Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Macrina the Younger: Teacher and Philosopher (part 1)

Quick quiz: Do you know who Macrina the Younger is? Do you know why she is holding a picture of the three bearded guys in this image? Why does the icon call her a "teacher"?

Macrina the Younger

Writing this book on the reception history of the parables continues to be a lot of fun. For example, I get to read a number of fascinating interpretations of the parables, as I did many years ago for my What Are they Saying About the Parables? (that book was about recent academic scholarship, though). I also get to reread texts that I had not read for many more years (e.g., Irenaeus). Best of all, I get to expand my research into new areas of art, music, and literature, which includes discovering and reading texts/works of art from and about people I had never really researched before.

Macrina the Younger is one of those people of whom "I had heard by the hearing of my ear" (to borrow words from a vastly different context) but never had the opportunity to study in depth. A bit of background about her life, before I talk about her views on Scripture and specific uses of the parables. 

Macrina the Younger (ca. 327-380)

Macrina the Younger (her paternal grandmother is known as Macrina the Elder) was the older sister of three men who would become bishops and saints of the church: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste. They are the ones depicted in the icon above (left to right: Gregory, Peter, Basil). Basil and Gregory also are, along with Gregory of Nazianzus, the famous “Cappadocian Fathers." 

Macrina would also be canonized as a saint, and many details of her life are found in her brother Gregory’s hagiography of her, which takes the form of a letter, Life of Macrina (ca. 380-83). She also is the focus of Gregory’s treatise, Dialogue on the Soul and the Resurrection.

Macrina was born into a wealthy family in Cappadocia (in modern Turkey). Macrina’s father died when she was twelve, and, as the oldest daughter, Macrina played a significant role in the raising of her nine siblings. Her brother Gregory, for example, just four years her junior, repeatedly calls her teacher [Greek didaskalos] in his writings and in his Life of Macrina says that she was “father teacher, guide, mother, counselor in every good” (37).

When Macrina’s fiancĂ© died before their marriage, Macrina decided to remain unmarried and to become an ascetic, also convincing her mother to leave her “ostentatious life-style.” She and her mother retreated to a family estate in Pontus, where they followed a strict regimen of prayer, frugal diet, and manual labor. Macrina, as a “consecrated virgin,” became head not only of the household but also of a community of female ascetics and dedicated herself “to the attainment of the angelical life.”

Gregory concludes his Life of Macrina with a lengthy description of his last meeting with her. She was in the grip of a “grievous sickness” (p. 41), resting not on a bed, but on two planks of wood. Even though she was weak and was “tortured gasping for breath,” she still “expounded arguments of such excellence,” explaining the human condition, unveiling the actions of divine providence, that uplifted Gregory “inside the heavenly sanctuaries by the guidance of her discourse.”

This is the conversation that Gregory describes in detail in his On the Soul and the Resurrection. In many respects, Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection is a Christian Phaedo, since it is reminiscent of the death of Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo. Gregory plays a role similar to Plato, and the dying Macrina is like Socrates on his deathbed arguing for the immortality of the soul. Gregory’s treatise, though, also demonstrates Macrina’s vast knowledge of the Bible and her dedication to following it. Although influenced by Origen, Macrina refuses to conjecture beyond what is found in Scripture about the origin of the world or of the soul (124), which contrasts with Origen’s tendency to speculate beyond Scripture (I'll blog about Origen and the parables in a few weeks). Unlike “Gentile philosophy, which deals methodically with all these points,” such as the origin and nature of the soul, Macrina says (according to Gregory):

we are not entitled to such licence, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings (CCEL).

Scripture is the authoritative source of Christian theology, but, guided by the Holy Spirit, human reason can supplement and bolster one’s faith.

Over the next two or three posts in the next week or so, I'll talk about this work and the use of the parables within it (specifically the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Wheat and the Weeds/Tares parables).

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