Macedonius Kritophagus

Macedonius the Hermit, sometimes known as Macedonius Kritophagus lived at the turn of the fourth to fifth century in Syria. He is venerated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, with a feast day of January 24.
Macedonius began his ascetic life as a pilgrim wandering from city to city in Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia living entirely on barley moistened with water (hence Kritophagus, ‘barley-eater’). Eventually he settled in the wilderness, far from human contact, taking shelter in a pit. He considered food a form of medicine that could be taken to stave off death because it is not lawful to “shorten one’s life to shun labors and conflicts.”
Macedonius became well known to people far and wide for his holiness and gifts of healing and exorcism. Gradually multitudes of people came to seek his direction and intercession. Only at a very advanced age did he agree to live in a cell provided for him. He died circa 420 at seventy years of age.

Macedonius the hermit, the barley-eater, was seated at the entrance of his cavern, and enjoying—so far as he thought it not sinful to enjoy—the cool air of the dawn and the glorious pageant of sunrise. He allowed himself but little sleep at any time, and long before the dawn he had been watching the stars, which hung like the cressets of angels in the purple night, and shed on the world their almost spiritual lustre. The unintelligible mystery of the universe, which often lay so heavily on his soul, seemed to be lightened as he felt himself alone with God, amid the strength of the hills, under those vast and silent constellations. Then, across the dark and silent valley he saw the first beam of morning smite into vivid crimson the topmost summit of the range of Taurus, and the mountainsides began to shine as though the angels were pouring river after river of pure gold over their snowy cliffs.
Then the Orontes, far beneath his feet, began to gleam out here and there in streaks of silver under the rich foliage of its banks, and he saw the grove of Daphne, with its lightning-scathed shrine of the dethroned sun god, and in the far distance Mount Casius flung its huge dark shadow over the glimmering sea.

Accustomed to long hours of unbroken solitude, he was surprised to see three figures approaching him so early up the steep mountain track. It was evident that they were seeking his cavern home, for the rocky and scarcely distinguishable path led to no other spot, and had, in fact, been mainly worn by his own feet as he descended the cliff to fill his maple dish with water, or to find his winter fuel and supply his daily needs. As the figures approached him he recognised Anthusa, whom he had sometimes seen after she had waived her opposition to her son’s wish to lead the solitary life, and who visited John once or twice in the year when he, too, lived with the hermit Syrus in a mountain cave.

She knelt for his priestly blessing, for Flavian had constrained him to accept the priesthood. He addressed her in few words. To be talking to a woman was to the hermit, as to the Pharisees of old, a perilous condescension, and he involuntarily drew back his robe of skin as she bowed before him. Anthusa knew the prejudices of his Order, though her son did not share them, and she briefly told him that she had come to confide to his protection a boy from Antioch who was in danger of his life.

The hermit was startled by her request. He shrank from the invasion of his solitude. His one luxury was to feel himself far away from the world, and alone with God. How could he provide for a boy from the gay, guilty city whose temples and palaces gleamed far below? He felt inclined to refuse the responsibility, and Anthusa read his hesitation in his eyes.
‘Is the boy a Pagan?’ he asked.
‘He is.’
‘How can I be responsible for one of those servants of the demons?’
‘If God can bear with them, and love them,’ she said, ’cannot Macedonius? Had not Christ compassion on the ignorant and on those that are out of the way?’
But Macedonius was still troubled. ‘How can he live on barley, as I do,’ he asked, ‘and endure life in this oppressive silence, where no sound is heard but the roar of the mountain cataracts, or the fall of crags which the earthquake has set loose?’
‘Father,’ she said, rising from her knees, ‘I know that you dare not refuse the charge. It is God who says to thee, “Take this boy; and save him for Me.” He will tell you all. Farewell, or I shall be missed at home. Philip, may God be with thee! We shall meet again.’

She turned to go, and Damaris followed her. She had already taken off from Philip the veil and pallium, and the boy stood before the solitary in his everyday dress. He modestly awaited what the old man would say, but fixed his frank and fearless eyes on the gaunt face and emaciated form.

Macedonius was but fifty-seven years old; but age is not told by years only. His eyes had grown dim with many tears, his cheeks were sunken, his hair was thin and grey. He sat down on a ledge of rock and leaned his trembling hands on a staff, for at that moment he was faint with continued abstinence. The long years seemed to separate him from this lad like wastes of the ‘salt, unplumbed, estranging sea.’ Yet as he looked at him he recalled his own happy, unforgotten youth. He, too, had once been as bright, as active, as well-knit as the boy who stood before him. Youth, which ‘dances like a bubble, nimble and gay, and shines like a dove’s neck or the colours of the rainbow,’ had once been his. He, too, had heard the siren songs singing enchantment to him across the smiling summer waves. To him, too, Circe, the daughter of the sun, had offered her charmed cup. He had plunged into the follies and dissipations and delirious dreams of youth, and known the fatal glamour of Satan’s bewitchment. Then God had broken in succession all his idols. He had gambled away his patrimony; he had been abandoned by his love, and by his friends; he had been smitten with terrible illness. And as he sat like the Prodigal, friendless, forsaken, penniless, in rags, and amid the swine, a star had looked through the midnight. For Meletius, the good bishop, had visited him in his illness, and through his gentle, gracious ministrations the snare of the fowler had been broken and he had been delivered.

But when he rose from the bed of sickness, utterly changed in heart, he felt driven to fly from the world……

So Macedonius had joined a little community of monks near Antioch, of which the famous Diodorus of Tarsus was the abbot.
He sought always the most menial offices. But he soon found that the world could intrude even into a monastery. He could not escape from disputes about the episcopal claims of Meletius and Paulinus, and about the nice questions respecting the hypostatic union. Macedonius found no comfort in such matters. What he was aiming at in the great warfare which has no discharge was to subdue the flesh to the spirit, to secure a tranquil empire over himself. He left the cœnobium, and began to live as a hermit on the hills.

But any empire over himself which he had gained was infinitely far from tranquil. As he had found that the monastic life did not involve any exception from trials, but only a substitution of meaner and smaller ones for those which had of old assailed him, so it was his bitter experience that by flying to the mountain cave he had not escaped either from the devil or the flesh. He carried himself with him as all men do, and it was contrary to the law of life that he should find any condition which temptation left unassailed.
The conquest was granted to his sincerity, but the same reward would have been given to him, with less frightful struggles and more complete blessedness, if he had lived as Christ lived, among his kind, and not done violence to the laws of Nature and the ordinances of God. How constantly had he to wrestle with the instigations of spiritual pride! How often did the secret devil of his loneliness whisper into his soul high flatteries of his spiritual supremacy, telling him that his name and fame had spread through all Syria and Asia—yes, and even to the great western and southern realms of Italy and Spain and Africa! Thus did Satan strive to puff him up with vain self-exaltation in that inner world of the soul which remains untouched by outward ordinances. How often, in spite of his austerities—nay, not only in spite of, but (had he only known it) because of them—did evil and carnal thoughts come over him like a flood! The enfeebled body was too weakened to fight against the rebellious soul.
syrian desert
His bones, as he sank back and writhed on the rocky floor of his cave, clashed like those of a skeleton, yet all the while his imagination was still rioting, in spite of himself, amid the sinful scenes of his youth in Antioch.”
Extract from

“Venerable Macedonius, hermit of Syria (420) was known as ‘the Barley-eater’ because he only ate ground and moistened barley (until infirmity forced him to eat bread) (see Bulgakov’s Menaion), and he would live in mountain-top caves.
syrian hermits caves
He is described by Theodoret of Cyrrhus as exceedingly innocent and simple, a testimony based on personal experience, for St Macedonius had brought about the conception of Theodoret by his intercessions, and the latter ‘often enjoyed his blessing and teaching’ (A History of the Monks of Syria, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1985], p. 107).
St Macedonius told the young man:

‘You were born, my child, with much toil: I spent many nights begging this alone of God, that your parents should earn the name they received after your birth. So live a life worthy of this toil. Before you were born, you were offered up in promise. Offerings to God are revered by all, and are not to be touched by the multitude: so it is fitting that you do not admit the base impulses of the soul, but perform, speak, and desire those things alone that serve God, the giver of the laws of virtue.’ (p. 107)…

He was discovered by a hunter, a general with his soldiers, who asked him what he was doing there. The Venerable one asked him in turn, ‘What have you come here to do?’ The general told St Macedonius he was hunting. The latter replied, ‘I too am hunting my God. I yearn to catch him, I long to behold him, and I shall not give up this noble hunt’ (p. 102).

St Macedonius fell asleep in the Lord c. 420, at the age of about 90. He was buried in the same tomb as St Theodosius of Antioch († c. 410; Theodoret, pp. 89-93) and St Aphrahat the Persian († c. 345; Theodoret, pp. 72-80).”

“The story is told of the aged hermit Macedonius the Barley Eater, who subsisted on only a few grains of barley a day. He had no other name. He was the most ragged of all the hermits. One day the imperial commissioners were riding through the streets when they saw the wild hermits approaching them.

“Who is that mad fellow?” they asked, and when they were told it was a mostly saintly ascetic, they dropped off their horses and went down to their knees.

According to [Christian historian] Theodret (c. 393-466), who tells the story rather wistfully, as though he did not quite believe it, the hermit regarded them sternly and gave them a lesson in Christian behavior.

“My friends,” said the hermit, “go to the emperor and tell him from me: ‘ You are an emperor, but you are also a man, and you rule over beings who are of a like nature with yourself! Man was created after a divine image and likeness! Do not then mercilessly command the image of God to be destroyed, for you will provoke the Maker if you punish this image!’”


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