The eldest of ten children, St. Macrina was born into a family that has graced the church with many saints. Her grandmother, St. Macrina the Elder, moved with her husband to Pontus during Galerius' persecution of the church; the family lost much wealth and were witnesses to the power of Christianity. The younger Macrina's parents, Basil and Emiliana, were glorified, as were three of her four brothers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste. In his work, On the Soul and Resurrection, Gregory calls Macrina the Teacher, and from his life of the Teacher, it is clear that she was the spiritual influence on and the spiritual center of her family.
Macrina, whose secret name was Thekla, was born c. 327/330. Emiliana had had a dream in which her then unborn child, a daughter, had been called Thekla, after the disciple of St. Paul. Macrina's parents taught her to read poetry and scripture as well as the practice of the household arts. At 12, she was engaged to a young man of St. Basil the Elder's choosing, although she preferred a life of celibacy. After her fiancÚ's death, she persuaded her father that the intended marriage was as good as a marriage. She was, therefore, a widow, and from that time forward, Macrina led a celibate life of asceticism.
After the death of her father, which was coincident with the birth of her youngest brother, Peter, Macrina attended her mother, whom she persuaded to live without servants and other "necessities," and raised her youngest sibling, who became, like their brother Basil, a leader of monastics. Another brother, Naucraticos, became a hermit but remained available to help his mother, whom Macrina comforted and bolstered.
The two women established on the estate a female monastery of which Emiliana was the abbess until her death at her home. Their former servants became their fellow nuns. Macrina's rule does not survive, nor does an account of the influence that she and Basil exercised upon one another. Each, as can be inferred from accounts of Macrina's thought and the Rule of St. Basil, sees the life of the monastery as similar to that of the life of the family.
Macrina shepherded her siblings and her monastic family through the grief that followed the deaths of Emiliana and Basil the Great. When Macrina herself was approaching death in 379 (the same year in which her brother Basil died), she comforted Gregory, prepared him for her death, and inspired him with her faith and calmness.
Gregory gives an account of their last conversation in his dialogue, On the Soul and the Resurrection. Some scholars have not believed (in spite of Nyssa's assertions in the opening paragraphs) that the Teacher is Macrina. St. Gregory, they propound, is gallant, and Basil the Great, they propose, is the Teacher.
The primary arguments are disbelief that a woman could have said such things and the similarities to the thought of Basil. Nyssa himself alludes to this long conversation following the death of St. Basil the Great in the Life of Macrina. While Macrina herself is dying, she remembers the eldest of her younger brothers, and while she does feel sorrow, it does not weigh her down. Gregory has said elsewhere that Macrina had influence over the younger Basil, who had returned from his studies conceited and became, under the guidance of their sister, a follower of the true philosophy. Macrina was as much the teacher of Basil as she was the teacher of Gregory and Peter. Macrina was well-educated and well-read in sacred and secular literature.
In the dialogue, the Teacher argues that foolishness and misunderstanding are the causes of the grief that attends the death of a beloved and that often weighs down those who remain on earth. These arise from a failure to comprehend that the flesh passes away; being composite, the body alone is dissolved at death. The body, unlike the soul, is, in its present form, a coat of skins, something which has been taken or put on. The soul is a copy of the Divine; the soul is created and is as like God as print of a famous painting is like the original painting. In spite of being created (like the flesh), the soul is simple and does not dissolve after death.
The body lies in the grave; the body is insensate. The soul, however, remains sensate. It knows all that it knew when the body lived, and its knowing derives from the body and the soul. The soul can still contemplate God and will be like God insofar as it sees His beauty. Torment comes from the memories of past wickedness (of the flesh or of the spirit) and serves to preserve the divine in the soul.
When God so wills the resurrection, when mankind is mystically complete, the process of purification will be over, and humans will be restored to their original beauty. We shall then no longer marry but live as the angels.
As he prepared her body for burial, Gregory learned that Macrina had refused medical treatment for a tumor in her breast. Macrina had asked Emiliana to sign the tumor, which disappeared; the scar was Macrina's private reminder of the mercy of God.
Crowds attended the funeral of Macrina and the procession that bore her body from the church to the tomb of her parents at a monastery dedicated to the Holy Martyrs. Macrina was, according to her wish and Emiliana's, buried next to her mother.