July 25, 2019

Saint Macarius of Zheltovod and Unzha (+ 1444)

St. Macarius of Zheltovod and Unzha (Feast Day - July 25)

Venerable Macarius of Zheltovod and Unzha was born in the year 1349 at Nizhni-Novgorod to pious parents named John and Maria. When he was still a baby, he would start crying every time he heard the ringing of the bells of the nearby church. There was no way to console the child. The parents would not want to bring the baby boy to the church, afraid that he would disturb the service with his crying; but eventually they decided to try. And, to their surprise, as soon as they brought the child to the church, he became quiet, smiling joyfully. From this time on, the parents had to attend every service at the parish church, and to take the child with them, because if they stayed at home during the service, the baby would again start crying.

Macarius grew as a pious boy, especially interested in the lives of the Orthodox hermits of the past ages, living in the wilderness alone or in small lavra communities. For that reason, he enjoyed visiting not only his parish church, but also Pechersky Ascension Monastery, founded by Saint Dionysius of Suzdal. At twelve years of age he secretly left his parents and accepted monastic tonsure at the Pechersky Ascension Monastery, becoming one of the twelve disciples under Saint Dionysius of Suzdal (June 26). With all the intensity of his youthful soul he gave himself over to the work of salvation. He stood out among the brethren for his extremely strict fasting and precise fulfillment of the monastic rule.

The parents of Saint Macarius only learned three years later where he had gone. His father went to him and tearfully besought his son merely that he would come forth and show himself. Saint Macarius spoke with his father through a wall, saying that he would see him in the future life. “Extend your hand, at least,” implored the father. The son fulfilled this small request and the father, having kissed his son’s hand, returned home.

In 1374, Dionysius was appointed the Archbishop of Suzdal and Nizhny Novgorod and left the monastery. Soon, Macarius left the monastery too. He traveled up the Volga, spent some time with Saint Tikhon on the Lukh River, and then founded a monastery in honor of the Theophany of Jesus Christ (now Makaryev Reshma Monastery, near the village of Reshma in today's Kineshma district or Kostroma Oblast).

Macarius did not stay long in his new monastery, however. He wanted to live in the wilderness as a hermit. He travelled down the Volga, and liked the site at the Yellow Water Lake, near the fall of the Kerzhenets into the Volga, some one hundred kilometers downstream from Nizhny Novgorod. In those days, this was no-man's land between the Russian principalities, and the Kazan Khanate.

Macarius dug a small cave by the waters of the Yellow Water Lake, and stayed there day and night, emulating the great hermits of the past. However, his solitude did not last long: pious people from far and wide came to his hermitage, some to seek his blessing, others to join him in hermetic life. In 1434, he founded Zheltovodsky Makariev Monastery of Holy Trinity for his disciples.

The asceticism of Macarius, together with his love of his neighbors, attracted not only Christians but also many local pagan Mordvin, Mari, Chuvash and Muslim Tatar people. He baptized many in Yellow Water Lake.

In 1439, the monastery was destroyed during the invasion of Russia by the khan Olug Moxammat of Kazan. Most of the monks were killed; Macarius and a few other Christians were taken to Kazan as prisoners. The khan, impressed by the pious life of the nonagenarian abbot, released him and nearly 400 other Christian prisoners, and allowed him to bury the killed. In return, Saint Macarius promised not to settle by Yellow Lake, so he went 200 versts to the Galich border.

On the way back from Kazan to the Yellow Water Lake, Macarius is said to have stopped at a site near today's Sviyazhsk, blessing the future location of Makaryev Sviyazhsk Monastery. However, Macarius and his companions were not allowed to stay at the Yellow Water Lake site. He decided to leave a safe distance between themselves and the Khanate, and went to the forests of the Unzha River, a few hundred kilometers north of the Nizhny. It is a long way, and the travelers soon ran out of food, but were miraculously saved from starvation (Venerable Macarius' Miracle of the Moose). Once they reached the Unzha, still in 1439, Macarius and his party founded Unzhensky Makaryev Monastery (now a convent).

Saint Macarius founded four monasteries all together in the Middle and Upper Volga regions of Russia. During the fifth year of his life at Lake Unzha, Saint Macarius took sick and reposed at age 95 in the year 1444.

While yet alive, Saint Macarius was granted a gift: he healed a blind and demon-afflicted girl. After the death of the monk, many received healing from his relics. The monks built a temple over his grave, and established a cenobitic rule at the monastery.

In 1522, Tatars fell upon Unzha and wanted to destroy the silver reliquary in the Makariev Monastery, but they fell blind. In a panic, they took to flight. Many of them drowned in the Unzha. In 1532, through the prayers of Saint Macarius, the city of Soligalich was saved from the Tatars. In gratitude, the inhabitants built a chapel in the cathedral church in honor of the Saint.

When Feodor Romanov, the father of Russia's new Csar Michael, is enthroned as Patriarch Philaret of Moscow in 1619, he sends a commission to the Unzha to investigate the miracles. He mentions these miracles as confirmed in his letter to his son the Csar in September 1619, and encourages Michael to visit Macarius' Unzha Monastery in fulfillment of the vow he had given earlier (which Michael promptly does). It is thought that it was at that time that Venerable Macarius was canonized by a Sobor of the Russian Orthodox Church, which made his veneration nationwide.