think on its afflictions. Therefore [note: In order to assure
them that she was really dying, she uttered aloud the prayer in
the next paragraph.] I think she revealed to the bystanders that
divine and pure love of the invisible bridegroom, which she kept
hidden and nourished in the secret places of the soul, and she
published abroad the secret disposition of her heart-her hurrying
towards Him Whom she desired, that she might speedily be with
Him, loosed from the chains of the body. For in very truth her
course was directed towards virtue, and nothing else could divert
MACRINA'S DYING PRAYER
[984 B] Most of the day had now passed, and the sun was declining
towards the West. Her eagerness did not diminish, but as she approached
her end, as if she discerned the beauty of the Bridegroom more
clearly, she hastened towards the Beloved with the greater eagerness.
such thoughts as these did she utter, no longer to us who were
present, but to Him in person on Whom she gazed fixedly. Her couch
had been turned towards the East; and, ceasing to converse with
us, she spoke henceforward to God in prayer' making supplication
with her hands and whispering with a low voice, so that we could
just hear what was said. Such was the prayer; we need not doubt
that it reached [984 C] God and that she, too, was hearing His
" Thou, O Lord, hast freed us from the fear of death. Thou
hast made the end of this life the beginning to us o£ true
life. Thou for a season restest our bodies in sleep and awakest
them again at the last trump. Thou givest our earth, which Thou
hast fashioned with Thy hands, to the earth to keep in safety.
One day Thou wilt take again what Thou hast given, transfiguring
with immortality and grace our mortal and unsightly remains. Thou
hast saved us from the curse and from sin, having become both
for our sakes. Thou hast broken the heads of the dragon who had
seized us with his jaws, in the yawning gulf of disobedicnce.
Thou hast shown us the way of resurrection, having broken the
gates of hell, and brought to nought him who had the power of
death-the devil. Thou hast given a sign to those that fear Thee
in the symbol of the Holy Cross, [984 D] 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
up until now-do Thou 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. Thou that didst break the flaming
sword and didst restore to Paradise the man that was crucified
with Thee and implored Thy mercies, remember me, too, in Thy kingdom;
because I, too, was crucified with Thee, having nailed my flesh
to the cross for fear of Thee, and of Thy judgments have I been
afraid. Let not the terrible chasm separate me from Thy elect.
Nor let [986 A] the slanderer stand against me in the way; nor
let my sin be found before Thv eyes, if in anything I have sinned
in word or deed or thought, led astray by the weakness of our
nature. O Thou Who hast power on earth to forgive sins, forgive
me, that I may be refreshed and may be found before Thee when
I put off my body, without defilement on my soul. But may my soul
be received into Thy hands spotless and undefiled, as an offering
As she said these words she sealed her eyes and mouth and heart
with the cross. And gradually her tongue dried up with the fever,
she could articulate her words no longer, and her voice died away,
and only by the trembling of her lips and the motion of her hands
did we recognise that she was praying.
Meanwhile evening had come and a lamp [986 B] was brought in.
All at once she opened the orb of her eyes and looked towards
the light, clearly wanting to repeat the thanksgiving sung at
the Lighting of the Lamps. But her voice failed and she fulfilled
her intention in the heart and by moving her hands, while her
lips stirred in sympathy with her inward desire. But when she
had finished the thanksgiving, and her hand brought to her face
to make the sign had signified the end of the prayer, she drew
a great deep breath and closed her life and her prayer together.
GREGORY PERFORMS THE LAST OFFICES
[986 C] And now that she was breathless and still, remembering
the command that she had given at our first meeting, telling me
she wished her hands laid on her eyes, and the accustomed offices
done for the body by me, I brought her hands, all numb with the
disease, on to her holy face, only that I might not seem to neglect
her bidding. For her eyes needed none to compose them, being covered
gracefully by the lids, just as happens in natural sleep; the
lips were suitably closed and the hands laid reverently on the
breast, and the whole body had automatically fallen into the right
position, and in no way needed the help of the layersout.
THE SISTERS LAMENT FOR THEIR ABBESS
Now my mind was becoming unnerved in two ways, from the sight
that met my gaze, and the sad wailing of the virgins that sounded
in my ears. So far they had remained [986 D] quiet and suppressed
their grief, restraining their impulse to mourn for fear of her,
as if they dreaded her rebuke even when her voice was silent,
lest in any way a sound should break forth from them contrary
to her command and their mistress be grieved in consequence. But
when they could no longer subdue their anguish in silence, and
grief like some inward fire was smouldering in their hearts, all
at once a bitter and irrepressible cry broke out; so that my reason
no longer remained calm, but a flood of emotion, like a watercourse
in spate, swept it away, and so, neglecting my duties, I gave
myself up to lamentation. Indeed, the cause for the maidens, weeping
seemed to me just and [988 A] reasonable. For they were not bewailing
the loss of human companionship and guidance, nor any other such
thing as men grieve over when disaster comes. But it seemed as
if they had been torn away from their hope in God and the salvation
of their souls, and so they cried and bewailed in this manner-
" The light of our eyes has gone out'
The light that guided our souls has been taken away.
The safety of our life is destroyed'
The seal of immortality is removed'
The bond of restraint has been taken away,
The support of the weak has been broken'
The healing of the sick removed.
In thy presence the night became to us as day,
Illumined with pure life,
But now even our day will be turned to gloom."
Saddest of all in their grief were those who [988 B] called on
her as mother and nurse. These were they whom she picked up, exposed
by the roadside in the time of famine. She had nursed and reared
them, and led them to the pure and stainless life.
But when, as it were from the deep, I recovered my thoughts, I
looked towards that holy face and it seemed as if it rebuked me
for the confusion of the noisy mourners. So I called to the sisters
with a loud voice-
" Look at her, and remember her commands, by which she trained
you to be orderly and decent in everything. One occasion for tears
did this divine soul ordain for us, recommending us to weep at
the time of prayer. ; Which now we may do, by turning the lamentations
into psalmody in the same strain.''
VESTIANA COMES TO HIELP GREGORY
[988 C] I had to shout in order to be heard above the noise of
the mourners. Then I besought them to go away for awhile to the
neighbouring house, but asked that some of those whose services
she used to welcome when she was alive should stay behind.
Among these was a lady of gentle birth, who had been famous in
youth for wealth, good family, physical beauty and every other
distinction. she had married a man of high rank and lived with
him a short time. Then, with her body still young, she was released
from marriage, and chose the great Macrina as protector and guardian
of her widowhood, and spent her time mostly with the virgins,
learning from them the life of virtue.
The lady's name was Vestiana, and her [988 D] father was one of
those who composed the council of senators. To her I said that
there could be no objection now, at any rate, to putting finer
clothing on the body and adorning that pure and stainless form
with fair linen clothes. But she said one ought to learn what
the saint had thought proper in these matters. For it was not
right that anything at all should be done by us contrary to what
she would have wished. But just what was dear and pleasing to
God, would be her desire also.
Now there was a lady called Lampadia, leader of the band of sisters,
a deaconess in rank. She declared that she knew Macrina's [990
A] wishes in the matter of burial exactly. When I asked her about
them (for she happened to be present at our deliberations), she
said with tears-
" The saint resolved that a pure life should be her adornment,
that this should deck her body in life and her grave in death.
But so far as clothes to adorn the body go, she procured none
when she was alive, nor did she store them for the present purpose.
so that not even if we want it will there be anything more than
what we have here, since no preparation is made for this need."
" Is it not possible,', said I, " to find in the storecupboard
anything to make a fitting funeral ? ''
" Storecupboard indeed!', said she ; " you have
in front of you all her treasure. There is the cloak, there is
the headcovering, there the wellworn shoes on the
feet. This is all her wealth, these are her riches. There is nothing
stored away in secret places beyond what you see, or put away
safely in boxes or bedroom. she knew of one storehouse [990
b] alone for her wealth, the treasure in heaven. There she had
stored her all, nothing was left on earth.''
" Suppose,', said I, " I were to bring some of the things
I have got ready for the funeral, should I be doing anything of
which she would not have approved ? ''
" I do not think'', said she, " that this would be against
her wish. For had she been living, she would have accepted such
honour from you on two grounds - your priesthood which she
always prized so dear, and your relationship, for she would not
have repudiated what came to her from her brother. This was why
she gave commands that your hands were to prepare her body for
THEY FIND ON THE BODY MARKS OF MACRINA'S SANCTITY
When we had decided on this, and it was necessary for that sacred
body to be robed in linen, we divided the work and applied ourselves
to our different tasks. I ordered one of my men to bring the robe.
But Vestiana [990 C] abovementioned was decking that holy
head with her own hands, when she put her hand on the neck.
" See," she said, looking at me, " what sort of
an ornament has hung on the saint's neck ! ''
As she spoke, she loosened the fastener behind, then stretched
out her hand and showed us the representation of a cross of iron
and a ring of the same material, both of which were fastened by
a slender thread and rested continually on the heart.
" Let us share the treasure,', I said. " You have the
phylactery of the cross, I will be content with inheriting the
ring "-for the cross had been traced on the seal of this
too. [990 D]
Looking at it, the lady said to me again-
" You have made no mistake in choosing this treasure; for
the ring is hollow in the hoop, and in it has been hidden a particle
of the Cross of Life [note: 1 According to the wellknown
story, the Cross was discovered by Helena, mother of Constantine
the Great (c. 327). The earliest mention of the wood of the Cross
as a relic seems to be in Cyril of Jerusalem's Catechetical
Lectnres. See iv. 10, "The whole world has since been
filled with pieces of the wood of the Cross." Cf. x. 19,
xiii. 4.]and so the mark on the seal above shows what is hidden
THE STORY OF A SCAR
But when it was time that the pure body should be wrapped in its
robes, the command of the great departed one made it necessary
for me to undertake the ministry; but the sister who shared with
me that great inheritance was present and joined in the work.
" Do not let the great wonders accomplished y the saint pass
by unnoticed," she remarked'
laying bare part of the breast.
" What do you mean ? " I said.
[992A]" Do you see," she said, " this small faint
mark below the neck ? " It was like a scar made by a small
needle. As she spoke she brought the lamp near to the place she
was showing me.
" What is there surprising," I said, " if the body
has been branded with some faint mark
in this place ? ''
" This'', she replied, " has been left on the body as
a token of God's powerful help. For there grew once in this place
a cruel disease, and there was a danger either that the tumour
should require an operation, or that the complaint should become
quite in curable, if it should spread to the neighbour hood of
the heart. Her mother implored her often and begged her to receive
the attention of a doctor, since the medical art, she [992 B]
said, was sent from God for the saving of men. But she judged
it worse than the pain, to uncover any part of the body to a stranger's
eyes. so when evening came, after waiting on her mother as usual
with her own hands, she went inside the sanctuary and besought
the God of healing all night long. A stream of tears fell from
her eyes on to the ground, and she used the mud made by the tears
as a remedy for her ailment. Then when her mother felt despondent
and again urged her to allow the doctor to come, she said it would
suffice for the cure of her disease if her mother would make the
holy seal on the place with her own hand. But when the mother
put her hand within her bosom, to make the sign of the cross on
the part, the sign worked and the tumour disappeared.
" But this'', said she, " is the tiny trace of it ;
it appeared then in place of the frightful [992 C] sore and remained
until the end, that it might be, as I imagine, a memorial of the
divine visitation, an occasion and reminder of perpetual thanksgiving
When our work came to an end and the body had been decked with
the best we had on the spot, the deaconess spoke again, maintaining
that it was not fitting that she should be seen by the eyes of
the virgins robed like a bride. "But I have'', she said,
" laid by one of your mother's darkcoloured robes which
I think would do well laid over her, that this holy beauty be
not decked out with the unnecessary splendour of clothing.''
Her counsel prevailed, and the robe was laid upon the body. But
she was resplendent t even in the dark robe, divine power having
added, as I think, this final grace to the body, so that, as in
the vision of my dream, rays actually seemed to shine forth from
TUE ALLNIGHT VIGIL: A CROWD OF VISITORS ARRIVES
But while we were thus employed and the virgins, voices singing
psalms mingled with the lamentations were filling the place, somehow
the news had quickly spread throughout the whole neighbourhood,
and all the people that lived near were streaming towards the
place, so that the entrance hall could no longer hold the concourse.
When the allnight vigil for her, accompanied by hymnsinging,
as in the case of martyrs, festivals, was finished, and the dawn
came, the multitude of men and women that had flocked in from
all the neighbouring country were interrupting the psalms with
wailings. But I, sick at heart though I was owing to the calamity,
was yet contriving, so far as was possible with what we had, that
no suitable [994 A]accompaniment of such a funeral should be omitted.
GREGORY MAKES THE FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS
I divided the visitors according to sex, and put the crowds of
women with the band of virgins, while the men folk I put in the
ranks of the monks. I arranged that the psalms should be sung
by both sexes in rhythmical and harmonious fashion, as in chorus
singing, so that all the voices should blend suitably. But since
the day was progressing, and the entire space of the retreat was
getting crowded with the multitude of arrivals, the bishop of
that district (Araxius by name, who had come with the entire complement
of his priests) ordered the funeral procession to start slowly,
[994 B] for there was a long way to go, and the crowd seemed likely
to impede brisk movement. At the same time as he gave this order
he summoned to him all present who shared with him in the priesthood,
that the body might be borne by them.
When this had been settled and his directions were being carried
out, I got under the bed and called Araxius to the other side
; two other distinguished priests took the hinder part of the
bed. Then I went forward, slowly as was to be expected, our progress
being but gradual. For the people thronged round the bed and all
were insatiable to see that holy sight, so that it was not easy
for us to complete our journey. On either side we were flanked
by a considerable number of [994 C] deacons and servants, escorting
the bier in order, all holding wax tapers.
The whole thing resembled a mystic procession, and from beginning
to end the voices blended in singing psalms, that, for example,
that comes in the Hymn of the Three Children.
Seven or eight stades intervened between the Retreat and the abode
of the Holy Martyrs, in which also the bodies of our parents were
laid. With difficulty did we accomplish the journey in the best
part of a day, for the crowds that came with us and those that
were constantly joining us did not allow our progress to be what
ARRIVAL AT THE CIIURCH: THE BURIAL SERVICE
But when we got inside the church we laid down the bed and turned
first to prayer. But our prayer was the signal for the people's
lamentations to start again. For when the voice of psalmody was
still, and the virgins gazed on that holy face, and the grave
of our parents was already being opened, in which it had been
decided that Macrina should be [994 D] laid, a woman cried out
impulsively that after this hour we should see that divine face
no more. Then the rest of the virgins cried out the same, and
a disorderly confusion disturbed the orderly and solemn chanting
of psalms, all being upset at the wailing of the virgins. With
difficulty did we succeed in procuring silence by our gesture,
and the precentor taking the lead and intoning the accustomed
prayers of the Church, the people composed themselves at last
THE FAMILY GRAVE IS OPENED
[996 A] When the prayer had come to its due close, fear entered
my mind of transgressing the divine command, which forbids us
to uncover the shame of father or mother. " And how,"
said I, " shall I escape such condemnation if I gaze at the
common shame of human nature made manifest in the bodies of my
parents ? Since they are all decayed and dissolved, as must be
expected, and turned into foul and repulsive shapelessness."
As I thought of these things and the anger of Noah against his
son was striking fear into me, the story of Noah advised me what
was to be done. Before the lid of the grave was lifted sufficiently
to reveal the bodies to our gaze, they were covered by a pure
linen cloth stretched across from each end. And now that [996
B] the bodies were hidden under the cloth, we- myself, that is,
and the aforementioned bishop of the district-took up that
holy body from the bed and laid it down by the side of the mother,
thus fulfilling the common prayer of both. For both were with
one voice asking God for this boon all their lives long, that
their bodies should be mingled with one another after death, and
that their comradeship in life should not even in death be broken.
THE FUNERAL OVER, GREGORY RETURNS HOME
But when we had completed all the accustomed funeral rites, and
it became necessary to return home, I first threw myself on the
grave and embraced the dust, and then I started on my way back,
downcast and tearful, pondering over the greatness of my loss.
On my way I met a distinguished soldier who had a military command
in a little city of Pontus named Sebastopolis, and dwelt [996
C] there with his subordinates. He met me in friendly fashion
when I reached the town, and was greatly disturbed to hear of
the calamity, for he was linked to us by ties both of relationship
and friendship. He told me a story of a marvellous episode in
her life, which I shall incorporate into my history and then close
my tale. When we had ceased our tears and had entered into conversation,
he said to me-
" Learn what manner of goodness has been taken away from
With this prelude he began his narrative.
THE SOLDIER'S STORY
" My wife and I once had an earnest desire to pay a visit
to the school of virtue. For so I think the place ought to be
called, in which that blessed soul had her abode. Now there [996
D] lived with us also our little daughter, who had been left with
an affliction of the eye after an infectious illness. And her
appearance was hideous and pitiable, the membrane round the eye
being enlarged and whitish from the complaint. But when we came
inside that divine abode, my wife and I separated in our ; visit
to those seekers after philosophy according to our sex. I went
to the men's department, presided over by Peter, your brother;
while my wife went to the women's side and conversed with the
saint. And when a suitable interval had elapsed, we considered
it time to depart from the Retreat, and already our preparations
were being made for this, but kind protests were raised from both
sides S equally. Your brother was urging me to stay [998 A] and
partake of the philosophers, table; and the blessed lady would
not let my wife go, but holding our little girl in her bosom,
said she would not give her up before she had prepared a meal
for them and had entertained them with the riches of philosophy.
And kissing the child, as was natural, and putting her lips to
her eyes, she saw the complaint of the pupil and said-
"'If you grant me this favour and share our meal, I will
give you in return a reward not unworthy of such an honour.'
"'What is that ? , said the child's mother.
" 'I have a drug', said the great lady' , which is powerful
to cure eye complaints.'
" And then news was brought me from the women's apartments,
telling me of this promise' and we gladly remained, thinking little
of the pressing necessity of starting on our Journey.
[998 B] " But when the feast came to an end and we had said
the prayer, great Peter waiting on us with his own hands and cheering
us, and when holy Macrina had dismissed my wife with all courtesy,
then at last we went home together with glad and cheerful hearts,
telling one another as we journeyed what had befallen us. I described
to her what had happened in the men's room, both what I had heard
and seen. She told every detail as in a history, and thought nothing
ought to be left out, even the smallest points. She told everything
in order, keeping the sequence of the narrative. [998 C] When
she came to the point at which the promise was made to cure the
child's eyes, she broke off her tale.
"' Oh, what have we done? , she cried. , How could we have
neglected the promise, that salvecure that the lady said
she would give ? '
"I was vexed at the carelessness, and bade some one run back
quickly to fetch it. Just as this was being done, the child, who
was in her nurse's arms, looked at her mother, and the mother
looked at the child eyes.
""'Stop', she said, , being vexed at the carelessness''-she
cried aloud with joy and fright. , For, see ! Nothing of what
was promised us is lacking ! she has indeed given her the true
drug which cures disease; it is the healing that comes from prayer.
she has both given it and it has already proved efficacious, and
nothing is left of the affliction [998 D] of the eye. It is all
purged away by that divine drug.'
" And as she said this, she took up the child and laid her
in mv arms. And I understood the marvels of the Gospel that hitherto
had been incredible to me and said-
"'What is there surprising in the blind recovering their
sight by the hand of God, when now His handmaiden, accomplishing
those cures by faith in Him, has worked a thing not much inferior
to those miracles ? "'
Such was his story; it was interrupted by sobs, and tears choked
his utterance. So much for the soldier and his tale.
I do not think it advisable to add to my narrative all the similar
things that we heard from those who lived with her and knew her
life accurately. For most men judge what is [1000 A] credible
in the way of a tale by the measure of their own experience. But
what exceeds the capacity of the hearer, men receive with insult
and suspicion of falsehood, as remote from truth. Consequently
I omit that extraordinary agricultural operation in the famine
time, how that the corn for the relief of need, though constantly
distributed, suffered no perceptible diminution, remaining always
in bulk the same as before it was distributed to the needs of
the suppliants. And after this there are happenings still more
surprising, of which I might tell. Healings of diseases, and castings
out of demons, and true predictions of the future. All are believed
to be true, even though apparently incredible, by those who have
investigated them accurately.
But by the carnally minded they are judged outside the possible.
Those, I mean, who do not know that according to the proportion
of faith so is given the distribution of spiritual gifts, little
to those of little faith, much to those [1000 B] who have plenty
of " searoom" [note: [Greek; euruchOrian] in their
And so, lest the unbeliever should be injured by being led to
disbelieve the gifts of God, I have abstained from a consecutive
narrative of these sublime wonders, thinking it sufficient to
conclude my life of Macrina with what has been already said.
Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Macrina, trans. by W.K. Lowther
Clarke, (London: SPCK, 1916)
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© Paul Halsall December 1997