What would an Egyptian hermit who has been dead for over 1600 years have to say to us modern people? This was the question I indignantly muttered to myself when assigned in a workshop to write the icon of St. Anthony the Great. It turned out that he had plenty of things to teach me. Humility. Silence. Solitude. The value of a life of prayer. Facing one’s fears. Conquering them. Trust in God.
I pray to him often.
Now, as I work on an icon of St. Macarius, an early Christian also of Egypt, I remember my former bad attitude with a smile. I am researching St. Macarius’ life and am confident he will prove to be an equally good friend.
St. Macarius lived from approximately 300 AD till 390 AD. He was one of the Desert Fathers whose writings and monastic lifestyle have been so influential in the development of our faith. He is honored in our Roman Catholic tradition, in the Eastern Orthodox churches, and most especially in the Coptic church of Egypt. The word “Coptic” actually means “Egyptian”, and designates a Christian of the Egyptian Patriarchate. In the year 451, this group broke away from the rest of the Christianity to form their own traditions and interpretations. Further isolated by later Muslim occupation, the Copts also formed their own distinctive styles of iconography, without Byzantine influence.
Macarius was a devout Christian, wanting to devote his entire life to following Christ. He was briefly married, then widowed, and withdrew to a small room in his village, to live a life of prayer and aceticism. He became reknowned for his humility, holiness, and great wisdom. Macarius was falsely accused by a young woman in the village of raping and impregnating her. He did not defend himself but silently worked to support her and the coming child, by making and selling baskets in town. When the child was about to be born, the mother admitted to the falsehood and Macarius’ reputation was restored. At the age of 30, he left the village and withdrew to the desert, and became a disciple of St. Anthony the Great. As his holiness increased, more and more disciples came to him. His face was so radiant with grace that people testified his countenance glowed with brightness, and he became known as the Lamp of the Desert.
He spent 60 years in the most arid of deserts, living in caves, and establishing many monasteries and cloisters. Many of these still exist today. The most notable is St. Macarius Monastery, or Abu Makar, where his body is said to be buried, along with the headless body of St. John the Baptist. It is located about 92 kilometers northwest of Cairo, in Wadi Natrum. This monastery has been continuously inhabited since its founding in the mid4th century till the present day. It was restored once more in the 1970s, and now houses approximately 100 monks.
In searching for information as to the present safety of the monks, I found an interesting documentary about the monastery. Filmed several years ago, it is almost an hour long, but well worth watching, as it covers the story of the monastery history and restoration, its present condition, shows the cave believed to be dug by St. Macarius himself, his crypt, a modern Coptic hermit in his cave, a bit of Coptic chant and liturgy, and views of the surrounding desert unchanged since St. Macarius’ time. It’s in French with English subtitles. (Sorry, the ad attached to it is most obnoxious, but you can skip it after 10 seconds or so). If you are interested, click this link.
I was not able to find any news as to the safety of the monks, the monasteries or their church, and pray that this means they remain safe and unharmed as of today. The violence continues to increase over the past several days, with Christians, especially Copts, being singled out and murdered. Please join me in prayer for our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Egypt.