Consecrated women

Daily Reading for July 19 • Macrina, Monastic and Teacher, 379

The best-known of the self-consecrated virgins was Macrina, sister of the two great Capadoccian fathers, Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory wrote an account of her life and a philosophical dialogue purporting to record her reflections during her last days. Macrina’s desire to remain a virgin received the sympathetic support of her mother, Emilia. But their combined pleas made no impression on her father, who was determined that she would be suitably married. Like so many of her contemporaries, Macrina ultimately bowed to his will and accepted betrothal to a young man who unexpectedly died before the marriage could be completed. This extraordinary circumstance enabled the sharp-witted young woman to argue that, since betrothal was legally held to be as binding as marriage, she was not a maiden but a widow, bound to remain faithful to a husband who was only transported to another world. Popular Christian feeling of the day tended to look with disfavor upon second marriages, as did pagan sentiment. In any case, this argument seems to have borne more weight with her father than had her initial pleas. As a virgin, Macrina lived with her parents and, after her father’s death, she and her mother made their home into an ascetic community. Gregory credited her with drawing him and his brother into the ascetic movement. . . .

Most consecrated women . . . had a least one chaperone, if not a house full of them. Macrina persuaded her mother to join her in establishing a household retreat. Gregory of Nyssa gives the superficial impression that his mother and sister lived a life of complete poverty and seclusion. But then he notes the testimony of a visitor to their establishment that they entertained him and his wife (and their retinue) generously, if temperately, installing them in separate quarters according to sex. The couple were delighted enough with the uplifting atmosphere of the household that they exchanged notes through the servants agreeing to lengthen their stay.

In short, where fortune allowed it, the consecrated woman of the fourth century, virgin or widow, who lived in her own home was usually accompanied by relatives and a fairly large number of servants. In addition, she might add one or more ascetic companions to her familia, which may well have provided a much-needed refuge for religious women without the fortune to support independent establishments.

From “Muffled Voices: The Lives of Consecrated Women in the Fourth Century” by Jo Ann McNamara, in Distant Echoes: Medieval Religious Women, Volume 1, edited by John A. Nichols and Lillian Thomas Shank (Cistercian Publications, 1984).

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