The Communion of Saints: St. Macarius

Coptic Icon of St. Macarius
Coptic Icon of St. Macarius

As we’ve seen, this movement by St. Anthony and the monks had been very influential, and soon, a large number of men and women sought to imitate his life of simplicity and prayer. One of these men was St. Macarius of Egypt.

St. Macarius was born in Upper Egypt around 300 AD, and he would have been around 13 years old when St. Anthony retreated to the desert. He made his living as a smuggler of saltpeter, also known as niter in Egypt, which is where the Nitrian Desert gets its name. Saltpeter was used for many different things in the ancient world – for preservation, as a form of soap, and for various other health remedies.

As requested by his parents, he married, but shortly after the wedding, his wife passed away. Not long after that, his parents died as well, leaving Macarius completely alone. It was at this point that he decided to change his life, so he sold his inheritance and journeyed to the desert outside his town, where he studied under an anonymous hermit living just outside the city. Macarius learned the spiritual disciplines from this monk, as well as the spiritual merits of a life of fasting, prayer, and asceticism. He even learned the art of basket weaving (because why not?) in order to make some money to buy food and give to the poor. Not all of us can have ravens bring loaves of bread like St. Paul the Hermit, right?

St. Macarius became very highly regarded for his virtue, and the people of his village recommended him for ordination to the priesthood. But of course, with fame also come a lot of enemies. As he was ministering to his people in the village as a priest, a pregnant woman accused him of breaking his vows and committing adultery. Out of humility, Macarius refused to defend himself, and quickly became a hated man. When the woman’s pregnancy became difficult, however, she recognized that she had done wrong and confessed his innocence. When people came to Macarius to ask his forgiveness for their mistreatment of him, he fled into the desert to avoid the temptation to vanity.

St. Macarius spent the rest of his life in the desert, but this time, he did so presiding over a community of other monks. To give themselves a home, he and the monks built a huge monastery, which still exists today. The Monastery of St. Macarius the Great has been continually inhabited by monks since the 300’s, and is still operational today! People used to call Macarius “the glowing lantern” because he was radiant with the joy of a life with Christ, but this name was eventually transferred to the monastery, which has become known as “the glowing lantern in the wilderness.” So the next time you take a vacation to the Nitrian Desert of Egypt, be sure to stop by the monastery!


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