Homily for Pentecost V, and the Commemoration of the Fathers of Chalcedon (the fourth Œcumenical Council), and the Feast of St Makrina, sister of St Basil the Great, and of the Uncovering of the Relics of St Seraphim of Sarov, 19 July, 2020

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Today is packed with celebrations: as well as the Sunday commemoration of the Lord’s Resurrection, we remember on the third Sunday of July the Fathers of the Fourth Œcumenical Council, as well St Makrina and St Seraphim of Sarov; St Seraphim’s feast is connected with the uncovering of his relics, which took place as part of the ceremony of his glorification at Sarov in 1903 in the presence of Tsar Nikolas and his family, whose martyrdom (or passion-bearing) we commemorated last Friday (on both the Old and New Calendars). A lot to celebrate!

Let us begin with the Gospel for the Sunday, Matthew’s account of the paralytic, brought by his friends to be healed by Jesus. It is a rare case where on two different Sundays, we read about the same event according to the different accounts in the Evangelists: we heard Mark’s version of this miracle on, as it happens, the last time we were gathered together in St Mary’s, on the Sunday of St Gregory Palamas! Matthew’s version, as is usually the case, is stripped down, compared to Mark’s more extended account—nothing about the friends climbing up on the roof of the house and removing the tiles so that they could lower their friend at Jesus’ feet. Matthew concentrates on what to him are the essentials: first, the commendation of the faith of—not the paralytic—but his friends; and secondly, Jesus’ proof, in the face of the objections of the scribes, that he can absolve from sin by his performing the apparently more difficult (at least more visible) task of healing the paralytic—and breaking their interpretation of the Sabbath law. It is the first point I want to pick up, as relevant now as it was at the beginning of Lent: namely, Jesus’ healing the paralytic because of the faith of his friends, not the faith of the paralytic himself, which is not mentioned. This seems to me to encapsulate an enormously important message: that there are occasions when we are not to rely on our own efforts, but trust in the efforts of our friends. For we are all bound up with one another—in our common humanity, but more deeply by belonging to the Body of Christ or, put another way, by our belonging to the communion of saints. For the saints are, first and foremost, our friends, to whom we can turn for their help.

I count it as a great good fortune that my ordination to the priesthood took place in the church of St Mary-the-Less 17 years ago today—the Feast of St Makrina and also St Seraphim: a wonderfully joyful occasion, with the then Bishop Basil ordaining me, on behalf of the then very seriously ill Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, with a few priests present but, most important for me, all of you, the congregation as it was then, with two sturdy Greeks presenting me firmly to the bishop as the one they wanted ordained, and friends of mine from other churches: Bishop Stephen Sykes, then Principal of St John’s, Steven Croft (now Bishop of Oxford, then warden of Cranmer), and Iain Torrance (then Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland). I was very much aware that it was the Feast of St Seraphim, less aware that it was the Feast of St Makrina—but both saints have come to mean a great deal to me. Let me explain why.

St Seraphim had, I think, a role in my becoming Orthodox—nearly 14 years before my ordination (which I had never anticipated) in Oxford at the end of 1989. I think what most drew me to St Seraphim was the combination in him of a burning love of God, that led him to become a monk at the monastery of Sarov, and then later to spend fifteen years as a hermit in the nearby forest—fifteen years in nearly ceaseless prayer—with a deep and gentle love for the whole of humanity, men, women, and children—a love that drew many to seek him out as a revered elder or starets, a love that expressed itself in a supreme joy: he greeted everyone with the Easter greeting, ‘Christ is risen’, and called them ‘my dear’. He breathed a sense of the presence of Christ: in one account of his being transfigured by the uncreated light of the Godhead, the light does not separate him from the one who beheld him thus transfigured, Nikolai Motovilov, but, as St Seraphim said to Nikolai, it enveloped them both together. Also, like St Sergii of Radonezh, the founder of Muscovite monasticism, he had a vision, or dream, in which the Mother of God appeared to him, saying of him that ‘this one, too, is one of our race’! All that drew me to him, and to Orthodoxy. And there was something else: there is in the West, and certainly in the Anglicanism in which I was brought up (and served as a priest for fifteen years), an urge to make sense of everything, so that God’s demands, his justice, are qualified by his mercy, and one tried to reach some kind of compromise. That seems to me foreign to the Russian soul, indeed the Orthodox soul, foreign to what one finds in St Seraphim, who responds to God’s demands whole-heartedly, as we see from his fifteen years as a hermit in the forest, but expresses God’s mercy in a similarly whole-hearted way; there is no attempt to resolve the paradox into some third thing, but a holding to the severe majesty of God and also to his ‘mercy without measure’ (as in the prayer of the first antiphon at the Divine Liturgy).

St Makrina I have come to know over the last fifteen or so years, as part of my trying to learn more about the theology of the ‘Three Great Hierarchs and Universal Teachers, St Basil the Great, St Gregory the Theologian, and St John Chrysostom [of the Golden Mouth]’, especially of the first two, Basil and Gregory, who were friends. In both cases we learn of their families: St Basil himself belonged to a large and wealthy family with estates in Pontos; he had eight siblings, the eldest of whom was his sister, Makrina. If we had to rely Basil’s writings, we would know nothing about Makrina, for he never mentions her. However, his younger brother, St Gregory of Nyssa (whom scholarship has favoured over the last century so that we have now wonderful access to his writings, more so than to the works of his brother), was devoted to his oldest sister, writing both her Life and making her the central character in his imitation of a Socratic dialogue, set in the last hours of her life, in which Makrina and Gregory talk together about the ‘soul and the resurrection’ (as the dialogue is called), that is, about the hope of the resurrection. From these we can glean a few details about Makrina: while in her mother, Emmelia’s, womb, Emmelia had a dream in which a person ‘of more than human magnificence’ addressed her baby as ‘Thekla’, which became the secret name of Makrina: Thekla was the name of a much revered virgin martyr, presented in accounts of her life as a companion of the Apostle Paul. Gregory regarded this as prophetic, fulfilled when, after her betrothed died before their marriage, Makrina came to regard herself as a widow, committed to virginity, like the bearer of her secret name. Soon after that, Makrina persuaded her mother to turn their household into a kind of monastic community, which became Basil’s first experience of monasticism, for all that he never mentions it. It appears, too, that it was Makrina who persuaded the vacillating Basil to abandon the promising career as a rhetor and lawyer, and embrace monasticism himself—the fruits of which are the so-called Rules of St Basil, the bedrock of Orthodox monasticism. Makrina was clearly a powerful woman. In the Dialogue, Gregory addresses her as Διδάσκαλε, ‘Teacher’, something he could hardly have done in public in the deeply paternalistic society of their day. In the course of the dialogue their discussion turns from arguments about the soul and the resurrection of the body, in which, it has to be confessed, it is difficult to be sure whose mind is directing the discourse—Makrina’s or Gregory’s—to a prayer uttered by Makrina, as she commends herself to God, whispered ‘so that we could scarcely hear her words’, at the end of which she made the sign of the cross three times and then ‘gave a great deep sigh and ended her life and her prayers at the same time’. St Makrina was a hidden presence behind the lives and teaching of St Basil and his brother, St Gregory of Nyssa, and we are in Gregory’s eternal debt that his devotion to his sister has drawn back the veil just a little. All the traditional texts of Orthodox monasticism—until very recently, for instance, the writings of St Maria of Paris—are by men, primarily about a masculine monasticism. Female monasticism has often modelled itself on such masculine patterns. St Makrina reminds us that behind the hugely influential writings of St Basil—on theology and especially on monasticism—lies his early experience of a monastic community run by women—his mother and sister. And I reflect on the fact that, in my own life, though I have been blessed by spiritual fathers, I have also known the blessing of those I can only call spiritual mothers: my godmother, Wendy Robinson, and my mentor in my early years as Orthodox, Mother Thekla of the monastery which then existed at Normanby, near Whitby—I mention them by name as both are now, I firmly believe, ‘among the Saints’, though that is unlikely to be recognized by the hierarchy.

St Seraphim, St Makrina, pray for us! Amen!