He lived in an age when the Christian West was shaken by the Protestant Reformation. While others around him were pursuing luxury and lascivious pleasures, he studied the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers. Saint Macarius was grieved to see so many darkened by sin and worldly vanity, and was disturbed by the rebellions and conflicts within the Western Church. With tears, he asked God to show him the path of salvation, and his prayer did not go unanswered. He came to realize that he would find the safe harbor of salvation in the Orthodox Church.
Saint Macarius left Rome secretly, and set out for Russia without money, and wearing an old garment. After many sufferings on his journey, he arrived in Novgorod, where he rejoiced to see so many churches and monasteries. One of these monasteries had been founded three centuries before by his fellow countryman, Saint Anthony the Roman (August 3).
Saint Macarius came to the banks of the River Svir, where Saint Alexander of Svir (April 17 and August 30) had founded the monastery of the Holy Trinity. Saint Alexander received Macarius into the Orthodox Church and tonsured him as a monk. Macarius, however longed for the solitary life. He moved to an island on the River Lezna, forty-five miles from Novgorod, where he engaged in ascetical struggles and unceasing prayer.
The winters were very cold, and the summers were hot and humid. The marshy area was also a breeding ground for mosquitos, which tormented the saint. Saint Macarius survived on berries, roots, and herbs. Sometimes bears would come to him for food, and they allowed him to pet them.
Such a great lamp of the spiritual life could not remain hidden for long. One rainy night someone knocked on his door and asked him to open it. Several people, who seemed to be hunters, entered his cell. Astonished by his appearance, and the divine light shining from his face, the men asked for his blessing. They told him they had come to the forest to hunt, and only by the prayers of the saint did God permit them to find him.
“It is not my sinful prayers,” he told them, “but the grace of God which led you here.”
After feeding them, he spoke and prayed with them, then showed them the way out of the marsh. Saint Macarius was concerned that his peace would be disturbed, now that his dwelling place was known. His fears were justified, because many people sought him out to ask for his advice and prayers.
The holy ascetic decided to move even farther into the wilderness, choosing an elevated place on the left bank of the Lezna. Even here, however, he was not able to conceal himself for very long. Sometimes a pillar of fire would rise up into the sky at night above his place of refuge. During the day, the grace of God was made manifest by a fragrant cloud of smoke. Drawn by these signs, the local inhabitants of the region were able to find him once more.
Some of his visitors begged Saint Macarius to permit them to live near him and to be guided by his counsels. Seeing that this was the Lord’s will, he did not refuse them. He blessed them to build cells, and this was the foundation of his monastery.
In 1540, they built a wooden church dedicated to the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos. Saint Macarius was ordained to the holy priesthood by Bishop Macarius of Novgorod, who later became Metropolitan of All Russia. The hierarch also appointed Saint Macarius as igumen of the monastery.
Saint Macarius was an example to the others, and was given the gifts of clairvoyance and wonderworking from God. He wore himself out with his labors and vigils, encouraging others not to become faint-hearted in their own struggles.
After several years, he entrusted the monastery to one of his disciples, and returned to the island where he had first lived. There he fell asleep in the Lord on August 15, 1550. His disciples buried him outside on the left side of the Dormition church which he had founded.
The Hermitage of Saint Macarius was never a prosperous monastery with many monks, but it was distinguished by the high level of spiritual life. In the seventeenth century, many of the monasteries near Novgorod were plundered by Swedish invaders. The Hermitage of Saint Macarius was also burned in 1615, and some of the monks were put to the sword.
By the eighteenth century, the monastery had become a dependency of the Saint Alexander Nevsky Lavra in Saint Petersburg. The Empress Catherine closed it in 1764, just as she had closed other monasteries, and it was designated as a parish church. Although pilgrims still came to venerate the saint’s relics and to celebrate his Feast Day, the buildings soon fell into ruin.
In the mid-nineteenth century, some benefactors restored the two churches and the miraculous healing spring which the saint himself had dug. About this time an old priest was living there, and he celebrated the church services until his death. In 1894, the monastery began to function once more under the noted missionary Hieromonk Arsenius, who introduced the Athonite Typikon. The monastery was destroyed by the Soviets in 1932.
Saint Macarius the Roman is commemorated on August 15 (the date of his repose), and also on January 19 (his nameday).