Born in 327 AD, Macrina was the eldest of 10 children. Born to a wealthy family in Cappadocia, Macrina also inherited a wealth of spiritual treasure. Named after her grandmother, Macrina would grow up on stories of her family’s tradition of faith in Christ and martyrdom for his name. Macrina’s parents, respected leaders in the church, would come to have a great impact on her eventual life of monastic piety. Macrina lived between two worlds. One world was the age of Christian persecution by the likes of emperor Diocletian and others. For many Christians in the three centuries before Macrina’s birth, persecution leading to death was an ever-present reality. At best, Christians were merely tolerated. At worst, they were brutally executed. The second world was the emerging Roman empire of Constantine, an empire in which Christianity was officially recognized and privileges towards churches and leaders grew steadily. With the fear of persecution all but extinct, the course of spiritual fervor in the church shifted. Martyred heroes of the faith were fading memories, recounted in tales and sermons. For the Christianized empire of the mid-to late fourth century, a new breed of hero began to emerge—the monastic spiritual martyr.
Macrina has been counted among this class of heroes. What we know of Macrina comes from the account of her life from her brother, Gregory of Nyssa in his Vita Sanctae Macrinœ or Life of St. Macrina. Gregory recounts her upbringing, fed on Scripture, hymn-singing and prayer. Choosing to take a vow of celibacy from an early age, Macrina would become the spiritual pillar for her entire family which included the likes of not only Gregory of Nyssa but also Basil of Caesarea, Peter of Sabaste and the lesser known Naucratius. Though Gregory’s account is somewhat idealized, readers gain insight into a monastic piety, typified by Macrina, which would become the standard of spirituality for the next millennium. Living both in solitude and in community, Macrina embodied the spiritual life of true philosophia—the Christian faith. Dedicated to work, prayer, contemplation and compassion, Macrina is extoled as a great philosopher and example to emulate. Her intellectual prowess, as described by Gregory, exceeds that of Socrates or Plato. Her ability to fully accomplish the life of virtue demonstrates the dominance of the Christian faith over the Greek philosophical tradition. Macrina ultimately accomplishes the goal of philosophy which is complete union with God, and in Pauline language, fights the good fight of faith and finishes the race to obtain the prize (cf. 2 Tim. 4:7-8). Macrina’s influence upon her immediate family infiltrates the account of her life, but her influence extended to those in her chosen monastic community and indeed to everyone who encountered her. With her death in 379, Gregory describes her last prayer, almost as if describing her life, as one in which “there is no doubt that it came to God and was heard by him” (The Life of St. Macrina, trans. Kevin Corrigan, 41).