reading the Macarian writings, we must avoid looking for a neatly arranged
system of spiritual teachings geared to Christians of all generations and of all
styles of life. As we will see in the fifty homilies, much of the material
either is presented in the direct form of questions from disciples and answers
from the master, Macarius, or develops a given theme applicable to his audience
of fellow monks. Therefore, we are dealing with a practical monastic pedagogy
and only in such a setting do we discover the typical traits of Eastern
Christian asceticism. The preponderant accent is on the spiritual combat and the
interiorization of one’s spiritual life, with special stress placed on the
personal and intimate experience of fire and baptism in the Holy Spirit that
effects a mystical oneness with the indwelling Jesus Christ.
from the details of the life of the monks given in the homilies, we see a
coenobitic form that does not present a regimented life of fixed hours for
communal prayer. Macarius/Symeon favors much individual freedom of gifts, but
above all charity. The eminent role is given to the action of the Holy Spirit
and the importance of interior prayer as the way to perfection. He calls his
audience simply “Christians,” for he is presenting them a way of life that
follows Christ as perfectly as possible, as outlined in the Gospel precepts. He
advises his Christians to give up marriage and to be separated from the
“world.” Macarius cites
chief emphasis throughout the writings of Macarius is the call not only to serve
God absolutely by renouncing through spiritual and actual poverty all
attachments to persons and things, but also to enter into the depths of one’s
soul and do the inner spiritual battle—to renounce even one’s false self. He
explains in his Great Letter what true renouncement of oneself means:
does it mean to renounce one’s own self except to give oneself completely to
the fraternity and never to accomplish, absolutely, one’s own desires, but to
be totally available to the Word of God.
charity, found in serving those closest to oneself, is the true criterion of how
much a monk has entered into the inner battle to forsake self-centeredness by
the healing love of Jesus Christ living within and bringing the Christian the
help of his Holy Spirit to live in love for others.
presents throughout his writings a very positive view of human nature, both
before and after the fall of Adam and Eve. The first editor of Collection II,
most probably John Picot (1559), begins the fifty homilies with the homily on
the vision of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:4–2:3). Here we see Macarius’s
typical use of allegory in his scriptural exegesis, much along the lines of
Origen. The covering of the human soul with the beauty and ineffable glory of
God’s Spirit is Macarius’s description of the intrinsic beauty and dignity
of the human person, both before sin had diminished God’s glory from within
the soul, and after, by means of the restoration of this inner light. The
recovering of this light is the goal to which Macarius wants to lead Christians.
also see here the beginnings of the doctrine developed by Origen and St. Gregory
of Nyssa on the spiritual senses, which have been lost through sin but restored
by the Spirit of the Risen Jesus. The idea of the Taboric light, as a luminous
vision of God made perceptible even to the eyes of the body, was to develop in
the fourteenth century with the hesychasts of
always returns to the basic goodness of human nature. To deny this is to deny
God’s power and immanence in his human creatures, made by him according to his
own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). Homily 15 brings out the intrinsic
goodness of man and woman through God’s gratuitous willing to share his beauty
and nature with them:
how great are the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon. But the Lord was
not pleased to find his rest in them, but in humanity alone. Man, therefore, is
of greater value than all other creatures, and perhaps I will not hesitate to
say, not only visible creatures, but also those invisible, namely, “the
ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14). For it was not of Michael or Gabriel, the
archangels, that God said: “let us make men to our image and likeness”
(Genesis 1:26), but he said it concerning the spiritual makeup of the human, I
mean, the immortal soul.
Macarius is rooted in Scripture, so his teaching on sin is less legalistic and
more centered on what sin has done to God’s image in human beings. Sin is
something that goes against human nature. It has come from outside, since God
created man and woman as very good.
have received into ourselves something that is foreign to our nature, namely,
the corruption of our passions through the disobedience of the first man which
has strongly taken over in us, as though it were a certain part of our nature by
custom and long habit. This must be expelled again by that which is also foreign
to our nature, namely, the heavenly gift of the Spirit, and so the original
purity must be restored.
author is rich in concrete examples showing how evil penetrates into the depths
of the human soul. It becomes like a second “soul” joined to the first. Two
forces now inhabit the human soul: God and his angels and Satan and his powers
of evil. The human person has lost the glory of God that inhabited the first man
and woman. Now he or she is covered with a garment, a veil, a heavy fog,
smoke—all Macarian examples to convey how the image of God is not destroyed by
sin, but covered over and no longer reflecting the glory of God’s light.
Christ, by his risen presence living within the Christian, permeates from within
the human soul by the divine light of his Spirit. From God’s side of this
relationship to his human children springs the grace brought about by Jesus, the
Savior. He comes with the Father and Holy Spirit to inhabit the Christian in a
new and redeeming way. Now grace has preceded and is operative in the Christian
soul to move the free will to make choices that help him or her surrender to the
alluring love of God rather than to the enticements of the devil.
again we see Macarius’s optimism about God’s creating human nature as good,
a goodness that sin can never fully corrupt or destroy. The freedom of the human
will is one of his main teachings. No power, not even God, can take it away. God
will do nothing to force the human will. God waits upon the movement of our
will. God and the devil both desire to win over the human soul.
grace is always present, even as the presence of evil exerts its power over the
human person. Man stands in the midst of these two adversaries and needs only to
exercise faith, hope, and love in God’s revelation that the Trinity dwells
within the human soul. “I tell you that the human mind is a good match for the
enemy, and evenly balanced against him; and a soul of that kind when it seeks,
finds help and succor, and redemption is granted it. The contest and struggle is
not an unequal one.” Whether to do good or evil, the Christian is in a
position to assent to whatever course of action he or she decides upon. As long
as God allows us this freedom of choice, there can be no complete and total
Christian perfection in this earthly dimension of life.
the true Christian must engage constantly in the inner spiritual combat to fight
against sin and the evil powers. God is there testing the sincerity and
steadfastness of the human will.
gives a solidly orthodox teaching on the interrelationships between God’s
unmerited grace and man’s free will to cooperate with grace and thus actively
work for his salvation. Macarius always insists that the Christian could not
even begin to make a move toward the Good, toward God, without God’s graceful
help. Even the desire for God himself comes from him, never from human creatures
alone. “Never think that you have preceded the Lord in virtue according to him
who says: ‘It is he, who works in you, both to will and to do for his good
pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
along with all the great spiritual teachers of true Christianity, extolled the
need for humility. By praying incessantly and being inwardly attentive to the
living presence of the triune God, we come to live in God’s real world, a
world that gives us the conviction that we are utterly dependent on God. This
produces a profound humility. The “more perfect” a person becomes, the
nearer one approaches God’s perfection, the more she or he is deeply aware of
how little one has truly responded to God’s influence and grace in this
earthly journey. Such true humility combines with an ardent longing for more and
more of God:
the sign of Christianity is this, that one be pleasing to God so as to seek to
hide oneself from the eyes of men. And even if a person should possess the
complete treasures of the King, he should hide them and say continually: “The
treasure is not mine, but another has given it to me as a charge. For I am a
beggar and when it pleases him, he can claim it from me. ... And the more they
apply themselves to the art of growing in perfection, the more they reckon
themselves as poor, as those in great need and possessing nothing.... This is
the sign of Christianity, namely, this very humility.”
Macarius’s writings we find a consistent presentation of the spiritual combat
of fourth-century Eastern Christian monasticism and asceticism. This is called
praxis, or what the human being must do to cooperate with grace to eradicate the
deep roots of the eight capital sins. When sins are overcome we can begin to
develop the virtues that come from conversion and putting on the mind of Jesus
Christ by an inner revolution (Ephesians 4:7).
find such traditional words as inner attention (I), guarding of the heart,
vigilance, sobriety (I), and purifying the heart used to express the inner state
of alertness necessary to check every thought (I) at the entry way to our
consciousness. Weeping for one’s alienation and exile and shame at turning
away from God’s tender love and the fear of losing that love for eternity is
stressed by Macarius in his development of I.
a spiritual director of monks seeking inner union with Christ, Macarius stresses
the need of the Holy Spirit’s gift of discernment (diakrisis). Pride in making spiritual progress must be checked
through a constant vigilance of the thoughts that lead to vainglory and pride.
Discernment of spirits is absolutely necessary to eradicate any forces that
would take the monk away from an ever-increasing conscious self surrendering at
insists on the need of much prayer and asceticism in order to receive the
discernment of spirits from the Holy Spirit and thus be able to recognize each
of the evil demons disguised behind various phantasms. The author of the
homilies always returns to the test Christ gives in the Gospel. It is the fruit
produced that measures the movement of one’s surrender to the guidance of the
Holy Spirit. This is
be guided by a mature and advanced spiritual soul-friend is absolutely necessary
for the Christian, especially in the early stages of the spiritual combat.
Beginners should search for a person who is guided by the Spirit and who knows
from personal experience of the “heart” the path to perfection.
Gregory of Nyssa was the major proponent of the theory of the spiritual life as
a process of continued growth, using the word epectasis
who, indeed, has ever arrived at perfection and tasted and directly experienced
that world? I have not yet seen any perfect Christian or one perfectly free.
But, although a person may be at rest in grace and arrive at experiencing
mysteries, revelations and the immense consolation of grace, nevertheless, sin
still abides in him.
like all of the desert Christian mystics, stresses greatly the centrality of
unceasing prayer as the air in which a true Christian should live daily. He
considers all virtues as interrelated, forming, as it were a spiritual chain,
with the first link as foundational to all others in the spiritual life, namely,
summit of all zeal toward the good and peak of all virtuous practices is in
one’s striving in prayer, thanks to which we can obtain each day the rest of
the virtues and demand them of God.
cannot, according to Macarius’s teaching, do anything except to cry out to the
Lord and demand the aid of his grace, in which consists the foundation of
prayer. The Spirit then comes in response to accomplish in us the virtues.
produces among those who are worthy of it a certain mystical communion (koinonia)
of holiness with God, thanks to the action of the Spirit. It brings about a
certain union with the Lord that fills the human spirit with an inexpressible
love. And each day he who is moved to continue in prayer is drawn by the love of
the Spirit to a love and a desire that is full of fire for God. Each one
receives the grace from the Spirit of the perfection of a free will. It is God
who gives this gift.
state of pure prayer or incessant prayer of the heart is tied to the guarding of
the heart. Macarius, along with the leading Eastern Fathers, views the heart as
the center of the human spirit, where one can communicate and surrender oneself
totally in love to God. Ultimately, he maintains that pure prayer or true
prayer, which we would call today “contemplative prayer,” becomes equivalent
to the fire of God’s Spirit transforming the Christian into love, in every
thought, word, and deed.
fly into the divine air and enjoy the liberty of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians
3:18) may be one’s desire, but, if he does not have wings given him, he
cannot. Let us pray to God that he gives us “the wings of a dove” (Psalm
55:7) of the Holy Spirit so we may fly to him and find rest (anapausis)
and that he may separate and take away from our soul and body such an evil wind
namely, sin itself, inhabiting the members of our soul and body.
of the Holy Spirit
Christian cannot reach what Macarius calls “true prayer,” different from
“natural prayer,” without the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit alone can
teach the Christian that prayer in which the mysteries of God are taught
directly to the soul. The soul then knows the sweetness, the spiritual
experience, the joy, and the various forms of ecstasy.
is one of the first witnesses of what modern Christians would call the baptism
in the Holy Spirit. He conceives this to be an ongoing process of surrendering
to the indwelling guidance of the Holy Spirit to the degree that the individual
cries out for the Spirit to heal the roots of sinfulness that lie deeply within
the soul. When one begins consistently to give himself or herself over entirely
to seeking the love of Christ in all things, then, according to Macarius, that
person is receiving the baptism in the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. The sign of
the true progress in the baptism of the Spirit is the continued desire to
surrender to the Spirit’s gifts, especially faith, hope, and love. This is
directly dependent on the individual’s maintaining humility and a state of
constant compunction or penthos.
from the Holy Spirit inner knowledge of God’s omnipotence and one’s own
human sinfulness, the individual will be granted the gift of spiritually weeping
for his or her sins. The desert fathers, along with Macarius, were convinced
that this weeping kept them from sinning and that this was the only way to true
salvation, to the true life, whereby God would come and dwell within them.
is interesting that Macarius, possibly influenced by the writings of the Syrians
Aphraates and Ephrem, refers to the Holy Spirit as Mother. Spirit (Ruho) is
feminine in Syriac and also in Hebrew. The Holy Spirit is described by Macarius
as “Rachel, the true mother, the heavenly Grace.” “And from that time
until the time of the last Adam, the Lord, man did not see the true Heavenly
Father and the Good and Kind Mother, the grace of the Spirit.” It is the Holy
Spirit who gives birth to Christians in the divinizing process that makes them
truly children of God (1 John 3:1) and brothers and sisters to Jesus Christ.
Macarius, the Incarnation is the
typical Syrian style of allegory, Macarius describes Jesus as “paradise, tree
of life, pearl, crown, builder, cultivator, sufferer, one incapable of
suffering, man, God, wine, living water, lamb, bridegroom, warrior, armor,
Christ, all in all.” Other images he uses to bring out the centrality of Jesus
for the Christian are spread throughout the corpus: Christ the Master, the
Father who brings us new divine life, the King, the Physician, Savior and
Redeemer, Pilot, Rider and Charioteer, Farmer and skilled Craftsman, Foundation,
mystical union with Jesus Christ brings about the peak of all Christian
perfection, which consists in the love of God with one’s whole heart and soul.
This takes over the consciousness of the individual so that one may live
continually in the love of God pouring out in his heart (Romans 5:5) by the
Spirit. Macarius, in a rare sharing with the reader, gives us an account of the
intimate love of Christ he had attained:
I received the experience of the sign of the cross, grace now acts in this
manner. It quiets all my parts and my heart so that the soul with the greatest
joy seems to be a guileless child. No longer am I a man that condemns Greek or
Jew or sinner or worldling. Truly, the interior man looks on all human beings
with pure eyes and finds joy in the whole world. He really wishes to reverence
and love all Greeks and Jews.