Macrina


Today’s Gospel is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) . Here is what Saint Macrina has to say about it – dense, and in need of unpacking, and no doubt open to accusations of Platonism, and asking for a fuller discussion of patristic anthropology, but nevertheless offering a more hopeful but nevertheless realistic view of the last things than some some things I’ve come across recently. (And, for those who haven’t seen it, Father Stephen Freeman’s post on The Geography of Heaven and Hell is worth reading on this topic).

…the Gospel signifies by means of [the fire and the gulf and the other features in the picture] certain doctrines with regard to our question of the soul. For when the patriarch first says to the Rich Man, “Thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things,” and in the same way speaks of the Poor Man, that he, namely, has done his duty in bearing his share of life’s evil things, and then, after that, adds with regard to the gulf that it is a barrier between them, he evidently by such expressions intimates a very important truth; and, to my thinking, it is as follows. Once man’s life had but one character; and by that I mean that it was to be found only in the category of the good and had no contact with evil. The first of God’s commandments attests the truth of this; that, namely, which gave to man unstinted enjoyment of all the blessings of Paradise, forbidding only that which was a mixture of good and evil and so composed of contraries, but making death the penalty for transgressing in that particular. But man, acting freely by a voluntary impulse, deserted the lot that was unmixed with evil, and drew upon himself that which was a mixture of contraries. Yet Divine Providence did not leave that recklessness of ours without a corrective. Death indeed, as the fixed penalty for breaking the law, necessarily fell upon its transgressors; but God divided the life of man into two parts, namely, this present life, and that “out of the body” hereafter; and He placed on the first a limit of the briefest possible time, while He prolonged the other into eternity; and in His love for man He gave him his choice, to have the one or the other of those things, good or evil, I mean, in which of the two parts he liked: either in this short and transitory life, or in those endless ages, whose limit is infinity. Now these expressions “good” and “evil” are equivocal; they are used in two senses, one relating to mind and the other to sense; some classify as good whatever is pleasant to feeling: others are confident that only that which is perceptible by intelligence is good and deserves that name. Those, then, whose reasoning powers have never been exercised and who have never had a glimpse of the better way soon use up on gluttony in this fleshly life the dividend of good which their constitution can claim, and they reserve none of it for the after life; but those who by a discreet and sober-minded calculation economize the powers of living are afflicted by things painful to sense here, but they reserve their good for the succeeding life, and so their happier lot is lengthened out to last as long as that eternal life. This, in my opinion, is the “gulf”; which is not made by the parting of the earth, but by those decisions in this life which result in a separation into opposite characters. The man who has once chosen pleasure in this life, and has not cured his inconsiderateness by repentance, places the land of the good beyond his own reach; for he has dug against himself the yawning impassable abyss of a necessity that nothing can break through. This is the reason, I think, that the name of Abraham’s bosom is given to that good situation of the soul in which Scripture makes the athlete of endurance repose. For it is related of this patriarch first, of all up to that time born, that he exchanged the enjoyment of the present for the hope of the future; he was stripped of all the surroundings in which his life at first was passed, and resided amongst foreigners, and thus purchased by present annoyance future blessedness. As then figuratively we call a particular circuit of the ocean a “bosom,” so does Scripture seem to me to express the idea of those measureless blessings above by the word “bosom,” meaning a place into which all virtuous voyagers of this life are, when they have put in from hence, brought to anchor in the waveless harbour of that gulf of blessings. Meanwhile the denial of these blessings which they witness becomes in the others a flame, which burns the soul and causes the craving for the refreshment of one drop out of that ocean of blessings wherein the saints are affluent; which nevertheless they do not get. If, too, you consider the “tongue,” and the “eye,” and the “finger,” and the other names of bodily organs, which occur in the conversation between those disembodied souls, you will be persuaded that this conjecture of ours about them chimes in with the opinion we have already stated about the soul. Look closely into the meaning of those words. For as the concourse of atoms forms the substance of the entire body, so it is reasonable to think that the same cause operates to complete the substance of each member of the body. If, then, the soul is present with the atoms of the body when they are again mingled with the universe, it will not only be cognizant of the entire mass which once came together to form the whole body, and will be present with it, but, besides that, will not fail to know the particular materials of each one of the members, so as to remember by what divisions amongst the atoms our limbs were completely formed. There is, then, nothing improbable in supposing that what is present in the complete mass is present also in each division of the mass. If one, then, thinks of those atoms in which each detail of the body potentially inheres, and surmises that Scripture means a “finger” and a “tongue” and an “eye” and the rest as existing, after dissolution, only in the sphere of the soul, one will not miss the probable truth. Moreover, if each detail carries the mind away from a material acceptation of the story, surely the “hell” which we have just been speaking of cannot reasonably be thought a place so named; rather we are there told by Scripture about a certain unseen and immaterial situation in which the soul resides. In this story of the Rich and the Poor Man we are taught another doctrine also, which is intimately connected with our former discoveries. The story makes the sensual pleasure-loving man, when he sees that his own case is one that admits of no escape, evince forethought for his relations on earth; and when Abraham tells him that the life of those still in the flesh is not unprovided with a guidance, for they may find it at hand, if they will, in the Law and the Prophets, he still continues entreating that JustPatriarch, and asks that a sudden and convincing message, brought by some one risen from the dead, may be sent to them.

[What then, Gregory asked, is the doctrine here?]

Why, seeing that Lazarus’ soul is with his present blessings and turns round to look at nothing that he has left, while the rich man is still attached, with a cement as it were, even after death, to the life of feeling, which he does not divest himself of even when he has ceased to live, still keeping as he does flesh and blood in his thoughts (for in his entreaty that his kindred may be exempted from his sufferings he plainly shows that he is not freed yet from fleshly feeling),—in such details of the story I think our Lord teaches us this; that those still living in the flesh must as much as ever they can separate and free themselves in a way from its attachments by virtuous conduct, in order that after death they may not need a second death to cleanse them from the remnants that are owing to this cementof the flesh, and, when once the bonds are loosed from around the soul, her soaringup to the Good may be swift and unimpeded, with no anguish of the body to distract her. For if any one becomes wholly and thoroughly carnal in thought, such an one, with every motion and energy of the soul absorbed in fleshly desires, is not parted from such attachments, even in the disembodied state; just as those who have lingered long in noisome places do not part with the unpleasantness contracted by that lengthened stay, even when they pass into a sweet atmosphere.

Quoted by Saint Gregory of Nyssa in On the Soul and the Resurrection.

Basil did not compose the Asceticon in a vacuum. He was not the founder of monasticism in Cappadocia and Pontus but rather inserted himself into a tradition of Christian asceticism. It was his reform of that tradition and his subsequent fame as a champion of orthodoxy that elevated him into the most prominent place in Anatolian monasticism, pushing those who had preceded him into the shade. …

When the spotlight is taken off him [Basil] and a softer lamp illuminates the ascetic landscape of Asia Minor, one can begin to understand the background to the Asceticon. Although this may seem to diminish Basil, a new appreciation of his greatness emerges when we see what he does with the tradition he inherited. There is a unity in Basil’s espousal of both the theological and ascetic views of Eustathius. Basil’s favoured word ‘eusebeia’ – piety – which we will find used again and again in his writings to describe the ascetic life, also means ‘orthodoxy, right belief’ in patristic usage. The knowledge that he was originally a Eustathian enables one to have a better understanding of Basil’s Asceticon.

Augustine Holmes OSB. A Life Pleasing to God. The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil. London, DLT, 2000. 25, 31. 

To ask who founded Cappadocian monasticism is of course the wrong question, for it presupposes a view of monastic origins – centred around well-known “founders” – that sees it as a radical departure from earlier forms of Christian asceticism that can be traced to the very beginnings of the Church. Nevertheless, the question points to a fascinating kaleidoscope of figures behind the tradition that would eventually become associated with Saint Basil.

When I first read Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Saint Macrina, it did not require a particularly well-formed feminist hermeneutic of suspicion to make me wonder at the later identification of Cappadocian monasticism with Saint Basil, given that Gregory portrays Macrina as both a monastic founder and as a crucial influence on Basil. This interpretation is echoed by Verna Harrison when she says: “Basil became a leading organiser of this new society in Cappadocia, but he was introduced  into it by his sister Macrina, who thus appears to be the true founder of what is sometimes called ‘Basilian’ monasticism.” (“Male and Female in Cappadocian Theology” in Journal of Theological Studies, 41.2, October 1990, 444-445)

However, behind both Basil and Macrina there is the figure of Eustathius. Father Holmes suggests that Saint Gregory’s silence on Eustathius’ influence on Basil – and his emphasis therefore on Macrina’s influence – was due to the later attempts to edit out accounts of Basil’s association with someone whom history remembers as a heretic. What remains puzzling, however, is the absence of any reference to Macrina in Basil’s works.

From his own writings, it would appear that Basil was originally a disciple of Eustathius, the radical ascetical leader who became bishop of Sebaste in 356. His group, which was condemned by the Council of Gangra, was associated with a social radicalism that condemned slavery and insisted on the equality of men and women, had mixed communities, appeared to condemn marriage and insist on vegetarianism for all Christians, and were involved in caring for the poor and the sick. It would appear that Macrina was also influenced by Eustathius, an influence congruent with the social radicalism in her own ascetical programme in which noblewomen and slaves shared the same lifestyle.

The Eustathian ascetics were generally part of the homoiousian circles with whom Basil tried to find common ground and with whom he was united in their opposition to the Arian teaching of Eunomius. However, they increasingly moved apart over the divinity of the Holy Spirit and Basil’s publication of On the Holy Spirit in 373 marked the definitive break with his former teacher. He remained in many respects indebted to Eustathius whose influence continues in the Asceticon, but as Holmes comments,

At the same time, while preserving the radical nature of their commitment, he aimed to bring this way of living the Gospel firmly within the Church. Thus he does follow in the footsteps of his old master, but the definite and lasting achievement is Basil’s. (43)