One of the most saintly families in Christian history was that of St. Basil the Elder of Caesarea in Cappadocia (now Turkey) and his wife St. Emmelia. Basil the Elder, a layman of piety as well as means, had the good fortune to be the son of St. Macrina, one of the great matriarchs of early Roman Christianity.
Basil and Emmelia begot ten children, of whom Macrina the Younger was the eldest. Emmelia (herself the daughter of a martyr) coached her firstborn well in piety and practical skills. She learned to read, and chose as her favorite readings the Book of Wisdom and the Psalms; but she also mastered the talents of housekeeping.
When Macrina was twelve, her parents betrothed her to a promising young man. Unexpectedly, the fiance died before the marriage could be solemnized. She could have had many other suitors after that, but she decided to remain single. This was quite all right with her mother, who found her very helpful in raising the younger members of the family.
Basil, for instance, became “St. Basil the Great” only gradually. When he returned home from college as a youth, he was pretty cocky. His sister, therefore gave him a course in humility, and it totally changed his outlook. Then when her baby brother Peter lost his father shortly after birth, Macrina had to be his “father, teacher, guide, mother, giver of good advice.” He, too, turned out well, hailed as a saint by the flock he governed as archbishop of Sebaste. His older brother, the brilliant St. Gregory of Nyssa, likewise proved a credit to his heritage.
It was St. Macrina who first enkindled in St. Basil an interest in the monastic life, in which he was to become an important leader. After her father’s death she and her mother started a sort of convent on one of their family estates. Other devout women joined them there.
Once St. Emmelia died, Macrina gave all her remaining possessions to the poor, supporting herself thereafter by her own labor. Nine months after the death of St. Basil in early 379, “Big Sister” entered her own last illness. Brother Gregory, who had not seen Macrina for eight years, hastened to her side. He found her lying on a bed of two boards, serenely awaiting her last hour. She died in peace one dusk: “at the hour of the lighting of lamps”. Her only remaining possessions at death were an old hood and a coarse veil so St. Gregory found a linen robe to serve as a shroud. He and the local bishop and two priests carried her body to the place of burial. The psalms chanted by the choirs in the funeral procession were almost drowned out by the wailing of the crowd that accompanied the remains to the cemetery.
It is principally to St. Gregory of Nyssa that we are indebted for what we know of his admirable sister. In a panegyric on her he mentions two miracles: one in which St. Emmelia cured a growth that Macrina was suffering, by a simple sign of the cross; one in which Macrina herself healed the eye disease of a little girl. Gregory states that many other cures had been attributed to her intervention, on good grounds. The picture he gives of her is that of an exceptionally able and endearing woman with a secure set of values, possessed of that refreshing calmness of spirit that comes from close union with God. As he said of her, she “reached the highest summit of human virtue by true wisdom.”
Macrina had doubtless also been a positive influence for good in the lives of her six married sisters. I can think of no saint who illustrates better the constructive role that a good person can have in the sanctification of his or her own family.
–Father Robert F. McNamara