St. Arsenius the Great

(354 – c.450 AD.)

St. Arsenius, a learned and highborn Roman citizen, became one of the most revered of those Christians who sought perfection as hermits in the arid deserts of Egypt.

When Roman Emperor Theodosius was looking for a tutor to teach his sons Arcadius and Honorius, Pope Damasus highly recommended Arsenius, a personage of senatorial rank, well educated and perhaps also an ordained deacon. Arsenius accepted, and presented himself at the imperial palace in Constantinople in 383 AD

The grateful emperor saw to it that the new tutor lacked no comforts or amenities in his splendid court. But, despite his efforts, Arsenius felt, after 11 years, that he had failed to make good men of the princes. Furthermore, a voice now spoke to him, which he immediately recognized as God’s, saying, “Flee the company of men and you shall be saved.” So he abandoned the decadent court and fled to the austere desert of Skete in northern Egypt. Hundreds of hermits had found in this physically barren land an atmosphere that promoted detachment from worldly attitudes and standards

The desert may well have been symbolic of detachment, but even the monks had to work hard to make detachment a part of themselves. That became clear to the newcomer when he first asked St. John the Dwarf to be his spiritual father.

On the day he arrived at St. John’s monastic center, the monks were at dinner. St. John left Arsenius standing there, without inviting him to share the meal. To test him further, John threw a loaf of bread down on the ground before him. Arsenius promptly picked up the dusty bread, and sat down cheerfully to eat it.

He had met the initial challenge of humility, St. John concluded, so he told the others, “This man will make a good monk.” Arsenius spent the rest of his life making that prophecy come magnificently true.

The “new monk in the block” concluded that the best way to unhook himself from worldly attractions was to act in every way counter to his old ways of acting, For instance, when St. John intimated to him that to sit cross-legged was a worldly concession to physical comfort Arsenius ceased thenceforth to cross his legs. He also refused to change the smelly water that he used for soaking the palm leaves he used for making mats. He said that the stench counterbalanced the perfumes that he had used at court. Then somebody died back home, leaving him a large estate. Arsenius refused his inheritance. “I am dead,” he said, “and therefore I cannot be an heir.”

Of course, those long hours of prayer and rigorous fasting (so hard for us to imagine!) became a part of his daily schedule. In fact, he socialized with his fellow monks only at spiritual assemblies. When Abbot Mark asked him why he so avoided their company, he answered, “God knows how dearly I love you all; but I find I cannot be both with God and with men at the same time: nor can I think of leaving God to converse with men.”

He also used to say, “I have always something to repent of after having talked, but have never been sorry for having been silent.” (He was echoing what even the pagan philosopher Seneca noted “ As often as I have been amongst men, I have returned less a man.”)

Arsenius was much given to weeping for his own sins and those of others, especially his former pupils, the emperors Arcadius and Honorius. Asked in his last days whether he was also weeping for fear of death, he said, “I am very afraid – nor has this dread ever forsaken me from the time I first came into these deserts.”

Of course he died in charity and peace. But it is reassuring to us to know that the saints themselves tremble at the thought of death.

The old hermit saints like Arsenius led lives such as we cannot picture ourselves living. But their dedication to spiritual improvement forces us all to ask ourselves, “Why did God make me, except to serve Him totally?”

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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