St. Macarius the Egyptian – January 19

by Fr. Herbert Nicholls, homily at the Mother of the Light Convent

Macarius was born in Upper Egypt about the year 305 and spent his youth in tending cattle. Desirous to serve God  with his whole heart he forsook the world, living in a small desert cave in continual prayer and the practice of austerities. He spent nearly 60 years in the desert in penance and contemplation.

There were at that time 3 deserts nearly adjoining each other. The first and the one chosen by Macarius was that of Skete on the borders of Libya. The second was Cells, a name given because of the many hermit-cells with which it abounded. The third called Nitria, broached in the Western Bank of the Nile River.

The austerity of these desert monks was extraordinary. But Macarius went far beyond the rest. God had given him a body capable of bearing the most extreme rigors. His fervor was so intense that whatever spiritual exercise that he heard or saw another practice, he would adopt for himself.

Macarius routinely would eat once a week on Sunday. One day when he was tortured with thirst, a disciple begged him to drink a little water, but Macarius chose to content himself with repose in the shade a while. Macarius said, I have never eaten, drunk or slept as much as nature requires. But to go against his own inclinations he did not refuse to drink a little wine. But then he would punish himself by abstaining from drink for two or three days. He used to often say in prayer, O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help as you know best!

As one can imagine such intensity of devotion must be met with intensity of temptation. For Macarius the strongest temptation was to leave the desert and return to the world. These temptations overcome, became for Macarius the strength to guide others who sought the rigors of desert living.

One young man came admitting to the saint that he was routinely molested with temptations of impurity. Macarius was convinced that the trouble was due to indolence. Accordingly, he advised the man never to eat before sunset, and to meditate fervently at his work, to labor vigorously without slackening. The young man faithfully complied and in a short time was freed of his spiritual struggle.

Certainly we have mentioned some severe practices which today would no doubt be discouraged by a spiritual director or psychologist. However, I do think that apart from the extremes even the psychiatrist today would see the value in these disciplines as a corrective to physical, emotional compulsions or what we would call temptations.

In another instance, a wealthy young man, seeking spiritual advice from Macarius was told to go to the burial place and “upbraid the dead”! And after a short time to go back and “flatter them”. When the young man returned Macarius inquiried, What answer did they give you? To which the young man replied: None. Macarius replied, Then go and learn neither to be moved by abuse nor by flattery. For if you die to yourself and to the world, you will begin to live in Christ. Receive from the hand of God poverty as well as riches; hunger and want as readily as plenty.

There was still another grave temptation with which Macarius had to struggle. A woman falsely accused him that he had threatened her with violence if she did not submit to him. For this alleged crime, Macarius was dragged through the streets, beaten and insulted as a “hypocrite hiding under the garb of a monk”. Macarius suffered these indignities with patience saying, Well Macarius, now you must work the harder for you have another to provide for…But in turn God revealed his innocence. The woman falling into labor in extreme anguish was not able to deliver until she named the true father of the child. The furor of the crowd against Macarius turned to admiration for his humility and patience.

Macarius knowing that the end of his life was approaching made a pilgrimage to the neighboring desert of Nitria and exhorted the monks who were living there. These young men were so moved that they fell at the knees of the holy man of God. Macarius advised them, Woe my young brothers. Let your eyes pour forth floods of tears, lest we fall into that place where tears will only feed the flames in which we shall burn.

Some historians style Macarius as one of the disciples of St. Anthony the Great, but it is more than likely that Macarius was divinely inspired by an early anchorite monk of the Egyptian desert.

The great saint of solitude died in the year 395. I could find no formal date of canonization but his name is commemorated in the anaphoras of both the Coptic and Armenian rites.