St. Macarius the Elder, of Egypt
ST. MACARIUS the Elder, was born in Upper Egypt, about the year 300, and brought up in the country in tending cattle. In his childhood, in company with some others, he once stole a few figs, and eat one of them: but from his conversion to his death, he never ceased to weep bitterly for this sin. 1 By a powerful call of divine grace, he retired from theworld in his youth, and dwelling in a little cell in a village, made mats, in continual prayer and great austerities. A wicked woman falsely accused him of having defloured her; for which supposed crime he was dragged through the streets, beaten, and insulted, as a base hypocrite, under the garb of a monk. He suffered all with patience, and sent the woman what he earned by his work, saying to himself: “Well, Macarius! having now another to provide for, thou must work the harder.” But God discovered his innocency; for the woman falling in labour, lay in extreme anguish, and could not be delivered till she had named the true father of her child. The people converted their rage into the greatest admiration of the humility and patience of the saint. 2 To shun the esteem of men, he fled into the vast hideous desert of Scété, 3 being then about thirty years of age. In this solitude he lived sixty years, and became the spiritual parent of innumerable holy persons, who put themselves under his direction, and were governed by the rules he prescribed them; but all dwelt in separate hermitages. St. Macarius admitted only one disciple with him, to entertain strangers. He was compelled by an Egyptian bishop to receive the order of priesthood, about the year 340, the fortieth of his age, that he might celebrate the divine mysteries for the convenience of this holy colony. When the desert became better peopled, there were four churches built in it, which were served by so many priests. The austerities of St. Macarius were excessive; he usually eat but once a week. Evagrius, his disciple, once asked him leave to drink a little water, under a parching thirst; but Macarius bade him to content himself with reposing a little in the shade, saying: “For these twenty years, I have never once eat, drank, or slept, as much as nature required.” 4 His face was very pale, and his body weak and parched up. To deny his own will, he did not refuse to drink a little wine when others desired him; but then he would punish himself for this indulgence, by abstaining two or three days from all manner of drink; and it was for this reason, that his disciple desired strangers never to tender unto him a drop of wine. 5 He delivered his instructions in few words, and principally inculcated silence, humility, mortification, retirement, and continual prayer, especially the last, to all sorts of people. He used to say, “In prayer, you need not use many or lofty words. You can often repeat with a sincere heart, Lord, show me mercy as thou knowest best. Or, assist me, O God.” 6 He was much delighted with this ejaculation of perfect resignation and love: “O Lord, have mercy on me, as thou pleasest, and knowest best in thy goodness!” 7 His mildness and patience were invincible, and occasioned the conversion of an heathen priest, and many others. 8 The devil told him one day, “I can surpass thee in watching, fasting, and many other things; but humility conquers and disarms me.” 9 A young man applying to St. Macarius for spiritual advice, he directed him to go to a burying-place, and upbraid the dead; and after to go and flatter them. When he came back, the saint asked him, what answer the dead had made: “None at all,” said the other, “either to reproaches or praises.” “Then,” replied Macarius, “go, and learn neither to be moved with injuries nor flatteries. If you die to the world and to yourself, you will begin to live to Christ.” He said to another: “Receive, from the hand of God, poverty as cheerfully as riches, hunger and want as plenty, and you will conquer the devil, and subdue all your passions.” 10 A certain monk complained to him, that in solitude, he was always tempted to break his fast, whereas in the monastery, he could fast the whole week cheerfully. “Vain-glory is the reason,” replied the saint, “fasting pleases, when men see you; but seems intolerable when that passion is not gratified.” 11 One came to consult him who was molested with temptations to impurity: the saint examining into the source, found it to be sloth, and advised him never to eat before sunset, to meditate fervently at his work, and to labour vigorously, without sloth, the whole day. The other faithfully complied, and was freed from his enemy. God revealed to St. Macarius, that he had not attained the perfection of two married women, who lived in a certain town: he made them a visit, and learned the means by which they sanctified themselves. They were extremely careful never to speak any idle or rash words; they lived in the constant practice of humility, patience, meekness, charity, resignation, mortification of their own will, and conformity to the humours of their husbands and others, where the divine law did not interpose: in a spirit of recollection they sanctified all their actions by ardent ejaculations, by which they strove to praise God, and most fervently to consecrate to the divine glory all the powers of their soul and body. 12 1
A subtle heretic of the sect of the Hieracites, called so from Hierax, who in the reign of Dioclesian denied the resurrection of the dead, had, by his sophisms, caused some to stagger in their faith. St. Macarius, to confirm them in the truth, raised a dead man to life, as Socrates, Sozomen, Palladius, and Rufinus relate. Cassian says, that he only made a dead corpse to speak for that purpose; then bade it rest till the resurrection. Lucius, the Arian usurper of the see of Alexandria, who had expelled Peter, the successor of Saint Athanasius, in 376 sent troops into the desert to disperse the zealous monks several of whom sealed their faith with their blood: the chiefs, namely, the two Macariuses, Isidore, Pambo, and some others, by the authority of the Emperor Valens, were banished into a little isle of Egypt, surrounded with great marshes. The inhabitants, who were Pagans, were all converted to the faith by the confessors. 13 The public indignation of the whole empire, obliged Lucius to suffer them to return to their cells. Our saint, knowing that his end drew near made a visit to the monks of Nitria, and exhorted them to compunction and tears so pathetically, that they all fell weeping at his feet. “Let us weep, brethren,” said he, “and let our eyes pour forth floods of tears before we go hence, lest we fall into that place where tears will only increase the flames in which we shall burn.” 14 He went to receive the reward of his labours in the year 390, and of his age the ninetieth, having spent sixty years in the desert of Scété. 15 2
He seems to have been the first anchoret who inhabited this vast wilderness; and this Cassian affirms. 16 Some style him a disciple of St. Antony; but that quality rather suits St. Macarius of Alexandria; for, by the history of our saint’s life, it appears that he could not have lived under the direction of St. Antony before he retired into the desert of Scété. But he afterwards paid a visit, if not several, to that holy patriarch of monks, whose dwelling was fifteen days’ journey distant. 17 This glorious saint is honoured in the Roman Martyrology on the 15th of January; in the Greek Menæa on the 19th. An ancient monastic rule, and an epistle addressed to monks, written in sentences, like the book of Proverbs, are ascribed to St. Macarius. Tillemont thinks them more probably the works of St. Macarius of Alexandria, who had under his inspection at Nitria five thousand monks. 18 Gennadius 19 says, that St. Macarius wrote nothing but this letter. This may be understood of St. Macarius of Alexandria, though one who wrote in Gaul might not have seen all the works of an author, whose country was so remote, and language different. Fifty spiritual homilies are ascribed, in the first edition, and in some manuscripts, to St. Macarius of Egypt; yet F. Possin 20 thinks they rather belong to Macarius of Pispir, who attended St. Antony at his death, and seems to have been some years older than the two great Macariuses, though some have thought him the same with the Alexandrian. 21 3
Note 1. Bolland. 15 Jan. p. 1011. s. 39. Cotel. Mon. Gr. T. 1. p. 546.
Note 2. Cotel. ib. p. 525. Rosweide, Vit. Patr. l. 3. c. 99. l. 5. c. 15. s. 25. p. 623.
Note 3. Mount Nitria was above forty miles from Alexandria, towards the South-West. The desert of Scété lay eighty miles beyond Nitria, and was rather in Lybia than in Egypt. It was of vast extent, and there were no roads thereabouts, so that men were guided only by the stars in travelling in those parts. See Tillemont on St. Amon and this Macarius.
Note 4. Socrates, l. 4. c. 23.
Note 5. Rosweide, Vit. Patr. l. 3. s. 3. p. 505. l. 5. c. 4. s. 26. p. 569.
Note 6. Rosweide, l. 3. c. 20. l. 5. c. 12. Cotel. p. 537.
Note 7. Domine, sicut scis et vis, miserere mei.
Note 8. Rosweide, l. 3. c. 127. Cotel. T. 1. p. 547.
Note 9. Rosweide, l. 5. c. 15.
Note 10. Rosweide, l. 7. c. 38. Cotel. T. 1. p. 537. Rosweide, ib. s. 9.
Note 11. Cassian. Collat. 5. c. 32.
Note 12. Rosweide, l. 3. c. 97. l. 6. c. 3. s. 17. p. 657.
Note 13. Theodoret, l. 4, c. 18, 19. Socr. l. 4, c. 22. Sozom. l. 6, c. 19, 20. Rufin. l. 2, c. 3. S. Hier. in Chrom. Oros. l. 7, c. 33. Pallad. Lausiac, c. 117.
Note 14. Rosw. Vit. Patr. l. 5. c. 3. s. 9. Cotel. Mon. Gr. p. 545.
Note 15. Pallad. Lausiac. c. 19.
Note 16. Cassian. Collat. 15. c. 13. Tillem. Note 3. p. 806.
Note 17. Rosw. Vit. Patr. l. 5. c. 7. s. 9. Cotel. Apothegm. Patr. 530. Tillem. art. 4. p. 581, and Note 4. p. 806.
Note 18. See Tillem. Note 3. p. 806.
Note 19. Gennad. Cat. c. 10.
Note 20. Possin. Ascet. pr. p. 17.
Note 21. Du Pin allows these fifty homilies to be undoubtedly very ancient: in which judgment others agree, and the discourses themselves bear evident marks. Du Pin and Tillemont leave them to St. Macarius of Egypt; and his claim to them is very well supported by the learned English translator, who published them with an introduction, at London, in 1721, in octavo. The censure of Ceillier upon them seems too severe. Certain passages, which seem to favour Pelagianism, ought to be explained by others, which clearly condemn that heresy; or it must be granted that they have suffered some alteration. The composition is not very methodical, these homilies being addressed to monks, in answer to particular queries. The author exceedingly extols the peace and sweetness which a soul, crucified to the world, enjoys with the consolations of the Holy Ghost, who resides in her. But he says, that the very angels deplore, as much as their state will permit, those unhappy souls which taste not these heavenly delights, as men weep over a dear friend, who lies sick in his agony, and receives all nourishment from their hands. (St. Macar. hom. 1 & 15.) Prayer, without which no one can be free from sin, is a duty which he strongly inculcates, (Hom. 2.) with perfect concord, by which we love, and are inclined to condescend to indifferent things, and to judge well of all men, so as to say, when we see one pray, that he prays for us; if he read, that he reads for us, and for the divine honour; if he rest or work, that he is employed for the advancement of the common good. (Hom. 3.) The practice of keeping ourselves constantly in the divine presence, he calls a principal duty; by which we learn to triumph over our enemies, and refer to the divine honour all we do: “for this one thing is necessary, that whether we work, read, or pray, we always entertain this life and treasure in our souls; having God constantly in our thoughts, and the Holy Ghost in our breasts.” (Hom. 3.) A continual watchfulness, and strict guard upon all our senses, and in all our actions, is necessary, especially against vanity, concupiscence, and gluttony; without which, failings will be multiplied: pure and faithful souls God makes his chaste spouses: they always think on him, and place all their desires on him; but those who love the earth are earthly in their thoughts and affections, their corrupt inclinations gain such a mastery, that they seem natural to them. Vigilance is absolutely necessary to remove this insinuating enemy; and purity of conscience begets prudence, which can never be found under the tyrrany of the passions, and which is the eye that guides the soul through the craggy paths of this life. Pure souls are raised by divine grace to dwell with God on earth by holy contemplation, and are fitted for eternal bliss; (Hom. 4.) true Christians differ in their desires and actions from other men. The wicked burn with lawless passions, and are disturbed with anxious desires and vain wishes, hunt after, and think of, nothing but earthly pleasures; but the true Christian enjoys an uninterrupted tranquillity of mind and joy, even amidst crosses, and rejoices in sufferings and temptations, hope and divine grace sweetening their severest trials. The love of God with which they burn, makes them rejoice in all they suffer for his sake, and by his appointment. It is their most ardent desire to behold God in his glory, and to be themselves transformed into him. (2 Cor. iii.) Even now the sweetness with which God overwhelms them, renders them already, in some measure, partakers of his glory, which will be completed in them in heaven. (Hom. 5.) In prayer we must be freed from all anxious care, trouble of mind, and all foreign thoughts; and must cry out to God with our whole hearts in tranquility and silence; for God descends only in peace and repose, not amidst tumult and clamours. (Hom. 6.) A soul astonished to see God, who is crowned with infinite glory, visits her with so much sweetness, absorbed in him, sovereignly despises all earthly things, and cries out to him in strains of admiration at his condescension and goodness. (Hom. 7.) When a person, endowed with the gift of supernatural prayer, falls on his knees to pray, his heart is straight filled with the divine sweetness, and his soul exults in God as a spouse with her beloved. This joy in one hour of prayer in the silence of the night, makes a soul forget all the labours of the day; being wrapt in God, she expatiates in the depth of his immensity, and is raised above all the toys of this world to heavenly joys, which no tongue can express. Then she cries out, “Oh! that my soul could now ascend with my prayer on high, to be for evermore united with God!” But this grace is not always equal; and this light is sometimes stronger, and this ardour is sometimes more vehement, sometimes more gentle; sometimes the soul seems to herself to behold a cross shining with a dazzling brightness, wherewith her interior man is penetrated. Sometimes in a rapture she seems clothed with glory, in some measure as Christ appeared in his transfiguration. At other times overwhelmed with a divine light, and drowned in the ocean of divine sweetness, she scarcely remains herself, and becomes a stranger and, as it were, foolish to this world, through the excess of heavenly sweetness, and relish of divine mysteries. A perfect state of contemplation is granted to no one in this life; yet when we go to pray, after making the sign of the cross, often grace so overwhelms the heart, and the whole man, filling every power with perfect tranquillity, that the soul, through excess of overflowing joy, becomes like a little child, which knows no evil, condemns no man, but loves all the world. At other times she seems as a child of God, to confide in him as in her father, to penetrate the heavenly mansions which are opened to her, and to discover mysteries which no man can express. (Hom. 8.) These interior delights can only be purchased by many trials; for a soul must be dead to the world, and burn with a vehement love of God alone, so that no creature can separate her from him, and she dedicates herself and all her actions to him, without reserve. (Hom. 9.) For this a most profound humility, cheerfulness, and courage are necessary; sloth, tepidity, and sadness being incompatible with spiritual progress. (Hom. 10.) The Holy Ghost is a violent fire in our breasts, which makes us always active, and spurs us on continually to aspire more and more vehemently towards God. (Hom. 11.) The mark of a true Christian is, that he studies to conceal from the eyes of men all the good he receives from God. Those who taste how sweet God is, and know no satiety in his love, in proportion as they advance in contemplation, the more perfectly they see their own wants and nothingness: and always cry out, “I am most unworthy that this sun sheds its beams upon me.” (Hom. 15.) In the following homilies, the author delivers many excellent maxims on humility and prayer, and tells us, that a certain monk, after having been favoured with a wonderful rapture and many great graces, fell by pride into several grievous sins. (Hom. 17.) A certain rich nobleman gave his estate to the poor, and set his slaves at liberty; yet afterwards fell into pride, and many enormous crimes. Another, who in the persecution had suffered torments with great constancy for the faith, afterwards, intoxicated with self-conceit, gave great scandal by his disorders. He mentions one who had formerly lived a long time with him in the desert, prayed often with him, and was favoured with an extraordinary gift of compunction, and a miraculous power of curing many sick persons, was delighted with glory, and applause of men, and drawn into the sink of vice. (Hom. 27.) To preserve the unction of the Holy Ghost, a person must live in constant fear, humility and compunction. (Hom. 17.) Without Christ and his grace we can do nothing; but by the Holy Ghost dwelling in her, a soul becomes all light, all spirit, all joy, all love, all compassion. Unless a person be animated by divine grace, and replenished with all virtues, the best instructions and exhortations in their mouths produce very little good. (Hom. 18.) The servant of God never bears in mind the good works he has done, but after all his labours sees how much is wanting to him, and how much he falls short of his duty, and of the perfection of virtue, and says every day to himself, that now he ought to begin, and that to-morrow perhaps God will call him to himself, and deliver him from his labours and dangers. (Hom. 26.) The absolute necessity of divine grace he teaches in many places; also the fundamental article of original sin. (Hom. 48. pag. 101. t. 4. Bibl. Patr. Colon, an. 1618.) which the Pelagians denied.
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume I: January.
The Lives of the Saints. 1866.