Christianity has always experienced a certain tension between the priestly and prophetic ministries, between the institutional Church and the charismatic tradition. The Macarian writings lie very much at the centre of this often constructive, sometimes destructive tension, offering a peculiarly vivid insight into the nature of the complex relationship between those who would be the mediators of grace and those who claim direct access to it. The Macarian writings are one of the principal fountainheads of the Christian ascetic and mystical tradition. Issuing from the spiritual, intellectual, and political ferment of fourth-century Syria, they bring us to the heart of the confrontation between the burgeoning ascetic movement and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, most notably in that groups associated with the author were condemned as heretical 'Messalians'. They also bring us to the centre of the ongoing encounter between Hellenic and Semitic thought-worlds, between Greek and Syriac expressions of the Christian revelation.
The writings were rapidly translated and widely circulated. They exercised a profound and formative influence upon the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition, an influence quite as decisive as that of Dionysius the Areopagite or Evagrius of Pontus. The Macarian legacy is clearly discernible in, for example, SS Mark the Monk, Diadochus of Photice, Maximus the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory Palamas. 1 The writings have also had a remarkable odyssey within the Western Christian tradition, providing a link between, amongst others, Dante, Wesley, the Society of Jesus, and German Pietism. 2 This is a distinctly ecumenical legacy.