Welcomes You

Macrina - Southwestern Virginia Clergy and Spouse gathering

Christ Church - Roanoke, VA
Friday, July 19, 2013

There is a remarkable trio of bakeries in Seattle that feature breads and baked goods that combine the best grains, fruits, and produce of the Northwest with Old World breadmaking and pastry techniques – slow ones, that depend on wild yeast and local ingredients.  The owner has this to say about her work, “In the search for a name for this new bakery, I wanted something not connected to any country or culture, yet reflecting my philosophy.  First liking the sound of the name Macrina, the 4th century Greek mystic and visionary, I later discovered… that Macrina started one of the first communities that held property in common and emphasized a simple, self-sufficient life.  Caring as much as I do about the connection between bread and the communion of sharing that happens at meals, there is a natural bond with the philosophy of Macrina’s community.”[1]

Macrina Bakery may seem like a decadent remix of what Saint Macrina was up to in her own age, yet I’d encourage us to see that the seeds she planted in the 4th century are still bearing fruit.  She was named for her grandmother, Macrina the Elder, who had studied with Gregory Thaumaturgus (the wonder-worker), and she taught her grand-children well.  Young Macrina was the oldest, and among her ten younger brothers were three future bishops – Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste – and an early abbot, Dios.  She herself had been betrothed at the age of 12, but the groom died before the wedding.  She took a vow of celibacy, and at her father’s death, took a major part in her brothers’ education and upbringing.  Some delightful stories are told about Macrina’s ability to gently but firmly puncture their inflated adolescent egos.

When the boys were finally out of the nest, Macrina and her mother Emmélia started a monastic community of Christian women, living a simple life of prayer and service in what is now northern Turkey, and caring for poor women in the area.[2]  Brother Basil founded a men’s monastic community across the river, and developed a rule, which is the foundation of most of eastern monasticism.  There were plenty of candidates for those monastic communities, at least in part because of that earlier teacher of Macrina’s grandmother, Gregory the wonder-worker.  He got his name for his evangelical passion and skill.  When he was called to be a bishop to that community in Caesarea, it had all of 17 members.  By the time he died, it is said there were only 17 non-Christians in the entire city.[3]

The wisdom passed down through the generations grew and flourished in surprising ways among the brothers and sisters in Christ in Pontus.  Macrina and her siblings were wise in the ways of the spirit, and several of the brothers were also well-versed in the ways of the world, particularly as lawyers.  Sam Portaro puts it neatly when he notes that the siblings could have been world-class academicians or billionaires if they’d gone into business, but “Instead they took off on the great intellectual snipe hunt that is religion, tramping through the thick underbrush of rumination in search not of answers but of wisdom.”[4]

Wisdom is perhaps the gift most worth searching for, the pearl of great price, or as Ecclesiasticus puts it, something that from the first flower promises succulent fruit.  Wisdom brings awareness of the easy yoke and the light burden.  Wisdom learns how to go in company,  traveling the king’s highway, the way of the Lord.  Macrina learned the wisdom of traveling lightly – relinquishing the stuff so much of the world sees as essential to comfort and safety.  She and her community did hold things in common.  When her mother died, she gave away her inheritance.  She kept giving things away, so that when her brother Gregory came to visit as she was dying, he found so little to cover her that he spread his cope over her corpse.  He called her the Teacher.

Macrina is still teaching wisdom – to bread bakers and to bread breakers.  What does it look like to depend on the gifts already present in the community where you live and move and have your being?  Much of the difficulty in our communities has to do with striving after what we’re not, or grasping at shiny baubles that never satisfy.  How often are you asked, “What’s your ASA[5]?”  or “How much have you grown in the last five years?”  Sometimes those numbers are simply attempts to puff up egos – and that kind of inflating gas never makes satisfying bread.  It produces that vile fake white stuff misnamed Wonder Bread.  We’re on the road for wonder-working bread.  The kind of leaven needed for that life-giving bread is a gift discovered in the local environment, blown in on the wind of the Spirit, and it takes patience to raise a nutritious loaf.  The quick lift of sugar and packaged yeast, like the latest programmatic technique, is not likely to be ultimately satisfying.

The questions wonder-workers ask are the same ones that wisdom teachers have always asked – what gifts are here, and what does their faithful use look like?  The answers have to do with passion – both the suffering around you and the urgent will to respond.  That’s the holy leaven necessary. 

That’s what Paul is getting at when he says that he’s let go of everything that is not Christ.  ‘If we want to rise like Christ, we share his suffering.’  The lasting and ultimately productive leaven in our lives means losing all the non-essentials and finding life where Jesus did – in offering all we have and are for the love of the whole world, the whole body of God’s creation.  That is the easy yoke and the light burden – starkly simple and deeply challenging.

I spent Wednesday in Washington, DC, visiting law-makers, members of the administration, and staff.  It was striking to listen to the different messages – some were simply bloviating, others expressing passion, in both senses.  There is not a whole lot of nourishing bread coming out of that operation in the heart of Washington right now, but there is leaven at work – several kinds of leaven.  The strident voices and hardened positions aren’t producing tender or edible loaves for anybody.  The productive work is emerging in the willingness of some to work across the aisle, beginning to knead a dough that will hold holy and life-giving breath.  But it only happens when selfish ends give way to care for the whole community and the greater good of all God’s children.

There was news earlier this week of young people in this diocese on the road – a ten-day mission pilgrimage that was listening for the spirit wherever they went, and responding with the gifts literally at hand, whether painting a home or hearing a story or befriending a stranger.[6]  That begins to taste and smell like nourishing bread to a whole lot of folks.  Bread of life, for the whole world.

What sort of loaf is coming out of your bakery?