The Thoughts and Adventures of Sarah Harris

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Archive for the category “Church Fathers”

Women of Virtue: Makrina the Younger

I recently came across this post which has become quite popular in the social media context. The photographer decided that instead of dressing up her daughter in princess dresses for her 5th birthday portrait session, she would dress her up like REAL women who have made a difference in the world – in an attempt to show her daughter what real women she could strive to become.

Here she has her daughter taking after Amelia Earhart:


This got me thinking, as I’m sure it has many, what women in history I would want my future daughter (Lord willing) to look up to as role models. So as I come across amazing women in history, I’ll post them here, specifically addressing why she should look up to them as role models. Women of virtue that she can take after. So for starters:

Fresco in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev from the 11th century

Makrina the Younger (Macrina, Μακρίνα) 330 – 379 AD. Died around age 49.

I won’t go at length to describe her life, but rather briefly sketch her accomplishments and then address my favorite things about this woman that I think we can all learn from, especially our children. So first, to give a VERY brief sketch of her life, she was the sister of St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa and had a total of 9 siblings of whom she was the oldest. When she was young, her father arranged a marriage for her for when she came of age. However, her betrothed died before she was old enough to marry. Instead of looking for another suitor (there were many since she was a very beautiful woman) she chose to remain a virgin “since in the nature of things there was but one marriage, as there is one birth and one death. She persisted that the man who had been linked to her by her parents’ arrangement was not dead, but that she considered him who lived to God, thanks to the hope of the resurrection, to be absent only, not dead; it was wrong not to keep faith with the bridegroom who was away” (

She helped raise her siblings, especially the youngest, St. Peter. After her father died, she led her mother into a life of simplicity. Although they were a family of means, Makrina and her mother simplified their lives so that there was no distinction between themselves and their maidservants. Together they established a convent on their estate. She is thought to be the spiritual leader in her family and had great influence over her brothers. She was well educated and in his work, her brother St. Gregory calls her the Teacher and relays a conversation they had just before her death concerning the body and soul in the resurrection.

What I like about her:

She died well. Macrina was not afraid of death. She understood that Christ trampled over death and defeated it and that the passing from this life was not the end. Rather, one was merely absent for a time and would one day be reunited.  These beautiful words she said during her last days which her brother, Gregory, recorded:

” You, O Lord, have freed us from the fear of death. You have made the end of this life the beginning to us true life. For a season you rest our bodies in sleep and awaken them again at the last trump. You give our earth, which You have fashioned with Your hands, to the earth to keep in safety. One day You will take again what You have given, transfiguring with immortality and grace our mortal and unsightly remains. You have saved us from the curse and from sin, having become both for our sakes. You have broken the heads of the dragon who had seized us with his jaws, in the yawning gulf of disobedience. You have shown us the way of resurrection, having broken the gates of hell, and brought to naught him who had the power of death-the devil. You have given a sign to those that fear You in the symbol of the Holy Cross, [984 D] to destroy the adversary and save our life. O God eternal, to Whom I have been attached from my mother’s womb, Whom my soul has loved with all its strength, to Whom I have dedicated both my flesh and my soul from my youth up until now-do give me an angel of light to conduct me to the place of refreshment, where is the water of rest, in the bosom of the holy Fathers. You that broke the flaming sword and restored to Paradise the man that was crucified with You and implored Your mercies, remember me, too, in Your kingdom; because I, too, was crucified with You, having nailed my flesh to the cross for fear of You, and of Your judgments have I been afraid. Let not the terrible chasm separate me from Your elect. Nor let [986 A] the slanderer stand against me in the way; nor let my sin be found before Your eyes, if in anything I have sinned in word or deed or thought, led astray by the weakness of our nature. O You who have power on earth to forgive sins, forgive me, that I may be refreshed and may be found before You when I put off my body, without defilement on my soul. But may my soul be received into Your hands spotless and undefiled, as an offering before You” (I changed some old English words such as “Thy” and “Thou”;



What we can learn from her:

She lived out her roles as both a mother and a teacher. Although Makrina was well educated and apparently could even rival her brother in philosophical discussions as seen here, she did not at all neglect her role as mother. She had no children of her own, of course. But she raised her brother Peter like her own. St. Gregory says: “[She] took him soon after birth from the nurse’s breast and reared him herself and educated [972 C] him on a lofty system of training, practicing him from infancy in holy studies, so as not to give his soul leisure to turn to vain things. Thus having become all things to the lad – father, teacher, tutor, mother, giver of all good advice-she produced such results that before the age of boyhood had passed, when he was yet a stripling in the first bloom of tender youth, he aspired to the high mark of philosophy” (

In her brother’s account of their conversation about the resurrection we see another side of Makrina. She is not just mother. She is also a woman who is highly education in philosophy and scripture. She has spent her time on this earth devoted to God and in pursuit of Him. This was done, not neglecting her siblings, but done alongside her role as mother. The two aspects of her life were intertwined. The things that she learned both philosophically and spiritually, she joyfully passed along to her siblings. She desired that they would also pursue God, and so she made great effort and sacrifice to make sure this occurred.

I think the thing our young daughters can take away from St. Makrina, is that as women we impact others as both mother to our children and to those in our community. Women are not confined solely to the role of mother nor solely to a career. A woman has an important role in the home because she is able to instil virtues into the sons and daughters in her life, who will in turn impact others. In that sense, there is great value and worth in being a good wife, running an orderly home, and raising children in the disciplines of the faith. A woman is also highly capable of making an impact on her community and extended family in other ways – whether it be though the study of theology and running a convent as Makrina has done, or though some other way. My daughter can impact the world through art, as a musician, or as a scientist. The important thing to note is that those who surround her in life (in the home and in work) are the people she is shaping, and that is an important role to have.

Death is not something we have to fear. We might be inclined to say that children don’t really worry about such things, but I think it’s important that we teach our children about death. When I was younger, although it didn’t continually worry me, I certainly feared death. It was a place I did not know or understand. A place where we are a different sort of people and where our purpose was to sing praises to God. It seemed like a place where I would feel trapped and bored and I really did not want to go there – which I was ashamed to admit. I remember being taught in Sunday School that we should love and desire to be with God more than those here on earth. But how was I to love a Person I had never seen more than those I knew personally? He was distant, and though I knew some truths about Him, and though I talked to Him, and read His Words, the distance still led me to fear life with Him, apart from those I loved…where all we did was sing to Him. I know I am not the only one who had this experience as a child. This may in fact be what numerous people felt as a child.  And though, perhaps, “I know better” now, the way you are trained as a child is formative, and it carries over into adulthood.

For this reason, I think conversations with our children about death are important. How will they come to think well about death if we instill images within them are frightening? Hell seemed awful as a child, but heaven didn’t seem that great either (perhaps using images like fire and streets of gold with children who take things very literally, is not the best thing to do). We don’t know a whole lot about what the after life will look like, but we do know, as Makrina says in her dialogue with Gregory, that the resurrection is the restoration of our bodies to their original nature ( We also know that God is going to restore all of creation, not just our souls. The God-Man is not coming again to smite the earth, He is coming again to bring about total and complete restoration to both earth and heaven (Romans 8: 18-24; Colossians 1:15-19). The simple fact that (the life after) death does not mean going to some unknown place but rather, means that I will be here in this world as part of God’s restored Kingdom, brings about peace and hope. We would do well to talk about death with our children, that they might have the courage Makrina had because she understood that the body would be raised in all its glory. Death no longer has a hold on man.


Hymn of the Early Church: Christ Incarnate

Christ the Word! Thine incarnation

Links my nature to Thine own;

By Thy sore humiliation,

I am lifted to Thy throne;

By Thy suffering Thou hast fired me

With a zeal to sacrifice,

And to noble life inspired me:

Hence my grateful songs arise.

Word of God! Thy crucifixion

Hath upraised me from the earth;

By Thy death and dereliction,

Thou hast given me nobler birth;


By Thy resurrection glorious,

Life immortal now I own:

Hence ascend my songs victorious

To Thy praise, O Christ the Son.

By Thy hand at the creation,

Thou didst form me from the ground,

And, to mark my kingly station,

With Thine image I was crowned;

And that hand, when pierced and bleeding,

Raised me from corruption’s mire;

And, though all this love unheeding,

Decked me with Divine attire.

Thou who gav’st my soul its being,

Breathing in me life Divine,

Didst, by Thine all-wise decreeing,

Unto death Thy life resign;

And from death my soul defending,

Thou didst sojourn with the dead,

That Thou might’st, my fetters rending,

Raise me up, Thou glorious Head!


Shame be on your heads abiding,

Disobedient people now,

Who to death, and vile deriding,

Caused the Word of God to bow!

Shame! for death, nor powers infernal,

Nor the dark of hades’ gloom,

Could retain the King Eternal

In the bondage of the tomb.

Are the Church Fathers Even Relevant?

ImageC.S. Lewis would say they are. In fact, he recommends that for every modern book we read, we should also read one ancient book.[1]

And yet, within society, Lewis often finds that the lay people shy away from the ancient texts because they think they are for the professionals. This apprehension towards the old texts is even greater within the subject of theology.

“Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.”[2]

Lewis gives a variety of reasons as to why even the common person such as I should read the ancient texts. One reason is that modern texts must be “tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages” and the only way this is possible is to have a plain Christianity that puts modern controversies within “their proper perspective.”[3] The way this is done, is by reading the old books. Mistakes within our own age can only be discovered by reading the perspective of another age. We must learn to see things through another lense.

Another reason to read old texts, according to Lewis, is that the different ages each present an unvarying presentation of Christianity. There is Christian unity throughout the ages. Lewis expounds:

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then.[4]

In the very little bit I have read of the Patristics (On the Human Condition by Basil of Ceaserea and various excerpts from Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Ireneaus, etc.) I have found another reason to read the patristics as well as other ancient texts. They are surprisingly relevant. I can read Tertullian and St. John Chrysostom and find advice for my own marriage some 1700 years after they have written.[5] We find that the same marital controversies of today were the same controversies of the Christians long past.

In Gregory of Nyssa we are able to read what he thinks about infants dying and whether or not they will be in the Kingdom come.[6] This topic is of great importance to someone like myself with a mentally handicapped sister or to parents who have lost a child. He also speaks on baptism and converses over the very puzzling question of why the Lord said in John 3:5: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”[7] Why did he say both water AND Spirit – why not simply Spirit? This is a question asked by many in this age who are contemplating the meaning of Baptism.

Commentary upon commentary are written on the books of the Bible. Insights into the culture, history, and prophecies from the Old and New Testaments can be found within the Patristics that are far more helpful than most modern commentaries on Scripture.

These are the men who decided upon what books and letters would be in the canon. They are the men who took part in creating the Nicean Creed. And while reading something old seems daunting, in the end it always seems to be easier than one initially thought.

I remember hearing about the philosopher, Plato, when I was in high school and thinking that someone with such a grand mind as he could only be read by the brightest of the bright. But when I read my first book by Plato, I found that he was easy to read, his concepts could easily be grasped, and most odd of all – I found him to be so very relevant. He was, in fact, asking the very questions about life that I, as a young adult, also found myself asking.

The entire introduction by C.S. Lewis on reading ancient texts can be found here.

[1] C.S. Lewis, introduction to On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1996).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See St. John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1986) and Tertullian, Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage: To His Wife, an Exhortation to Chastity, Monogamy (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1978).

[6] See Gregory of Nyssa, “On Infants Early Deaths,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, vol. 4, ed. Phillip Schaff (New York, NY: Cosimo Classics, 2007).

[7] See Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Baptism of Christ,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, vol. 4, ed. Phillip Schaff (New York, NY: Cosimo Classics, 2007).

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