Women's History Month

Macrina, Desert Mother

by Callan Martin | March 11, 2015

Macrina the Younger was a member of a celibate community of fourth century Christians who devoted much of her life to the theological education of other Christians. She was named a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church after her death, celebrated as a compelling testimony of Christian humility and discipline. Today, she is remembered primarily for her strict observance of the ascetic tradition, as well as for her work as a Christian leader and teacher who embraced discipline, equality, and love of knowledge. Her strength, initiative, and selfless heart have shaped the church thousands of years later to set aside the self to pursue the will of God.

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, an ascetic culture of self-discipline and abstinence from worldly pleasures began to emerge among Christians in the Roman Empire. This ascetic lifestyle intersected with Christian monasticism, a movement which "began in the home" and was found throughout the empire. Driven by their desire to separate from the world in deference to God, ascetics eventually sought out solitude in quieter places like the desert and small villages. These monastics became known as desert ascetics.

The desert ascetics sought to be free from all that was not of their "truest self;" they longed to go deeper with God. They understood their desert journey to lead to maturity in Christ and purity in heart. "Desert ascetics understood that the journey to a deep and mature relationship with God was made within oneself. The arduous work of stripping away illusions and all that keeps us from knowing God gifted the ascetic with a deep sense of understanding...[of their]... own true humanity."[1]

Macrina was born into an aristocratic family near the shores of the Black Sea on the estates of Annisa. She was named after her grandmother, Macrina the Elder, who worked alongside a bishop known as the 'Wonder Worker,' Gregory Thaumaturgus. Macrina the Younger was born in the year 327 AD, the eldest in her family. When she was to be married, her fiancée died suddenly. It was then that Macrina made the choice to become an ascetic, committing herself to a life of rigorous discipline. When her father died, she became a leader and "a pillar of strength" for her family.[2]

Led by Macrina, the estate at Annisa became known as the "School of Virtue": the entirety of the household transformed from an aristocratic style to one of monastic observance.[3]The household used only what they needed, family belongings were sold, and servants and slaves became equals. The estate was a place where both men and women meditated, prayed, ate, and worshipped together.[4]The inception of eastern monasticism was here with Macrina as the "original inspiration and genius."[5]

Macrina became known as "the teacher." Before long, she gained a reputation as a wise counselor, both politically and theologically. Her brother, Gregory the bishop of Nyssa and a leader of the movement that supported the Council of Nicea, recorded some of Macrina's teachings in On the Soul and the Resurrection (380 AD).

Gregory writes of Macrina: "...she displayed purity and steadfastness of soul...She remained firm, like an athlete who could not be defeated, and never flinched..."[6]

On her deathbed, with Gregory at her side, Macrina prayed,

"Eternal God, for whom I was snatched from my mother's womb, whom my soul loved with all its strength, to whom I consecrated my flesh from my youth until now, entrust to me an angel of light, who will lead me by the hand to the place of refreshment, where the 'water of repose' is, in the bosom of the holy patriarchs."[7]

Those who have walked before us in the ascetic movement are known as desert fathers and desert mothers. Macrina the Younger is one such desert mother. Her life impacted not only those who knew her well, but all those who benefitted from her service. In The Forgotten Desert Mothers, Laura Swan writes, "The story of a monastic woman is also the story of her community."[8] Macrina's life testimony transformed all surrounding hearts and continues to inspire the hearts of Christians today.

The desert mothers devoted their entire lives to journeying deeper with God. The examples of women who sought solitude and oneness with God remind us to be still and to go ever deeper with the Lord. Macrina was a respected leader and a profound teacher in the Christian church, an example of women's notable influence and leadership in the faith. Her life testifies to the importance of community and mutual service among people of all circumstances and backgrounds. May we look to Macrina and the desert mothers of the past as forgotten pillars of faith that can teach us of the justice, peace, and depth of relationship that set believers apart from the world.

[1] Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women (Paulist Press: Mahwah, New Jersey, 2001), 26.

[2] Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, 129.

[3] Ibid., 129.

[4] 130.

[5] 128.

[6] 131.

[7] 134.

[8] 127.