Sunday, June 10, 2012

Our Holy and God-Bearing Fathers: St. Makarios the Great

The Church has a devotion to those great men and women who went before them in the faith, teaching the Gospel fervently and helping others to deepen their living of the true Christian life.  In the Eastern Church, the title "our holy and God-bearing Fathers" is used for the great saints of the past.  In this series (which I will hopefully not give up on, as I have with some of my past series), I hope to introduce members of the Western Church to some of the great saints venerated in the Eastern Church and explain how powerful their memory is for the Eastern Church.  The first saint I will discuss is St. Makarios the Great.

St. Makarios (Macarius) the Great (295-392), also known as St. Makarios the Egyptian, St. Macarius the Spirit-Bearer, and the Lamp of the Desert, was a disciple of St. Anthony the Great, the first monastic.  His name means "blessed" in Greek, and it was chosen because his birth was such a blessing to his infertile parents, fittingly named Abraham and Sarah.  His father forced him to marry, but Makarios stalled the marriage by feigning sickness for a few days and then heading to the wilderness to relax.  In the wilderness, a Cherub led him up a high mountain and showed him the desert all around him, saying, "God has given this desert to you and your sons for an inheritance."  Upon returning from the wilderness, he learned his fiancee had died.  Soon afterwards, his parents also departed this life, and he gave away all his belongings to the poor.  The townspeople of Shabsheer, Egypt, where he lived, were astounded at his holiness, and they implored the bishop to ordain him.  St. Makarios was ordained and began to live in a small place outside the city built by the townspeople, where he helped attend to their spiritual needs.

Following a false accusation of unchastity, which St. Makarios did not deny but rather accepted the consequences of, he headed for Scetis, an area of Egypt where early monasticism flourished.  There he dwelt in the inner desert.  One day, he visited St. Anthony the Great, who lived nearby, and the latter bestowed the Great Schema (the highest degree of monastic tonsure) on St. Makarios.  Following this, he returned to the desert.  His holiness and monastic life attracted many men to follow his example, and a monastic community grew up around him, which built on the monastic foundations laid by Sts. Anthony the Great and Pachomius.  His community eventually became the present Coptic Orthodox Monastery of St. Makarios the Great.

In addition to his monastic life, St. Makarios also fought against Arianism, even being exiled for his support of the teachings of St. Athanasius.  After a miraculous exorcism performed by the saint, he was welcomed back from exile, returning to his monastic life.  St. Makarios passed over into eternal life in 392, at the age of 97.

 Coptic icon of St. Makarios with Sts. Maximos and Domadios

There are two main aspects to St. Makarios' legacy.  First, his influence on the development and spread of monasticism is memorable due to the high importance of monasticism for Eastern Christian spirituality.  Second, the writings attributed to him have been very influential for centuries.  One letter of his, known by the Latin title "Ad filios Dei," seems to quite possibly be a genuine letter of his.  The other writings of his, the Great Letter and the Fifty Spiritual Homilies, are usually now referred to as written by "Pseudo-Macarius," but that does not stop their immense influence.  Those beginning the monastic life often read the Spiritual Homilies (or their paraphrase by St. Symeon Metaphrastes, found in Volume III of the Philokalia) to help them become accustomed to the ascetic lifestyle and its spirituality.

"The heart is Christ's palace: there Christ the King comes to take His rest, with the Angels and the spirits of the Saints, and He dwells there, walking within it and placing His Kingdom there" (Homily XVI).

St. Makarios with a Cherub

Apart from his writings, some of his prayers are in frequent use among Eastern Christians, especially during morning and night prayers.  The prayers are often focused deeply on repentance and protection from temptation.  The following prayer is common for use before heading to bed:

"O Eternal God and King of all Creation, Who have granted me to arrive at this hour, forgive me the sins that I have committed today in thought, word, and deed, and cleanse, O Lord, my humble soul from all defilement of flesh and spirit.  And grant me, O Lord, to pass the sleep of this night in peace, that when I rise from my bed, I may please Your most Holy Name all the days of my life and conquer my flesh and the fleshless foes that war within me.  And deliver me, O Lord, from vain and frivolous thoughts and from evil desires which defile me.  For Yours is the Kingdom, the power and the glory of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever.  Amen."

Let us ask for the intercession of our holy and God-bearing Father St. Makarios the Great, that his prayers may help all monastics grow deeper in their angelic life, and that all of us may grow deeper in our deified life: St. Makarios the Great, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Information for this post comes from OrthodoxWiki and WikipediaThe quotes come from pages 569-570 and 57-58 of the Publican's Prayer Book by the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton.  The Great Letter and Spiritual Homilies attributed now to "Pseudo-Macarius" can be found in a volume of Paulist Press' Classics of Western Spirituality series.

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