Macarius the Great, also called Macarius the Egyptian (to distinguish him from Macarius of Alexandria) is one of the most venerated saints of the Coptic Church (his name, which means “blessed,” in Greek is “Makarios,” in Arabic “Maqar”). He was born around the year 300 in Jijber (present-day Shabshir), a village in the southwest portion of the Nile delta and, therefore, was a child during the Great Persecution (306 -311) and a teenager when Constantine promulgated the Edict of Toleration in 313. As a young man he was a camel driver; as part of his job as a gatherer of natron, he may have visited the Wadi al-Natrun, his future monastic home. Still a young man, he became a village ascetic or anchorite, like Saint Antony and others before him.
About 330 Macarius went to the Wadi al-Natrun (Scetis), southwest of the Nile delta, about the same time that Amoun was founding a monastic settlement just to the north in Nitria. Settling eventually near the site of the present day monastery named in his honor, Deir Anba Maqar, Macarius at first lived alone: “When Abba Macarius dwelt in the great desert, he was the only one living as an anchorite, but lower down there was another desert where several brothers dwelt.” Soon, however, he began to attract disciples and a small community formed around him. By 340 a growing monastic settlement was solidly in place in Scetis; a mere sixteen years later, Abba Sisoes would leave Scetis for remoter regions, complaining that it was now too crowded. Little more, however, is known for sure of either Macarius or his community at this time. Macarius apparently was made a priest ten years after coming to the Wadi alNatrun. He was deported during the Arian persecution in 374 to an island in the delta, returned some time later to Scetis, and died about 390. As with other monastic saints, his body underwent numerous adventures and movings about, coming to rest finally at Deir Anba Maqar, where it is venerated today.
Macarius came to preside, in a loose manner, over the monks of Scetis. These monks were semi-anchoritic; that is, they lived alone or in small groups in scattered cells, and came together as a larger community usually only on Saturday and Sunday, when they celebrated the Eucharist together and participated in a communal meal. We should not impose later structures, either architectural or monastic, on these monks: the monastic enclosure, with its high defensive walls, would not be the rule until the ninth century, and the rules and regulations of medieval, Benedictine, monasticism, much less the ways of modern orders, were unknown to them. The best way to understand these early monks, in any case, is not historically, but spiritually, through their thought and practices; the Sayings of the desert fathers and mothers offer the best access to their world.
At their best, the early monks simplified the spiritual life to work and prayer, and erected no boundaries between these two, seeing them as integral parts of life in God. In the same way, they numbered their spiritual precepts as two or three and not in the thousands: “Do no evil to anyone and do not judge anyone. Observe this and you will be saved,’ offered Macarius. Macarius taught that prayer did not require “long discourses; 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!'” The monk was to become “a dead man.” When a brother asked Macarius how to be saved, he told the monk to go to the cemetery and insult the dead; when the brother reported that he had done as he was told, Macarius then told him to go praise the dead. When the monk returned again, Macarius asked him, “Did they answer you?” When the monk said no, Macarius drove home his point: “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.”
Such advice as Macarius gave to that monk might seem unrealistic to us today, but it is unrealistic in precisely the way that the Sermon on the Mount is “unrealistic”: that is, it challenges us so profoundly that our usual defense is to dismiss it. In the same way, Macarius’s actions are impossible, just as Jesus’ are impossible. But Macarius, like Jesus, was known for his wonderworking: “The Egyptian had acquired such a reputation that he always had a disciple with him to receive ‘clients’ ‘on account of the number of those who came to be healed by him.'” One day Macarius discovered a man plundering his goods, “so he came up to the thief as if he was a stranger and he helped him to load the animal. He saw him off in great peace of soul.” Strange? Yes. But less strange, perhaps, than someone today watching, with fear and trembling, as the stock market plummets five hundred points one day and rockets up three hundred the next, and calling such a life “normal.”
It is worth noting that Macarius assists his thieves while quoting scripture: “We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Tim 6:7). As a Baptist preacher once told me, “The hearse don’t have no U-Haul following’ behind it.” Macarius, it seems, tried to live (or die) this understanding each day. Such detachment, ancient monasticism shows again and again, can lead to real peace. One time when Macarius visited Antony, the two stayed up all night praying and plaiting rope; in the morning, the rope that Macarius was making trailed all the way out the window and down into the cave. Antony admired its length and exclaimed, “Great power comes from these hands!” Macarius, and the other monks of the desert, still have the power to offer us insight about being human.
Another time a demon approached Abba Macarius with a knife and wanted to cut his foot. But because of his [Macarius’s] humility he could not do so, and he said to Macarius, “All that you have, we have also; yon are distinguished from us only by humility; by that yon get the better of us.”