I stood in front of the giant oak tree and cried. Her roots bulging at my feet like my grandmother’s aching knuckles, her branches loomed over me with the authority that only comes with age. The bark on the trunk was gray from age, but did not diminish the life that she obviously bore. And I took it all in, and cried.
Even as green as my efforts are, I’m no tree-hugger in the typical sense. I don’t cry over landscapes or bridges or flowers, at least not usually. But on this trip back to my hometown of Iowa, this aching oak drew from me such a sense of grief and longing that I blabbered like a baby.
About two years ago, my husband and I moved from the north shore of Boston to a up-and-coming town in Colorado. We made the move eagerly from the beach to the mountains, and ate up every opportunity to hike and be in nature. New little restaurants opening every other weekend piqued our interest, and we loved meeting people from all over the country who were new to the area, just like us. In contrast to our little Massachusetts apartment on the coast, which had to be scrubbed from salt-water-born mold each year, we enjoyed the new development rentals available on every corner and the smell of brand-new carpet.
But almost two years later we have made a realization: we still feel like newcomers. It’s odd, even after navigating these roads, climbing these trails, settling into a tight community of believers, we still feel as though we don’t really know this town. We know our way around, but we couldn’t tell you what the town is about; we can name this week’s local hot-spots, but we don’t know anyone born and raised here.
This realization has had an interesting effect on us: we now notice the lack of history everywhere we turn. We notice that the town deems building built in the late 70s as “historical” and that most buildings carry a modern flare. We notice that government building are in industrial parks rather than stately brick buildings, and that all the landscaping, bushes, and tress are young and freshly planted.
All of this led to me standing in front of a 100+ year old oak tree in my home town of Iowa in tears. With century-old roots at my feet, I realized that I feel a bit lost in this season of our lives. It is hard to put down roots – pun intended – when the place you live has few of its own. Put another way, we have to know something of our history to move forward today.
The same is true for us as Christians. If we don’t know where we come from – or who we come from – we will find ourselves a bit lost in our own lives of Christian expression. Before us came a litany of Christian women who have served Christ, proclaimed Christ, and suffered for His sake. In our day and age where the measure our faith is found in whether or not we can articulate it in a pithy, Pinterest-worthy phrase, we need our history more than ever. As Christian women, today alone we will be pulled in a hundred directions, each vieing to be the way we walk out our faith. Unforutnately, most will come from Facebook or blogs that are here today and will be gone tomorrow. We need a different measuring line. We must, for the sake of our own faith and those who will come after us, remember where we have come from.
So, here is my second post in a mini-series on our Church mothers – the women who have come before us. Today, I’d like to tell you about Macrina.
Macrina lived in the fourth century, where women were primarily the keepers of the home and Christianity was still growing in early popularity. We don’t know much about her early life, but we know that her mother died when she was young, leaving her with primary responsibilities in raising her young brother, Peter.
While Macrina displayed all the skills of homemaking, she was notably bright and intelligent for a young girl. Basil of Caesarea, a leader in the church and society at the time, noticed her intelligence and took an unprecedented step, arranging for Macrina to receive theological education. Education alone was rare for women in that day, but theological education was even more noteworthy. Basil was himself an academic, and was impressed at how Macrina took to the topic and the rigors of study. Unsurprisingly, she excelled, being one of the first women history recognizes as a theologian. But even as she excelled in the academia of her study, she knew the topic matter on another level altogether, reminder Basil at the height of his academic achievements, that humility was the proper outworking of theological study. This is where girl drops the mic. The student has become the teacher.
Now in her early 20s, Macrina started a Christian community for women in Pontus. This may not sound all that impressive, but we must remember that the monastic movement was not yet in full swing, and those that existed did not include women. But this did not dissuade young Macrina. She established an exclusive community of Christian women who lived, studied, and served together. Do not miss this: as a theologically trained woman (a rarity) she called women away from the traditional life-path of marriage and motherhood and into the life of the cloister, a life devote to Christian study and service. Not only did she take this trailblazing step without a preceding example to follow, but in doing so she made historical waves that we will see decades and centuries later.
Soon after she started this cloister, Basil established a similar community for men nearby. History books remember how Basil helped to establish the monastic movement, but few notice his source of inspiration: a young believing woman.
Since Macrina’s parents died while she was young, she was left a considerable inheritance for a young woman. These funds she put into building a sizable hospital, devoted to caring for the poor. The hospital had far-reaching impact on the community, giving aid to many. In times of financial need, the hospital was funded out of Macrina’s pockets.
Macrina died in 379, a pauper without even a Sunday dress for burial. To her last, she gave everything she had – her intellect and energies, as well as her money and clothing. She died owning nearly nothing, a true picture of being “poured out a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17).
Macrina leaves for us an example of a woman setting out in uncharted territories: that of the female theologian and of women in religious community. From Macrina, we learn that just because something doesn’t exist in the church, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t exist. By her example, may we, too, find the courage to create the things we wish existed in the Church. From her, we gain a picture of a woman who cares for those around her, not simply because she is good at homemaking, but because her theology compels her. May we, like her, find ourselves students of the Word of God who love Him with our hearts and our minds. And may we, following her example, be women whose theology thrusts us into Christian service.
These are the mothers of our faith.
May we know these women.
May we learn from these women.
May we live our lives in the wake of their faithfulness.