We continue with our provision of spiritual readings for the present Great Fast, which many faithful across our Diocese and indeed the world find themselves spending in increasingly housebound circumstances on account of the epidemic. God always provides good even in the most challenging of circumstances: rather than face the social restrictions on movement and activities solely as a loss of normal productivity, let us consider these circumstances as the provision of more time for spiritual nourishment, prayer and ‘life in the cell’ which is the home of prayer and the vision of God.
Today we offer a selection of ‘sayings’ from Abba Macarius the Great of Egypt, one of the greatest of the Desert Fathers. Born c. AD 300, he became one of the great founders of the desert monastic habitation called Scetis. St Anthony the Great, Bishop of Alexandria, visited him in the desert at least twice as these fathers shared their respect for one another. St Macarius’ sayings have been tremendously influential in the Orthodox spiritual heritage, and in this present Lenten period they contain much to inspire the virtues that lead us towards Holy Pascha.
Abba Macarius the Great
One day Macarius the Egyptian went from Scetis to the mountain of Nitria for the offering of Abba Pambo. The old men said to him, ‘Father, say a word to the brethren.’ He said, ‘I have not yet become a monk myself, but I have seen monks. One day when I was sitting in my cell, my thoughts were troubling me, suggesting that I should go to the desert and see what I could see there. I remained for five years, fighting against this thought, saying, perhaps it comes from the demons. But since the thought persisted, I left for the desert. There I found a sheet of water and an island in the midst, and the animals of the desert came to drink there. In the midst of these animals I saw two naked men, and my body trembled, for I believed they were spirits. Seeing me shaking, they said to me, “Do not be afraid, for we are men.” Then I said to them, “Where do you come from, and how did you come to this desert?” They said, “We come from a monastery and having agreed together, we came here forty years ago. One of us is an Egyptian and the other a Libyan.” They questioned me and asked me, “How is the world? Is the water rising in due time? Is the world enjoying prosperity?” I replied it was, then I asked them, “How can I become a monk?” They said to me, “If you do not give up all that is in the world, you cannot become a monk.” I said to them, “But I am weak, and I cannot do as you do.” So they said to me: “If you cannot become like us, sit in your cell and weep for your sins.” I asked them, “When the winter comes are you not frozen? And when the heat comes do not your bodies burn?” They said, “It is God who has made this way of life for us. We do not freeze in winter, and the summer does us no harm.” That is why I said that I have not yet become a monk, but I have seen monks.’
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. The old man was surveying the road when he saw Satan drawing near in the likeness of a man and he passed by his dwelling. He seemed to be wearing some kind of cotton garment, full of holes, and a small flask hung at each hole. The old man said to him, ‘Where are you off to? ‘He said, ‘I am going to stir up the memories of the brethren.’ The old man said, ‘And what is the purpose of these small flasks?’ He replied, ‘I am taking food for the brethren to taste.’ The old man said, ‘All those kinds?’ He replied, ‘Yes, for if a brother does not like one sort of food, I offer him another, and if he does not like the second any better, I offer him a third; and of all these varieties he will like one at least. With these words he departed. The old man remained watching the road until he saw him coming back again. When the old man saw him, he said to him: ‘Good health to you.’ The other replied: ‘How can I be in good health?’ The old man asked him what he meant, and he replied, ‘Because they all opposed me, and no one received me.’ The old man said, ‘Ah, you did not find any friends down there?’ He replied, ‘Yes, I have a monk who is a friend down there. He at least obeys me and when he sees me he changes like the wind.’
The old man asked him the name of this monk. ‘Theopemtus,’ he replied. With these words he went away. Then Abba Macarius got up and went to the desert below his own. When they heard of it the brothers took branches of palm to go to meet him. Each one got ready, thinking that it was to him the old man was coming down. But he enquired which was the one on the mountain called Theopemptus, and when he had found out he went to his cell. Theopemptus received him with joy. When he was alone with him the old man 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.’ The old man went on admitting that other thoughts still warred against him, until he had brought him to admit them about himself. Then he said, ‘How do you fast?’ He replied, ‘Till the ninth hour.’ ‘Practise 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.’ When he had given the brother this rule, the old man then returned to his solitude. He was watching the road once more when he saw the devil, to whom he said, ‘Where are you going this time?’ He replied, ‘To arouse the memories of the brothers,’ and he went away. When he came back the saint asked him, ‘How are the brothers? ‘He replied that it had gone badly. The old man asked him why. He replied, ‘They are all obdurate, and the worst is the one friend I had who used to obey me. I do not know what has changed him, but not only does he not obey me any more, but he has become the most obdurate of them all. So I have promised myself not to go down there again at least not for a long time from now.’ When he had said this, he went away leaving the old man, and the saint returned to his cell.
One day Abba Macarius the Great came to Abba Anthony’s dwelling on the mountain. When he knocked on the door, Anthony came out to him and said to him, ‘Who are you?’ He replied, ‘I am Macarius.’ Then Anthony went inside and shut the door, leaving him there. Later, seeing his patience, he opened the door and received Macarius with joy, saying to him, ‘I have wanted to see you for a long time, having heard about you.’ He rendered him all the duties of hospitality and made him rest for he was very tired. When evening came, Abba Anthony soaked some palm leaves for himself, and Abba Macarius said to him, ‘Allow me to soak some for myself.’ He replied: ‘Do so.’ Having made a large bundle, he soaked them. Then sitting down in the evening they spoke of the salvation of the soul, while they plaited the leaves. The rope which Macarius was making hung down through the window in the cave. Going in early, blessed Anthony saw the length of Abba Macarius’ rope and said, ‘Great power comes out of these hands.’
Wishing to comfort the brethren, he said, ‘A mother came here with her little child, possessed with a devil, who said to his mother, “Get up, woman, let us go away from here.” She replied, “I cannot walk any further,” and the little child said to her, “I will carry you myself.” I wondered at the devil’s tricks and how eager he was to make them flee.’
Abba Sisoes said, ‘When I was at Scetis with Macarius, we went up, seven of us, to bring in the harvest. Now a widow cried out behind us and would not stop weeping. So the old man called the owner of the field and said to him, “What is the matter with the woman that she goes on weeping?” “It is because her husband received a deposit in trust from someone and he died suddenly without saying where he had hidden it, and. the owner of the deposit wants to take her and her children and make slaves of them.” The old man said to him, “Tell her to come to us, when we take our midday rest.” The woman came, and the old man said to her, “Why are you weeping all the time like this?” She replied, “My husband who had received a deposit on trust from someone, has died and he did not say when he died, where he had put it.” The old man said to her, “Come, show me where you have buried him.” Taking the brethren with him, he went with her. When they had come to the place, the old man said to her, “Go away to your house.” While the brethren prayed, the old man asked the dead man, “So and so, where have you put the deposit?” The corpse replied, “It is hidden in the house, at the foot of the bed.” The old man said, “Rest again, until the day of resurrection.” When they saw this, the brethren were filled with fear and threw themselves at his feet. But the old man said to them, “It is not for my sake that this has happened, for I am nothing, but it is because of the widow and the orphans that God has performed this miracle. This is what is remarkable, that God wants the soul to be without sin and grants it all it asks.” He went to tell the widow where the deposit was. Taking it, she returned it to its owner and thus freed her children. All who heard this story gave glory to God.’
He also said that when Abba Macarius received all the brethren in simplicity, some of them asked him why he mixed with them like this. He replied, ‘For twelve years I served the Lord, so that he might grant me this gift, and do you all advise me to give it up?’
They said about Abba Macarius that when he visited the brethren he laid this rule upon himself, ‘If there is wine, drink some for the brethren’s sake, but for each cup of wine, spend a day without drinking water.’ So the brothers would offer him some refreshment, and the old man would accept it joyfully to mortify himself; but when his disciple got to know about it he said to the brethren, ‘In the name of God, do not offer him any more, or he will go and kill himself in his cell.’ When they heard that, the brethren did not offer him wine any more.
When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The latter struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, ‘What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.’ Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, ‘Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.’
One day Abba Macarius went up from Scetis to Terenuthis and went into the temple to sleep. Now there were some old coffins of the pagans there. Taking one, he put it under his head as a pillow. The devils, seeing his audacity, were filled with jealousy and to make him afraid they called out, as though addressing a woman, ‘So and so, come to bath with us.’ Another devil replied from beneath him, as though among the dead, ‘I have a stranger on top of me, and I cannot come.’ But the old man was not afraid. On the contrary, he knocked on the coffin with assurance, saying, ‘Awake, and go into the darkness, if you can.’ Hearing this, the devils began to cry out with all their might, ‘You have overcome us. ‘Filled with confusion, they fled.
It was said of Abba Macarius the Egyptian that one day 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.
A man of Egypt had a paralytic son. He brought him to the cell of Abba Macarius, and put him down at the door weeping and went a good distance away. The old man stooped down and saw the child, and said to him, ‘Who brought you here? ‘He replied, ‘My father threw me down here and went away.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘Get up, and go back to him.’ The child was cured on the spot; he got up and rejoined his father and they returned to their own home.
Abba Macarius the Great said to the brothers at Scetis, when he dismissed the assembly, ‘Flee, my brothers.’ One of the old men asked him, ‘Where could we flee to beyond this desert?’ He put his finger on his lips and said, ‘Flee that,’ and he went into his cell, shut the door and sat down.
The same Abba Macarius said, ‘If you reprove someone, you yourself get carried away by anger and you are satisfying your own passion; do not lose yourself, therefore, in order to save another.’
The same Abba Macarius while he was in Egypt discovered a man who owned a beast of burden engaged in plundering Macarius’ 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, saying, ‘We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world’ (1Timothy 6.7). ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job).
Abba Macarius was asked, ‘How should one pray?’ The old man said, ‘There is no need at all to make 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!” He knows very well what we need and he shows us his mercy.’
Abba Macarius said, ‘If slander has become to you the same as praise, poverty as riches, deprivation as abundance, you will not die. Indeed it is impossible for anyone who firmly believes, who labours with devotion, to fall into the impurity of the passions and be led astray by the demons.’
A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’ So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’ The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’ He replied, ‘No.’ The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, ‘Apostles, saints and righteous men.’ He returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them’. And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’ The brother said no. The old man said to him, ‘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.’
One day when Abba Macarius was going down to Egypt with some brethren, he heard a boy saying to his mother, ‘Mother, there is a rich man who likes me, but I detest him; and on the other hand, there is a poor man who hates me, and I love him.’ Hearing these words, Abba Macarius marvelled. So the brethren said to him: ‘What is this saying, Abba, that makes you marvel? ‘The old man said to them, ‘Truly, our Lord is rich and loves us, and we do not listen to him; while our enemy the devil is poor and hates us, but we love his impurity.’