St. Jerome, the great, if tempestuous, hermit and biblical scholar, was a lifelong promoter of celibacy as a spiritual sacrifice. Around 375 A.D., young Jerome met an aged hermit in Syria who told him the dramatic story of his own battles for chastity. Jerome wrote all this down so that it might encourage others to offer to God their purity of body and soul.
The hermit he interviewed was St. Malchus. Malchus was living at a monastic center in Maronia, a few miles out of Antioch. But he had traveled a good deal, willy-nilly, before he reached this final home.
Malchus (or Malechi) was a native of Nisibis in Mesopotamia. He was the only son of well-to-do parents. They were good people, but when they began to press him to get married, he disagreed. Already he had determined to devote his life totally to God’s service, including a vow not to marry. Rather than quarrel over this, he fled his home and joined a monastery in the desert of Chalcis.
Malchus spent several years there and was happy with his chosen life. Then he learned that his father had died and left him an inheritance. So he asked his abbot’s permission to return home. It would give him a chance, he said, to comfort his widowed mother and also to bring back his inheritance and use it to enlarge the monastery.
These arguments seemed plausible enough, but the abbot viewed the plan otherwise. He told Malchus that it was a subtle temptation to return to “the world”, which he had struggled to abandon. So he refused permission. Malchus thereupon went home anyhow.
The misadventures that befell him after his departure amply proved that the abbot had been right. Before he even reached his boyhood home, pagan Bedouins attacked his caravan. One of the Arab chieftains seized Malchus and a young married woman in the party and carried them off as slaves to his desert camp beyond the Euphrates River. Here he assigned the enslaved hermit to tending his sheep and goats.
Malchus was already monk enough to be able to adapt himself to this new situation. As a shepherd he had plenty of time for private prayer and acts of self-denial. To improve his virtue of obedience he performed his duties as conscientiously as possible.
The chieftain was impressed with such a dutiful slave and wanted to reward him. So he told him he could have the woman captured with him as his wife.
How was Malchus to react to this well-meaning command? He had vowed never to marry. Furthermore, he knew that this woman was already married and that her husband was still alive. She would not have minded taking Malchus as a second husband, but the hermit said he would rather kill himself than accept her. Finally they agreed to live together as apparent spouses but actually as brother and sister. This arrangement was not without its difficulties, but they managed to carry it off.
One day St. Malchus observed a colony of ants engaged in their usual teamwork. It reminded him of the monks of his old monastery working together as a community. Now he became lonesome for his old life and told his “spouse” that he was going to run away and return to the monastic life. She insisted on going with him in order to find her husband.
They got away on foot that night and crossed the Euphrates River. But their master quickly detected their departure and set out with another Beduoin to recapture them. On the third day of their trek the fugitives saw their pursuers coming at a distance on their camels. The runaways hid near the mouth of a large cave. When the master reached the cave he asked his man to go inside and fetch the pair. The Bedouin entered the cave but did not come out. Puzzled, the chief himself went into the cave. He didn’t come out either. But Malchus and his companion, watching from their hiding-place outside, eventually saw a lioness emerge with her cub in her mouth and run to safety across the desert rocks. Malchus and his companion then entered the cave to see what had happened. The lioness, fearing for her kitten, had killed both Bedouins. So the two fugitives mounted their camels and rode off to safety.
Eventually Malchus reached the monastery at Maronia and spent the rest of his life there in penance and prayer. His “spouse” failed to find her husband. Consequently, she, too, came to the monastery at Maronia. Settling nearby, she devoted her remaining years to good works.
Thus St. Malchus won his battle to “renounce self for the sake of God’s reign.” (Mt. 19:12). This is a gift given only to a few. (Not, by the way, just to monks and nuns and priests, but also to some lay persons by virtue of a temporary or permanent personal vow.) The fact that some maintain chastity “for the kingdom” will always be a reminder to the majority that marriage is short but God’s grace is long.
–Father Robert F. McNamara