On Saint Macrina and Passing the Port

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A friend who is about to start a Ph.D. in church history emailed me the other day regarding Gregory of Nyssa's  biography of his sister, Macrina.  The work is a piece of unabashed hagiography.  How do historians handle this sort of thing? he asked.  I assume that that was a polite way of asking 'Should I treat such things as no more than fairy stories?'

Handling such material is complicated and far from a remote problem affecting only the ancient church.  Anyone who has spent any time reading Victorian biographies will know that biography with a strong moral purpose - the improvement of the reader - is a hardy perennial.  And readers of this column will know that I have mightily upset a few coves over the years by arguing that certain well-loved biographies of more recent figures are really little more than hagiographical chronicles.   For myself, Lytton Strachey was surely the game changer.  Scurrilous tabloid tittle-tattler that he was, he broke the mold and opened up the possibility that not every great figure in history was a 'doughty fellow who would never have worn a ready-made bow-tie or passed the port to the right.'  Once that was done, the biographer was free to deploy psychological and material factors into the explication of the individual.  And the art of biography became a whole lot more complicated -- and interesting.  I might also add that it also gained the potential of being more Pauline-Augustinian, as inner conflict and psychological division were acknowledged as factors in human public actions.

The rules of the game for Nyssa, however, were not those of a post-Strachey world, or even of Augustine's Confessions.   Indeed, when it comes to ancient lives like that written by Gregory of Nyssa, the first thing to do is to realize that there is a theological agenda here and to understand the content of that agenda.  To us, the portrayal of early church saints in ancient lives seems two-dimensional.  As a son of Augustine, I want to know what kind of inner conflict they experienced.  I want to know what made them distinct individuals, what particulars marked them and their lives off from others. Interestingly enough, my friend made the following comment, intend as simple observation but actually precisely the kind of reader response the author would have wanted:

Macrina is presented almost as a goddess--in beauty and humility, destined for greatness and detached from the physical world--where the highest form of piety is that you aren't overly bothered by the death of a loved one. And then there's the healing-miracles stuff at the end. Very strange.

First, the presentation of Macrina as 'almost a goddess' is key.  Nyssa's theology had an important place for theosis ('deification').  This is not to be misunderstood as implying that he saw the goal of the Christian life is to blur the difference between God and humanity in a form of Buddhist like Nirvana where we all return to the One. It is no pan- or panen- theism.  It refers rather to the increasing transformation of the believer through increasingly close communion with God.   Gregory wanted to present his sister as a model Christian; thus he emphasized not those things that made her an individual, those particulars that are typically of interest to the modern reader; rather he emphasised those things that made her like God and, by inference, less individual and distinct.  Such a biography does not particularly impress me because I am a true son of Augustine: I want to know about the biographical subject's failings and inner conflicts.  Eastern icons reflect a similar sensibility.  To us, they often all look the same: every single one shows a bald guy with a beard and identical skin colouring. And that is the iconographer's point: the interest lies not in what makes these saints different but what makes them the same.

Second, we no doubt regard the emotional detachment as odd.  This is especially so now, in a world where one is thought weird even if one is not immediately emotionally traumatised by the death of someone one has never met, such as Steve Jobs or Michael Jackson or the Princess of Wales (I still remember my wife banning me from mowing the lawn on the day of the latter's funeral on the grounds that it would be 'insensitive'.  Insensitive?  Me?).  Yet here again Gregory is pointing to the idealized Christian life, one that is other-worldly and ultimately at its most real when most detached from this world and attached to God.   Is Gregory proposing an English stiff upper lip in the face of bereavement?  Doubtful.  I suspect his point is not so much to make Macrina into a moral example as into a theological example.  He is using her to stress that, compared to deep communion with God, even the dearest things of this world are as nothing.  

As for the miracles at the end, they would fall in to the same category: legitimating the status of Macrina as a true saint whose life is worthy of meditation and emulation as an example of theosis.  Did they really happen?  I am inclined to say that, whether they did or not, that is not the point.  Thus (before the sharp minded out there speak out) they are of a qualitatively different significance to that of the resurrection of Christ: Paul makes it clear that the historicity of that event is absolutely crucial to the meaning of the Christian message.  Here they serve to exemplify a theological agenda rather than to function as a redemptive act of God which is essential to the truth of the gospel.

In short, I would answer my friend by saying that I do not regard such a text as biography in the way we (or at least, I) would see it today, as an attempt to understand what makes someone tick.  In such biographies, psychology and context play key roles.  That is not so much the case here: it is rather a narrative expression of a form of theology.  The context, if you like, is not psychological or social; it is theological.   Thus,in similar fashion Athanasius' Life of Anthony is in many ways a narrative form of the theology of his On the Incarnation.  Of course, some modern biographies are narrative forms intended to justify certain theologies too.  But that is a story for a different day.

Posted December 19, 2012 @ 8:44 PM by Carl Trueman

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