Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Spiritual Strength of a Large Family

I have been reflecting today upon the life of Macrina the Younger, born on this day in 379 AD. She was one of ten children in her family, which in itself is not unusual. For me what is distinctive is that she and three of her brothers are recognized as strong Christian leaders in the burgeoning Christian movement of sixteen centuries ago. It may be that all of her siblings exemplified Christian living, but it is she and three of her brothers, Basil the Great, Peter of Sebaste and Gregory of Nyssa, who are remembered for their spiritual lives.

As the father of ten children myself, I have to speculate about what these four children found in their family life that spurred them to live so faithfully that their memoirs have been preserved for centuries. While there is not a great deal of scholarly material upon which to build my case, I would offer at least the following speculative judgments:

(1)Their Christian faith heritage was strong. Macrina is called "the Younger" to distinguish her from her grandmother, first named Macrina and first to accept and experience Christian faith. It was the older Macrina who had lived with her husband during the early years of Roman persecution against the Christian faith. Avoiding death until the reign of Constantine (who has met with mixed reviews over the years for his role in "Christianizing" the Empire), the family maintained their Christian convictions for generations.

(2)Their Christian faith heritage was lived. To pass faith on to those who follow us takes more than creedal recitation or perfunctory mealtime prayers. If any of us who are parents intend to pass faith on to our children, it will be because we have made choices in the presence of our children that identify us as people of faith. We will find ways to speak of our ethical decision-making that are authentic to who we are and in ways our children can understand. Passivity in our lives of faith will never engender value in the generations to follow us.

(3)Their elders in the faith allowed them to answer God's call. When Macarina's husband-to-be died, she understood God calling her to a life of singleness in order to devote herself to an intentional spiritual life. We who are parents need to nurture and tend to the voice of God in our children's lives, hearing even when they are unable to, and encouraging them to follow God even when we may be unsure.

(4)Their family ties were bolstered by their Christian ties. The mother and father of this family died before the children had entered adulthood, so Macarina, as the oldest of the ten, took upon herself the responsibility of raising the younger. Again, this is not an unusual situation; however, what is distinctive is that she nurtured the spiritual lives of her siblings, providing moral and spiritual guidance.

The spiritual strength of this larger famiiy is shown in the results. Three of her brothers became bishops in the church, at least one of her brothers became a monastic leader, and she is remembered for a life of faithful service to God. In the midst of difficult sitautions -- family size, the premature death of parents, the role of women in her society -- Macarina's large family exuded spiritual strength and vitality, remembered even to this day, sixteen hundred years later.

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