St. Macarius the Great, also known in the West as “the Egyptian,” is considered, together with St. Antony the Great, the most well-known and loved Desert Fathers. He should not be confused with another bearing the name Macarius, who was his contemporary and disciple, known as St. Macarius of Alexandria, and was sometimes called “Macarius the little,” to distinguish him from the Great. St. Macarius the Great was the founder and spiritual father of the great monastic region historically known as Scetis, about 100 km North-West of Cairo. Even today, the desert around the historic monasteries of this area is called the “Macarian’ desert.” There are two possible etymologies for the name Macarius. One, the most common, in Greek Μακάριος means “blessed.” The other is ancient Egyptian word, Mchrw, which means “with a sincere voice.”
As the son of a presbyter who was originally from Memphis, Macarius was born around AD 300 in a village called Ğiğbēr (currently Šabšīr, a village on the Delta of the Nile). As a young man he worked as a camel driver in a region saturated with salt lakes known as the Natron Valley, present day Wādī al-Naṭrūn. The name is linked to the type of “natron” salt that could be extracted from that region. This salt lake region in the middle of the western desert would become one of the most important monastic centers in the world.
The vocation of St. Macarius is inextricably linked to the figure of the cherub. While carrying the natron on camels, a tired Macarius fell asleep. He saw a “a man [who] was standing above him in a garment that cast forth lightning and was multicolored and striped.” The cherub, who later reveals himself, said to him:
This land I will give to you. You shall dwell in it and blossom and your fruits shall increase and your seed shall multiply [cf. Gen 12:7] and you shall bear multitudes of spiritual children and rulers who will suckle at your breasts.
Shortly after, when he was about thirty years old, on the advice of a hermit whom he had turned to, he retired near a village. At this village, after being ordained a priest against his will because of his virtuous life, a girl unjustly accused the saint of rape and conceiving a child. The matter causing an uproar, the enraged people took him from his cell by force, insulted him and berated him to the point he was about to die. Some months later, the girl, finding great difficulty in giving birth, confessed that a young from the village got her pregnant, thus exonerating the hermit. After her confession, the girl was able, therefore, to give birth. While the saint pondered how to leave the village to flee the praises of those who shouted the miracle, he was visited by the cherub for the second time, this time in the waking state while celebrating the Eucharist. The Cherub reminded him of the promise made to him while asleep as he picked natron and urged him to leave for the desert. This time the Cherub promised him that, on the orders of the Most High, he would accompany Macarius and would never leave him or his spiritual children, as long as they walked according to precepts and commandments of the Lord that Macarius would give them. Brought into the wādī, Macarius looked for a place close to a source of water and dug a hermitage there for himself.
It is probably at this moment that the cherub weighs Macarius’ heart and calls this desert with the name “Macarius’ heart.” We read in an important source about St Macarius, Macarius’ Virtues:
It was said concerning Abba Macarius that when he had increased in virtue and had come to personify it, giving thanks with great patience, the Lord of Glory sent a cherub: he led him into this mountain and when he had set his seal on Abba Macarius by placing his hands on his breast as though taking its measure, Abba Macarius said to him, “What is this?” The cherub said to him, “I have weighed your heart.” Abba Macarius said to him, “What do you mean?” The cherub said to him, “They will name this mountain after your heart; Christ has given it to you as an inheritance. But he will seek its fruits from you.”
Since then that region took the name of “Scete” which derives from the Coptic ϣⲓϩⲏⲧ, meaning “scale of the heart.” This event probably happened around 330 in the area around the current Monastery of Baramūs, located about 125 Km North-West of Cairo. St. Macarius was very familiar with the region since he had, as we know, traveled through this desert as a boy, conducting on behalf of his father (priest of the village), camels carrying natron.
During this period St. Macarius visited St. Anthony the Great twice. Once in 343 and second time in 352, correlating Macarius as a disciple of Anthony. During these visits, St. Anthony consoled him about the spiritual warfare that Macarius was fighting and witness about him that “from these hands [Macarius’] much strength comes out!” Anthony, moreover, after having instructed him on monastic life and on how to fight thoughts, gave him the monastic habit and the staff, thus prophetically conferring on St. Macarius the leadership of monasticism after his death. No church was built in Scetis before Macarius’ second visit to Anthony in 352. Probably, until then, whenever St. Macarius wished to pray in the church and take part in the Eucharist, he used to go to the community of monks presided by St. Ammonas in Nitria, another ancient monastic region north of Scetis.
After receiving the staff from abba Anthony and returning to Scetis, St. Macarius’ Coptic biography narrates that the latter was joined in a short time by a large number of anchorites eager to become his disciples for his fatherly love, his wisdom and his grace. His fame spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean. Around St Macarius developed the first monastic core of Scetis, with many monks who lived alone in hermitages (manshopi) built with mud bricks and thatched roofs around the “abba’s cell.”
In 360 St. Macarius moved further south to the area where the monastery currently bearing his name now stands, leaving his disciple Pafnutius as a substitute for the community. In his biography, we read:
Suddenly the cherub appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord has come to dwell in this place on account of you. Arise now, follow me, and I will show you the place that you will bring to perfection before your death.” The cherub led him and took him atop the rock at the southern part of the wadi to the west of the cistern at the top of the valley and said to him, “Begin by making yourself a dwelling here and build a church, for a large number of people will live here after a while.” And so he lived there to the day of his death, and after his death they called that place “abba Macarius” because he finished his life there.
A few hundred meters from the present monastery, Macarius dug for himself a cell into the rock, with a long tunnel leading to another secret cell, where he retired to avoid unwelcomed visitors, because he loved the solitude and stillness. Here too Macarius was soon joined by a large number of disciples attracted by his holiness. They built simple cells of mud bricks, with palm-leaf or reed roofs. Not long time passed before hundreds then thousands arrived. In this community, the hermits remained in their cells all week in solitude, praying, reading the Scriptures and working manually. They gathered on Saturdays and Sundays for the Synaxis, or the Sunday Divine Liturgy, which began on the eve of Saturday evening, and to listen to the words of Abba Macarius.
During the Arian persecution, in 373, St. Macarius was deported along with Macarius of Alexandria, his disciple, on an island of the Nile Delta that was inhabited only by pagans. A powerful exorcism practiced by Abba Macarius on the daughter of the local pagan priest had the effect of the conversion of the entire village. Two years later, in 375, Abba Macarius managed to return to Scetis. Still today the monastery celebrates the feast of his return from the exile on 13th of Coptic month of Paremhat, corresponding to 22 March.
On 27 Paramhat (April 5th) of 390 Macarius the Pneumatophoros (the Spiritbearer) gave his spirit to the Lord. Shortly after his death, John Cassian already testified to the existence of four monastic nuclei that referred to his spiritual paternity and Palladius speaks of the presence of 2,400 monks. Macarius was buried in the cave where he had lived for more than thirty years, and this cell became the focal point of the community. His body became the priceless relic of the monastery. However, it was stolen by his fellow villagers of Ğiğbēr/Šabšīr and remained there for three centuries, inside a specially built martyrium, from 480 to 793, the year in which it was brought back to the monastery by the patriarch John IV (777-799). The body of St. Macarius the Great rests nowadays on the north side of the church that bears his name.
Some Virtues of Saint Macarius the Great
From his early youth, St. Macarius had shown profound wisdom for which he was called παιδαριογέρων, which means “the young who has the wisdom of an elder.” Endowed with a prophetic spirit, discernment, and profound humility, Macarius was also known as πνευματοφόρος or “bearer of the Holy Spirit.” Abba Poemen acclaimed of him:
Every time I met Abba Macarius I did not say a single word without his already having knowledge of it because he was a Spiritbearer and possessed a prophetic spirit, like Elijah and all the other prophets, for he was clothed with humility like a cloak through the power of the Paraclete who dwelt in him. He alone possessed foresight and was filled with the grace of God; the glory of the Lord shone on his face; the consolation of the Consoler, the Holy Spirit, which was with him, came down upon everyone sitting around him.
Macarius was a man capable of combining extreme austerity with a gentle sweetness in his life. He balanced being rigorous with himself, and yet merciful toward others to the extent of becoming a reflection of God’s mercy, so much so that he was called “a god on this earth.” We read in the alphabetic collection of the Desert Fathers’ sayings:
They said of Abba Macarius the Great that he became, as it is written, a god upon earth, because, just as God protects the world, so Abba Macarius would cover the faults which he saw, as though he did not see them; and those which he heard, as though he did not hear them.
As a man of sizeable humility, Macarius was capable of generous forgiveness. He knew how to comfort, teach wisely, and persuade people of all walks of life to draw near to Christ. His words were always “full of life and healing.” A saying about Macarius helps us to understand the necessity of humility in the spiritual life, which he fully embellished:
They used to say of Abba Macarius that, if a brother approached him timidly as a great and holy elder, he would not say anything to him. But if one of the brothers spoke to him as though he were putting him down: “Abba, when you were a camel-driver and you used to steal niter to sell it, did the guards not beat you?”―if somebody spoke to him like that, he would happily converse with him if he asked him anything.
Father Matthew the Poor comments on this saying about St. Macarius with these words:
Saint Macarius refused to put on the halo because of his works, asceticism or his function as superior. Instead, he insisted on behaving with the same qualities and spirituality with which he had started the monastic life; first with himself and second with his spiritual children. Plainly said, Saint Macarius liked, deep down, to continue to consider himself a layman, a camel driver who steals the natron, and could not stand that his spiritual children deceived him or praised him as better than any layman. It is as if he wanted to tell us, “all that is negative or weak in my life is mine, of Macarius. While all that is noble and exalted is from the Christ who lives in me. How can I take what belongs to Christ and attribute it to me, or how can I take for myself the honor that belongs to Christ?” This principle with which Macarius lived among his children helps us to better understand his personality―he was authentic without falsehood, and he did not like flattery. He lived his own reality in its most fragile condition without denying the past or being proud of the successes of the present; he did not impose respect on his children for his function as superior. Indeed, he did not accept that his talents were made available to his relationship with his spiritual children and his disciples but, in silence and extreme delicacy, he imposed on everyone that the dialogue and the relationship with them to be based on his weakness and not on his strength… Macarius imposed on his interlocutor to avoid any ceremoniousness towards him in order to erase from his soul any feeling of fear or awe so that Macarius could live, appear and speak with that simple and authentic way that he loved so much, like a simple camel driver traveling to his heavenly homeland.
We all know that other famous saying of St. Macarius:
Abba Macarius was once coming from the marsh to his own cell carrying reeds when the devil met him on the way, carrying a scythe; he wanted to strike him but could not. He said to him: “There is a great force about you Macarius, for I cannot get at you. See, whatever you do, I do it too. You fast, I do not eat at all; you keep watch, I do not ever sleep. There is only one thing in which you have the better of me.” “What is that?” Abba Macarius said to him, and he said: “Your humility; because of that I cannot get at you.”
St. Macarius was clothed with this divine humility that put the devil in check.
According to Father Matthew the Poor, simplicity and authenticity were typical characteristics of Macarius that allowed him to travel with a light heart to his heavenly homeland. Another saying illustrates the saint’s desire to live in simplicity:
Since Abba Macarius was benevolent in his relations with all the brothers, some folk said to him: “Why do you conduct yourself like this?” He said: “I served my Lord for twelve years so he would grant me this spiritual gift; are you all advising me to set it aside?”
Matthew the Poor comments on this apophthegm saying:
‘Simplicity’ here means humility. The brothers who asked him the question are of the type who like to deify their leaders. The grace Macarius speaks of is the grace of a humble soul. At first glance these words seem to us of little importance, concerning an event which in itself is negligible. In reality, Saint Macarius deliberately reveals to us here the profound dimension of his life hidden with God. He admits that for twelve years he has not stopped praying and fighting with God and with himself to cross the abyss of a pretended sobriety; the abyss of the purported respect that belongs to authority; the precipice of the ephemeral human glory that the monastic community, seduced, projects on the superior. For this he pleaded with God insistently that his life remains simple and humble in words and deeds so that he could spend all his monastic life as a beginner, with the same simplicity of spirit and the same humility, without making his monks perceive (and without the monks making him perceive) that he was better than others. From the story above it is evident how the scene of Macarius who speaks with his spiritual sons the monks aroused the sarcasm of some advanced monks who had fallen into the trap of respect, affected reverence and gravity as superior that he who is advanced in years or rank imposes on those who are inferior to him. These are things that a sick community can impose on its superior or whoever presides. But from Macarius’ resolute answer it is very clear that he was well aware of the smallness with which he lived, and that this smallness was susceptible to the blame and hilarity of these people who considered themselves great. The fact that he said openly that for twelve years he had prayed for him to live in such a small and simple way confirms that he considered this behavior as a model of life and the background against which he constantly moved. He had desired it and God had given it to him as charism.
For St. Macarius the monk and, even more so the spiritual father of monks, was called to live concretely in the relationship with the brothers according to the verse: “If your eye is simple, your whole body will be luminous” (Matt. 6:22).
Macarius, like so many other desert fathers, has often insisted on Christ’s commandment not to judge. It is written, “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Lk. 6:37). Abba Paphnutius, a disciple of Saint Macarius, once taught of his spiritual father:
I besought my father [Macarius], saying: “Tell me a saying!” but he said: “Do no evil to anybody and do not condemn anybody. Keep these [commandments] and you are being saved.”
“Not condemning” is considered, therefore, by Macarius on the same level as “not to cause harm to anyone.” For Macarius, judging is also linked to three other factors. First, that one usually judges perceiving to have known the whole truth, as can be seen from the story with Macarius the Alexandrian who dismissed two brothers who sinned. This, most of the time, is illusory. Hence why, in the saying in question, Macarius the Great reverses the condemnation issued by Macarius of Alexandria and dismisses the latter; in view, however, of a repentance, “because [Macarius the Great] loved him.”
Additionally, judging expresses a more or less hidden declaration of personal holiness. One considers oneself better than the others. Finally, often, mixed with judgment, there is anger or resentment towards a given person. Macarius warns that, even when a judgment may appear fair, it actually jeopardizes the salvation of those who judge because it can hide the satisfaction of a sin:
The same Abba Macarius said: “If you are moved to anger in reproving somebody, you [merely] satisfy your own passion. Do not go lose your own self in order to save others.”
Mercy: The Story of the Monk and the Jar
A famous saying, documented in the Copto-Arabic collection al-Bustān precisely to Macarius, and which is worth reporting in full, can illustrate the spirit with which Macarius lived his quality of “father of monks”:
In a cell there was a brother who had done a terrible thing. The news reached Father Macarius who did not want to rebuke him. When the brothers found out, they started, impatient, to spy on the brother until the woman entered his place. They told some brothers to continue spying on him while they went to tell Father Macarius. After reporting the fact to him, Saint Macarius said, “Brothers, do not believe this story. This brother of ours cannot do such a thing!” To which they replied: “Abba, come and see for yourself, so you will believe what we have told you.” The saint got up and went with them to the brother’s cell as if he was going to greet him, and commanded the brothers to move away from him a little. As soon as the brother realized that the abba [Macarius] was coming, he became unsettled and, trembling, he took the woman and hid her inside a large jar that was at his place. When the abba entered, he sat on the jar and commanded the brothers to enter. When they entered, they inspected the cell but found no one. Unable to lift the saint from the jar, they spoke with his brother and then [Macarius] commanded them to leave. Once out, the saint took the brother by the hand and said to him, “My brother, judge yourself before the others judge you, because the judgment belongs to God.” Then he took his leave and left him. As he went out, a voice came to him that said, “Blessed are you Macarius the Spiritual who made yourself like your Creator so that you, like him, cover the faults of others.” Subsequently, the brother, returned to himself and became a wise monk and wrestler, a brave hero.
Matthew the Poor comments on this passage comparing St. Macarius’s gesture to the that of Christ with the sinful woman, recorder in the Gospel of John:
In this passage we are faced with the incredible and unparalleled spiritual beauty of Saint Macarius. It is as if we were, once again, in the presence of Christ himself and the sinful woman, as witnesses of those words full of extraordinary divine sweetness that were pronounced from the mouth of Christ, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (Jn. 8:11). Saint Macarius, here, brothers, has reached the acme of the Gospel. He put on the image of Christ, or rather Christ himself, and similarly replicated before us the Christ’s reaction to the sinful woman. Indeed, we can say that the two episodes can be superimposed in such an extraordinary way that they go beyond the capabilities of human nature. What amazes me here, in the history of the monk, the woman and the jar, is Macarius’ extreme sensitivity towards what that monk caught in the act must have felt. Brothers, it is impossible for a father according to the flesh or even a spiritual father to behave in this same way. Such behavior comes only from those who have managed to love the human sinner soul of a divine love, as Christ alone knows how to love her. Saint Macarius saw a naked soul and for this reason he stripped himself of the habit of his role as father and superior and covered this soul that all his brothers wanted to pillory. Macarius saw a dangerously wounded human soul that the brothers wanted to bleed to death by inflicting the coup de grace—the public scandal. Macarius thus placed himself in the middle, endangering his dignity, his justice, his authorship and even his purity, to heal this wound under his protection and in his embrace. And the wound really closed, and that monk got up from his fall. It was as if God had covered him in honor of Macarius’ extraordinary delicacy. Macarius did not see sin but a soul in the image of God who was wounded. Sin, despite its monstrosity, has failed to affect Macarius’ extraordinary sweetness in relating to the human soul, even when she is in a terrible situation as in this case.
This image that the Copto-Arabic tradition conveys is just wonderful—“Once they left, the saint took his brother’s hand… ‘My brother…’.” Macarius only cares about his brother’s salvation. Not sin, not chatter, not the risk of jeopardizing his figure as superior before the most severe and zealous brothers. He takes his brother by the hand, to raise him up, like an alter Christus who descends into existential hell and takes the fallen Adam by the hand.
Monk in the Making
St. Macarius considered himself a monk in the making, still on his way. We read in the Great Letter of Macarius:
And even though before God they are honored, still they see themselves as unworthy, and though they progress spiritually they see themselves as beginners, and though they are great, still they despise themselves and consider themselves as nothing … Such souls will be able to please God and to become heirs of the Kingdom. Having a contrite heart, being poor in spirit and always hungry and thirsty for justice, and longing for perfect honors, they will be rewarded with the highest gifts for their distinguished love towards God.
There is another story about Macarius that is worth narrating. After being tempted for five years by the thought of going into the inner desert to see who lived there, Abba Macarius understood that the thought came from God. When he went to the inner desert, he found two naked monks who lived in total renunciation of the world and in a deep asceticism. Saint Macarius was so impressed by the meeting with these two anchorites that, when he narrated the episode to the brothers, he introduced and ended the story with the phrase:
I have not yet become a monk… I have however seen monks.
Abba Macarius, Scetis’s father, the father of an enormous community of monks, believed he was still in the making and saw being a monk as a goal that must always be reached and a starting point.
He was thinking to himself, as was his custom, about his passing away and his meeting God and the judgment that would be passed against him at that time.
Macarius was all projected towards the true homeland which is in the heavens, the heavenly Jerusalem. This was his secret which guided his earthly life.
Finally, one last beautiful story attributed to St. Macarius which highlights the delicacy of this father of the desert.
Abba Peter used to say of the holy Macarius that one day he came across an anchorite and found him distressed. He asked him what he would like to eat, for there was nothing in the cell. When he said, “a cookie,” the strong man did not hesitate to get himself to the city of Alexandria and give [it] to the patient. The wonder became known to nobody. 
Two preliminary notes. First of all, the episode was certainly wonderful, extraordinary becuase ‘the’ Abba of the desert, the father of Scetis (and not ‘an’ Abba), goes to Alexandria to take a cookie for an anchorite, or rather that cookie that he liked! Furthermore, the saying defines Macarius, for the simple fact of having made that gesture, “the strong man.” ‘Strong,’ here, is certainly to be understood as ‘strong in love,’ in possession of a love so great as to push him to make a day trip and more to satisfy his brother. The purpose seems obvious—Macarius cared for the joy of others, and he did not miss this opportunity to make his sick brother rejoice. Macarius, who, when offered a glass of wine, deprived himself of water for a whole day!
The fact that this episode “became known to nobody” is, of course, less obvious, since the whole world now knows it! Perhaps it is necessary to read between the lines and understand that Macarius made other similar gestures of which, however, we know nothing.
The Shining Lamp
St. Macarius was a luminous man. His face shone with such remarkable grace that many Fathers called him a “shining lamp”. Even today in the morning prayers we address him as the “lamp of monasticism, luminary of gold that illuminates more than the sun.” The author of the History of the Patriarchs tied this nickname to the Monastery of St. Macarius that he called “the monastery of the luminous father Abū Maqār, the koinonia of the monks, the place of high wisdom and unceasing prayer, night and day.”