History of the Egyptian Monks (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto - Part 7)

Chapter XXIV


Among the seniors we also met a good man called Didymus in whom were many graces from God, as [the beauty of] his face showed. This man got rid of insects which lie on the earth in wait for the feet, such as scorpions, horned caterpillars (? cerastas quos cornutas vocant) and snakes which flourish in these places because of the heat of the sun, so that no one was ever stung by them.

Chapter XXV

CRONIUS (cf. VIII. 25&89)

We also met among them another father of great age called Cronius, still going in spite of his marvellous age. His lifespan was about to be accomplished, for he was a hundred and ten years old. He was a survivor from the disciples of Antony and among the many other virtues of his soul we were aware of his great grace of humility.

Chapter XXVI

ORIGEN (cf. VIII.10)

There was another of Antony's disciples called Origen, a magnificent man of great discretion, whose sermons and talks about the virtues of his great master, the man of God, edified all who heard. He stirred people up so powerfully that they could almost see the things he talked about before their naked eyes.

Chapter XXVII


We saw there this most wise man, wonderful in all sorts of ways, called Evagrius. Among the other virtues of his soul he had been given the grace of discernment of spirits (1 Cor.12.10) and the renewal of the mind (Ephesians 4.23) as the Apostle teaches. There was no other among the brothers who had attained to such a great and subtle spiritual knowledge. He had amassed an impressive store of learning through his experience in so many matters, and not least through the grace of God, but much of his learning had come to him through having been a disciple for a long time of the blessed Macarius, a most famous man by the grace of God, outstanding in signs and virtues, as everyone knows.

His abstinence was incredible, and he gave instruction to the brothers about it. If they were really serious about mortifying the body and driving away demonic phantasies he would encourage them to be very sparing in the amount of water they drank. "For," he said, " If you flood the body with a lot of water you generate even more phantasies, and offer a bigger space to the demons." He taught many other things about abstinence very insistently. For himself he used water very sparingly and hardly even ate much bread. The other brothers in that place were quite content with bread and salt. In all that great number of people you could hardly find anyone who even used a little oil. Many of them did not lie down to sleep, but sat and meditated, as I do believe, on the divine Word.

Chapter XXVIII


Some of the fathers living there told us how the two Macarii had been shining lights of heaven in those parts. One of them had been a disciple of Antony and was known as "from Egypt", the other "from Alexandria". Their spiritual virtues and their magnificent graces from heaven were consistent with their names ["Macarios" (Greek) means "blessed"]. Both Macarii were equally distinguished in the practice of abstinence and in spiritual virtues, but the former was held to be superior only for having inherited the graces and virtues of the blessed Antony.
(The following incident not in Book VIII but appears in III.41) They said that once there had been a murder committed in a neighbouring village and a certain innocent person had been accused of it. The man thus falsely accused fled to Macarius' cell. His accusers followed after, saying that they would not be safe unless this murderer were arrested and handed over to the law. The accused however swore on the Sacrament that he was not guilty of that person's blood. The argument went back and forth for some time, until the holy Macarius asked where the murdered person was buried. When they had told him he hastened to the grave along with all the accusers, and with bent knee called on the name of Christ. "Let the Lord now show us, "he said to those present, "whether this man you accuse is guilty." And raising his voice, he called upon the dead man by name. There came an answer from the tomb. and Macarius said: "I conjure you, by the faith of Christ, that you testify whether you were killed by this man who is being accused of it." From the sepulchre came a clear voice saying: "I was not killed by him."

Stupefied, everyone threw themselves to the ground, prostrate at Macarius' feet. Then they began to ask him to enquire who the murderer was. "I will not ask that, " he replied. "Sufficient for me that the innocent is freed. It is not for me to produce the guilty one."
There was also a tale about another kind of miracle. (cf. VIII.19). It appeared to people that the daughter of a householder (paterfamilias) in a nearby town had been turned by the spells of a magician into a horse. They really thought she was a mare and not a little girl. They brought her to Macarius.

"What do you want?" he asked:

"This mare that you see," said his parents, "is a little girl, our virgin daughter, but wicked men have turned her by magic arts into this animal which you see before you. We are asking you to pray to the Lord to change her back to what she was."

"All I can see is that it is a girl you are showing me," he said, "with nothing of the beast about her at all. What you are telling me is not in her body but in the eyes of those who are looking at her. Demonic phantasies, not true."

He took her and her parents into his cell and on bended knees began to pray to the Lord, and he asked the parents to pray to the Lord with him. After which he anointed her with oil in the name of the Lord, which resulted in all the false vision being destroyed, so that the girl was seen by all just as she used to be.

Another small girl was brought to him whose private parts (obscoena corporis) were diseased through and through. The flesh was so eaten away that the inside of her body was laid bare, with a great number of maggots spewing out from there. People could hardly bear to come near her because of the horrible smell. He took pity on this suffering virgin when she was brought to him by her parents and laid outside his door.

"Be of good cheer, my daughter," he said. The Lord intends this for your salvation not for your damnation. It was foreseen that your [restoration to] health would save you from danger." And after a session of prayer which lasted for seven days, he blessed some oil and anointed her members, and so restored her to health that she no longer had the appearance or the body of a woman, but took her place among the male sex, freed from the hindrance of being a woman or even of being suspected to be a woman. (absque feminieae suspicionis obstaculo)

They told us also how he was visited by a certain heretic of the Hieracitus persuasion, a class of heresy prevalent in Egypt. He was upsetting several of the brothers in the desert by his persistent arguments, and even dared to make known his false faith to Macarius himself. Macarius resisted him and contradicted him, but this man ridiculed Macarius' simple words with powerful arguments. The old man saw that the brothers' faith was in danger, so he said: "What is the use of bandying words about to the repulsion of our audience? Let us go to the graves of those who have gone before us in the Lord, and let each of us pray to the Lord to raise up the dead out of the tomb, so that all may know whose faith it is that is approved by God." The brothers all approved of this idea. They went to the graves and Macarius urged the Hieracitus heretic to call up the dead in the name of the Lord.

"No, you go first," he replied. "It was your idea in the first place.

" Macarius prostrated himself in prayer before the Lord, and after he had prayed for some time he lifted up his eyes and said to the Lord: "Tell us, O Lord, which of us two holds the true faith by raising up this dead person." And he called upon the name of the person who had recently been buried there. A voice was heard coming from the mound of earth, and the brothers quickly came, removed the earth, and lifted the dead person out of the grave. They unloosed the grave garments tied around him and showed that he was really alive. Seeing this, the Hieracitan fled in terror. And the brothers drove him and all his followers out beyond the borders of that land.

Many other things are related about him too numerous to write down, but from these few examples some idea can be gained of his other deeds.

Chapter XXIX


The other holy Macarius also became magnificent in his virtues. Much has been written about him by others, which suffices to show how the greatness of his virtues should be cherished, so it would be better for us not to deal with those matters.

They say that above all others he was a great lover of the desert. In fact he penetrated so far into the most distant and inaccessible places of the desert that he came across a certain place which had been set up at the farthest boundaries where fruit bearing trees had been planted and which was replete with all kinds of good things. It is said that he found two brothers there, and he asked them if they would let him bring monks with him to settle there, since it was a pleasant place, with an abundance of everything necessary. They replied: "You can't bring a lot of people here, lest they be deceived by demons as they pass through the desert. For the desert holds many demons and monsters, and anyone not used to their cunning wiles would not be able to withstand them."

He went back to his own brothers and told them what a favourable place it was, so that many of them became quite eager to go there with him. But when the rest of the fathers realised that their minds were all agitated, they discouraged them with some very sound advice. "This place is supposed to have been set up by Jannes and Mambres (2 Tim 3.8 & Ex.7.11), and if that is true you need not believe anything other than that it has been prepared by the work of the devil for our deception. If it is indeed pleasant and abundant, as alleged, what can we hope for in the world to come if we are to enjoy sweet things here?" That, and other arguments of this sort, damped down the enthusiasm of the younger brothers.

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. (Psalm 83.1). Arise O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered and flee before your face' (Psalm 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.

Chapter XXX


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.