(c. 300-390 A.D.)
St. Macarius the Elder was one of the greatest of the Christians who pioneered the monastic life in the deserts of Egypt. Many anecdotes have come down to us of his struggle for perfection in a crude world.
Macarius started off as a cattle-raiser in the Upper Nile district. But while still a youth he sensed a personal call to undertake the life of a desert hermit, a life of prayer, austerity and labor.
During the early period of his apprenticeship, he became the object of a vicious slander that brought upon him undeserved mistreatment. A woman of the desert locale, for some unknown motive, accused him publicly of having assaulted her. She must have talked a good case, for the people of the neighborhood accepted the charge. They upbraided Macarius as a wolf in sheep’s clothing; they seized him bodily, paraded him through the streets, and beat him severely.
What was the hermit’s reaction? In true Christian meekness, he decided not to defend himself, and to work extra hard at his manual tasks in order to provide for the care of the infant with whom his accuser was pregnant. Surely, he thought to himself, the real father would not provide for that child!
Fortunately, the truth came out through other circumstances. When the woman’s hour had come, the birthing was hard until she admitted that the father was other than Macarius. Shaken by this confession, the neighbors who had been so ready to blame the hermit now changed their tune, praising him for his humility.
Macarius no doubt thanked God for rescuing his reputation, but he by now had had enough of public opinion. He fled to the mountainous desert of Skete near the delta of the Nile. Then about 30, he would pass the remaining 60 years of his life at that place as the spiritual director of the multitude of other monks who hastened to place themselves under his tutelage. Up to now, Macarius, like most of the Egyptian hermits, had been a layman. After a while, however, the local bishop ordained him a priest so that he might provide the sacraments for his followers.
The monks of Skete were especially noted for their austerity. Although this was sometimes excessive, it was nevertheless impressive. Later on Macarius himself would declare, “I have never once eaten, drunk or slept as much as nature required.” Yet he kept warning his disciples against becoming proud of their fasting.
Macarius’ chief teaching, however, continued to be, “Leave everything that happens, good or bad, in God’s hands.” Even when counseling on prayer, he said that the best prayers are not always those that are long or eloquent. Short ones are equally pleasing to God, like “O God, come to my assistance”; or “Lord, show me mercy as you know best.” This absolute mildness and patience communicated itself, and was responsible for many conversions.
Yet the saint kept studying self-control.
Once God pointed out to him that two married women who lived nearby were holier than he was. He therefore went to see them and learn of their dispositions. “What are your methods for achieving holiness?” he asked. They answered, “We live in humility and patience, charity and conformity to the dispositions of our husbands. We carefully avoid idle or rash conversations, and by consecrating all our powers of body and soul to the glory of God, we sanctify every action by prayer.” Such was the revealing lesson that these two wives taught to the celibate monk.
A disciple once asked St. Macarius how to begin to live in Christ. The saint told him to go to the cemetery and first scold all the dead, out loud, and then praise them. When he returned, the Master asked what reply the dead had made to the reproof and the praise. “Nothing,” the disciple answered. Macarius (thinking perhaps of his earlier suffering from slander), said, “Go then and learn neither to be moved by praise or flattery. If you die to the world and to yourself, you will begin to live in Christ.”
St. Macarius was not spared trials from without. At one point the heretical bishop of Alexandria exiled him and his monks to an island in the Nile. But the exiles lost no time, and converted the pagan islanders. At length they were released. The people loved them too much to allow that to happen again.
Macarius, then, still advises us: “Do not fear false accusations: God always knows the truth.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara