Macrina’s Beauty

I’m back at it, starting my first semester with a dive into some of Gregory of Nyssa’s works. I’m hoping that I will find in him a helpful guide to thinking about beauty, and then translating some of that work into current issues of creation care/stewardship.

This week I read The Life of Saint Macrina (translated by Kevin Corrigan), Gregory’s biography of his oldest sister, Macrina. His goal is to write about her in order that her life of virtue may be of use to others, and because such a woman, such a good life “should not pass along this way veiled and in silence” (21). Beginning with her birth as the oldest child, Gregory recounts her “secret name” of Thekla, which is a sign pointing to the similarity of Macrina’s life to the Thekla who served alongside Paul and committed her life to celibacy. 

After being educated in the Scriptures very carefully by her mother, Macrina is described by Gregory as coming into the “bloom of youth” (26). For Macrina, this means the attention of many suitors who were overcome by her beauty. Although she is betrothed to one of them, he dies suddenly before they can be married. Macrina takes the opportunity to resist further attempts to marry her off, declaring that her betrothal is still binding, though her betrothed is dead. 

Gregory then tells of Macrina’s skill in supporting and influencing her family members. For her mother, now a widow, Macrina helps in every way, and even persuades her to give up their wealthy lifestyle and treat their servants on equal footing. Macrina also comforts her mother upon the death of one of her brothers, Naucratius. For her brother Basil, newly trained in rhetoric and “monstrously conceited”(26) about his skill, Macrina wins him over to “philosophy,” meaning not simply a particular discipline of study, but the love of wisdom that concerns “truth and care of the soul” (58). Through Macrina’s influence, Basil exchanges arrogance for humility. To her youngest brother Peter, Macrina acted as “father, teacher, guide, mother, counsellor in every good” (31). 

Gregory concludes his brief narrative of Macrina’s life with an extended account of her death. After hearing of her falling ill, Gregory goes to see her and finds her “resting on a plank covered with sack-cloth, with another plank supporting her head and designed to serve instead of a pillow” (34). Although in great pain, Macrina nonetheless uses her last strength to encourage and admonish Gregory. When he expresses grief over the death of their brother Basil, Macrina rouses herself to expound “divine providence hidden in sad events and recounting in detail events of the life to be hereafter as if she were inspired by the Holy Spirit” (35). 

After Macrina dies, a deaconess advises Gregory of Macrina’s lack of material possession with which to decorate the bier, and she shows him a mark on Macrina’s breast. This mark, she says, was left as a sign of her miraculous healing. At one time, Macrina had been advised by the doctor that she had a tumour, but that to cut it out would be almost as dangerous as leaving it in. Concerned for her modesty, Macrina refused to let the doctor operate. Instead, she made herself a salve mixed of earth and her own tears, sought out her mother to make the sign of the cross over her tumour. She was healed, yet a mark appeared on her skin “a reminder…of God’s visitation…an impetus and cause for constant thanksgiving to God” (48). 

After he helps the deaconess prepare Macrina’s body for burial, Gregory tells about the appearance of her body: “rays of light seemed to shine out from her beauty” (49). Despite their covering her with dark clothing, Gregory explains that God added grace to her body to cause it to shine. 

Gregory’s narrative concludes with an account of a specific miracle of healing performed by Macrina. Concerned that those who read will doubt his claims, he says that he will refrain from listing any more of the works that she accomplished. Still, he catalogues them in a brief list, even as he expresses doubt that those who read without faith will dismiss his words. 

My interest in this work of Gregory’s has to do with his focus on Macrina’s physical and spiritual beauty, as well as the mark that she receives after her healing. A few observations and reflections, in dot points: 

  • Macrina’s physical beauty, although a problem for her since she does not desire to be married, is not portrayed by Gregory as something negative, or a hindrance to her or others. It is more a matter of fact, although there are hints of admiration in Gregory’s description of her attractiveness. This seems to be to be an important contrast to the way women’s physical beauty has sometimes been understood—as a source of temptation, both to others and to themselves, in distracting from what is most important, or even a danger that must be controlled and averted. I wonder if Gregory is implying the ideal—that physical beauty be consonant with spiritual beauty, rather than a deceitful mask or costume. At death, then, it is fitting that Macrina’s body shines as a testament to her spiritual beauty. Even as I write that, though, I think of Jesus—not attractive in human judgement, and yet supremely beautiful. Synthesising Christ’s beauty/lack of beauty, I think, will be very important for my project. 
  • Gregory clearly subordinates the physical, material life to the spiritual. He describes the immaterial life as “more perfect,” (26), describes Macrina’s community of maidens as living “at the boundaries between human nature and the nature which is without body” being not “weighed down by the attractive pull of the body, but…borne upwards, poised on high” (30). He also contrasts the human and the angelic life, describing the latter as the more desirable (31). I wonder about this contrast, about its necessity and problematic assumptions. Why are angels viewed as in a more desirable state than humanity? Why does the desire for maturity seem linked to the desire for a non-human nature? Is it because of the Psalmist’s claim that we have been made “a little lower than the angels”?
    Two texts come to mind re: angels and our contentment. One is Lewis’ Screwtape Letters—I’m reminded of Screwtape’s insistence on humanity’s repulsiveness because of their embodiment. His disdain demonstrates Lewis’ belief that our embodiment is a good thing, a gift of God, not for us to despise as the demons do. The second is Dante’s Paradiso—at the beginning, Dante meets several characters who have been placed in the outer circles of Paradise. They are not as close to the divine presence as others are. What is striking about their position is their contentment. One of them, Piccarda, tells Dante that in Paradise, “there is no will but one with His…In His will is our peace” (Canto 3). Relating this to our humanity—if it is God’s will that we are human, embodied creatures made from the earth, then how can we rightly desire anything else? Our humanity is God’s good gift to us, and in his will we ought to find our peace. 
  • Despite this subordination, I was struck by the tender care that Gregory takes for Macrina’s body after death. The body is not disposable, not a shell or prison to be thrown away after death, but a witness to the grace of God and the virtue of Macrina despite the absence of her soul.