Baring-Gould’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Macarius of Egypt, Abbot

woodcut of Saint Macarius of Egypt, image courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory UniversityArticle

(A.D. 391)

[Not to be confounded with Saint Macarius of Alexandria (January 2nd). This Macarius is commemorated by the Greeks on January 19th; by the Roman later Martyrology on January 15th, but in earlier ones on the same day as the other Macarius, January 2nd. Authorities for his life are Palladius, in his History Lausiaca, a thoroughly trustworthy contemporary, Ruffinus, Sozomen, Socrates, Cassian, etc.]

Saint Macarius the Elder was born in Upper Egypt, about the year 300, and was brought up in the country to attend cattle. In his childhood, in company with some others, he stole some figs and ate one of them; but from his conversion to his death, he never ceased bewailing this offence. By a powerful call of divine grace, he was led to desert the world in his youth, and to take up his abode in a little cell made of mats. A wicked woman falsely accused him of having deflowered her; for which supposed crime he was dragged through the streets, beaten and insulted, as a base hypocrite under the garb of a monk. He suffered all with patience, and sent the woman what he earned by his work, saying to himself, “Well, Macarius, having now another to provide for, you must work all the harder.” But the woman, in the anguish of her travail, confessed that she had maligned him, and told the real name of her seducer. Then the people regarded him as a Saint, whom lately they would have slain. To shun the esteem of men he fled into the desert of Scete, being then about thirty years of age. In this solitude he lived sixty years, and became the spiritual father of innumerable holy persons, who put themselves under his direction, and were governed by the rules he prescribed them; but all dwelt in separate hermitages. Saint Macarius admitted only one disciple with him to entertain strangers.

He was compelled by an Egyptian bishop to receive the order of priesthood, about the year 340, the fortieth of his age, that he might celebrate the Divine Mysteries for the convenience of his holy colony. When the desert became better peopled, there were four: churches built in it, served by as many priests. The austerities of Saint Macarius were very severe. He usually ate but once a week. Evagrius, his disciple, once asked him leave to drink a little water, under a parching thirst: but Macarius bade him be satisfied with reposing a little in the shade, saying, “For these twenty years I have never eaten, drunk, nor slept as much as nature demanded.” To deny his own will, he did not refuse to drink a little wine, when others desired him; but he would punish himself for this indulgence by abstaining two or three days from all manner of drink; and it was for this reason that his disciples desired strangers never to tender him a drop of wine. He delivered his instructions in few words, and principally inculcated silence, humility, mortification and continual prayer, to all sorts of people. He used to say, “In prayer you need not use many or grand words. You can always repeat. Lord, show me mercy as Thou knowest best; or, Assist me, O Lord!”

His mildness and patience were invincible, and occasioned the conversion of a heathen priest. A young man applying to Saint Macarius for spiritual advice, he directed him to go to a burying place and upbraid the dead; and after that to go and flatter them. “Well,” said Macarius, when the young man returned, “How did the dead receive thy abuse of them.”

“They answered not a word,” he replied.

“And how did they behave when flattered?”

“They took no notice of that either.”

“Go,” said Macarius, “and do thou likewise.”

A monk complained to Macarius that he could fast in the monastery, but not in solitude. “Ah!” said the abbot, “thou likest to have people see that thou art fasting. Beware of vainglory.”

God revealed to Macarius that two women in the nearest city excelled him in virtue, in spite of all his fasting, and tears, and prayer. He took his staff, and left the desert, and went in quest of them, and lo! they were two homely married women, of whom no one talked, but who were extremely careful not to say spiteful things of their neighbours, who had not the smallest idea that they were saints, and who laboured night and day to make home pleasant to their husbands and children.

Lucius, the Arian usurper of the see of Alexandria, who had expelled Peter, the successor of Saint Athanasius, in 376, sent troops into the deserts, to disperse the zealous monks, several of whom sealed their faith with their blood. The chiefs, the two Macarii, Isidore, Pambo, and others, were banished, by the authority of the Emperor Valens, to a little isle of Egypt, in the midst of stagnant marshes. The inhabitants, who were pagans, were all converted to the faith by these confessors. The public indignation obliged Lucius to suffer them to return to their cells.

The Church of God flashes forth some peculiar type of sanctity at one time, and then another. It is like a rain-drop in the sun, blazing now crimson, now green, now yellow, now blue. As there is need, God calls up an army of Saints, exactly adapted to meet the difficulties of the times, to uphold the truth, and form, as it were, a prop to stay up his tottering Church. Now it is the martyrs, who by their constancy conquer the infidels, now it is these hermits of the Syrian and Egyptian deserts, against whose orthodoxy Arianism breaks and crumbles to powder. Humanly speaking, these hermits saved the doctrine of the Godhead of Christ from being denied, and disappearing from the creed of the Church. An age like the present, so like the condition of the Roman world in its highest civilization, when pleasure and self-mil are the sole things sought, and when Arianism is in power in high places, and the learned and polished, admitting the excellency of Christianity in general, allow to Christ only the place of a founder of a school of religious thought – such an age as this seems one meet for the revival of the hermit life as a witness for the truth, and a protest against luxury. This, and this only, as far as we can judge, will meet the great want of the day; it is not preaching that will recover the multitude lapsed into religious indifference; it must be the example of men, believing with such a fiery faith, that they sacrifice everything the world holds precious, for the sake of the truth that Jesus Christ, the ever-lasting God, came in the Flesh.

Nothing in the wonderful history of the hermits of Egypt is so incredible as their number. But the most weighty authorities agree in establishing it. It was a kind of emigration of towns to the desert, of civilization to simplicity, of noise to silence, of corruption to innocence. The current once begun, floods of men, of women, and of children threw themselves into it, and flowed thither during a century, with resistless force. Let us quote some figures. Pachomius, who died at fifty-six, reckoned three thousand monks under his rule; his monasteries of Tabenna soon included seven thousand, and Saint Jerome affirms that as many as fifty thousand were present at the annual gathering of the general congregation of monasteries which followed his rule.

There were five thousand on the mountain of Nitria alone. Nothing was more frequent than to see two hundred, three hundred, or five hundred monks under the same abbot. Near Arsinoe (now Suez), the abbot Serapion governed ten thousand, who, in the harvest time, spread themselves over the country to cut the com, and thus gained the means of living and giving alms. It has even been asserted that there were as many monks in the deserts of Egypt as inhabitants in the towns. The towns themselves were, so to speak, inundated by them, since in 356, a traveller found in the single town of Oxyrynchus (Abou Girge) upon the Nile, ten thousand monks and twenty thousand virgins consecrated to God. The immense majority of these religious were cenobites, that is to say, they lived in the same enclosure, and were united by common rule and practice under an elected head, whom they everywhere called abbot, from the Syriac word abba, which means father. The cenobitical life superseded rapidly, and almost completely, the life of solitaries. Scarcely any man became a solitary until after having been a cenobite, and in order to meditate upon God during the last years of his life. Custom has, therefore, given the title of monks to cenobites alone.

Ambitious at once of reducing to subjection their rebellious flesh, and of penetrating the secrets of the celestial light, these cenobites united the active with the contemplative life. The various and incessant labours which filled up their days are known. In the great frescoes of the cemetery of Pisa, they appear in their coarse black or brown dresses, a cowl upon their shoulders, occupied in digging up the soil, in cutting down trees, in fishing in the Nile, in milking the goats, in gathering the dates which served them for food, in plaiting the mats on which they were to die. Others are absorbed in reading or meditating on the Holy Scriptures. Thus a Saint has said that the cells united in the desert were like a hive of bees. There each had in his hands the wax of labour, and in his mouth the honey of psalms and prayers. The days were divided between prayer and work. The work was divided between field labour and the exercise of various trades. There were among these monks entire colonies of weavers, of carpenters, of curriers, of tailors, and of fullers. All the rules of the patriarchs of the desert made labour obligatory, and the example of their holy lives gave authority to the rule. When Macarius of Egypt came to visit the great Antony, they immediately set to work on their mats together, conferring thus upon things important to souls; and Antony was so edified by the zeal of the priest, that he kissed his hands, saying, “What virtues proceed from these hands!”

Each monastery was then a great school of labour; it was also, at the same time, a great school of charity. The monks practised charity not only among themselves, and with regard to the poor inhabitants of the neighbouring countries, but especially in the case of travellers whom the necessities of commerce called to the banks of the Nile, and of the numerous pilgrims, whom their increasing fame drew to the desert. A more generous hospitality had never been exercised, nor had the universal mercy, introduced by Christianity into the world, blossomed anywhere to such an extent. A thousand incidents in their history reveal the most tender solicitude for the miseries of the poor. The Xenodochium – that is, the asylum for the poor and strangers – formed from that time a necessary appendix to every monastery. The most ingenious combinations, and the most gracious inspirations of charity are to be found in this history. A certain monastery served as an hospital for sick children; another was transformed by its founder into an hospital for lepers and cripples. “Behold,” said he, in shewing to the ladies of Alexandria the upper floor which was reserved for women, “behold my jacinths.” Then conducting them to the floor below, were the men were placed, “See my emeralds.”

They were hard only upon themselves. Under a burning sky, in a climate which has always seemed the cause, or the excuse of vice, in a country given up at all times to every kind of luxury and depravity, there were thousands of men who, during two centuries, interdicted themselves from the very shadow of a sensual gratification, and made of the most rigorous mortification a rule as universal as a second nature.

It was their rule also to cultivate the mind by the study of sacred literature. The rule of Saint Pachomius made the reading of divers portions of the Bible a strict obligation. All the monks, besides, were required to be able to read and write. To qualify themselves for reading the Scriptures was the first duty imposed upon the novices.

When, towards evening, at the hour of vespers, after a day of stifling heat, all work ceased, and from the midst of the sands, from the depths of caverns, from pagan temples cleared of their idols, and from all the vast tombs of a people dead, now occupied by these men dead to the world, the cry of a living people rose to heaven; when everywhere, and all at once, the air vibrated with hymns, prayers, and the pious and solemn, tender and joyous songs of these champions of the soul and conquerors of the desert, who celebrated, in the language of David, the praises of the living God, the thanksgivings of the freed soul, and the homage of vanquished passions, – then the traveller, the pilgrim, and especially the new convert stood still, lost in emotion, and transported with the sounds of that sublime concert, cried aloud, “Behold, this is Paradise.”

“Go,” said the most eloquent doctor of the Church at that period; “go to the Thebaid; you mil find there a solitude still more beautiful than Paradise, a thousand choirs of angels under human form, nations of martyrs, armies of virgins, the diabolical tyrant chained, and Christ triumphant and glorified.”

MLA Citation

  • Sabine Baring-Gould. “Saint Macarius of Egypt, Abbot”. Lives of the Saints, 1897. CatholicSaints.Info. 14 January 2014. Web. 17 August 2017. <>