Virgin Saints and Martyrs – The Sister of Saint Basil

Saint Macrina the YoungerIt is most rare to be able to obtain a glimpse into the home-life of the ancients. In the first centuries of our era, in the Greek and Roman world, life was so much in public, that there was hardly any domestic life at all; and it was only with Christianity that the quiet, retired and sweet home society constituted itself.

In the midst of flaunting paganism, the first believers were driven indoors, so to speak; they were precluded from much of the amusement that went to fill up the time of the heathen. They could not sit on the benches of the amphitheatre, nor attend at the representations of the theatre. They were largely prevented from being present at banquets given by friends, as these began and ended with libations to the gods, and the benediction of the deities called down on the meats. They were precluded from taking part in civil life, by the oaths and sacrifices associated with every official act.

Thinking, feeling, believing differently from their fellow-citizens, they could not associate with them easily abroad, and were consequently driven to find their society in their own homes.

Perhaps it is only in the writings of Saint Basil and his brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa that we get anything like a look into the interior of a Christian household in the fourth century. It is therefore, although a quiet picture of an uneventful and unexciting existence, full of interest and charm. Saint Basil belonged to a family both noble and wealthy, in Cappadocia, in Asia Minor. His ancestors had occupied public positions either as magistrates or at the imperial court.

His grandmother, Macrina, a native of Neocaesarea, in Pontus, had been brought up by Saint Gregory the wonder-worker; and she and her husband, whose name is not recorded, were confessors in the persecution of Diocletian. They fled to the wooded mountain sides, leaving their houses and possessions; and in their places of retreat subsisted mainly on the wild deer, that were so tame that they allowed themselves to be easily snared. They remained in concealment for seven years, and it was not till an edict in favour of the Christians was promulgated, on April 30th, 311, that they ventured to return to Neocaesarea.

Macrina died in Pontus about 340. Her son Basil inherited the piety of his parents, and he took to wife Aemilia, a woman of great virtue, the daughter of a man who had been put to death after having been deprived of his goods by the Emperor Licinius. She had lost her mother in early youth.

Basil and Aemilia were very wealthy. They owned extensive estates in Pontus, Cappadocia and Lesser Armenia; they had a large family, ten children, of whom the eldest was Macrina, named after her grandmother; Saint Basil was the eldest son, then came Naucratius, Gregory, afterwards of Nyssa, and Peter, the youngest, afterwards of Sebaste. We know no more of the four younger girls than that they were well provided for in marriage, and one of them had daughters who became superiors of a monastery in Caesarea under the direction of their uncle, Saint Basil.

Basil the elder, the father, died about 349, shortly after the birth of Peter. Aemilia was now left a widow with a large family to look after, but she was assisted in everything by her eldest daughter, Macrina, who was her inseparable companion.

When Macrina had been born she had been confided to a nurse, but it was remarked that she was almost always in her mother’s arms. Aemilia took pains to form the mind of the little girl, and give it a religious direction. She taught her first of all sentences from the Book of Wisdom, then made her commit sundry psalms to memory; so that, as her brother Gregory wrote, the Psalter became to her a companion day and night, and she was for ever singing psalms or reciting them in her heart.

Macrina was a good and patient needlewoman. Not only was the house large, but the brothers and sisters needed attention, and their clothes keeping in order, and Aemilia and her eldest daughter were constantly engaged at their needles, to keep pace with the demands of the family; and as they were always together, one mind was but the reflexion of the other.

What tended to make Macrina a still, stay-at-home girl, was an early love affair. She had been engaged by her father’s consent to a high-principled, well-born young man, and the marriage was only deferred because of Macrina’s youth. But before this took place he fell ill of fever and was carried off rapidly. After this Basil thought of uniting his daughter to some other suitable person, but Macrina urgently entreated to be allowed to remain with her mother. “My dear husband,” she said, “is not dead, – he lives with God. He has gone on a far journey – that is all, and I shall remain faithful to him whilst he is away.”

Her father did not press her – indeed, the devotion of Macrina to her mother was so tender and so close that he thought neither could bear to be parted. When he also died, then the union of hearts and interests became closer.

As the children grew up they dispersed, and received their several inheritances; but they all carried away with them indelibly the stamp impressed on their hearts by their mother and eldest sister; and in the end three of them became bishops and saints. Peter, the youngest, had been most in their hands, but the favourite brother was Naucratius.

As soon as all the birds were out of the nest, then Aemilia felt that there was nothing to retain her in the city, and she pined to be away from its dusty streets and noisy market in the green, sweet country, and in quiet with God.

Accordingly she and Macrina retired to a villa they possessed on the banks of the river Iris, at some little distance from the town of Ibora. This they converted into a sort of monastery. The slaves and other servants, if they chose to unite in the same life, were given freedom and accepted on the footing of sisters, no distinction being made between the members of the little community.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa says of this society: “They were all as one in what they ate and drank, as to their furniture and cells, and there was no token that they belonged originally to different ranks in the world. There was no ruffle of temper among them, no petty jealousies, no suspicions, no spite …. all their occupation was in prayer and the singing of psalms, which went on night and day.”

Peter, the youngest, who had been ordained, lived near at hand, and for the care he had received as a child returned his ministerial offices. Saint Basil also for awhile lived in retirement not far off, and was a help and comfort to them.

Macrina suffered about this time from a painful abscess in her breast, and Aemilia constantly urged her to let a doctor examine and lance it. She was afraid lest, should it not be opened, it might break internally. But Macrina was so modest and sensitive – perhaps absurdly so – that she shrank from the ordeal of letting a man treat the place. At last the old lady insisted; the abscess had become so hot and swollen that she was alarmed.

Macrina, struggling against shame, went into the little oratory, and remained weeping and praying there all night, sometimes with her face against the ground and her tears running over the dust. The heat and pain in her breast and the tension were so insupportable, that she gathered up some of the cool earth and pressed it to the swelling, when it burst, and she was relieved; and so the need for calling in a surgeon was overpassed.

At length Aemilia died, at an advanced age. None of her children were with her at the time except Macrina and Peter; however, as she was dying, the old and saintly woman murmured blessings on the absent darlings, and taking Peter by one hand and Macrina by the other, said, “Lord, I offer to Thee my firstfruits and my tithe. Accept them, O Lord, and pour the floods of Thy grace into both their hearts.” They were her last words. She died in 373, and was laid beside her husband whom she had loved so well. The grief of Macrina was not to be expressed. She had been the inseparable companion of her mother since her earliest infancy, and they had not had a thought or wish but what was in common.

Before Macrina had recovered from this blow she was called on to endure another. Her favourite brother, Naucratius, was found dead in the field along with his servant Chrysapius, without it being known what had caused their death.

Six years later she was called to mourn the loss of her eldest brother, Saint Basil. It was she who, with his friend Gregory Nazianzen, had been the means of turning his heart entirely to God. As a young man he had been disposed to push his way as a statesman. In 355 Basil had been at school with Julian, afterwards Emperor, and an apostate from the faith, and with Gregory, who was the son of the Bishop of Nazianzus. Basil had not formed a high opinion of the former, but with Gregory “it was one soul in two bodies.” On returning to Caesarea after his father’s death, Basil turned towards a life in the world, and a prospect of advancement in official life opened to him. It was then that Macrina had exerted all her influence over him, and gave him that final direction which made of him so glorious a saint and teacher of the Church.

And now Macrina had lost him.

In the month of September or October in the year following the death of Saint Basil, Gregory – now Bishop of Nyssa – was present at the Council held at Antioch, and on leaving it he resolved on paying a visit to Macrina. He had not seen her since the death of their brother Basil, and he wished to talk with her about him. The journey was long, and the snows were already powdering the lower ranges of the lofty mountains he had to pass.

On the night previous to his arrival on the banks of the Iris, after a tedious and long day’s travel, he had a dream. It seemed to him that he held relics in his hands that emitted a blaze of white light.

When he awoke he wondered what this dream could signify, for he was not above the superstition of his age which attributed importance to dreams; but as he neared the monastery he met a servant who told him that Macrina was dangerously ill, and Gregory at once concluded that his dream was a portent of her approaching dissolution.

Sick at heart, he pressed forward, and arrived at the villa. Those within came forth to welcome him, except the sisters, who remained in the church, sorrowful at the prospect of losing their best friend, yet glad that she should see her brother before her death.

Gregory at once entered the church and prayed, and gave his episcopal benediction to all. Then he asked to be conducted to Macrina.

We have an account of the last scene from his own pen, and this shall be given with only a little condensation.

“A woman who was there opened the door to me, and led me within. I found my sister lying on the ground, on a plank covered with sackcloth (the Cilician material made of goat’s hair, much in use for blankets) and with a pillow of the same supporting her head. She was very ill, but when she saw me, unable on account of her great weakness to rise and meet me, she lifted herself on one elbow, placing the other hand on the ground for her support. I ran to her, and insisted on laying her down again as she had been. Then she lifted her hands to Heaven and said, ‘I thank Thee, O Lord my God, in that Thou hast fulfilled the desire of my heart.’

“She did her utmost to conceal from us what a difficulty she found in breathing, so as not to increase our distress; and her face was bright and smiling, and she spoke of such matters as she thought pleasing to us. But when we came to mention Basil, then my face expressed the grief I was in at his loss. But she, on the contrary, spoke of the matter with serenity of soul and elevation of mind, so that I felt myself as though carried up above all worldly considerations into heavenly regions with her.

“Presently she said, ‘Brother, you have had a tedious journey, and must be very tired: I pray you take a little rest.’ And although it was a delight to me to listen to her, yet I obeyed; and I went forth into the garden, where was a pleasant shady walk. However, I was in such trouble of mind that I could admire nothing, and I could think only of what must shortly happen.

“I suppose she must have divined my thoughts, for she sent word to me not to fret, as she hoped speedily to be better; but she really meant that she would escape from her present pains, and be with God, for whom her soul ever thirsted. I got up when I heard this, and went to see her again. Then, when we were together, she began to talk about old times, since our childhood, and all as calmly and consequently as though she were reading out of a book. She talked of the mercies shown by God to our father, mother, and all the family.

“I wanted to tell her about my troubles when the Emperor Valens banished me for the Faith, and of other troubles in which I had been involved; but she cut me short with ‘Never lose sight of the obligations you owe to God. Think chiefly of the advantages you have received from Him.’

“As she was speaking we heard the song of the virgins calling to vespers, and my sister bade me go to the church. Thus passed the night, and when day dawned I could see clearly by her condition that it would be her last, for the fever had exhausted her last powers.

“My soul was agitated by double feelings: one was grief, for nature would make me feel, and I knew that the words I heard were the last that would be uttered by one very dear to me; the other was admiration at the calm and trust with which she awaited death.

“The sun was nigh setting without her having lost the force of her mind. Then she ceased to speak to us, but folded her hands and fixed her eyes on her heavenly Bridegroom. Her little bed was turned with the feet to the east, and she spoke to Him in a low voice, which we could hardly hear. We did, however, collect some of her words: ‘O Lord, Thou deliverest us from the fear of death; Thou makest the close of life the commencement of a new and truer life. Thou sufferest us to sleep awhile, and then wilt call us with the trumpet at the end of time. To the earth Thou entrustest the dust of which Thy hands have fashioned us, to reclaim it and clothe it with immortality and glory. Lord, Thou who on the Cross didst pardon the malefactor, remember me in Thy kingdom.’

“Then Macrina made the sign of the cross on her eyes, her mouth, and her heart; and, the strength of the fever having parched her tongue, we could no longer follow her, but saw that her lips continued to move. She closed her eyes; but when a lamp was brought into the room she opened them, and made a sign that she desired to recite vespers. But her tongue failed her, only her spirit was active, and her lips and hands moved as before, and we understood when she had finished, by her again signing herself.

“Finally she drew a long, deep sigh, and passed away in prayer. Seeing what had taken place, and remembering a wish she had expressed to me, in our last conversation, that I should render her the last offices, I put out my shaking hand to her face to close the eyes and mouth. But I did this only to fulfil my promise, for really there was no need, as eyes and mouth were closed, so that she appeared rather to be sleeping than dead. Her hands lay on her breast, and her body rested modestly, as that of a virgin.”

When Macrina was being prepared for burial, there was no other raiment of hers found save her veil, her mantle, habit, and a pair of worn-out shoes. Then Gregory gave one of his own tunics for clothing his sister’s body, and over her was cast her mother’s black cloak; “and,” says Gregory, “the blackness of this cloak made her face seem so much the whiter, as though it shone with light.”

As she was being clothed, a widow, who loved her and attended to these last offices, untied a slender string that was round her neck, and released a little cross and an iron ring.

“Keep the cross,” said Gregory to the widow, “as a remembrance of her; and I shall ever preserve the ring.”

Who can tell? Perhaps that poor little iron ring was the reminiscence of her engagement to the young man to whom she had long ago been betrothed, and to whom she had remained ever faithful.

– text and illustration taken from Virgin Saints and Martyrs, by Sabine Baring-Gould, F Anger, illustrator, published in New York, 1901