Saint macarius of Alexandria


(a.d. 394)

Feast Day : 2 Jan 

[There were two Macarii. Both are commemorated together by the Greeks, on Jan. 19th ; but the Latins commemorate S. Macarius of Alexmdria, on Jan 2nd; and St. Macarius the Egyptian, on Jan. 15th. The history of this S. Macarius is perfectly authentic, having been written by St. Palladius (e. 368,) in the year 421 ; the writer knew S. Macarius personally, having been nine years in "the cells," of which S. Macarius was priest. Three of these years Macarius and Palladius lived together; so that, as the author says, he had eveiy opportunity of judging of his manner of life and actions. ]

Saint Macarius the younger was born in Alexandria, of poor parents, and followed the trade of confectioner. Desirous of sening God with his whole heart, he forsook the world in the flower of his age, and spent upwards of sixty years in the deserts, in the exercise of fervent penance and prayer. He first retired into the Thebaid, or Upper Egypt, about the year 335 ; then, aiming at greater disengagement, he descended to Lower Egypt, in or about the year 373.

Here there were three deserts almost adjoining each other; that of Scete ; that of the Cells, so called because of the multitude of cells where with its rocks were honey-combed ; and a third, which reached the western bank of the Nile, called the Nitrian desert. St. Macarius had a cell in each of these deserts. When he was in Nitria he gave advice to those who sought him. But his chief residence was in the desert of the Cells. There each hermit lived separate, assembling only on Saturday and Sunday, in the church, tocelebrate the divine mysteries, and to partake of the Holy Communion. All the brothers were employed at some handicraft, generally they platted baskets or mats. All in the burning desert was still ; in their cells the hermits worked, and prayed, and cooked their scanty victuals, till the red ball of the sun went down behind the sandy plain to the west ; then from all that region rose a hum of voices, the rise and fall of song, as the evening psalms and hymns were being chanted by that great multitude of sohtaries in dens and caves of the earth.

Palladius has recorded an instance of the great self-denial observed by these hermits. A present was made to St. Macarius of a bunch of grapes, newly gathered. The holy man carried it to a neighbouring solitary who was sick; he sent it to another, and each Abashing that some dear brother should enjoy the fhait rather than himself, passed it on to another ; and thus the bunch of grapes made the circuit of the cells, and was brought back to Macarius.

The severity of life practised by these hermits was great For seven years together S. Macarius lived on raw herbs and pulse, and for the three following years contented himself with four or five ounces of bread a day. His watchings were not less surprising. He told Palladius that it had been his great desire to fix his mind on God alone for five days and nights continuously. And when he supposed he was in the proper mood, he closed his cell, and stood up, and said,


" Now thou hast angels and archangels, and all the heavenly host in company with thee. Be in heaven, and forget earthly things." And so he continued for two nights and days, wrapped in heavenly contemplations, but then his hut seemed to flame about him, even the mat on which he stood, and his mind was diverted to earth. " But it was as well," said he ; " for I might have fallen into pride."

The reputation of the monastery of Tabenna, under St. Pachomius, drew him to it in disguise. St. Pachomius told him he seemed too far advanced in years to begin to practise the austerities undergone by himself and his monk nevertheless, on his earnest entreaty, he admitted him. Then Lent drew on, and the aged Macarius saw the monks fasting, some two whole days, others five, some standing all night, and sitting at their work during the day. Then he, having soaked some palm leaves, as material for his work, went apart into a comer, and till Easter came, he neither ate nor drank, nor sat down, nor bowed his knee, nor lay down, and sustained life on a few raw cabbage leaves which he ate on Sundays ; and when he went forth for any need he returned silently to his work, and occupied his hands in platting, and his heart in prayer. But when the others saw this, they were astonished, and remonstrated with St. Pachomius, saying, " Why hast thou brought this fleshless man here to confound us with his austerities. Send him away, or we will desert this place." Then the abbot went to Macarius, and asked him who he was, and when he told his name, Pachomius was glad, and cried, " Many years have I desired to see thee. I thank thee that thou hast humbled my sons ; but now, go thy way, sufficiently hast thou edified us ; go, and pray for us." Macarius, on one occasion, to subdue his flesh, filled two great baskets with sand, and laying them on his shoulders, walked over the hot desert, bowed beneath them. A fi-iend meeting him, offered to ease him of his burden, but " No," said the old hermit, " I have to torment my tormentor ;" meaning his body.

One day, a gnat stung him in his cell, and he killed it. Then, ashamed that he had allowed himself to be irritated by the petty insect, and to have lost an opportunity of enduring mortification with equanimity, he went to the marshes of Scete, and stayed there six months, suffering greatly from the stings of the insects. When he returned, he was so disfigured by their bites, that he was only recognized by his voice.

The terrible severity with which these Egyptian hermits punished themselves is perhaps startling, but it was something needed at a time when the civilized world was sunk in luxury, profligacy, and indiff'erence. That was a time which called for a startling and vivid contrast to lead minds into self-inspection. "Private profligacy among all ranks was such as cannot be described in any modern pages.

The clergy of the cities, though not of profligate lives, and for the most part unmarried, were able to make no stand against the general corruption of the age, because—at least if we are to trust such writers as Jerome and Chrysostom they were giving themselves up to ambition and avarice, intrigue and party spirit. No wonder if, in such a state of things, the minds of men were stirred by a passion akin to despair. It would have ended often, but for Christianity, in such an actual despair as that which had led, in past ages, more than one noble Roman to slay himself, when he lost all hope for the Republic. Christianity taught those who despaired of society, of the world—in one word, of the Roman empire, and all that it had done for men—to hope at last for a Kingdom of God after death. It taught those, who, had they been heathens and brave enough, would have slain themselves to escape out of a world which was no place for honest men, that the body must be kept alive, atleast, for the sake of the immortal soul, doomed, according to its works, to endless bliss or endless torment. 

But that the world—such, at least, as they saw it then—was doomed. Scripture and their own reason taught them. They did not merely believe, but see, in the misery and confusion, the desolation, and degradation around them, that all that was in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, was not of the Father, but of the world ; that the world was passing away, and the lust thereof, and that only he who did the will of God could abide for ever.

They did not merely believe, but saw, that the wrath of God was revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men; and that the world in general was treasuring up to themselves wrath, tribulation, and anguish, against a day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who would render to every man according to his works. That they were correct in their judgment of the world about them, contemporary history proves abundantly. That they were correct, likewise, in believing that some fearful judgment was about to fall on man, is proved by the fact that it did fall ; that the first half of the fifth century saw, not only the sack of Rome, but the conquest and desolation of the greater part of the civilized world, amid bloodshed, misery, and misrule, which seemed to turn Europe into a chaos, which would have turned it into a chaos, had there not been a few men left who still felt it possible and necessary to believe in God, and to work righteousness. Under these terrible forebodings, men began to flee from a doomed world, and try to be alone with God, if by any means they might save each man his own soul in that dread day."i S. Macarius, of Alexandria, and his namesake, the Egyptian, lived much together. They were both exiled in 375, at the instigation of the Arian patriarch of Alexandria, who dreaded their influence over the people, and zeal for the orthodox faith. They crossed the Nile together in a ferryboat, when they encountered two military tribunes, accompanied by a great array of horses, with decorated bridles, of equipages, soldiers, and pages covered with ornaments. The officers looked long at the two monks in their old dresses, humbly seated in a corner of the bark. They might well look at them, for in that bark two worlds stood face to face ; old Rome, degraded by the emperors, and the new Christian republic, of which the monks were the precursors. As they approached the shore, one of the tribunes said to the cenobites, " You are happy, for you despise the world." " It is true," answered the Alexandrine, " we despise the world, and the world despises you. You have spoken more truly than you intended ; we are happy in fact, and happy in name, for we are called Macarius, which means in Greek happy."

The tribune made no answer, but, returning to his house, renounced all his wealth and rank, and went to seek happiness in solitude. In art, S. Macarius is represented with wallets of sand on his shoulders ; sometimes with a hysena and its young, because the story is told that one day a hyaena brought her young one and laid it at the feet of the hermit. He looked at the animal, and saw that it was blind, therefore he pitied the poor whelp, and prayed to God ; then he touched the eyes of the young hyaena, and it saw plain. Next day, the mother brought a sheep-skin and laid it at his feet, and this the hermit wore continually afterwards, till he gave it to St. Melania.

Reflection – Prayer is the breath of the soul. But Saint Macarius teaches us that mind and body must be brought to subjection before the soul is free to pray.


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