January 24, 2017

Saint Macedonios the Barley-Eater

St. Macedonios the Barley-Eater (Feast Day - January 24)


Alone and without a paternal home,
Macedonios O Christ received one.

By Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus in Syria

1. Macedonios,1 called the Barley-eater - for this food won him the name -, is known by all, Phoenicians, Syrians, and Cilicians, and known too by the neighbors bordering on them, of whom some were eyewitnesses of the man's miracles, while others heard reports that celebrated and circulated them. Not all know everything, however, but some have learnt this and others that, and naturally they admire only what they know. I, who possess more accurate knowledge than others concerning this sacred person - for I had many incentives to go to him and go often -, shall relate each point as I may be able. I have reserved this position for him and placed his story after many others, not because he was second to the others in virtue - for he was a match for the perfect and first - but because, having lived an especially long time, he came to the end of his life after those whom I have recalled already.

2. He had as his wrestling-ground and stadium the tops of mountains; he did not settle in one place, but now dwelt in this one and then transferred to that. This he did not through dislike of the places, but to escape from the crowds of those who visited him and flocked from all sides. He continued living in this way for forty-five years, using neither tent nor hut, but making his stops in a deep hole, whence some called him Gouba, a word which, translated from the Syriac into the Greek language, means 'pit'. At the end of this time, now an elderly man, he yielded to those who besought him, and set up a hut; later, at the entreaty of his friends, he made use of cottages that were not his own but belonged to others. He continued living in the hut and the cottages for twenty-five years, so that the time of his contests came together to seventy years.

3. As food he used neither bread nor pulses, but ground barley, merely soaked in water; it was this food that my mother, who became his friend, supplied him with for a very long time.2 On one occasion, visiting her when she was unwell and learning that she refused to take the food appropriate for her illness - for she herself already embraced the ascetic life -, he urged her to yield to her doctors and consider such food a medicine, since it was being offered her not for the sake of luxury but because of need. 'I myself,' he said, 'after using only barley, as you know, for forty years, when yesterday I felt some weakness, told my companion to ask for a small piece of bread for me and bring it. For a thought had occurred to me that, were I to die, I would have to answer for my death before the just judge, as having fled from the contest and run away from the labors of servitude. Even though it was possible with a little food to prevent death and to cling to this life in toil and hardship, amassing the wealth therefrom, I would have adjudged death from hunger preferable to the philosophic life. Filled with alarm at this, and wishing to blunt the pricks of reflection, I both had bread asked for and ate it when it was brought; and I bid you supply me no longer with barley but with bread.' So we heard from that tongue incapable of deceit that for forty years he had made barley his food. This itself is sufficient evidence of the man's asceticism and love of labor.

4. The innocence and simplicity of his character we shall show from other instances. When the great Flavian had been appointed to shepherd the great flock of God, and learnt of this man's virtue - for praise of him circulated in the mouths of all -, he got him down from the mountain-top by pretending that a charge had been made against him; while the mystic liturgy was being offered up, he led him to the altar and enrolled him among the priests. When at the end of the liturgy someone informed him of this - for he was completely ignorant of what had happened -, at first he was full of reproaches and assailed everyone with words. Then, taking his stick (because of old age he was wont to walk with support), he pursued the bishop himself and all those present, for he supposed that the ordination would deprive him of the mountain-top and the life he loved. On this occasion some of his friends with difficulty calmed his indignation. But when at the end of the weekly cycle the day of the Master's feast came round again, the great Flavian sent for him a second time, bidding him join them for the festival. He replied to those who came, 'Are you not satisfied with what has been done already, but want to appoint me priest again?' Although they told him that no one man could receive the same ordination twice, he did not consent to come until with time his friends had often assured him of this.

5. I know that to many this story will not seem admirable. I have recorded it because I think it worthy of mention as sufficient proof of his simplicity of thought and purity of soul. It was to such men that the Master promised the kingdom of heaven: 'Truly, I say to you,' he said, 'unless you turn and become like these children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.' Now that we have shown the stamp of his soul in summary, let us show the frankness of speech that resulted from his virtue.

6. A certain general who loved coursing went up the mountain to hunt. He was accompanied by dogs and soldiers and whatever is needed for a hunt. On seeing the man from a distance and learning from his companions who it was, he immediately leapt from his horse, went up and spoke to him, and asked him what he did, living there. He replied, 'What have you come here to do?' When the general told him it was to hunt, he said, '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.' After hearing this, the general departed, naturally struck with admiration.

7. On another occasion, when the city was driven insane by some evil demon and vented its frenzy against the imperial statues, the supreme generals arrived with a verdict of total destruction against the city.4 He descended from the mountain and stopped the two generals as they were crossing the square; on learning who it was, they leapt down from their horses, clasped his hands and knees, and asked for his blessing. He charged them to tell the emperor that he was a man, with the same nature as those who had acted outrageously, that while anger ought to be proportionate to one's nature, he had given rein to anger that was out of proportion: because of his own images he was consigning to execution the images of God, and for the sake of bronze statues delivering bodies to death. 'It is easy and simple for us,' he continued, 'to remold and refashion bronze figures, but it is impossible for you, even though you are emperor, to bring back to life bodies you have slaughtered. And why do I say bodies? You cannot refashion over a single hair.' He said this in Syriac; and while the interpreter translated it into Greek, the generals shuddered as they listened, and promised to convey this message to the emperor.

8. I think that everyone would agree that these words came from the grace of the Holy Spirit. How else could they have been spoken by a man who had had no education and a rustic upbringing, dwelt on mountain-tops, possessed in his soul complete simplicity and had not even devoted his time to the divine oracles? This is why it is after having displayed his spiritual wisdom and the frankness of speech appropriate to a righteous man6 - for 'the righteous man has the confidence of a lion' - that I shall now proceed to his miracles.

9. The wife of a nobleman fell ill of morbid gluttony; some called the illness a demonic attack, others thought it a sickness of the body. Whether the former or the latter, it was like this: they used to relate how, though eating thirty chickens a day, she could not by excessive consumption extinguish her appetite but hungered for still more of them. While their substance was being thus exhausted on her, her relatives took pity on her and made supplication to the man of God. He came and offered prayers, and by placing his hand over water, tracing the sign of salvation, and telling her to drink, healed the disease. And so completely did he blunt the excess of her appetite that thereafter a small piece of chicken each day satisfied her need for food. Such was the cure this illness received.

10. A girl still kept at home was suddenly possessed by the action of an evil demon. Her father hastened to the godly man with loud and clamorous entreaty, begging that his daughter be cured. Having prayed, he ordered the demon to depart from the girl immediately. He replied that he had not entered her willingly but under the compulsion of magic spells; he even told the name of the man who had compelled him, and revealed that love was the cause of the enchantment. On hearing this, the father did not contain the onrush of his anger or wait for his child's cure, but repairing to the official over the chief officials, presiding over several provinces, he brought a charge against the man and related the crime.7 On appearing before the court, the man denied the charge and called it a false accusation. The father, having no other witness to call except the demon who had served the magic, begged the judge to hasten to the man of God and receive the evidence of the demon. When the judge replied that it was in accordance with neither secular nor divine law to carry out a judicial interrogation in a place of asceticism, the father of the girl promised to bring the godly Macedonios to the courtroom. He hastened to him, persuaded him, and brought him. The judge, by taking his seat outside his residence, became not a judge but a spectator; the role of judges was performed by the great Macedonios, who used the power within him to order the demon to leave off his usual deceit and give a true account of the whole tragedy of the affair.8 Under the pressure of the greatest duress, the demon pointed out the man who had compelled him by magical charms and also the maidservant who had administered the potion to the girl. But when he was pressing on to tell of further things he had done under the compulsion of certain others - how he burnt the house of one man, destroyed the property of another, and injured someone else in some other way -, the man of God ordered him to keep silence and to depart somewhere far from the girl and from the city. As if obeying an enactment of the Master, he did what was ordered and rushed away at once.

12. Thus freeing the girl from this frenzy, the man of God also rescued the wretch from the charge and prevented the judge's sentence of death, saying it was not right to inflict the death penalty on the evidence provided by the demon, but rather to grant him the preservation earned by repentance. This miracle is itself sufficient to show the abundance of divine power supplied to him. I shall, however, relate others as well.

13. A woman of the very wealthiest of the nobility - she was called Astrion - lost her wits; she could recognize none of her household, and could not bear to take food or drink. She continued delirious for a very long time. The others called it the action of a demon, while the doctors named it a disease of the brain. When all skill had been expended and no help came from it, the woman's husband - he was Ovodianus, a curial of the highest rank - hastened to this godly person, described his wife's affliction and begged to obtain a cure. The inspired man consented, went to the house and addressed earnest supplication to God. On completing his prayer, he bade water be brought, traced the sign of salvation and bade her drink it. When the doctors objected, saying that drinking cold water would increase the disease, the husband dismissed the whole company of them and gave his wife the drink. As she drank, she came to herself and became sane: totally freed of her affliction, she recognized the man of God, and begging to take his hand placed it on her eyes and moved it to her mouth. From then on she continued to have a sound mind.

14. While he was embracing the mountain life, a shepherd looking for lost sheep came to the spot where the man of God was. It was the dead of night, and thick snow was falling. He saw, as he related, a great fire lit just by him and two figures clothed in white supplying wood for the fire, for, contributing his zeal, he enjoyed divine aid.

15. He had also received the gift of prophecy. On one occasion there came to him a general distinguished for piety - who is ignorant of the virtue of Lupicinus?9 He was worried, he said, about some men who were bringing him provisions by sea from the imperial city. Fifty days had passed, he declared, since they put out from harbor, and yet he had received no word of them. Without hesitation the other replied, 'One ship, my friend, is lost, but the other will reach the harbor of Seleucia tomorrow.' This he heard the holy tongue say, and he learnt from experience the truth of the words.

16. To omit the rest, I shall recount what involved ourselves. My mother lived with my father for thirteen years without becoming the mother of children, for she was sterile and prevented by nature from bearing fruit. This did not greatly trouble her, for, instructed in the things of God, she had faith that this was advantageous. But childlessness greatly distressed my father, who went round everywhere, begging the servants of God to ask for children for him from God. The others promised to pray and bade him acquiesce in the divine will, but this man of God gave an explicit assurance that he would ask for a single son from the Creator of the universe, and promised to obtain his petition. When three years had passed and the assurance had not been fulfilled, my father hastened again to demand what had been promised. The other told him to send his wife. When my mother arrived, the man of God said he would ask for a child and obtain one, and that it would be fitting to give the child back to the one who gave it. When my mother begged to receive only spiritual salvation and escape from hellfire, he replied: 'In addition to that the munificent one will also give you a son, for to those who ask sincerely he grants their petitions twofold.' My mother returned form there bearing away the blessing contained in his assurance. And in the fourth year of the promise she conceived and bore a burden in her womb; she went to the holy man to show the sheaves of the seeds of his blessing.10

17. In the fifth month of her pregnancy there occurred a danger of miscarriage. She again went to her new Elisha - her affliction prevented her from hastening herself -, to remind him that she had not wanted to become the mother of children and to confront him with his promises. Seeing from a distance the coming of the messenger, he recognized him and knew the cause, for during the night the Master had revealed to him both the affliction and the cure. So taking his stick, he arrived with this support; on entering the house, he gave, as usual, the greeting of peace. 'Have confidence,' he said, 'and do not fear; for the giver will not rescind the gift, unless you transgress the agreements made. You promised to give back what will be given you and to consecrate it to God's service.' 'That,' replied my mother, 'is how I both wish and pray to give birth, for I think failure in giving birth preferable to rearing the child otherwise.'11 'Then drink this water,' said the man of God, 'and you will feel God's help.' So she drank as he had directed, and the danger of a miscarriage vanished. Such were the miracles of our Elisha.

18. I myself often enjoyed his blessing and teaching. To exhort me he often said: '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.' Such was the exhortation that the godly man always continued to give me; I remember his words and have been taught the gift of God. But since I do not display his exhortation in my actions, I beg to receive God's help through his prayer, and to live the remainder of my life according to his instructions.

19. The type of man he was and the labors by which he attracted divine grace, these stories are sufficient to demonstrate. Even in this life the close of his labors received due honor. All the citizens and foreigners, and those entrusted to administer the great offices, bearing the sacred bier on their shoulders, conveyed it to the shrine of the victorious martyrs, and buried the holy body, dear to God, with those godly men, Aphrahat and Theodosios.12 His fame has remained inextinguishable, and no length of time will be able to obliterate it. We, on bringing this narrative to an end, have reaped the fragrance that comes from narrating it.


1. Macedonios was a hermit on Mt. Silpius near Antioch for a total of seventy years. He was already in 'old age' when ordained priest by Flavian of Antioch in the 380s, but he outlived Zeno, who died in the middle or late 410s. A chronology that would reconcile the data must run as follows: born c.330, an ascetic from 350, ordained 385, died c.420.

2. For the conversion of Theodoret's mother to the devout life, the date was 386. Canivet deduces therefrom a chronology for Macedonios: if he lived on barley for forty years till a change of diet at the very time of the first visit paid him by Theodoret's mother soon after her conversion, then Macedonios will have entered on his ascetic labors c. 346. But what in fact we read here is that she had been Macedonios's friend and supplying him with barley for 'a very long time' before his change of diet. This implies a somewhat later chronology, and is compatible with the one proposed in the preceding note.

3. Flavian was bishop of Antioch from 381 to 404, but Theodoret implies that Macedonios's ordination occurred in the earlier part of this period. This honorary ordination of holy men was doubtless partly motivated by a desire to place their charisms firmly under the aegis of the established ecclesiastical hierarchy. Ordination of this kind, involving no pastoral charge, was declared invalid by the sixth Canon of the Council of Chalcedon (451).

4. This is the celebrated Riot of the Statues in 387, which occasioned John Chrysostom's Homilies on the Statues and several orations by Libanius; see too Theodoret, Eccl. Hist. V.19. Tension in the city, due to high taxation, erupted into a riot in which statues of the imperial family were overturned and insulted. Two imperial commissioners arrived to investigate the affair and discipline the city: Ellebichus, Commander-in-Chief of the eastern armies, and Caesarius, head of the civil service. The Antiochenes supposed they had come to order the destruction of the city; the massacre at Thessalonica in 390 is evidence that this fear was not irrational. In fact, the city was treated comparatively mildly, after effective intercession by Bishop Flavian, the rhetorician Libanius, and the monks.

5. John Chrysostom, Homily on the Statues XVII, gives the following version of Macedonios's words to the commissioners: 'The statues which have been overturned have been set up again and resumed their appearance, and what was done has been rapidly set right; but if you kill the image of God, how will you be able to revoke your offence? How revive those destroyed, and restore their souls to their bodies?' The contrast between this 'frankness of speech' and the obsequious groveling of Chrysostom and Libanius is notable. The holy man could speak in such forthright terms because of his God-given authority; and in situations of conflict, it could be convenient for both sides to yield to this authority.

6. P. Brown, The Rise and Function of the Holy Man, nn.7-8, notes that Macedonius's freedom to rebuke high military officials had been earned by his already befriending such officials.

7· For the judicial role of this official, the Comes Orientis, see W. Liebeschuetz, Antioch, uo-2. On magic in the Late Antique world, see P. Brown in Religion and Society in the Age of St Augustine, 119-146.

8. Canivet supposes that the governor coopted Macedonios onto the bench as an assessor, but Theoaoret's account is not to be read so literally. By consenting to hear the demon only outside the courtroom, the judge treated Macedonios's evidence as judicially inadmissable.

9. Lupicmus was commander of the cavalry in the East from 364 to 367. He was a devout Christian, but is criticized by the historian Ammianus for arrogance, avarice, and cruelty.

10. For a mother, in gratitude for the gift of a son, dedicating him to the Lord from his birth, see Life of Daniel the Stylite 2-4. 12.

From The History of the Monks of Syria.