The Monk Macarius the Great of Egypt was born in the village of Ptinapor in Lower Egypt. At the wish of his parents he entered into marriage, but was soon a widower. Having buried his wife, Macarius told himself: “Take heed, Macarius, and have care for thy soul, wherefore it becometh thee to forsake earthly life.” The Lord rewarded the saint with a long life, but from that time the mindfulness of death was constantly with him, impelling him to ascetic deeds of prayer and penitence. He began to visit the church of God more frequently and to be more deeply absorbed in Holy scripture, but he did not depart from his aged parents – thus fulfilling the commandment about the honouring of parents. Until his parents’ end the Monk Macarius (“Macarius” – from the Greek means “blessed”) used his remaining substance to help his parents and he began to pray fervently, that the Lord might show him a preceptor on the way to salvation. The Lord sent him such a guide in the person of an experienced monk-elder, living in the wilderness not far from the village. The elder took to the youth with love, guided him in the spiritual science of watchfulness, fasting and prayer, and taught him the handicraft of weaving baskets. Having built a separate cell not far from his own, the elder settled his student in it.
The local bishop arrived one day at Ptinapor and, knowing about the virtuous life of the monk, made him into the clergy against his will. But Blessed Macarius was overwhelmed by this disturbance of his silence, and therefore went secretly to another place. The enemy of salvation began a tenacious struggle with the ascetic, trying to terrify him, shaking his cell and suggesting sinful thoughts. Blessed Macarius shook off the attacks of the devil, defending himself with prayer and the sign of the Cross. Evil people made up a slander against the saint, accusing him in the seduction of a maiden from a nearby village. They dragged him out of his cell, and jeered at him. The Monk Macarius endured the temptation with great humility. The money that he got for his baskets he sent off without a murmur for the welfare of the maiden. The innocence of Blessed Macarius was revealed when the maiden, being worried for many days, was not able to give birth. She then confessed in her sufferings that she had slandered the hermit, and she pointed out the real author of the sin. When her parents found out the truth, they were astonished and intended to go to the monk with remorse. But the Monk Macarius, shunning the vexation of people, fled that place by night and settled on a Nitrian mountain in the Pharan wilderness. Thus human wickedness contributed to the prospering of the righteous. Having dwelt in the wilderness for three years, he went to Saint Anthony the Great, the father of Egyptian monasticism, about whom he had heard that he was still alive in the world, and he longed with a desire to see him. The Monk Abba Anthony received him with love, and Macarius became his devoted student and follower. The Monk Macarius lived with him for a long time and then, on the advice of the saintly abba, he went off to the Skete wilderness-monastery (in the northwest part of Egypt). He so shone forth there by his ascetic deeds that he came to be called “a young-elder”, insofar as having scarcely reached thirty years of age, he distinguished himself as an experienced and mature monk.
The Monk Macarius survived many demonic attacks against him: once he was carrying palm branches from the wilderness for weaving baskets, and a devil met him on the way and wanted to strike him with a sickle, but he was not able to do this and said: “Macarius, I suffer from thee great anguish because I am not able to vanquish thee; thine armour, by which thou art defended from me, is this – thy humility.” When the saint reached age 40, he was ordained to the dignity of priest and made the head (abba) of the monks living at the Skete wilderness. During these years the Monk Macarius often visited with Anthony the Great, receiving guidance from him in spiritual conversations. Blessed Macarius was deemed worthy to be present at the death of the holy abba and he received his staff in succession, together with which he received twice the spiritual power of Anthony the Great – in the same way, as did once the prophet Elisha receive from the prophet Elias twice the grace with the mantle coming down from heaven.
The Monk Macarius accomplished many healings: people thronged to him from various places for help and for advice, asking his holy prayers. All this unsettled the quietude of the saint. He therefore dug out under his cell a deep cave and betook himself there for prayer and Divine meditation. The Monk Macarius attained to such daring in walking before God, that through his prayer the Lord resuscitated the dead. In spite of such lofty attainment of God-likeness, he continued to preserve his unusual humility. One time the holy abba caught a thief, putting his things on a donkey standing nearby the cell. Not giving the appearance that he was the owner of these things, the monk began quietly to help tie up the load. Having removed himself from the world, the monk told himself: “We bring nothing at all into this world; clearly, it is not possible to take anything out from hence. Bless the Lord in all things!”
One time the Monk Macarius was walking along the way and, seeing a skull lying upon the ground, he asked it: “Who art thou?” The skull answered: “I was a chief-priest of the pagans. When thou, Abba, dost pray for those situated in hell, we do receive some mitigation.” The monk asked: “What are these torments?” “We are sitting in a great fire,” answered the skull, “and we do not see one another. When thou prayest, we begin to see each other somewhat, and this affords us some comfort.” Having heard such words, the monk began weeping and asked: “Are there yet more fiercesome torments?” The skull answered: “Down below us are located those, which did know the Name of God, but spurned Him and kept not His commandments. They endure yet more grievous torments.”
Once during prayer Blessed Macarius heard a voice: “Macarius, thou hast reached such attainment as have two women living in the city.” The humble ascetic, taking up his staff, went to the city, found the house where the women lived, and knocked. The women received him with joy, and the monk said: “Because of you I have come from a far wilderness, and I want to know about your good deeds; tell about them, keeping nothing secret.” The women answered with surprise: “We live with our own husbands, and we have not such virtues.” But the saint continued to insist, and the women then told him: “We entered into marriage with two brothers by birth. After all this time of life in common we have told each other not one evil thing nor insulting word, and never do we quarrel between ourselves. We asked our husbands to release us into a women’s monastery, but they were not agreeable, and we gave a vow not to utter one worldly word until death.” The holy ascetic glorified God and said: “In truth the Lord does not seek virgins nor married women, and neither monks nor worldly persons, but doth value the free intent of the person within the arbitrariness of his free will to offer thanks to the Holy Spirit, which acts and which rules the life of each person, yearning to be saved.”
During the years of the reign of the emperor Valens – an Arian heretic (364-378), the Monk Macarius the Great together with the Monk Macarius of Alexandria was subjected to persecution by the adherents of the Arian bishop Luke. They seized both elders and, imprisoning them on a ship, transported them onto a wild island where there lived pagans. By the prayers of the saints there, the daughter of a pagan priest received healing, at which the pagan priest and all the inhabitants of the island accepted holy Baptism. Learning about what had happened, the Arian bishop became ashamed and permitted the elders to return to their own monasteries.
The meekness and humility of the monk transformed human souls. “A harmful word,” said Abba Makarios, “and it makes good things bad, but a good word makes bad things good.” On the questioning of the monks, how to pray properly, the monk answered: “For prayer it does not require many words, it is needful only to say: ‘Lord, as Thou desirest and as Thou knowest, have mercy on me.’ If an enemy should fall upon thee, it is needful but to utter: ‘Lord, have mercy!’ The Lord knoweth that which is useful for us, and doth grant us mercy.” When the brethren asked: “In what manner ought a monk to comport himself?” the monk answered: “Forgive me, I am a poor monk, but I beheld monks being saved in the remote wilderness. I asked them, how might I make myself a monk. They answered: ‘If a man doth not withdraw himself from everything which is situated in the world, it is not possible to be a monk.’ At this point I answered: ‘I am weak and not able to be such as ye.’ The monks therewith answered: ‘If thou art not able to be such as we, then sit in thy cell and dwell in contrition about thy sins.'”
The Monk Macarius gave advice to a certain monk: “Flee from people and thou shalt be saved.” That one asked: “What does it mean to flee from people?” The monk answered: “Sit in thy cell and dwell in contrition about thy sins.” The Monk Macarius said also: “If thou wishest to be saved, be as one who is dead, who is not given over to anger when insulted, and not puffed up when praised.” And further: “If for thyself, slander is like praise, poverty like riches, deficiency like abundance, thou shalt not perish. Since it is not possible, that in piety believers and ascetic seekers should fall into unclean passions and demonic seductions.”
The prayer of the Monk Macarius saved many in perilous circumstances of life, and preserved them from harm and temptation. His benevolence was so great, that they said about him: “Just as God covereth the world, so also doth Abba Macarius cover offenses which he, having seen, is as though he had not seen, and having heard, as though he had not heard.”
The monk lived until age 97. Shortly before his end there appeared to him the Monks Anthony and Pachomius, bringing the joyful message about his transition into a blessed Heavenly monastery. Having given admonition to his disciples and having given them blessing, the Monk Macarius asked forgiveness from all and bid farewell with the words: “Into Thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.”
Holy abba Macarius spent sixty years in the wilderness, being dead to the world. The monk spent most of the time in conversation with God, being often in a state of spiritual rapture. But he never ceased to weep, to repent and to work. The abba rendered his rich ascetic experience into profound theological works. Fifty discourses and seven ascetic tracts form the precious legacy of spiritual wisdom of the Monk Macarius the Great.
His idea, that the highest blessedness and purpose of man – the unity of the soul with God – is a primary principle in the works of the Monk Macarius. Recounting the means by which to attain to mystical union, the monk relies upon the experience of both the great teachers of Egyptian monasticism and upon his own experience. The way to God and the experience of the holy ascetics of communality with God is revealed to each believer’s heart. Therefore Holy Church also includes within the general use of vespers and matins the ascetic prayers of the Monk Macarius the Great.
Earthly life, according to the teachings of the Monk Macarius, possesses with all its works only a relative significance: to prepare the soul, to make it capable for the perception of the Heavenly Kingdom, to establish in the soul an affinity with the Heavenly fatherland. “The soul – for those truly believing in Christ – it is necessary to transpose and to transform from out of the present degraded condition into another condition, a good condition: and from out of the present perishing nature into another, Divine nature, and to be remade anew by means of the power of the Holy Spirit.” To attain this is possible, if “we truly believe and we truly love God and have penetrated into all His holy commands.” If the soul, betrothed to Christ in holy Baptism, does not itself co-operate in its gifts of the grace of the Holy Spirit, then it is subjected to “an excommunication from life,” as is shown by a lack of attaining blessedness and incapacity to union with Christ. In the teaching of the Monk Macarius, the question about the unity of Divine Love and Divine Truth is experientially decided. The inner action of the Christian determines the extent of the perception by him of this unity. Each of us acquires salvation through grace and the Divine gift of the Holy Spirit, but to attain a perfect measure of virtue – which is necessary for the soul’s assimilation of this Divine gift – is possible only “by faith and by love with the strengthening of free will.” Thus, “as much by grace, as much also by truth” does the Christian inherit eternal life. Salvation is a Divine-human action: we attain complete spiritual success “not by Divine power and grace alone, but also by the accomplishing of the proper labours.” From the other side, it is not alone within “the measure of freedom and purity” that we arrive at the proper solicitude, it is not without “the co-operation of the hand of God above.” The participation of man determines the actual condition of his soul, thus self-determining him to good or evil. “If a soul still in the world does not possess in itself the sanctity of the Spirit for great faith and for prayer, and does not strive for the oneness of Divine communion, then it is unfit for the heavenly kingdom.”
The miracles and visions of Blessed Macarius are recorded in a book by the Presbyter Ruphinos, and his Life was compiled by the Monk Serapion, bishop of Tmuntis (Lower Egypt), one of the renowned workers of the Church in the fourth century.