A brother once came to abbot Macarius and said to him, “Master, speak some word of exhortation to me, that, obeying it, I may be saved.”
Macarius answered him, “Go to the tombs and attack the dead with insults.” The brother wondered at the word. Nevertheless he went, as he was bidden, and cast stones at the tombs, railing upon the dead. Then returning, he told what he had done.
Macarius asked him, “Did the dead notice what you did?” And he replied, “They did not notice me.” “Go, then, again,” said Macarius, “and this time praise them.” The brother, wondering yet more, went and praised the dead, calling them just men, apostles, saints. Returning, he told what he had done, saying, “I have praised the dead.”
Macarius asked him, “Did they reply to you?” And he said, “They did not reply to me.”
Then said Macarius, “You know what insults you have heaped on them and with what praises you have flattered them, and yet they never spoke to you. If you desire salvation, you must be like these dead. You must think nothing of the wrongs men do to you, nor of the praises they offer you. Be like the dead. Thus you may be saved.”
* * *
The abbot Macarius, when he dwelt in Egypt, once had occasion to leave his cell for a little while. At his return he found a robber stealing whatever was in the cell. Macarius stood and watched him, as one who was a stranger might watch, having no interest in what was stolen. Then he loaded the robber’s horse for him and led it forth, saying, “We brought nothing into this world. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. According to His will so things happen. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
* * *
Once, while the abbot Macarius was praying, a voice sounded in his ears, which said to him, “Macarius, you have not yet arrived at the measure of the sanctity of two women who dwell in the neighbouring city.” When he heard this he arose and, taking his staff, set forth for the city which had been named. He sought and found the house where the women lived.
When Macarius knocked at the door one of the women came out, and, perceiving who he was, welcomed him into the house with great joy. Macarius called the two together to him, and said, “On your account I have endured the toil of coming here from my solitude. I desire to know your way of life. I pray you to describe it to me.” They, however, replied to him, “Most holy father, what kind of life is ours for you to ask about?”
He persisted in asking that they would describe it to him. Then, since he compelled them, they said, “We are not, indeed, related to each other by blood, but it happened that we married two brothers. Now, though we have lived together for fifteen years, we have had no quarrel, neither has either of us spoken a sharp word to the other. We both desired to leave our husbands and enter a community of holy women. We begged our husbands to permit us, but they would not. Then we vowed that until the day of our death we should hold no worldly talk with each other, but converse only about spiritual things.”
When Macarius heard what they told him, he said, “Truly virginity is nothing, nor marriage, nor the monk’s life, nor dwelling in the world. It is purposes and vows like this that God seeks from us, and He gives the spirit of life to all alike.”
Adapted from “The Wisdom of the Desert”
Translated by James O. Hannay