Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Lives of the Saints: St. Macarius of Alexandria

From Rev. Alban Butler’s The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints; edited by Dan Leo, Assistant Professor of Ancient and Modern Religions, Olney Community College, author of Jesus Is My Homey: Inspirational Thoughts For Young People.

Reverently illustrated by rhoda penmarq.

Nihil Obstat: Rev. Herbert P. Sterne, S.J.

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ST. MACARIUS the younger, a citizen of Alexandria, followed the business of a confectioner.

Desirous to serve 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 contemplation.

In this part were three deserts almost adjoining to each other; that of Scété, so called from a town of the same name on the borders of Lybia; that of the Cells, contiguous to the former, this name being given to it on account of the multitude of hermit-cells with which it abounded; and a third, which reached to the western branch of the Nile, called from a great mountain, the desert of Nitria.

St. Macarius had a cell in each of these deserts.

When he dwelt in that of Nitria, it was his custom to give advice to strangers, but his chief residence was in that of the Cells. Each anchoret had here his separate cell, which he made his continued abode, except on Saturday and Sunday, when all assembled in one church to celebrate the divine mysteries, and partake of the holy communion.

If any one was absent, he was concluded to be sick, and was visited by the rest. When a stranger came to live among them, every one offered him his cell, and was ready to build another for himself.

Their cells were not within sight of each other.

Their manual labour, which was that of making baskets or mats, did not interrupt the prayer of the heart.

A profound silence reigned throughout the whole desert.

Our saint received here the dignity of priesthood, and shone as a bright sun influencing this holy company. 

Palladius has recorded a memorable instance of the great self-denial professed and observed by these holy hermits. A present was made of a newly gathered bunch of grapes to St. Macarius: the holy man carried it to a neighbouring monk who was sick; he sent it to another: it passed in like manner to all the cells in the desert, and was brought back to Macarius, who was exceedingly rejoiced to perceive the abstinence of his brethren, but would not eat of the grapes himself.  

The austerities of all the inhabitants of that desert were extraordinary; but St. Macarius in this regard far surpasses the rest.

For seven years together he lived only on raw herbs and pulse, and for the three following years contented himself with four or five ounces of bread a day, and consumed only one little vessel of oil in a year.

God had given him a body capable of bearing the greatest rigours; and his fervour was so intense, that whatever spiritual exercise he heard of, or saw practised by others, he resolved to copy the same.

The reputation of the monastery of Tabenna, under St. Pachomius, drew him to this place in disguise. 

St. Pachomius told him that he seemed too far advanced in years to begin to accustom himself to their fastings and watchings; but at length admitted him, on condition he would observe all the rules and mortifications of the house.

Lent approaching soon after, the monks were assiduous in preparations to pass that holy time in austerities, each according to his strength and fervour; some by fasting one, others two, three, or four days, without any kind of nourishment; some standing all day, others only sitting at their work.

Macarius took some palm-tree leaves steeped in water, as materials for his work, and standing in a private corner, passed the whole time without eating, except a few green cabbage leaves on Sundays.

His hands were employed in almost continual labour, and his heart conversed with God by prayer. If he left his station on any pressing occasion, he never stayed one moment longer than necessity required.

Such a prodigy astonished the monks, who even remonstrated to the abbot at Easter, against a singularity of this nature, which, if tolerated, might on several accounts be prejudicial to their community. St. Pachomius entreated God to know who this stranger was; and learning by revelation that he was the great Macarius, embraced him, thanked him for his edifying visit, and desired him to return to his desert, and there offer up his prayers for them. 

Our saint happened one day inadvertently to kill a gnat that was biting him in his cell; reflecting that he had lost the opportunity of suffering that mortification, he hastened from his cell to the marshes of Scété, which abound with great flies, whose stings pierce even wild boars. There he continued six months exposed to those ravaging insects; and to such a degree was his whole body disfigured by them with sores and swellings, that when he returned he was only to be known by his voice. 

Some authors relate that he did this to overcome a temptation of the flesh.


The virtue of this great saint was often exercised with temptations. One was a suggestion to quit his desert and go to Rome, to serve the sick in the hospitals;

which by due reflection, he discovered to be a secret artifice of vain-glory inciting him to attract the eyes and esteem of the world. True humility alone could discover the snare which lurked under the specious gloss of holy charity.

Finding this enemy extremely importunate, he threw himself on the ground in his cell, and cried out to the fiends: “Drag me hence, if you can, by force, for I will not stir.”

Thus he lay till night, and by this vigorous resistance they were quite disarmed. 

As soon as he arose they renewed the assault; and he, to stand firm against them, filled two great baskets with sand, and laying them on his shoulders, travelled along the wilderness.

A person of his acquaintance meeting him, asked him what he meant, and made an offer of easing him of his burden; but the saint made no other reply than this —

“I am tormenting my tormentor.”

He returned home in the evening, much fatigued in body, but freed from the temptation.

St. Jerome and others relate, that a certain anchoret in Nitria, having left one hundred crowns at his death which he had acquired by weaving cloth, the monks of that desert met to deliberate what should be done with that money.

Some were for having it given to the poor, others to the church; but Macarius, Pambo, Isidore, and others, who were called the fathers, ordained that the one hundred crowns should be thrown into the grave and buried with the corpse of the deceased, and that at the same time the following words should be pronounced:

May thy money be with thee to perdition. 

This example struck such a terror into all the monks, that no one durst lay up any money by him.


Our saint died in the year 394, as Tillemont shows from Palladius. 

next: St Genevieve

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