Macrina (327–379)

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Macrina (327–379)

Byzantine composer, singer, teacher, and saint who was the founder of a religious community for women in the Eastern Church . Name variations: Makrina.Born in Caesarea (modern-day Kayseri), capital of Cappadocia, in 327 ce; died in 379; one of ten children of Basil (a distinguished lawyer and professor of rhetoric in Cappadocia) and Emmelia; sister of Peter, bishop of Sebaste, Basil the Great (329–379), bishop of Caesarea, whose authority extended over 11 provinces of Asia Minor, and Gregory of Nyssa (335–387), one of the fathers of the Eastern Church.

The family of Macrina played a leading role in Christianity. Her grandmother Macrina the Elder , who tended the chapel at Annesi, was influenced by Gregory the Illuminator, while her grandfather was a Christian of property. During the persecutions by Galerius and Maximianus, these same grandparents had to flee into the forests of Pontus, where they lived for seven years.

Macrina was born in Caesarea (modern-day Kayseri), the capital of Cappadocia, in 327, one of ten children of Basil, a distinguished lawyer and professor of rhetoric in Cappadocia, and Emmelia . Growing up in a household that has been described as "a nursery for bishops and saints," Macrina and her brothers were strong supporters of orthodox Christianity as delineated by the Nicene Creed. Along with Macrina, three of the brothers were later declared saints. At 12, when Macrina's chosen fiancé died, she renounced all future suitors.

Eventually, she became the deaconess of the church of St. Sophia in Byzantium. A woman of vivid imagination and what has been described as "terrifying" selflessness, she had enormous influence over her brothers, because positions of leadership in the early church were familiar to her. She accused a young Basil (the Great), newly offered the chair of rhetoric at the University of Caesarea, of being "puffed up beyond measure with the pride of oratory." That, along with the death of their younger brother Naucratius in a hunting accident, caused Basil to renounce his chair and turn to his sister, learning from her "the secret of renunciation and Christian virtue which had eluded him."

With Naucratius' death, Macrina's mother Emmelia was plunged into grief. While comforting her, Macrina also convinced her mother to treat the slave girls as equals, close the house, and move with her to the family estate at Annesi in the mountains of Pontus on the edge of the Iris River. There, Macrina founded a small community of religious women, taught the scriptures, and established a hospital. But renunciation was foremost—renunciation of wealth, rank, and all pleasures of the body. All thoughts must be of God. "It was the beginning of monasticism," writes Robert Payne in The Fathers of the Eastern Church, "and Macrina was its true founder. Women, not men, were the first monks."

Following her mother's death, Macrina raised and educated her younger brother Peter who became bishop of Sebaste. But Macrina owes her fame to another brother, Gregory of Nyssa. The opposite of Basil, who was a gifted ruler, Gregory was a soft, tender, joyful, compassionate man who leaned toward mysticism. As a child, he held no interest in the intense Christianity of his mother. Appointed by Basil to the bishopric of Nyssa, Gregory unwillingly administered to his diocese. But when Basil died in 379, Gregory felt the blow. A few months later, his beloved sister Macrina was dying at Annesi. Hastening to her, he was led into her cell, where he found her lying on the floor, with boards for a pillow, choking with asthma. He hardly recognized her. After leaving her side to take refreshment, Gregory returned to find that Macrina had regained some strength. Together, they spoke not of their youth but of the nature of death, the soul, and the Resurrection. Macrina urged her brother to play an expanded role in the spread of Christianity. Gregory explored this conversation at length in Concerning the Soul and the Resurrection. The chronicler of the family, Gregory wrote "enchantingly of divine things," notes Payne, and "just as enchantingly about the nature of man, which he was continually celebrating." Gregory spoke in poetic and reasoned terms, at times "putting the words into the mouth of his sister Macrina as she lay dying in a blaze of philosophy." In Gregory's treatise, Macrina appears sometimes under her own name, sometimes under the name "teacher." Writes Payne, "He was to say from her dying lips he learned more than anyone else ever taught him."

According to Gregory, the singing of songs never ceased night or day in the convent Macrina founded, and she wrote both the text and music of many songs performed there. Having learned the art of psalm singing from her mother, she wanted music to be a central part of her religious house.


Cohen, Aaron I. International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. 2 vols. NY: Books & Music (USA), 1987.

Deen, Edith. Great Women of the Christian Faith. Harper, 1976.

Payne, Robert. The Fathers of the Eastern Church. Dorset, 1989.