Abba Macarius the Great

Abba Macarius The Great

Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.

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Within the heart are unfathomable depths. It is but a small vessel and yet dragons and lions are there, and poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.

Who was Abba Macarius?

This is the quote from Abba Macarius that captivated me. With his deft understanding of the interior life and his teaching on encountering Christ in his Spiritual Homilies, Macarius quickly became one of my favourite Desert Fathers. His understanding of the human condition stands with the best theologians and philosophers throughout history. His teaching on the Divine presence of Christ is one of the most beautiful writings on the mystical life.  His character, humility, and love inspire. The light he shined upon the spiritual life is one reason he came to be known as the Lamp of the Desert.

“Grace, even in this present life, operates in this way: it calms all the members and the heart, so that the soul, out of the abundance of joy, seems like a little child, conscious of no ill; and the beast no longer condemns the Gentile, or the Jew, or the man of the world. But the inward man looks upon all with an eye of purity, and rejoices over the whole world, and desires to respect and love all, the Gentiles as the Jews.”

When he was a young man, Macarius was nicknamed “the aged youth” because of his keen insight and wisdom. He was born around the year 300 AD and committed his life to seeking Christ in solitude in his early 20’s.  As a young hermit living on the outskirts of a village he excelled in the spiritual life. At about 30 years old, a young woman in the village falsely accused him of taking advantage of her as she had become pregnant. He was led through the city while the crowds mocked and beat him. This was his only response,

“Macarius, you have found yourself a wife; you must work a little more in order to keep her.”  

For nine months he sent her the money that he made weaving mats. When it came time for her to give birth, her labor began but refused to end. After a number of days had passed, she realized that the reason for her condition was the false accusation. She summoned her parents and told them who the real father was, Macarius was exonerated. After this, the whole village wanted to come to him, so he fled to the desert as he never desired the recognition of men.

‘Do not sleep in the cell of a brother who has a bad reputation.’

Soon after, he sought out Abba Anthony and was schooled in the monastic life. His reputation grew and he became one of the most influential desert fathers. He was known to have prophetic foresight, power to interpret the Scriptures, power to cast out demons, and many other spiritual gifts. He was ordained as a priest in his fortieth year that he might “celebrate the divine mysteries for the convenience of this holy colony.”

He was known as a gentle man.

"A number of people, seeing Abba Macarius so gentle before the other brothers and humbling himself before everyone, asked him: ’Why do you do this to yourself, Abba? ”He replied: ’For twelve years I enslaved myself to Christ, so that He would give me this gift-and now you advise me to give it up?" 

His goal was humility and love, his passion was Christ:

One time, upon finding out that a certain monk struggled with lustful thoughts he went to go visit him. 

“When he (Macarius) was alone with him the old man (Macarius) asked him, 'How are you getting on?' Theopemptus replied, 'Thanks to your prayers, all goes well.' The old man asked: 'Do not your thoughts war against you?' He replied: 'Up to now, it is all right,' for he was afraid to admit anything. The old man said to him, 'See how many years I have lived as an ascetic, and am praised by all, and though I am old, the spirit of fornication troubles me.' Theopemptus said, 'Believe me, abba, it is the same with me.'”

Maracius identified with the young man’s weakness, even though his own conscience did not convict him. When the young monk had confessed his thoughts, this is the advice that Macarius gave to him:

“Practice fasting a little later; meditate on the Gospel and the other Scriptures, and if an alien thought arises within you, never look at it but always look upwards, and the Lord will come at once to your help.”

This advice is incredibly pertinent today, there are thoughts we have that are alien to us and do not arise from our own heart. When those thoughts arise, let your inner life be set on heaven, and the eyes of your heart (Eph 1:18) be filled with Divine light. A little while later, the young monk is seen as a shining example of the spiritual life.

He was humble and would ask advice of his disciples.

“Abba Macarius said unto Abba Zechariah, 'Tell me, what is the work of monks?' He said unto him, 'Why do you ask me, father?' The old man said unto him, 'I ask you, my son, Zechariah, because it is right that I should ask you.' And Abba Zechariah said unto him, 'Father, I give it as my opinion that the work of monks consists in a man restraining himself in everything.'”

He was known as a man who took the Scriptures seriously and practiced, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” When it came to the failures of others: “he saw as if he did not see them, and the things which he heard as if he heard them not.” When stumbling upon a monk in the middle of the night in the midst of sin, he said, “If God who created him (the sinner) sees him, and is patient with him (for if God so desired He could destroy him), who am I that I should rebuke him?”

He also taught on the rhythm of the prayer life.

"Sometimes the love of God enflames and kindles with greater strength; but at other times it is more slow and gentle. The same fire at certain seasons burns with stronger heat and flame, but at others burns more dimly.”

The Effects of the Spirit

Sometimes the love of God enflames our heart and this heat and flame burn brightly, and other times the love wanes and burns dim. God imparts the fire of His love sovereignly, at times it burns brightly and is easily felt, at other times it wanes and we are less aware of it consciously. The memory of God’s grace lingers in the same way we recall wading in the cool ocean water as the tide goes out to the sea.

According to Macarius, the various effects of the Spirit on the inner life of a man included:

  • Filling the inner man with joy and pleasure

  • Communing deeply, like bride with bridegroom

  • To be caught up in heavenly encounters (where we shed our “earthly tabernacle”)

  • Being moved with grief and sadness for all mankind

  • Enflamed with joy and love for others

  • Working a deep humility that makes you feel lower than all

  • Being led into spiritual battle like a strong warrior

  • Producing silence, calmness, peace, and spiritual pleasure

  • The impartation of spiritual knowledge that is beyond words

Macarius was so struck by the beauty of Christ it consumed his internal life.

"For they are wounded with Divine beauty and their desire is towards the heavenly King. They place him before their eyes with abundant affection. For His sake, they disengage from worldly things, and draw back from every hindrance, that they would retain in their hearts desire for Him alone." 

He is echoing the language of the Shulamite bride from the Song of Solomon: “Tell my beloved that I am wounded with love.”

One time, Abba Macarius was asked.

“How should one pray?” The old man said, “There is no need at all to make long speeches; it is enough to stretch out one's hands and say, "Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy." And if the conflict grows fiercer say, "Lord, help!" He knows very well what we need and he shows us his mercy.'"

The point of prayer was not the ability to sustain long conversation, it was encountering God. One of the favourite prayers of the Desert Fathers and Mothers was the prayer of the tax collector in the Gospels, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner. (Luke 18:13)” It was this simple prayer that led the monk in to deep communion.

He also knew that if we carried pain and offence towards others, it would hinder our interior life. "If we keep remembering the wrongs which men have done us, we destroy the power of the remembrance of God.” The presence of God was what the spiritual man was seeking and the remembrance of God was being filled with His Divine presence. If the mind is set on past hurts, our awareness of God diminishes. When the mind is set on Him, it finds perfect peace (Isaiah 26:3).

A key to moving past offence was to be dead to praise and criticism.

"If slander has become to you the same as praise, poverty as riches, lack as abundance, you will not die." 

Another time, he was approached by a young monk who asked him for some advice. Macarius told the young man to go to a graveyard and throw stones at the burial places of the deceased. When the young man came back, Macarius asked him if the dead men said anything to him, the young man answered that they did not. The next day, he told him to go again and this time to praise the dead bodies in the cemetery.  The young man did so and returned. Macarius again asked him if the dead men responded. The young man, once again told him again that they did not. Macrarius offered him this advice: 

You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.

Macarius’ life was not without extraordinary miracles. One story has him transported when overcome with exhaustion.“…when he was going up from Scetis with a load of baskets, he sat down, overcome with weariness and began to say to himself, 'My God, you know very well that I cannot go any further,' and immediately he found himself at the river."

He lived his life by three guiding principles: considering himself dead to the world, considering himself dead to others, and turning his thoughts ever towards God. In considering himself dead to the world he was able to die to others, and in dying to others he was constantly before God. The goal of Macarius was to live in union with Christ.

If the men of this world so desire to behold an earthly king, with his splendor and glory–how much more those upon whom the Spirit of life has dropped, and wounded their hearts with love for Christ? They run quickly to the beauty, unspeakable glory, and inconceivable riches of the true and eternal King.