Syncletica and Macrina: Two Early Lives of Women Saints

Syncletica and Macrina: Two Early Lives of Women Saints

By Kevin Corrigan

Vox Benedictina, Vol.6:3 (1989)

Introduction: It would certainly be fair to admit that two of the earliest extant vitae of women saints, the Life of St. Macrina by her younger brother, the great bishop and Cappadocian Father, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and the Life of St. Syncletica, 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 work, 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,” 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-types – Thekla, he 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 together,7 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; 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.

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