The Importance of Sisters

Today’s commemoration of the Cappadocians, St Basil the Great and his friend, St Gregory Nanzianzen, plunges us into a wonderfully saintly family history. Basil’s grandmother, Macrina the Elder, was a saint. His father, Basil the Elder, was a saint; his mother, Emmelia, the daughter of a martyr and mother of eleven children, herself suffered for her faith although she seems never to have been considered a saint by the Western Church although the Orthodox Church venerates her as such. Two of Basil’s siblings are reckoned as saints, Macrina the Younger and Gregory of Nyssa. A third, Peter of Sebaste, is sometimes called a saint, sometimes not; a fourth, Dios, is credited with founding one of the most famous monasteries of Constantinople (though there is some dispute about the identity with Dios of Antioch). All in all, a very holy family and a very influential one, which championed the faith of Nicea against the Arians.

Interestingly, and unusually for the time, perhaps, the influence of women is well attested and celebrated. Basil is the great legislator of Eastern monasticism as Benedict is of Western: both were profoundly influenced by their sisters. Basil seems to have modelled his monastic community on his elder sister’s, just as Benedict is credited with having been taught the true nature of prayer and monastic discipline by his sister Scholastica. Perhaps when we write the biographies of great men we should pay more attention to their sisters, especially if they happen to be churchmen.

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2 thoughts on “The Importance of Sisters”

  1. The influence of a sister on a man’s life often is difficult for a biographer to gauge, unless that sister becomes well known in her own right, and the man has what might be termed a “professional” relationship with her. In most instances, we are influenced by our siblings principally when we are children. In those years, the influence of a sister in shaping a man’s heart can be profound, yet evanescent. It’s not likely to leave a paper trail that a biographer can follow.

    For example, John Paul II’s older sister Olga died before he was born. Nevertheless, she was a presence in his family, and he spoke of the fact that she influenced him, despite the fact that they never met. But how can a biographer measure such a relationship, except to note in passing that it existed?

    Perhaps it is best if we meditate on this fact, and give thanks for our sisters – and, if they’re still with us, give thanks to them.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I didn’t expect to be taken quite so literally (although I really ought to have learned by now!) as my point was general rather than particular. We often don’t think about family influences or relegate them to secondary importance when, for our subject, they may well have been what ‘really’ mattered. There is a nice symmetry about Basil and Benedict and their sisters, though I wouldn’t want to press it too far. The influence of brothers on sisters is another vein to tap, although it takes us into some difficult territory. I can never make up my mind, for example, whether Antony simply persuaded his sister to a consecrated life or pushed her towards it as being convenient for himself. The evidence is insufficient.

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