09.04.13, Silvas, Macrina the Younger

Main Article Content

Felice Lifshitz

The Medieval Review baj9928.0904.013


Silvas, Anna M.. Macrina the Younger, Philosopher of God. Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts 22. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Pp. xiv, 264. ISBN: 978-2-503-52390-3.

Reviewed by:
Felice Lifshitz
Florida International University/Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin

This unusual hybridization between monograph and source collection brings together densely annotated and lengthily introduced English translations of "all the sources of Macrina's life" (x): (her brother) Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Macrina, his On the Soul and the Resurrection, and his Letter 19, along with a series of fragmentary excerpts from the Epigrams of Gregory Nazianzen and from various works of (her other brother) Basil of Caesarea (55-78, none of which mention Macrina explicitly). Taken together, they reveal Macrina (ca. 32779) the Christian philosopher, an exemplar of the monastic search for the good and for God through both intellectual and moral efforts (xi). The Life describes how, in the wake of Basil's death, Macrina enlightened and comforted Gregory when she "made the memory of the saint a starting point for higher philosophy...[and] discoursed on the nature of what it is to be human and disclosed by reason the divine economy hidden in disasters and discussed aspects of the life that is to come" (128). Silvas presents Gregory's On the Soul and the Resurrection (cast in the form of a dialogue between Gregory and his sister) as a source for Macrina on the grounds that it must, to some extent, contain those teachings, although "it will never be possible to separate entirely what is really 'Macrina' and what is really 'Gregory'" (161). [1] Christian philosophy involved learning, in this case "an intellectually engaged piety in the Alexandrian tradition" (17) which Macrina the Younger inherited from her grandmother, Macrina the Elder. Silvas' work thus accords with the recent trend (exemplified for instance by the work of Fiona Griffiths on Herrad of Hohenbourg) to see religious women as intellectuals, and thereby to deemphasize the long dominant tendency to highlight ways in which women's spirituality was corporeal/somatic or emotional/ecstatic. Although Silvas makes no explicit reference whatsoever to either phase of scholarship on religious women, she clear shows where she stand on the matter: "Macrina's piety was far from a type marked by a dominating interest in visions, marvelous phenomena, strained devotions, and religiosity. Nor was she one to foster an emoting self-absorbed 'spirituality' divorced from solid doctrine, moral endeavor, sacred scripture, and liturgy, Church and tradition" (168).

Anyone interested in the history of monasticism should also make certain to consult Macrina the Younger, which has some very important things to say about "double monasteries." Silvas is keen to rescue such institutions from the penumbra of heteropraxy. Far from being some rare and controversial "sub-orthodox" form of monasticism, this type of community (a creation of "orthodox-minded women") lies at the heart of the monastic tradition, whose roots have to be sought in "the inherent structure of the Christian family household itself" (46-47). Silvas builds on her own earlier work [2] to argue that monasticism was, in origin, a "domestic ascetic movement" inspired and instigated by a female member of the family, and involving "the commitment of the entire family to pursuing a life of Christian piety" (3). Such households eventually evolved into full-fledged, and still hetero-social, monasteries, the very first of which was Macrina's family estate at Annisa (today the Turkish town of Uluköy). There, by approximately 365 (43), could be found a women's section, a men's section, provisions for taking in and rearing children, and a hospice for guests. The sexes slept and ate separately, but worshiped together in a single church (38-39). Macrina was the "presiding genius" (39) over the entire community. A thriving settlement of male and female ascetics (all governed by a deaconess) had long been gathered around the tomb of St. Thecla at Seleucia (18-19), but this community was presumably an example of the sort of "ill-disciplined association of men and women ascetics" (42) which Macrina sought to avoid.

Silvas persuasively paints Macrina as the leader of an extraordinary aristocratic family, as a spiritual mother responsible for the Christian vocation not only of her own biological mother but also of many younger siblings including bishops St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Peter II of Sebasteia. Macrina was the first in the family to commit to virginity for life, in the early 340s, successfully casting herself as a widow (against the wishes of her family) when her intended husband died even before the formal betrothal could take place (29-30). In 351, she "gained her first wholehearted disciple" (35) in her younger brother Naucratius, who abandoned a promising career in rhetoric or law to live as a hermit. Five years later, as the family reeled under the impact of Naucratius' untimely death, Macrina convinced her mother (Emmelia) to embrace the common life and her brother Basil to follow Naucratius' lead. At some point after 358, but before 365, Macrina inspired the youngest sibling Peter to join the community at Annisa, precipitating the creation of a men's section; thus, "the centrifugal tendencies of freelance ascetic enthusiasm were domesticated through being regrafted into a form of community that was the fruit of the domestic ascetic movement led by women" (45). Macrina was also key to the vocation of Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote of her in his Letter 19: "We had a sister who was for us a teacher of how to live, a mother in place of our mother" (87). And it is above all based on Gregory's testimony that Silvas ascribes such dominant influence in the family to Macrina, for instance when he describes in the Life of Macrina how "she took [Basil] in hand and drew him with such speed towards the goal of philosophy that he withdrew from the worldly show and despised the applause to be gained through eloquence" (117) and "she persuaded her mother to give up the life she had been used to" (118). Through it all, Silvas writes "contra the traditional view of Basil as a 'founder' of monastic life and Macrina's contribution as derivative and dependent on his" (44), for Macrina was "the mother and preceptrice of that monasticism that has come down under Basil's name" (48).

Silvas also makes a notable contribution with her source translations, all of which read very well. Her translation of On the Soul and the Resurrection is particularly engaging, although this is at least partially a result of the quality of the original text, filled with intriguing arguments in favor of the Christian doctrine of individual bodily resurrection ("pagan" objections to which Gregory sought to parry; see 229-30). I certainly understood this complex matter better after reading Gregory's illuminating treatise in Silvas' sensitive translation. For instance, a key obstacle to accepting bodily resurrection is the difficulty of understanding how the feature of the resurrected body will relate to the features of an individual's earthly body: wrinkled or smooth-skinned, emaciated or plump, aged or youthful, affected or not by causes of death such as illness or accident (e.g. 240). Gregory/Macrina utilizes the image of the seed which grows into an ear of grain as a way to explain the nature of the spiritual (resurrected) body: "Though the grain of wheat on its dissolution in the soil leaves behind its slender bulk and the particular quality of its shape, it does not quit itself, but abides in itself even as it grows into an ear that differs very greatly from itself in size, beauty, complexity, and shape. In the same way, though human nature loses in death all the particular qualities it acquired through its disposition subject to passion...as if growing into an ear, it is changed into incorruption, and glory, and honour, and power, and consummate perfection...nothing other than what was in the first place. For since in the beginning it was not the ear that came from the seed, but the seed from the ear, and after this the ear sprang up around the seed, the sequence in the example clearly indicates that the entire blessedness that shall sprout again for us through the resurrection is a return to the grace of the beginning. At the beginning we were in a way the full ear, but we were whithered in the scorching heat of vice" (243-244). Finally, Silvas makes a strong case for the need for a new English translation of the Life of Macrina (99-100), based largely on her better understanding of the history of monasticism and of the detailed chronology of Macrina's life. Unfortunately, for classroom use, Silvas' translation cannot replace Kevin Corrigan's, available in paperback for $10, or William K. Lowther Clarke's, accessible online at no additional cost at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/macrina.html#life. However, the instructor who can bring points gleaned from Silvas' Macrina the Younger into class discussion, or can assign sections of the volume as additional library reading, will have a very successful module on his or her hands.

But there are also problems with this book. For instance, when Silvas writes "The domestic ascetic movement, in which women played so prominent a role, acted as a reminder to male ascetics, with their tendency to individualism, of the intrinsically communitarian and ordered basis of the Christian way of life" (48), she engages in unwarranted essentialism, as if no female ascetic ever took to the desert and no male conservative ever advocated organized community life! I cannot accept the broad implications of this statement concerning the impact of gender on the history of monasticism, although I was completely convinced by Silvas's arguments concerning Annisa in particular, as well as about the orthodoxy of the "double monastery." Furthermore, as already noted above, Silvas does not engage with the extensive scholarship on gender and Christianity relevant to her work, although this is perhaps justifiable in that the volume is not a monograph on Macrina but rather a series of densely-commented source translations. Still, those who work in the field will be frustrated by how she simplistically glosses over potentially serious issues about which there is ongoing debate. For instance, when Basil (in his Introductory Sketch of the Ascetic Life) ascribes "virility of soul" to women, Silvas simply notes that "this is his way of saying that in the arena of the soul there need be no distinctions of 'stronger' and 'weaker' sex" (61). Basil's Letter to a Fallen Virgin, which Silvas argues (unconvincingly) was written to an unnamed sister of the author and Macrina, and which she presents as a moving example of the former's passionate fraternal concern for a family member, could just as easily be read as a misogynistic diatribe more likely to drive the young woman to jump off a cliff than to provide useful spiritual guidance. [3] The only explicit engagement with feminist scholarship comes when Silvas rejects (rightly, I think) Elizabeth Clark's assertion that the "Macrina" in On the Soul and the Resurrection is little more than a "literary foil to Gregory's own persona" (164) who could never have "in reality" articulated the philosophical positions ascribed to her in the text. [4]

In one of her quirkier moments, Silvas rejects the term "hagiography" as "best left aside" (103) in connection with texts such as the life of Macrina, a point with which I wholeheartedly agree. [5] However, Silvas proposes instead what she calls a "much happier genre category" (105) of "mystagogy," whose characteristics I can barely comprehend let alone apply to biographies of saints. Silvas defines it thus: "an exposition of the 'mysteries,' the life in Christ as communicated in the liturgical rites, and realized above all by the virgin mystic in the liturgy of the heart...Just as the innate character of Christian liturgy involves a certain sense of progression from the earthbound to the supremely sacred, a gradual broaching of thresholds until access to the innermost shrine is finally gained, so the life of the virgin is portrayed as a gradual progression towards divine communion" (104-5). "Mystagogy" appears to be a neologism based on the phrase "mystic procession" used by Gregory to describe Macrina's funeral procession in the Life (143-44), also commonly used to describe the liturgical procession of the Easter vigil.

The first biographer of Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa, sought to publicize "the life of virtue and the Christian intellectual caliber" of his sister; Silvas explains that "the aim of the present book is to renew Gregory's purpose again for an English-speaking readership" (ix). Furthermore, her "translation aspires to a noble English that, while it may repay a quick read for superficial 'information,' invites the reader to reflect, to savour, and perhaps even inspire, to pray" (sic, 103). I'm not sure many 21st-century readers will be moved by this book to pray, but I do recommend it highly. In all its glorious quirkiness, it will definitely repay study. Anna Silvas makes an excellent case that Macrina "merits the title Mother of Greek Monasticism and perhaps even Mother of Cenobitic Monasticism, insofar as Basil's doctrine prevailed as the seminal model of cenobitic life throughout the Church both east and west. She has been called 'the Fourth Cappadocian,' though in point of chronology and stemma of influence, she was the first. By any standard she belongs as one of the more illustrious members of the category 'Mothers of the Church'" (169).

-------- Notes:

1. Silvas contradicts herself (on p. 152) concerning whether headings identifying the two interlocutors occur in "all" or "most" manuscript witnesses of the work.

2. Anna M. Silvas, The Asketikon of St. Basil the Great (Oxford University Press, 2005).

3. For instance, Basil writes: "You were indeed beguiled by the Serpent, and more bitterly than Eve was...Among all other vices this one is unique and without parallel. This is a new piece of effrontery in life" (pp. 69-70).

4. Elizabeth Clark, "Holy Women, Holy Words: Early Christian Women, Social History, and the 'Linguistic Turn'," Journal of Early Christian Studies 6 (1998) pp. 413-430, at 423-428.

5. Felice Lifshitz, "Beyond Positivism and Genre: Hagiographical Texts as Historical Narrative," Viator 25 (1994) pp. 95-113.

Article Details

Author Biography

Felice Lifshitz

Florida International University/Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin