Who is Macrina?

I had the pleasure of speaking at a Women Deacons Prayer Service at St. Agnes Catholic Church in San Francisco last year. This prayer service focused on Saint Macrina, the younger. Never heard of her? Neither had I…

My daughter got a caterpillar for her third birthday a few weeks ago.

Side note: try not to give toddlers living things for birthday presents… well, unless they’re going to reveal a mystery about the Creator of the universe. Then, I guess,it’s okay.

So, my daughter received a caterpillar as a present for her third birthday. The idea, of course, was to host this caterpillar in our home while it grew, encased itself in a cocoon, and then emerged, a “big, beautiful butterfly.”

So, fine. We placed the large netted cage atop a bookshelf in our family room, watched the caterpillar crawl around, eat from the small food container in there, and eventually nestle in the top of the cage and cocoon him or herself. That’s when things got a little dicey. The directions said 10 days in the cocoon and the butterfly should emerge. My husband went on a work trip. My daughter, Sophia, and I stayed home…I didn’t emphasize the caterpillar to her… didn’t want to get her excited in case the whole project went south…  I watched. Every day I watched that cocoon. Looking for some sign of life. A little wiggle. A change of color. Something.

I don’t know when the last time you saw a cocoon was, but it’s a lifeless looking thing. It is like a stone. Brown. Unmoving. If I saw it in the wild, I might think it was a weird, dead leaf waiting to drop and get crushed by a passing hiker.

I’ll admit it. I lost hope. I am not great at getting plants to grow, never had a pet, clearly I had done something wrong and this caterpillar was dead. It was fun, but I’d just quietly exit the whole apparatus to the garbage after Sophia went to bed one night.

My husband returned from his work trip- “I don’t know,” I said to him quietly. “I think the caterpillar’s a goner. Doesn’t it feel like it’s been 10 days?” We pushed our faces up against the cage after Sophia went to bed, staring at the stone-still, tiny cocoon attached to the top. Huh.

The next morning, I looked – and that dang cocoon was open! The butterfly was wobbly and emerging! I could not believe it.

Tonight we honor Saint Macrina the Younger, granddaughter of Saint Macrina, the Older. Older sister to both Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Basil the Great, the ‘father’ of monasticism. What a pedigree. A theologian, philosopher, scientist, and teacher, she watched her brothers gain status and acclaim for their spiritual leadership while she ran her own monastery in Cappadocia – modern-day Turkey. She provided housing and care for the hungry and homeless – especially women and children. She was trained in the psalms and the wisdom tradition and was a teacher of prayer and Scripture to all who encountered her, including and especially her famous brothers, Gregory and Basil.

I’m afraid she was familiar with the dynamic most of us women have observed – witnessing an equally or less-qualified man be praised and promoted – all because of his gender. Of her brother Gregory’s fame, she was recorded as saying, “You that have little or no equipment within yourself for such success.” Indeed a prophet is welcomed everywhere but his own hometown. Older sisters can be harsh.

Nonetheless, she remained a spiritual teacher to her brothers until her death. In fact, that is what we hear tonight – a recollection of conversations between Gregory and Macrina, as recorded by Gregory in his On the Soul and Resurrection. The whole encounter is long – and so interesting to see her theology and cosmology. It’s worth a read – Google it.

The story is set as their brother Basil has just died and Macrina is on her deathbed – Gregory comes to her and – to use a modern phrase – he is freaking out. How can you be sure, Teacher? He says. How can you be sure that the soul persists after the body dies? She begins to speak – explaining her philosophy and theology.

Poetically – psalmically – she reminds and admonishes him:

“The Creation proclaims outright the Creator.”

To use more modern language:

Look out the freaking window.

Look at the sun and moon.

Look at the rain and soil….


Look at the caterpillar.

The Creation proclaims outright the Creator. Look to Creation for your existential questions, she wisely advises. What seems contradictory may be able to coexist. What appears dead, may yet contain life.


Even and especially us, humans are created, in Macrina’s words, to be receptacles of God’s blessings –

Even and especially we – humans – are vessels of the Creator. More than that, God’s blessings must be made manifest in us. They must find an artist, a scientist, a theologian … otherwise, these blessings lie idle. They go nowhere. They languish.

But when they *do* find suitable vessels, these blessings make us more capacious, she says.

If you look up capacious in dictionary (and I did, just to be sure…)

Capacious means having a lot of space inside – roomy! Don’t you love that?! The more blessings we receive, the more space we have inside of us. They make us roomy! Hallelujah for the roomy woman.

Macrina says, “The receiver of the blessings get an increase in bulk … and enlargement of its own proportions…”

Hallelujah for the bulky, large, spacious woman. Hallelujah for the woman who has and holds space.

In fact, she offers a vivid metaphor for this – that the we become continually larger with the inpouring of the stream. Our container fills up, but does not burst or reject more blessing. On the contrary, we become more spacious to make room for more blessing. Haven’t you found this true? When you are truly able to pause and receive blessing – that there is an expansiveness, a wideness, a roominess inside of your body…physically, yes. Your lungs expand. Your stomach distends. Your diaphragm moves to make space. Spiritually too – we are more able to tolerate contradictions, to make space for differing opinions and points of view, to move through conflict into a new, larger, more capacious synthesis.

Let us get out of the way of these blessings – Let us not put up false barriers to these blessings in our culture or in our communities. It is not so much that we can hope to stop the flood of blessings, but we can choose to  ignore them. We can place false barriers to blessing. We can close our ears to scientific discoveries and to the lived experiences of people on the margins. We can put limits on who can exhibit the blessings of God and when.

Let’s not.

Let’s not do that.

Let us get out of the way of the Holy Spirit, whose purpose – Macrina reminds us – is to fill and expand and make space within each of us for increasing blessings, increasing power, increasing Wisdom.

When we do, we make space for the butterfly to emerge from the deadest of dead-looking cocoons and fly off … to bear witness to the living, imaginative, wise Creator who made her.

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