With charm and grace, St. Macrina ruled the roost in a family of saints. St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia, her parents, had ten children including the younger St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Peter of Sebaste. As the eldest child, Macrina exercised a formative influence on her more famous brothers and even on her mother.
A beautiful young woman, Macrina had been betrothed at age twelve. But when her fiancé died, she chose to remain single to devote herself to Christian service. Emmelia had given her daughter a Christian version of a classic education, training her in Scripture instead of Greek literature. In turn, Macrina conducted the early education of her younger brothers and sisters and formed them in piety.
Gregory of Nyssa, her biographer, reported that when Basil returned from Athens University all puffed up with self-importance, Macrina put him in his place—as only an older sister can. Apparently she persuaded her extremely talented brother to become a monk and subordinate his gifts to God’s purposes.
When Naucratius, the handsome and athletic family favorite, died suddenly, Macrina supported Emmelia through her grief. Later she persuaded her mother to join her in renouncing their high standard of living and embracing the simpler life of their servants. Together they formed a small monastic community of nuns under the younger Basil’s direction on the family estate at Annesi in Pontus in present-day Turkey.
In 379, shortly after Basil died, Macrina fell ill. Gregory came to visit her and found her in a very weakened condition, lying on two planks. Even though Macrina could barely talk, she spoke eloquently with her brother about death and the future life. Just before she died she prayed as follows:
“O Lord, you have freed us from the fear of death. You have made the end of life here the beginning of a true life for us. You who compassionately gave paradise back to the man crucified with you, remember me also in your kingdom. If I have committed sins in word, deed or thought because of the weakness of our nature, don’t let your eyes discover them. You who have power on earth to forgive sins, forgive me so that I may be refreshed. May I be found before you once I have put off my body, having no fault in the form of my soul. May my soul be received into your hands, blameless and spotless, as an offering before you.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa expanded his sister’s deathbed reflections on the future life in his book, On the Soul and the Resurrection.