Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Saint Macrina

On the Episcopal calendar, today is the day we celebrate Saint Macrina. Macrina was the oldest of ten children born around the year 327 to Basil the Elder and his wife Emmelia, a prominent Christian couple in Cappadocia (a mountainous district east of Asia Minor, where the Christian Gospel took early root). She's best known as the sister of two of the great Cappadocian fathers, Basil and Gregory, who along with their friend Gregory of Nazianzus were important defenders of Nicaean orthodoxy during the height of the Arian controversy.

Macrina is also sometimes credited with the founding of what's usually known as "Basilian monasticism" because she undertook monastic life early on and influenced her brother Basil in his formation of monastic communities. Although it was the men in the family who took center stage at a crucial time in church history, Basil's letters and Gregory's Life of Saint Macrina (a beautiful meditation on his sister's holy life and death) make it clear that they were very shaped by the deep Christian teaching and example of sister, mother and grandmother.

I became rather fascinated by Macrina several years ago when I took a course in Patristics. I ended up writing a paper about her, which I've dug out a few times over the years, including today, to refresh myself on the particulars of this amazing woman's life.

I had hoped to include a picture or an icon with this posting, but I'm still getting the hang of how to post graphics and where I can get them without either copyright infringement or stealing someone's bandwidth. I know that the "flickr" site has plenty of photos usable for blogs, so I thought I'd check there today...though it turns out they primarily feature very contemporary photos. Ironically, the name "Macrina" brought up numerous photos of rich and delicious looking rolls, breads and pastries, all apparently made at a well-known bakery named Macrina's in Seattle, WA.

Why do I say ironic? Well, my first reaction was to think how strange it was to go looking for images of an ascetical saint (who lived and ate very simply and owned almost no posessions) and find all these images of rich, gooey, fattening desserts. What a contrast in eras, cultures and values! That was my immediate somewhat cynical inner response.

But then I thought some more. Saint Macrina was actually well-known as a breadmaker. (I might add that this fact apparently didn't escape the Seattle bakery owners...yes, I googled the word Macrina and came up with the bakery's fact, it was the first hit, ahead of an encylopedia article on Saint Macrina.) Macrina's father died when she was quite young and she helped her mother raise all the younger children in the family as well as caring for her mother. Later Macrina formed a community of women, and her mother lived in the community with her, along with a number of other women (many of whom had been poor or abandoned, some of whom had once been the family servants). Among her other prayerful concerns and activities, Macrina and presumably some of the other women in the community baked bread for Holy Communion.

So perhaps it's not so ironic that I would be looking at images of rich and glorious food. Macrina lived a life of holy detachment from things, but a life rich in the inner spirit and one focused on the joys and realities of the coming heavenly banquet. In life, she had only a cloak, veil, sandals, a cross necklace and ring. She had no other clothes. But as we know from the Life of Saint Macrina, her brother Gregory helped prepare her body for burial by dressing her in a beautiful wedding gown. We who believe in bodily resurrection can only imagine the rich sumptuousness of heaven. It's hard for me not to reflect on the possibility that Macrina might be smiling at the notion that when I went looking for her today, the "icons" I saw were of cinnamon rolls and chocolate cake.


Erin said...

She sounds like a fascinating woman. Interesting to compare and contrast her life with the modern bakery connection!

Beth said...

I really love Macrina. She became a figure of much fascination for me during my Patristics class. She was truly a gifted woman and an example of holy living.

I thought the bakery connection was just too interesting to pass up!