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The Twelve Days of Christmas: Gregory Nazianzen and Basil the Great

By Hannah Matis

On Christmas Day, Pixar released on Disney+ another of its gorgeous, bittersweet, complicated creations. In the tradition of Inside Out and Coco, this one is called Soul, and concerns one junior high school teacher and jazz musician’s adventures, not in the Great Beyond, but the Great Before. Yes, you read that correctly: Pixar tackles the pre-existence and transmigration of souls! As of my writing this, the film has not yet been released; by January 2nd, many of you parenting in pandemic will probably know it much more intimately than I. Mercifully I cannot possibly spoil anything for you. I would only note here the strange coincidences of the 2020 universe, that a film on these themes, which clearly has been production for years, is released at the end of one of the grimmest Advents in living memory. By all accounts the film is much more about jazz than it is about doctrines of the afterlife — or the Great Before, for that matter. All the same, the Ghost of Christmas Past notwithstanding, it is a slightly odd and revealing choice for a holiday film in Coronatide. As with everything else, COVID-19 has proven to be a ruthless solvent revealing weaknesses in the underlying structures of our beliefs: in this case, the general cacophony of notions in popular culture around the soul and the body.

Today marks the joint commemoration of two of the Cappadocian fathers, Gregory Nazianzen (d. 390) and Basil the Great (d. 379). Gregory Nazianzen had been a friend of Basil’s from youth, and the two traveled together on the fourth-century religious and philosophical equivalent of the Grand Tour, at a time when monasticism in all its experimental forms was thriving in Syria and Egypt. At the same time, Greek philosophy and paganism remained forces to be reckoned with, alongside political pressures from Constantine’s Arian descendants. With mixed feelings, Gregory succeeded his father as bishop of Nazianzus, while Basil became the bishop of Caesarea, dragooning his equally reluctant younger brother Gregory (d. 394) into the bishopric of remote Nyssa. Both Basil and Gregory of Nyssa felt the pull toward monastic life while remaining in the institutional church, and, mutatis mutandis, Basil is to eastern monasticism what Benedict is to the west.

Behind them stood the adamantine figure of the eldest sibling of the family: their sister Macrina “the Younger,” commemorated in our calendar on July 19th. Named after their grandmother Macrina, a Christian martyr, she was privately nicknamed Thecla, after Paul’s semi-legendary female companion. Macrina remained at the family estate with their mother and other brothers, establishing in her household a monastery which provided poor relief to the surrounding countryside. In the Theclan tradition, Macrina presided over a community which contained both men and women as their abbess. Thecla was something of a Christian Wonder Woman, down to the late antique equivalent of a miraculous capacity to break out of handcuffs. She was so popular in the Christian East, particularly in ascetic circles, that she vied for preeminence in hearts and minds with the Virgin Mary. No one before Macrina had tried to domesticate Theclan monasticism, however. While some aristocratic women would live ascetic lives on family property in Rome, such as Jerome’s patronesses and correspondents, fifty years before, Macrina brought the Theclan community, in both genders, into the Roman household. Monasteries founded on such estates, both single-gender and double houses, would serve as one of the elements of continuity, for both learning and practical charity, in the medieval West after the fall of Rome.

This past year, the “household” has become a concept we have had to rethink, or, for many, to think through carefully perhaps for the first time in our adult lives. Who and what is a household? How many people constitute it, and how do “bubbles” connect to or participate in that larger whole? How do we support and provide for individuals, relatives, and friends we cannot physically see, or who have shut themselves in? Forced back to our households over and over again, like soldiers trapped in the trenches, we have watched relationships grow or falter or evolve, and we have asked what makes such tight spaces emotionally and spiritually sustainable. We have worried about wildfires and air pollution, hungry children, food deserts, tainted water, and fragile supply chains. For the fortunate, home refurbishment and redecoration, not to mention full-scale moves, are on the rise. We are likely to see a variety of intentional communities form in the coming years. Although not explicitly undertaken out of religious motivations, these experiments may give added fuel to those engaged in “the new monasticism” of recent years. Zero-waste living and other such initiatives in sustainability bear at least a superficial resemblance to monasticism as it has often been practiced historically: forgoing the life of the consumer, vegetarian or vegan diet, self-sufficient monastic garden, the combination of physical labor with prayer or meditation. These practices cry out for some underlying doctrine of the soul to which they can anchor. If we are reliant on Disney+, as with Coco, we are likely only to be told of the importance of following your dreams.

Gregory of Nyssa wrote two, interrelated texts in which his sister appears: his account of her life, and his treatise, On the Soul and the Resurrection. The latter is written in the traditional genre of a philosophical dialogue, except that Macrina is Gregory’s “Teacher” and he positions himself as her somewhat bumbling and emotionally overwrought student. In both texts Gregory uses his description of Macrina as a rhetorical foil, spurring herself and others on to virtue, and certainly she is presented as a model for emulation. But this semester in particular, my students and I were struck by how much Gregory’s own grief resonates, quivering, under the surface of both texts.

In 374, he arrived home to visit his sister after the news of their brother Basil’s death. Their relationship had been a complicated one, with Basil frequently moving his younger brother about like a chess piece, and in his life of Macrina Gregory reports with barely concealed glee how she had once punctured the sophomoric pride of a much younger Basil. She had raised their younger siblings and supported their mother in her distracted grief at the death of their young brother; it is clear that she mothered — and fathered — Gregory as well. When he arrives home, however, Gregory finds that Macrina too is mortally ill. On the Soul is delivered, then, by Macrina on her deathbed, with not inconsiderable panache, while Gregory’s Life describes the scene and the grief of the monastic community, as well as his own, at her death. Macrina’s calm discussion of the nature of the soul and her sense of restraint around the experience of loss, including her own death, can strike modern readers as nobly heroic or forbiddingly Stoic, depending who you are; you can also read the text as Gregory’s own efforts to craft a therapeutic narrative after the conjoined loss of two elder siblings who had been, in effect, his parents.

After the nine-month marathon of coronavirus, with the prospect of months more to come, I have come around to a touch of stoicism. What humanizes Macrina’s position, at least for me, and makes it something more profoundly Christian than a self-centered exercise in Stoic mood-regulation, is that her starting-point is the immortality of the soul. All grief, all mourning, must be placed in relation to that central tenet; grief and mourning occur but they are not the final conclusion. Soul intersects but does not compete with the body, or indeed, replace it; resurrection means the restoration of full embodiment. Her speculation on how the soul retains the memory of the body’s very atoms is fascinating fourth-century science. I found myself wondering what happens at the Last Judgment when two souls lay claim to the same water molecules, but, flippancy aside, how we remain ourselves while different internal organs within our physical bodies change at a variety of different rates, or what drives the aging process and if we can stop it, continue to be questions with which modern medicine grapples.

Although it’s clearly an idea that she has flirted with, Macrina has Things To Say about the fundamental incoherence of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls and its ramifications. Perhaps surprisingly for a woman long-committed to a formidably ascetic lifestyle, she also argues forcefully for the inevitable denigration of the body resulting from a doctrine of the pre-existent soul. By all accounts, Pixar’s Soul is a sincere effort to portray an African-American community in detail, with humor and a certain amount of wry resignation over this weary world. I will be very curious to see whether disembodying its hero as an opening gambit at all undercuts this well-meaning intention —  a common critique leveled at the “whiteness” of most abstract and speculative theology, particularly around the nature of Christ. If this world is contingent upon a previous one, of blue-white souls more or less on the path to self-actualization, how disposable or interchangeable do (Black) bodies become? By contrast, Gregory and Macrina’s insistence on the concrete connection between the immortal soul and the physical body, reconstituted, healed, transformed in the resurrection, starts to make more sense.

Dr. Hannah W. Matis is associate professor of Church History at Virginia Theological Seminary.


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