Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Macarius the Elder, of Egypt

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

A.D. 390.

Saint Macarius the Elder, was born in Upper Egypt, about the year 300, and brought up in the country in tending cattle. In his childhood, in company with some others, he once stole a few figs, and eat one of them: but from his conversion to his death, he never ceased to weep bitterly for this sin. By a powerful call of divine grace, he retired from the world in his youth, and dwelling in a little cell in a village, made mats, in continual prayer and great austerities. A wicked woman falsely accused him of having defloured 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, thou must work the harder.” But God discovered his innocency; for the woman falling in labour, lay in extreme anguish, and could not be delivered till she had named the true father of her child. The people converted their rage into the greatest admiration of the humility and patience of the saint. To shun the esteem of men, he fled into the vast hideous desert of Scété, being then about thirty years of age. In this solitude he lived sixty years, and became the spiritual parent 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 this holy colony. When the desert became better peopled, there were four churches built in it, which were served by so many priests. The austerities of Saint Macarius were excessive; he usually eat but once a week. Evagrius, his disciple, once asked him leave to drink a little water, under a parching thirst; but Macarius bade him to content himself with reposing a little in the shade, saying: “For these twenty years, I have never once eat, drank, or slept, as much as nature required.” His face was very pale, and his body weak and parched up. To deny his own will, he did not refuse to drink a little wine when others desired him; but then 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 disciple desired strangers never to tender unto him a drop of wine. He delivered his instructions in few words, and principally inculcated silence, humility, mortification, retirement, and continual prayer, especially the last, to all sorts of people. He used to say, “In prayer, you need not use many or lofty words. You can often repeat with a sincere heart, Lord, show me mercy as thou knowest best. Or, assist me, O God.” He was much delighted with this ejaculation of perfect resignation and love: “O Lord, have mercy on me, as thou pleasest, and knowest best in thy goodness!” His mildness and patience were invincible, and occasioned the conversion of an heathen priest, and many others. The devil told him one day, “I can surpass thee in watching, fasting, and many other things; but humility conquers and disarms me.” 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 to go and flatter them. When he came back, the saint asked him, what answer the dead had made: “None at all,” said the other, “either to reproaches or praises.” “Then,” replied Macarius, “go, and learn neither to be moved with injuries nor flatteries. If you die to the world and to yourself, you will begin to live to Christ.” He said to another: “Receive, from the hand of God, poverty as cheerfully as riches, hunger and want as plenty, and you will conquer the devil, and subdue all your passions.” A certain monk complained to him, that in solitude, he was always tempted to break his fast, whereas in the monastery, he could fast the whole week cheerfully. “Vain-glory is the reason,” replied the saint, “fasting pleases, when men see you; but seems intolerable when that passion is not gratified.” One came to consult him who was molested with temptations to impurity: the saint examining into the source, found it to be sloth, and advised him never to eat before sunset, to meditate fervently at his work, and to labour vigorously, without sloth, the whole day. The other faithfully complied, and was freed from his enemy. God revealed to Saint Macarius, that he had not attained the perfection of two married women, who lived in a certain town: he made them a visit, and learned the means by which they sanctified themselves. They were extremely careful never to speak any idle or rash words; they lived in the constant practice of humility, patience, meekness, charity, resignation, mortification of their own will, and conformity to the humours of their husbands and others, where the divine law did not interpose: in a spirit of recollection they sanctified all their actions by ardent ejaculations, by which they strove to praise God, and most fervently to consecrate to the divine glory all the powers of their soul and body.

A subtle heretic of the sect of the Hieracites, called so from Hierax, who in the reign of Dioclesian denied the resurrection of the dead, had, by his sophisms, caused some to stagger in their faith. Saint Macarius, to confirm them in the truth, raised a dead man to life, as Socrates, Sozomen, Palladius, and Rufinus relate. Cassian says, that he only made a dead corpse to speak for that purpose; then bade it rest till the resurrection. Lucius, the Arian usurper of the see of Alexandria, who had expelled Peter, the successor of Saint Athanasius, in 376 sent troops into the desert to disperse the zealous monks several of whom sealed their faith with their blood: the chiefs, namely, the two Macariuses, Isidore, Pambo, and some others, by the authority of the Emperor Valens, were banished into a little isle of Egypt, surrounded with great marshes. The inhabitants, who were Pagans, were all converted to the faith by the confessors. The public indignation of the whole empire, obliged Lucius to suffer them to return to their cells. Our saint, knowing that his end drew near made a visit to the monks of Nitria, and exhorted them to compunction and tears so pathetically, that they all fell weeping at his feet. “Let us weep, brethren,” said he, “and let our eyes pour forth floods of tears before we go hence, lest we fall into that place where tears will only increase the flames in which we shall burn.” He went to receive the reward of his labours in the year 390, and of his age the ninetieth, having spent sixty years in the desert of Scété.

He seems to have been the first anchoret who inhabited this vast wilderness; and this Cassian affirms. Some style him a disciple of Saint Antony; but that quality rather suits Saint Macarius of Alexandria; for, by the history of our saint’s life, it appears that he could not have lived under the direction of Saint Antony before he retired into the desert of Scété. But he afterwards paid a visit, if not several, to that holy patriarch of monks, whose dwelling was fifteen days’ journey distant. This glorious saint is honoured in the Roman Martyrology on the 15th of January; in the Greek Menæa on the 19th. An ancient monastic rule, and an epistle addressed to monks, written in sentences, like the book of Proverbs, are ascribed to Saint Macarius. Tillemont thinks them more probably the works of Saint Macarius of Alexandria, who had under his inspection at Nitria five thousand monks. Gennadius says, that Saint Macarius wrote nothing but this letter. This may be understood of Saint Macarius of Alexandria, though one who wrote in Gaul might not have seen all the works of an author, whose country was so remote, and language different. Fifty spiritual homilies are ascribed, in the first edition, and in some manuscripts, to Saint Macarius of Egypt; yet F. Possin thinks they rather belong to Macarius of Pispir, who attended Saint Antony at his death, and seems to have been some years older than the two great Macariuses, though some have thought him the same with the Alexandrian.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Macarius the Elder, of Egypt”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 17 January 2013. Web. 24 April 2014. <>