St. Gregory of Nyssa

Of holiness and finesse

  • June 26, 2012

A woman had a problem. Her parents arranged for her to marry. She knew it wasn’t the life she wanted; she had things to do, which didn’t involve marriage. What to do? Unable to disobey her parents, she was caught between duty and desire. She got engaged.

Before they could be married, her betrothed died in an accident.

The woman, Macrina, lived when it was difficult for a young woman to oppose her parents or to remain unmarried. They would certainly make a new marriage arrangement for her. Still, she had a desire to live her life another way.

We know about that trapped feeling. “They expect me to, but I don’t want to.” We stand at a crossroad knowing duty calls us one way and our heart is bent on another. Is it wilfulness or selfishness?

In the case of Macrina, it was a deep connection with the Holy Spirit. She found a way to follow her heart without turning from love and duty. Since she’d been the man’s intended wife, she declared she couldn’t marry anyone else, and so would never marry. She hadn’t caused his death and she didn’t disobey her parents. Using her creativity, and inner strength, she seized the moment, refusing all subsequent offers of marriage.

It’s because of her younger brother Gregory and his writings about St. Macrina we know her lovely story. Her engagement highlights a characteristic of hers I’d call “finesse.” I’ve heard finesse defined as “smooth manoeuvring” or “artful management.” We might not associate it with holiness.

Here’s another way to describe finesse. A friend took me rock-climbing. Though a rookie, I learned much, including how exhilarating the view is when you’ve climbed beyond your fears to get there. At one point I got stuck, unable to find a way up. My friend clambered (oh so easily) up beyond me to scout a way. Result: I was to step sideways to a foot-hold, then sideways again, then up. Astonishingly easily, there I was on top. When the direct path up didn’t work, and staying stuck was untenable, the surprise sideways move got me there.

The spiritual life is not unlike rock climbing. We need not only strength and skill, but also finesse, to get there. Sometimes listening to the Spirit within, and acting on that voice when it seems illogical or unpopular — or when our deep desires don’t seem to matter — can take that kind of finesse.

Macrina’s younger brother was St. Gregory of Nyssa, a revered Christian theologian. She was also elder sister to St. Basil the Great. These brothers, with their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, are the three Cappadocian Fathers whose theological brilliance and personal holiness are a lynchpin of Christian tradition. Praising her creative genius, Gregory tells us they owe it all to Macrina. (There would be good reason to make her the patron saint of sisters, given her gift for bringing out the best in her brothers. My brothers should hear about her.) He portrays her as a wise philosopher, a gifted teacher, healer, theologian and above all, a woman who loved God.

Having found a way to remain single, Macrina continued to employ her “artful management.” After her father’s death, she persuaded her well-to-do mother to turn the family estate into a community house, inviting their servants to be nuns. Together, they provided shelter, education and healing to whoever was in need.She did some of her best work in hidden ways; only after her death did her famous brother learn about the many people she’d healed and the ways she’d used her gifts to build a remarkable community.

What might happen if we faced our problems (and society’s) with creativity and finesse, combined with courage and prayer, in the spirit of Macrina? We might rouse ourselves to action rather than shaking our heads at the mess. We might rediscover our sense of humour, and be less afraid of boldness. We might come closer to God Himself, to happiness.

We may find, too, that God uses finesse with us. When we’ve no idea what’s going on, except that it all seems pretty uncomfortable, we may discover He’s been up to some artful management. He might use our natural curiosity and longing for “more” to help us discover the secrets of physics or biology — the inner depths of the universe He made for us. He knows how to give in ways we can’t anticipate, but can treasure: for His law is love, and His love is poured out for us.