Chapter XXIX (continued). Macarius of Alexandria, Book II
The place where Macarius himself lived, however, is called Scythia, situated in a vast empty desert, a night and a day's journey from the monasteries of Nitria. There is no marked road to it, no landmarks or other earthly signs to be noted as pointing to it, you can only travel there by the stars in their courses. You find water only rarely, and when you do it has rather a bitter smell, somewhat bituminous, although safe to drink. There are men there who have been brought to a high stage of perfection (for those living there could not endure such a terrible place unless their way of life were perfect and they had great perseverance). They practise great charity among themselves and show the greatest consideration towards everyone who manages to visit them.
It is said that Macarius was once given a bunch of grapes, and "seeking not his own but that which is another's" (1 Cor.10.24), he gave them out of charity to another brother who he thought was somewhat infirm. This brother gave thanks to God for this brotherly kindness, and thinking no less of his neighbour than of himself gave them to someone else, and this person again to another, and thus the bunch of grapes was handed on throughout all the cells which were scattered at great distances from each other through the desert, with no one any the wiser about who had first sent them. In the end they came back to the sender, and Macarius gave great thanks that he had been a witness of such restraint and charity among the brothers, and increased in severity the practices of his own spiritual life.
The following story, which they had heard from his own mouth, further strengthened our belief in him. A demon beat on the door of his cell one night, saying, "Get up, Macarius, and let us go to the meeting (collecta) where the brothers are gathered together for vigils."
"Liar and enemy of truth!" said Macarius, who was too full of the grace of God to be deceived, and who knew the devil was lying. "What fellowship and companionship do you have with the meetings and gatherings of the saints?"
"Didn't you know, Macarius," he replied, "that no meeting or gathering of monks goes on without us? Come with me, and you will see what we do."
"The Lord rebuke thee (Jude 9), you unclean sprit," he said, and turning to prayer he begged the Lord to show him whether what the devil was boasting about was true.
He then went to the meeting where the brothers were celebrating vigils, and again in prayer he begged the Lord to show him the truth of the matter. And behold, throughout the whole church he saw little Ethiopian boys darting about hither and thither as if carried about on wings.
Now it is the custom in these services for all to sit while one person says a psalm, with the others listening, then joining together in a responsory. The little Ethiopian boys were tormenting those sitting down by pressing two fingers against their eyelids, whereupon they started dozing. By putting a finger in anyone's mouth they immediately made him yawn. When the brothers prostrated themselves for prayer after the psalm they did not cease running around each of them, appearing like a woman to one monk lying in prayer, like builders carrying things to another, or performing various other antics. And whatever shape the teasing demons took got mixed up with the thoughts in the hearts of those praying. Some of them however, when they started these tactics, were suddenly thrown backwards as if by some superior force, and hardly dared to stand upright or cross over to someone else. But others danced about on the necks and backs of the weaker brothers because they were not intent on their prayers.
Macarius groaned deeply at this sight, and shed tears before the Lord. "'Look, O Lord,' he said, 'and do not keep silent nor show leniency, O God. (Psalms 83.1). Arise O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered and flee before your face' (Psalms 68.1), for our hearts are filled with illusion." After the prayers, in order to make the truth clear, he spoke to each one of the brothers before whose faces he had seen the demons dancing about in various guises and shapes. He asked them if they had been thinking during the prayers of building works, or going on a journey or any other of the diverse images which he had seen the demons presenting to each person. And each of them admitted that the thoughts of their hearts had been exactly as he said. And so he established that all the vain and unnecessary thoughts of each person during both the psalmody and the prayers had come about through the wiles of the demons, and that the disgusting Ethiopians had been driven back by those who kept custody of their hearts. The mind united to God will admit nothing unfitting or superfluous, especially if intent upon God during the time of prayer.
He saw something even more awesome when the brothers were receiving the Sacrament. As they held out their hands to receive, Ethiopians rushed in to put hot burning coals into the hands of some of them, while the Body which ostensibly was given by the hands of the priests returned to the altar. But the demons drew back and fled in great fear from some of the others, aided as they were by their superior merits. And he saw that an angel of the Lord assisted at the altar, and with his own hand overruled the hands of the priests. And this grace from God remained with him always, that he knew what stray thoughts the demons were putting into anyone's heart at the time of psalmody and prayer during vigils, nor was the unworthiness or the merits of those approaching the altar hidden from him.
On another occasion both Macarii, the men of God, together with some brothers were on a journey in order to visit someone. They took a ferry to cross the river, and in the ship with them were some tribunes, very rich and powerful men, who had with them several horses and grooms and many servants. One of the tribunes noticed the monks sitting in the lower part of the ship, in rough clothing and uncluttered by any possessions.
"Blessed are you," he said, "who despise this world and ask for nothing from it but the meanest clothing and a little food."
"What you say is true," said one of the Macarii. "Those who follow the Lord despise (illudunt) the world, and we are sorry for you, for on the contrary it is the world which deceives (illudit) you."
The Tribune was greatly moved by this reply, and as soon as he got home gave up everything he possessed, divided it up and gave it to the poor. He began to follow God and embraced the monastic life.
But there are many other marvellous things, as we have said, on the subject of the deeds of Macarius of Alexandria. Anyone looking for them will find many of them in the eleventh book of the Ecclesiastical History.
AMMON, THE FIRST MONK OF NITRIA
(cf. VIII. 8)
The first monastic dwellings in Nitria are attributed to a certain Ammon, whose soul the blessed Antony saw carried up out of the body to heaven, according to the book which describes Antony's life. (Book I, Vita Antonii, cap. 32). This Ammon was born of wealthy and generous parents, who arranged a marriage for him even though he did not want it. He was unable to defy his parent's will and accepted a virgin bride, but when they were left together in the marriage bedroom, he took advantage of the secret silence of the bedchamber to speak to the girl on the subject of chastity, and began to urge her to preserve her virginity.
"Corruption breeds corruption," he said, "but incorruption looks for incorruption. So therefore it would be much better for us to persevere in virginity, than for each of us to be corrupted by the other."
The girl agreed, and they kept secret the treasure of their incorruption. Content with the witness of God alone, they lived for a long time joined together more in spirit than in flesh and blood, until when the parents of both were dead he went off to a nearby desert place. She stayed in the house, where after a short time she gathered about her a great number of virgins, just as he gathered a congregation of monks.
While he was still hidden away in the desert a young man with rabies, because of having been bitten by a rabid dog, was brought to him bound in chains. His parents were with him beseeching Ammon to help.
"Why are you people bothering me?" he asked. "What you are asking is beyond what I am worthy of doing. But what I can tell you is that his health lies in your own hands. Give back the ox that you have stolen and your son will be restored to you whole." And it was forcibly brought home to them that their secret deeds were not hidden from the man of God. So they rejoiced that this means of healing was open to them and without delay they made good the theft. And the man of God prayed, and the young man was restored to full health.
On another occasion, some people came to him, whose intentions he wished to test. So he told them he needed a dolium (i.e. a large globular water jar) in which he could store water for visitors. They promised to bring one, but then one of them became quite worried that he would endanger his camel if he were to place such a heavy load on it.
"You take it, if you can or if you want to," he said. "I am thinking of my camel lest it die."
"But I haven't got a camel, as you know," said the other. "I've only got an ass. What makes you think an ass can carry what a camel can't?"
"Do what you like. It's your business." he replied. "But I am not going to put my camel at risk."
"Right," said the other. "I will put this heavy load on my ass which you say is too much for your camel, and may the merits of the man of God make possible that which is impossible."
So he loaded the dolium on to the ass and led it to the monastery of the man of God, with the ass not feeling as if he were carrying anything very heavy at all.
"You've done well to load the dolium on the ass," said Ammon when he saw him, "for your friend's camel has died."
And when he went back home he found that it was even as the servant of God had said.
And the Lord did many other signs through him. When he wanted to cross the river Nile, it is said that he was too embarrassed to take his clothes off, but that by the power of God he was suddenly translated to the other side. The blessed Antony greatly admired his way of life and commemorates his uprightness and the virtues of his soul.
PAUL THE SIMPLE (cf. VIII. 28)
Among the disciples of the blessed Antony was one Paul, nicknamed the Simple. His first conversion happened like this:
With his own eyes he saw his wife committing adultery one day, so without saying anything to anyone he left home, overwhelmed with sadness in his heart, and fled to the desert. After wandering about there in distress, he came at last to Antony's monastery. He took comfort from this fortunate chance, because of what he had heard about the place. He met Antony and asked him how he could find a path to salvation. Antony sensed that he was a simple sort of man, and told him that if he would abide by the instructions that he would give him he would be saved. He replied that he would do whatever he was asked. To test this promise Antony said to him as he stood outside the door of his cell, "Wait here and pray until I come back again". He then went inside and stayed there for a day and a night, from time to time watching Paul secretly through the window. He saw that Paul prayed without ceasing, never moving at all, just standing there in the heat of the day and the dew of the night, so intent on what he had been told that he did not move from the spot in the slightest degree.
When Antony came out the next day he took him in and began to teach him about each sort of manual work customary in solitude. Work with the hands took care of the needs of the body, while the thoughts of the heart and the intention of the mind made room for what came from God. He told him to take food in the evening, but warned him never to satisfy his hunger completely, and to be particularly sparing in what he drank, for mental phantasies were encouraged just as much by too much water as bodily heat by too much wine. And when he had fully instructed him how to conduct himself properly in all things he built a cell for him not far away, that is, at a distance of three miles, where he ordered him to carry on doing what he learned. He visited him from time to time, and was delighted to see that he was keeping a firm grasp on what he had been taught, persevering wholeheartedly in his solitude.
One day some senior brothers came to visit the holy Antony, men very advanced in spirituality, and Paul happened to be visiting at the same time. There was a long conversation on deep and mystical subjects, and much discussion about the Prophets and the Saviour.
"Did Christ come before the Prophets?" asked Paul out of the simplicity of his heart. Antony was rather embarrassed for him for asking such a stupid question.
"Get away with you, say no more," he said, in the indulgent sort of tone of voice reserved for idiots.
But Paul believed that everything Antony told him to do was as it were a command from God, and obeyed immediately. He went back to his cell and accepted this command and began to keep absolute silence, allowing not a word to pass his lips. When Antony realised this he wondered why he was behaving like this, for he was quite unaware that he had given Paul any command. He ordered him to speak, and tell him why he was keeping silent.
"You, father," said Paul, "told me to get away and say no more."
Antony was amazed that Paul was taking literally the words which he had quite carelessly said
"This man puts us all to shame," he said. "For we fail to hear what is spoken to us from heaven, whereas he observes whatever comes out of our mouth."
Antony was determined to teach him a great deal about obedience, and was accustomed to give orders which seemed quite unreasonable and purposeless, in order to train his mind in the habit of obedience. He told him once to draw water from the well and pour it out on the ground, he told him to unravel baskets and then weave them together again, to tear his garment apart then sew it up again, then take it apart again. In all such practices, Antony bears witness that he remained totally receptive. He learned not to contradict in any of those unreasonable things which he was commanded to do, and so he was brought on by all these things and soon arrived at a state of perfection.
Antony used him as an example. "If anyone wishes to come quickly to perfection," he taught, "he should not be his own master nor obey his own will even if he thought he was in the right. According to the command of the Saviour he should take note that above all else he should deny himself and renounce his own will (Matthew 16.24), for the Saviour himself said, 'I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.' (John 6.38) The will of Christ, of course, could not be in any way different from the will of the Father, for he who came to teach obedience would not have been obedient himself if he had merely been doing his own will. How much more, then, will we be judged disobedient if we do our own will? Therefore this Paul is an example for us, for by the merits of his simplicity and obedience he has attained to such a height of spiritual grace that the Lord has shown forth a great number of much more powerful virtues in him than in Antony."
Because of the abundance of his gifts, many people came from all parts to be cured by him. Antony feared that the attentions of such a large crowd would overwhelm him, so he sent him deeper into the desert where it was not so easy for anyone to get to him, and Antony would thus be more able to deal with visitors. But if Antony himself could not cure anyone he would then send them to Paul as being more abundantly supplied with healing gifts. And Paul cured them.
The simplicity of his faithfulness was great in the eyes of the Lord. They say that once someone suffering from rabies was biting like a dog everyone who was trying to come and see Paul. He was brought to Paul, who persisted in prayer that the demon troubling him should be put to flight. And after a while, when there did not seem to be anything happening, he is said to have cried out indignantly, like a small child, to the Lord, "If you don't cure him, I am not going to get anything to eat today!" And immediately God granted him his request, as if he were a favourite child. The rabies was instantly cured.
PIAMMON THE PRESBYTER (cf. VIII. 72)
It would not seem to me to be right to pass over in silence those who live in the desert near the Parthian Sea, near the town called Diolcus. There we met a certain admirable presbyter called Piammon, a man of exceptional humility and benevolence, who had a gift of seeing. For once when he was offering the sacrifice to the Lord he saw an angel of the Lord standing by the altar writing down the names of the monks as they approached the altar, but there were some whose names he did not write down. Piammon took a careful note of those whose names were not written down, and after the mysteries were completed he called each one of them to him and demanded to know what secret sins they were guilty of. He found that each one of them was guilty of a mortal sin and urged them to do penance. Along with them he prostrated himself day and night before the Lord, as if he himself was guilty of their sins. He wept, and continued with them in penitence and tears, until once more he saw the angel standing there writing down the names of those going up to Communion. And after writing down all the names, he called out the names of the sinners, inviting them to be reconciled once more with the altar. Seeing this, Piammon knew that their penance had been accepted, and restored them to the altar with great joy.
They say also that once he was so beaten by the demons that he could not stand or move. So when Sunday came with the need to offer the sacrifice he told the brothers to carry him to the altar. While prostrate in prayer he saw the angel of the Lord standing in his usual place by the altar, who reached out his hands and lifted him up from the earth. And all his pain disappeared at once, and he was restored to his usual good health.
JOHN (cf. VIII. 73)
There was a holy man called John in that place, whose gifts of grace were overflowing. He had such a great gift of consolation that anyone whose soul was oppressed with sadness or weariness could be speedily and joyfully restored by a few words from him. Many gifts of healing were given him by the Lord.
EPILOGUE (cf. VIII. 151)
The dangers of journeying to the deserts
In many other parts of Egypt we came across holy men of God of great virtue doing marvellous things, totally filled with the grace of God. We have only mentioned a few of them. To describe them all would be beyond our powers.
We learned only by hearsay of those who are said to live in the upper Thebaid, that is around Syene, but they were held by almost everyone whom we did see to be even greater and more wonderful still. But we were unable to visit them because of the dangers of the journey. All parts of Egypt are infested with robbers, but beyond the city of Lycos you are in danger from barbarians as well. So none of us managed to visit there, though in truth even getting to see those whom we mention above was not without its perils.
We ran into danger seven times in this journey and even in the eighth we suffered no harm, as it is written (Job 5.19), the Lord always protecting us.
Once we wandered for five days and nights in the desert, suffering from thirst and near exhaustion.
Then we went through a valley which exuded a sort of salty liquid which the heat of sun turned into a salty deposit with sharp spikes just like winter hoarfrost turned to ice. The whole area was so rough that our feet were torn and scratched, as were the shoes we wore. Once we had got into this place we only managed to get out of it with great difficulty.
Thirdly, when we notwithstanding persevered onwards into the desert we came to a valley which again discharged a similar sort of liquid, but when we tried to cross through this place full of stones and stinking filth we sank up to our thighs. We were almost about to be covered in it when we cried to the Lord in the words of the psalm, "Save me, O God, for the waters have come in even unto my soul. I am stuck in the deep mire where there is no ground" (Psalms 69.1-2).
Fourthly, we suffered danger in the waters left behind after the flooding of the Nile, through which we struggled for three days, and were scarcely able to get through.
Fifthly, we were in danger from pirates when we were travelling by sea. They followed us for ten miles but failed to put us to the sword, but left us to flee almost dead [with fright].
Sixthly, we had an accident in crossing the Nile when we were almost drowned.
Seventhly, in the swamps named after Mary [Marĉotis palus, just west of the Cells], a fierce wind cast us up on an island during a terrible storm in the middle of winter. It was during Epiphanytide.
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