On 5 July, the Maronite Church celebrates the feast of St Macarius the Great, also known as “Macarius of the Cross” (because he prayed with his hands outstretched), “Macarius of Egypt”, “Macarius the Elder” (because he was older than Macarius of Alexandria), and “The Lamp of the Desert” (because his face was said to shine).
Macarius was born in Egypt around the year 300 and died in 391. This would make him a slightly older contemporary of St Maroun: they both belong to the formative period of the reclusive movement, when men and women in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, developed the eremitic and monastic ways of life.
St Macarius married young, but when his wife and parents died prematurely, he sold all he had and gave it to the poor. A nearby hermit taught him the art of prayer, and also of basket-weaving. He was quite probably a pupil of St Anthony the Great. The people were impressed by Macarius’ apparent maturity in holiness and wisdom (he was called “the old youth”), and had him made a priest by the bishop. This was not uncommon: the people selected the men who would serve them as priests, and if the bishop confirmed their choice, the man would be ordained. He spent much of his monastic life in the Nitrian desert in Egypt (Wadi el-Natrun), between Cairo and Alexandria. It was then, as it now is, an internationally important centre of religious life. The monastery he founded there, in about 360, now the Monastery of St Macarius the Great, has been continuously inhabited by monks, and has retained many ancient practices and even much of the ancient art and architecture. He was its superior (“abbot”), and taught the spiritual life to other monks.
St Macarius knew persecution: he was once exiled to an island in the Nile for his defence of the true faith. Little else is known of him. His chief fame today is due to fifty spiritual homilies and a document known as “The Great Letter”. However, scholars now believe that those writings were produced not by the Egyptian Macarius but by an author from either Syria or Mesopotamia. Yet, it may well be that the author was also named “Macarius”, and the writings were attributed to the more well-known Egyptian. “Macarius” was a very common name: it means “blessed” in Greek.
The Spiritual Teachings
We might ask: “Which saint do we remember on 5 July, the Egyptian founder of the famous monastery, or the Asian author of the homilies and Great Letter?” My reply is it would be in order to remember both. The tradition, it seems quite clear, did in fact remember both, it just happened to think that two different men were one and the same. This is no problem: two saints can share one feast, just as Ss Peter and Paul do, and in early the Syriac calendar, Ss James and John, the two sons of Zebedee did. So now, having spoken of the founder, let us turn to the writer.
St Macarius’ mind is quite Syrian: e.g. he names the Lord “the Lover of All People” (which we hear in every single Mass). More deeply, he contributed to the profound Syrian emphasis on the action of the Holy Spirit, and the representation of this through the symbols of fire and light: phenomena which can be attributed to God, and in which it can be said that we share. In homily 43, he writes: “As many lights and burning lamps are lit from fire, but the lamps and lights are lit and shine from one nature, so also Christians are enkindled and shine from one nature, the divine fire, the Son of God, and they have their lamps burning in their hearts, and they shine before him while living on earth …” I take this to mean that we need to live with more feeling for the faith and for God. The great trouble most of us face when we try and live our religion with any seriousness is that we begin with great enthusiasm, but then that inner fire fades, we find that bare ideas alone do not move us, and we become distraught at our own unwanted and unwelcome coldness. What can supply the feeling, if not to acknowledge my weakness, renounce false pride, repent, and so come to myself (Luke 15:17, the Prodigal Son)? In knowing my weakness and God’s mercy, I can feel that love of being and truth which can never be rooted from the soul. This brings love of God and all His creatures, for God IS love, life, reality, truth and being. These qualities are complete only in Him, and in so far as we have them, we participate in Him. Little wonder that Macarius is the earliest writer known to have spoken of mystic union with God.
According to St Macarius, the Christian needs two things: first, a knowledge of the faith, and grounded on that knowledge, a wish to live the faith (homily 48 is dedicated to this). Second, a humble acknowledgement of the fact that we sin, with an understanding of where we fall, and a wish to avoid sin. This is a major theme of his writings, but let us take homily 16. There he compares the human soul to a spring which gives forth pure water. However, on the floor of the spring there is earth. Should that earth be stirred up, the entire course of the spring waters will be muddied. Sin is like that. I can be feeling very calm and peaceful, full of beneficent thoughts, but let just one thing happen to upset me, and my entire soul is thrown into confusion. Yet, as St Macarius points out in the same homily, we also feel repentance on many occasions. If the stirring up of the mud made us completely bad this sorrow we feel would not be possible. So we must not allow ourselves to be overthrown by horror. We must take both sin and our own fallibility seriously, and remember that we were created “innocent and completely simple” (16.1), and that God in his limitless power and his way of working beyond all human understanding, can save us. The incomprehensible greatness of God is one of St Macarius’ signature ideas.
The ineffable and surpassing power of God, the persistence of sin, and the position of humanity in between these two spiritual powers, is dealt with at some length in homily 26. There, one of the pupils asks: “Does Satan ever become quieted, and is man … as long as he lives plagued by war?” To this, St Macarius realistically replies: “Satan is never quieted, at peace and not at war. As long as a person lives in this world, and is living in the flesh, he is subject to warring.” He goes on to say that rest and affliction, light and darkness will always have a place in the human soul while we are on this earth. But there is no reason to despair, for: “The mind goes where it finds its goal and where it loves. But if (spiritual) affliction and war beset you, you ought to resist and hate them. For the fact that war comes upon you is not your doing. To hate it, however, is up to you. And then the Lord, seeing your mind, that you are struggling and that you love him with your whole soul, drives death away from your soul in a very brief time. … And he receives you to his bosom and into his light. … the human soul is meant to have fellowship with the Godhead.”
These points are critical: we need to have an aim in life which is the goal of the mind. The mind will follow it. We need a feeling for God and for holiness: our heart will follow it. And God will help us: He has designed us to enjoy eternal fellowship with Him. To pursue God is to enter into the path and purpose of Creation, and so to find our true place. To reject him is to lose our place even in this cosmos. Although St Macarius was writing for monks, the principles apply to us all.
May the prayers of both saints Macarius, the monk and the mystic, be with us forever. Amen.
Fr Yuhanna Azize