There is a remarkable reading that comes up every year in the Breviary attributed to Saint Macarius, a bishop of the early Church. I marvel at its vivid and pictorial quality. And yet at the same time, I find questions that arise in my mind as to the general application of the text. For the text states, in effect, that if the soul does not have Christ living within, it falls into utter disrepair and a contemptible state.
Allow me to have Bishop Macarius speak for himself and then I would like to pose a couple questions.
When a house has no master living in it, it becomes dark, vile and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse. So too is a soul which has lost its master, who once rejoiced there with his angels. This soul is darkened with sin, its desires are degraded, and it knows nothing but shame.
Woe to the path that is not walked on, or along which the voices of men are not heard, for then it becomes the haunt of wild animals. Woe to the soul if the Lord does not walk within it to banish with his voice the spiritual beasts of sin. Woe to the house where no master dwells, to the field where no farmer works, to the pilotless ship, storm-tossed and sinking. Woe to the soul without Christ as its true pilot; drifting in the darkness, buffeted by the waves of passion, storm-tossed at the mercy of evil spirits, its end is destruction. Woe to the soul that does not have Christ to cultivate it with care to produce the good fruit of the Holy Spirit. Left to itself, it is choked with thorns and thistles; instead of fruit it produces only what is fit for burning. Woe to the soul that does not have Christ dwelling in it; deserted and foul with the filth of the passions, it becomes a haven for all the vices.
From a homily attributed to Saint Macarius, bishop
(Hom. 28: PG 34, 710-711)
Again, a remarkably vivid and creative description of the Soul without Christ.
But herein lies my question: Is this obviously the condition of all non-believers, or of those who stray from the faith? I have occasionally had an agnostic or atheist write in to insist that they are very happy and fulfilled. I have also known non-believers in my own life who were seemingly happy and did not live reprobated lives. They had married and raised children, they were not horribly lacking in natural moral virtue. Conversely I, like you have met sworn believers who were very lacking in moral virtue or kindness.
Yet to read St Macarius, it would seem that the condition of the soul without Christ is to head straight downhill into a moral morass.
I suppose my own answer to my question is that St Macarius speaks in a general sort of way and that each person’s personal journey will be affected by any number of variables and factors.
But I would like to know what you think.
At one level we ought to be careful to not simplify the lives of unbelievers. They come in many forms and degrees. I am not unsympathetic to the complaints that, at times, we Christians simply presume that all unbelievers are unhappy and must, somehow be depressed. I for my part, am also annoyed when non believers oversimplify the faith, the scriptures and we who believe.
To be clear, I do not accuse St Macarius of over-simplifying. As I have said, I think he speaks in a general sort of way and the dangers he announces are often the case.
I especially think he is right when the “person” in question is a culture or nation. We have clearly seen how our own Western culture has suffered gravely as it has “kicked God to the Curb.” It is not outlandish to describe the Western world as a house that has no master living in it….dark, vile and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse…darkened with sin, its desires are degraded, and it knows nothing but shame.. Increasingly this is our lot in the West.
But individuals are more complicated. The effects of unbelief are often more subtle in them, and even without faith it is possible to have natural virtues.
At some level this provides hope that no one is beyond remedy or reach. And while natural virtue can never be sufficient to save any soul, it can, at least open a person to God and provide fertile ground for grace, and even prevenient graces.
I’d like to get some of your thoughts on this. What are some important distinctions to make? How do you understand the words of the Bishop St. Macarius? How should we regard the state of soul of unbelievers and those who have relapsed from or renounced the faith?
Please understand, I do not ask these questions rhetorically. I ask them genuinely and do indeed seek your thoughts of St. Macarius’ vivid description and how it may or may not apply today.