Two Early Lives of Women Saints1
St. Thomas More College
It would certainly be fair to admit that two of the earliest extant vitae of women saints, the Life of St. Macrina2 by her younger brother, the great bishop and Cappadocian Father, St. Gregory of Nyssa and the Life of St. Syncletica3, attributed to St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria and defender of Christological orthodoxy against the Arians, could not possibly be less known than they have been! When one recalls the great names of the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era, the builders of the monastic tradition and the ascetical way of life, one thinks first – and automatically – of a St. Basil, a St. Pachomius, St. Anthony, Evagrius of Pontus, St. Jerome, St. Athanasius. One may be dimly aware, thanks to very recent work4, of some great women of the time, Desert Mothers and Mothers of the Church, whose names have survived in the works of their male counterparts: Paula, Melania, Macrina, together with their respective grand–daughters of the same name, or Marcella, Eupraxia, Febronia, Matrona, or certainly last in line, Syncletica. But in what sense are these women “Mothers” of the Church? Were they simply isolated cases? Could they have been of any real importance for their own time, or are we simply assuming that what is suddenly important for us must have been significant then? After all, it may simply be impossible, even with the best intentions, to catch anything of the importance of these women for today. Their significance was obscured in their own day because of an official view which held that women, no matter how holy, could not, according to one view, “qualify as teachers of the Church,”5 and it is obscured with a certain irony today by the same condition: we cannot now hope to see the women themselves, veiled as they are behind a façade of male direction. The problem is complicated by two further considerations: first, were they not saints for another age, for another piety, one distasteful to our modern sensibility? Second, are they not just “types”, Thekla–types6 – Thekla, the legendary companion of St. Paul – frozen and preserved in literary form (but presumably without much historical basis) in order to suit some edifying purpose; in the case of Macrina a glorified picture of an elder sister, in the case of Syncletica, an absolute nobody, whose very name betrays its artificial origin ( synkletos – called together7), a life which is probably a fiction dreamed up solely for the edification of the desert nuns, and then attributed to Athanasius to give it any weight it might have possessed!
In this paper I wish to propose the rather radical view: 1) that the vitae of Macrina and Syncletica are in fact priceless documents of the early church, documents which have either been underestimated or ignored; 2) that they give us real insight into the genuine importance of women as builders of the Christian tradition, precisely because this is not their purpose; and 3) accordingly, that they reveal Macrina and Syncletica as real people, not just edifying types, and hence real Desert and Church Mothers of their own times.
First, a few details about the dates of the two lives. Were the VSS by Athanasius, it would be the earlier life. However, we can determine that it is not by the great patriarch himself for two major reasons: first, the style of the life is too different from that of Athanasius;8 and second, since Athanasius died in 373 and since we can see traces of the influence of Evagrius of Pontus (the champion of the intellectualist ascetic tradition) who died in 399, and perhaps even of that of John Cassian who died in 450, then it is reasonable to suppose that the life was composed sometime in the middle of the fifth century. By contrast, the VSM was certainly written by Gregory of Nyssa somewhere between 380 and 383. Macrina herself was born in 327, Syncletica probably not much before 350 at the very earliest.9
Second, what are the salient details about these two lives? The contrast between them two is striking. Let us take Macrina first. Macrina was the eldest of ten children born into a wealthy, long–established Cappadocian family, whose commitment to Christianity had been tried and tested in the savage persecutions of Diocletian when her grandparents had had to flee for safety to the mountains of Pontus. Her paternal grandmother was St. Macrina the Elder, the follower of another saint, the legendary, Gregory Thaumaturgus (“Wonderworker”) who had been bishop of Neo–Caesarea in Pontus. Her parents were also saints – Basil and Emmelia. Of her brothers three were to become famous bishops – St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Peter of Sebaste – and two – Basil and Peter – were to found a monastic tradition and to be leaders of monastic communities. As for the family's friends, St. Gregory Nazianzen (the third great Cappadocian Father) and Evagrius of Pontus himself were personal friends of her little brother, St. Basil. If ever an elder sister was eclipsed by a family constellation, it was Macrina. She lived an obscure life, helped to bring up the family after the death of her father in 340 (when Macrina was only twelve years old) and founded a convent at Annisa by the Iris in 352 before her two brothers founded their monasteries in the same region. But for Gregory's tributes to her in the Life and the philosophical dialogue he has with her in The Soul and The Resurrection10 (which is meant to be read together with the Life) we should know virtually nothing about her.
By contrast to the VSM, the VSS in its details leaves the person of Syncletica herself in profound obscurity. Effectively the following is what we are told. She was born into a noble Macedonian family which moved to Alexandria. She had a blind sister and two brothers who died prematurely. After the death of her parents, she gave her fortune away to the poor, cut her hair in Thekla fashion, and took her blind sister off with her to live in a tomb outside of the city. There she lived the ascetic life, her reputation bringing many neighbouring nuns to visit and consult her, until she died of cancer at the age of about eighty–three. Hence, while Macrina is simultaneously distinguished and eclipsed by her famous family, Syncletica is distinguished by nothing. Indeed, she is a very “type” of the obscurest saint, and none of the historical details in the Life brings her any the closer into focus. This is why, of course, people have suspected that she is merely a fiction for the particular occasion. What, then, is so special about the two Lives? How are these two women real and important for their own times and for us, if what we have said so far is true?
Let us take Macrina first. The principal question we must attempt to answer is this: why is it that in the midst of such a constellation of saints Gregory chose Macrina? The answer is startlingly simple: in his eyes she outshone them all. The Vita and the De Anima et Resurrectione make this absolutely clear. Macrina literally brought the family up. For the youngest, Peter, she became, in Gregory's words: “father, teacher, guide, mother.” That influence, however, clearly extended to every other family member: her mother, St. Emmelia, above all, whom she guided into the monastic life; then St. Basil the Great, whom she took in hand when he was full of his own potential for rhetoric after his university days; and not least St. Gregory himself, who when he tells her of all the troubles he has had with the Arian faction in his bishopric, gets short shrift indeed from his eldest sister:
“Will you not put an end to your failure to recognise the good things which come from God? ... Churches send you forth and call upon you as ally and reformer, and you do not see the grace in this? Do you not even realise the true course of such great blessings, that our parents prayers are lifting you on high, for you have little or no native capacity for this”? (pp. 45–46)
The picture Gregory paints of his sister is one that is deeply personal: this is not an ivory tower saint but, at times, a laughing young girl, at others the matriarch of a monastic tradition. Indeed, if we take the evidence seriously, we must go further. Not much later than 340 it is Macrina who turns the family home into a monastery, where all possessions are held “in common” and where the maidservants are treated as “sisters and equals instead of slaves and servants” (p. 32). And just as Melania was responsible for nursing Evagrius back to spiritual health and getting him to embrace the life of a monk,11 so at least thirty–five years earlier Macrina was the decisive influence in Basil's life, which ultimately flowered in the rule of Basil. Macrina then is a major founder of the Cappadocian ascetic life and ultimately of Basilian monasticism. Such a conclusion can not be avoided if one looks impartially at the evidence.
But surely, one wants to ask, Gregory paints an idealised picture, implicitly likening Macrina not only to Thekla but also to Socrates? Furthermore, how can the girl who, as he tells us himself, was educated in the Scriptures and not at all in pagan learning – how could such a girl speak with such knowledge of pagan philosophy in the De Anima et Resurrectione? Or again, surely her dying prayer, so well structured and steeped in scriptural allusion, could never reflect words actually spoken by a woman on her deathbed?12 Surely here again we have poetic license? The only answer to these questions which is not an insult to Macrina herself is to concede that Gregory is telling us the truth of the situation, albeit in his own way. All the evidence points in this direction. For example, both Jerome and Palladius tell us of the prodigious learning of Marcella and Melania. Palladius writes as follows of Melania:
Being very learned and loving literature, she turned night into day perusing every writing of the ancient commentators, including the three million [lines] of Origen and the two hundred and fifty thousand of Gregory, Stephen, Pierius, Basil and other standard writers. Nor did she read them once only and casually, but she laboriously went through each book seven or eight times.13
If this was true of Melania, then it should be pre–eminently so of Macrina. The family of Gregory and Basil was the most intellectual family of the fourth century. Macrina was its head. Why should we accept her material and spiritual leadership alone and totally disregard the overwhelming evidence of her intellectual leadership? If Basil, Gregory and Peter were reading philosophical texts in their youth, why should we exclude the whole of Macrina's life from an informal association with such texts? For Gregory she must have been a Thekla and a Socrates in the life of his family and country. And if this is so, then we may also conclude that from the lips of such a woman it is supremely fitting that a dying prayer, steeped in Scriptural allusion, should have been so uttered.
When we turn to the VSS we are immediately struck by the unadorned nakedness of the discourse. There are no miracles, no divine epiphanies. The author even tells us that he is unable to speak of her ascetic life because she allowed no one to witness it (s. 15), on the principle which Syncletica herself later announces: “virtue disclosed is virtue destroyed” (s. 38). Like the Life of Antony (to which the VSS was obviously meant to be the counterpart) the central portion of the vita consists in a discourse on virtue by the saint herself, but while Antony talks for only twenty–eight paragraphs out of ninety–three, Syncletica speaks for eighty–two paragraphs out of a total of 113. What are we to make of this? Dom Lucien Regnault, in his introduction to the French translation of the VSS (p. v), asserts only that “la figure de son héroine à tout de même une certain consistance”, and her long discourse, he seems to hold, is purely imaginary (“un long discours fictif groupant les enseignements de la sainte”). This is to miss the point altogether. The VSS is little more than the saint's own discourse. One can only have polite interest in the details – or, rather, lack of them – which the author has assembled. But as soon as Syncletica begins to speak, any polite interest vanishes and we hear the authentic and original voice of a supremely clever person who knows what she is talking about. The discourse, therefore, is genuine, profound and just as important as anything we have of Evagrius. Hardly surprising is it, then, that Syncletica's discourse soon makes its way into the Apophthegms of the Fathers, and that in the Armenian version thereof Syncletica herself is held to be a “Father” of the Church.14 This discourse, the historical obscurities, the lack of miracles, and the frank admission by the author that he knows little about her – all these facts tell us unmistakably that Syncletica must have been a real person of such importance that even her total obscurity in the world of official influence could not prevent her breaking onto the world stage!
What is so special about her discourse? First, it is original. Second, it is far ahead of its time. Syncletica gives an outline, as it were, of the practical ascetic mind, showing first how the soul is tempted, distorted and perverted by a series of false reasonings (logismoi) and second how one can restore the proper reasoning faculty of the soul ( dianoia) by employing its natural strengths against the perversions of reason.15 Influenced as she is by the Evagrian schema of the eight deadly sins or logismoi prompted by the devil,16 she follows this schema only loosely, changes it considerably, and is much more concerned to reveal the soul's natural landscape, as it were. For Syncletica, it is poverty which is the basis of the soul's constitution,17 the material precondition of the development of agape, and the nakedness in which there is the birth of grace, which she calls paligennesia, the means of freeing the person from the vicious circle (kuklike antapodosis) of desire, pleasure and sadness, which she refers to as the “three heads of the devil.”18 Instead of the finery of the material bride, the practice of the virtues should clothe the maiden in the most concrete of ways:
In place of precious stones ... the triple crown of faith, hope and love; for necklace ... humility; for girdle ... chastity; and let poverty be our bright raiment (s. 92).
How then does the devil pervert the soul? By fitting his ploys to our own natures, Syncletica answers (s. 85). Just when we conquer gluttony, love of pleasure and fornication, then we get avarice and cupidity; and just when we have established control over these, when the poor soul despises money, then the evil–minded one prompts an irrational movement in the soul, awakes in it a bastard, death–bearing thought: he makes it think that it understands things which are not known by the many, that it excels in its fastings (s. 49).
And what do we do in the presence of such reasonings? Hold fast to the divine word, Syncletica answers, and if this doesn't work, have a change of life–style: join the cenobitic life instead of the anchoritic; if she is proud of her ascetic life, “let her be forced to eat twice a day” (s. 50)! The subtleties of self–deception are, for Syncletica, the concrete results of the devil's malignity. “In some people,” she remarks, “the devil blunts their creative intellectual power, either by making them excessively ignorant or by torturing them with over–exactness” (s. 85). And instead of Evagrius' final “deadly sin”, pride, Syncletica isolates as the most intellectual psychological stratagems of the devil, determinism and epiphenomenalism, the beliefs respectively that every action has a material cause fully adequate to account for it and that the soul dies with the body.19 Why are these so deadly? According to Syncletica, they dehumanise us at our core, for they take away the proper development of the human faculty of judgement ( krisis) and they lead little by little to complete despair.20
It is here particularly that Syncletica's psychological insight is far ahead of her time. As an anchorite she prefers the anchoretic life, yet she insists that each experience must stand on its own ground and be examined in terms of itself: married, cenobitic or anchoretic, each has something special to give, each has its overwhelming burdens.21 One can be alone in a crowd, she says, just as one can be in a crowd when alone (s. 97). As also for Gregory of Nyssa, so too for Syncletica, marriage and sexuality are a fundamental part of life, even if not the highest seed of the soul (ss. 77–78). Instead of the physical battles with demons we read about in the Life of St. Antony, in the VSS we see the concrete weaknesses of the soul and the effort of intelligent asceticism necessary to oppose those weaknesses. In a beautiful passage which reveals so much of the human face of the saint herself, Syncletica – the accomplished, renowned ascetic – meditates upon the need to dispel despair as follows:
Sometimes it is necessary to purify the soul of vainglory, sometimes to encourage, praise and admire, for if the soul is found to be negligent and sluggish, still somewhat numb with regard to the pursuit of what is noble, it is fitting to encourage it; and if it does some small useful thing, we should admire and make much of it; and grave and unworthy errors we should count as least and of little moment; for the devil wants to distort everything and tries to hide the aforementioned faults in the case of those who practise the ascetic life seriously – for he wants to increase their pride, but in the case of newly–come souls he places all their faults right in front of their eyes and engenders despair in them, saying, “You have fornicated. What pardon can there be for you?” (s. 52)
Here is a voice both intelligent and personal, a mind which from experience can think both sides of a line. How do we distinguish false from true askesis, Syncletica asks. By a proper proportion ( symmetria) throughout one's life which does not end up destroying the body which is so necessary to the very battle one is fighting, she replies (s. 100). Or again, we are called to love our fellows. But how can we do this in practice? Only by divine love and hence by human poverty, Syncletica replies. But not everyone can, or should, attempt to do this in the same way, for if we are evil ourselves, we shall only make the sinners of this world worse, and if we are in between the good and the bad (partaking in both), then we need to flee the world out of fear. It is only if we have been led to great contemplation, she says in a thought certainly worthy of a Kierkegaard, that we can, and should, live with the worst kinds of people in the midst of the world, perhaps rejected by it, but without fear preferring the salvation of others to our own goods (s. 71). Or finally, to sum a quality so characteristic of her: the different lives, anchoretic, cenobitic, even married, have their different worries (cf. ss. 41–43): “not everything agrees with everybody; let each to her own mind be fulfilled” (s. 97).
In conclusion, what does it really mean to call people like Macrina and Syncletica “desert mothers”? I am certain that I cannot answer this question, but let me give it a try. It certainly means that they are hidden faces almost forgotten by ways of life which perhaps cannot recognise their features. It also means that they are apostolic teachers in the truest sense. The writer of the VSS for example, refers explicitly to her apostolikos bios (s. 20). This hiddenness, and the luminous intelligent humanity which informs it, accomplishes – in my view – something very different from the transforming of “the desert into a city.” It is rather as though these women represent the authentic roots of Christianity and of any meaningful life in the desert itself. In the case of Macrina this is perhaps easier to see. She is the centre of the family, the root of the household even in her retreat. As Peter Brown reminds us:
It was to the women of the household – and not to the men, tarnished as they were by the dark compromises of a century of public dominance – that Basil (Gregory's older brother) appealed as the guarantors of the purity of the creed of his region.22
Syncletica is rather different again, because she is not linked to the family or the household. Her voice I can only describe as the authentic personal voice from nowhere, which turns the desert into the heart of the human life itself. It is not surprising, then, that while Gregory appreciates the personal force of Macrina, he is unable really – beyond a certain typology – to express the social force she evidently manifested. In the case of Syncletica the irony of history is even more apparent, for she is valued, but as a phenomenon the depth of which the writer does not himself realise. Both writers wish to preserve their saints within a particular typology, but in both cases in different ways it is the authentic voice from nowhere which breaks the limitations of the type and gives these two lives a significant appeal to a more universal audience.