If you’re like me, you often get the two Ss Macarius of Egypt confused. St Macarius the Great was born in 300 in the village of Ptinapor, near the Nitrian desert—in an observation reminiscent of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ (which I am not the only one to recall of late), Ivan Kontzevich refers to the ‘melancholy and solemnity of the place, the eternally clear sky, the majestic pyramids with their severe lines, the ruins of gigantic temples and buildings’ and observes that ‘all this earthly grandeur reduced to dust involuntarily called forth thoughts of the instability of everything earthly’ (‘The Life of St Macarius the Great’, Fifty Spiritual Homilies, by St Macarius the Great, trans. A.J. Mason [Willits, CA: Eastern Orthodox, 1974], p. ix). At any rate, it seems a far cry from bustling Alexandria, where the second St Macarius was born in 293 and worked as a merchant until the age of forty, when he was finally baptised and withdrew into the desert. In addition to these differences, one cannot but be struck by the fact that St Macarius the Great gets 41 sayings in the Gerontikon (Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], pp. 124-38), whereas St Macarius of Alexandria only has 3 (Ward, pp. 151-2). Finally, it is St Macarius the Great to whom the famous Spiritual Homilies have always been attributed, though Norman Russell seems to have become confused on this point (see The Lives of the Desert Fathers: Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, by Rufinus of Aquileia, trans. Norman Russell [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981], p. 137, n. 1 on Macarius of Alexandria)! According to Kontzevich, the two were ‘close friends’ and fellow spiritual children of St Anthony, and ‘often met for conversation and prayer’ (p. xvii).
A powerful story is told of St Macarius the Great when he was still living near the villages. A widower, he was already struggling as a monk, and had been ordained deacon against his will. But a young girl found pregnant out of wedlock told the villagers that St Macarius was the father. He was beaten to within an inch of his life and told to support the girl. The venerable one began to work harder, and said to himself, ‘Now, Macarius, you have a wife and children, and therefore you have to work day and night to furnish their support’ (Kontzevich, p. x). When the due date came, however, the girl went into labour for several days, but was unable to deliver the baby. She realised that she was being punished for her lie and finally confessed, naming her true paramour. The villagers were terrified that God would punish them for their treatment of the holy man and went to beg his forgiveness. Kontzevich writes, ‘But [having been forewarned,] Macarius, who had willingly accepted dishonor, did not desire to receive honors and glory. At night he secretly left for the desert of Nitria’ (p. x).
In Conferences XV.iii.1, St Cassian also tells us that St Macarius the Great ‘was the first to make his dwelling in the desert of Skete [Scetis]’ (The Conferences, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 1997], p. 539). Scetis was an arid desert farther south from Nitria and Cellia, which in St Macarius’s day were already inhabited by monks (see all three to the upper left on this map). After spending some time in a cave in Nitria, and as a disciple of St Anthony in the Desert of Pharan (apparently in the Sinai peninsula; see Derwas Chitty, The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism Under the Christian Empire [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1995], p. 38), St Anthony sent Macarius to Scetis, to give ‘himself over to ascetic labors, unceasing prayer, and contemplation of God’ (Kontzevich, p. xi). According to Rufinus:
It is in a great valley, a day and a night’s journey from the monasteries of Nitria, and the way to it is not found or shown by any track or landmarks on the ground, but one journeys by the signs and courses of the stars. Water is hard to find, and when it is found it has a bad smell, bituminous, yet inoffensive to the taste. Here men are made perfect in holiness, for none but those of austere resolution and supreme constancy can endure such a terrible spot. But their chief concern is the love they show one another and those who happen to arrive there. (pp. 152-3)
The necessity of cœlestial navigation for finding Scetis is one of the coolest things about it to me. If one is interested in learning more about this lost art, ‘Celestial Navigation Net’ is an excellent place to start.
But of course we must get back to St Macarius the Great. The venerable one dwelt in Scetis for 60 years, working miracles and attracting many disciples despite the austerity of the place. One of my favourite stories that has come down to us about him in the Gerontikon is this:
39. They said of Abba Macarius the Egyptian that one day he went up from Scetis to the mountain of Nitria. As he approached the place he told his disciple to go on ahead. When the latter had gone on ahead, he met a priest of the pagans. The brother shouted after him saying, ‘Oh, oh, devil, where are you off to?’ The priest turned back and beat him and left him half dead. Then picking up his stick, he fled. When he had gone a little further, Abba Macarius met him running and said to him, ‘Greetings! Greetings, you weary man!’ Quite astonished, the other came up to him and said, ‘What good do you see in me, that you greet me in this way?’ The old man said to him, ‘I have seen you wearing yourself out without knowing that you are wearing yourself out in vain.’ The other said to him, ‘I have been touched by your greeting and I realize that you are on God’s side. But another wicked monk who met me insulted me and I have given him blows enough for him to die of them.’ The old man realized that he was referring to his disciple. Then the priest fell at his feet and said, ‘I will not let you go till you have made me a monk.’ When they came to the place where the brother was, they put him onto their shoulders and carried him to the church in the mountain. When the people saw the priest with Macarius they were astonished and they made him a monk. Through him many pagans became Christians. So Abba Macarius said, ‘One evil word makes even the good evil, while one good word makes even the evil good.’ (Ward, p. 137)
So in the year 390, being 90 years of age, St Macarius came to the end of his life. His immanent death was anounced to him in a vision by Ss Anthony and Pachomius the Great, and then—
On the day of his death a Cherubim appeared to him with a multitude of angels and said: ‘Arise, O follower of the Lord, and come with us into eternal life.’ The Cherubim indicated to him the throngs of saints who had come out to meet him: ‘Behold the assembly of apostles, behold the throng of prophets, behold the multitude of martyrs, behodl the choir of holy hierarchs, fasters, monks and righteous men. Give unto me now your soul, which I was commanded by God to preserve during its earthly life.’ With the words, ‘Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,’ St Macarius departed to the Lord. (Kontzevich, p. xviii)
This is the Cherubim protrayed in the above icon, for which, HT to Moses’s wonderful, and aptly named patristic florilegium blog, ‘The Burning Bush’.
Although I’ve already mentioned some of the details from his life, I thought it fit before ending this post to cite one of the three sayings of St Macarius of Alexandria in the Gerontikon:
2. Abba Macarius went one day to Abba Pachomius of Tabbenisi. Pachomius asked him, ‘When brothers do not submit to the rule, is it right to correct them?’ Abba Macarius said to him, ‘Correct and judge justly those who are subject to you, but judge no-one else. For truly it is written: ‘Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.’ (I Cor. 5:12-13)
St Macarius the Roman of Novgorod warrants a second post, I think, simply by virtue of being so obscure.