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September 19, 2017

Saint Macarius

Saint Macarius the Great by the Russian painter, Oleg Shurkus

The Apophthegmata Patrum (The sayings of the Fathers) is a collection of the words and anecdotes mainly of the Egyptian desert fathers and mothers in the 4th and 5th centuries, and represents their spiritual practices and wisdom. It contains many lovely stories. One of the interesting stories is about Saint Macarius the Great (300 – 391), Father of the Monks of the Valley of Scetis in Egypt.[1] It is included in the Arabic version preserved by the Coptic Church, and titled, ‘Bustan al-Ruhban’ (Garden of the Monks). It tells of the strong-heart Saint Macarius, who wasn’t afraid to visit cemeteries, often seen as being haunted by the devil, and was courageous enough to lie down in one, and use an old Greek skull to rest his head on. This audacity amazed the demons and provoked them into trying to scare the hell out of Macarius; but the saint was a man not to be easily scared. Here is the story, which I give its English translation:

Once upon a time, Father Macarius went from Scetis to the wilderness, and came to a cemetery where old, Greek skeletons were. And the saint took a skull and placed it under his head. When the demons saw his boldness they envied him and wished to disturb his peace; so, they shouted in a loud voice, calling a certain woman by name: “O [name], we have taken the soap, comb and the bath towels; and we are waiting for you to join us.” And a voice came out from the skull under [Macarius’] head, saying: “I have a guest, and he is a stranger, who is lying over me; I can’t come. Go on your own.” But the saint was not in the least disturbed. He lifted his head up off the skull, and moving it, he addressed it: “Now, I have got off you; if you can go, go with them to the darkness.” And he once again laid his head on it. And when the demons saw that from him, they left him greatly embarrassed, and shouted out loud: “Go away from us Macarius.” And the devils ran away.[2]


[1] The Scetis Valley in Egypt (Wadi al-Natrun, as it is known now) is located in the Libyan desert, west of the Nile. The word is Greek and is derived from the Coptic, ‘Shi-heet’, which means “the weighing of the heart”.

[2] See: Bustan al-Ruhban, 2nd edition (Shobra, Mar Mina Bookshop, 1956), p. 17.

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