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Arsenius the Great (350 - 445)

...angelic in appearance, like Jacob. His body was graceful and slender, his long beard reached to his waist. ... Tall of stature, he was bent with old age.
Fresco at mount Athos, XIV c.
Saint Arsenius the Deacon, sometimes known as Arsenius of Scetis and Turah, Arsenius the Roman or Arsenius the Great, was a Roman imperial tutor who became an anchorite in Egypt, one of the most highly regarded of the Desert Fathers, whose teachings were greatly influential on the development of asceticism and the contemplative life.


He was born in 350 A.D. in Rome to a Christian, Roman senatorial family. After his parents died, his sister Afrositty was admitted to a community of virgins, and he gave all their riches to the poor, and lived an ascetic life. Arsenius became famous for his righteousness and wisdom.

There is considerable debate regarding the accuracy of several points in Arsenius's life. Arsenius is said to have been made a deacon by Pope Damasus I who recommended him to Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I the Great, who had requested the Emperor Gratian and Pope Damasus around 383 to find him in the West a tutor for his sons (future emperors Arcadius and Honorius). Arsenius was chosen on the basis of being a man well read in Greek literature. He reached Constantinople in 383, and continued as tutor in the imperial family for eleven years, during the last three of which he also had charge of his original pupil Arcadius's brother, Honorius. Coming one day to see his sons at their studies, Theodosius found them sitting while Arsenius talked to them standing. This he would not tolerate, and caused the teacher to sit and the pupils to stand. On his arrival at court Arsenius had been given a splendid establishment, and probably because the Emperor so desired, he lived in great pomp, but all the time felt a growing inclination to renounce the world. While living in the Emperor's palace, God gave him grace in the sight of everyone, and they all loved him. He lived a lavish life in the palace for forty years, but all the time felt a growing inclination to renounce the world. One day he was praying, and said, “O God teach me how to be saved.” And God’s voice came to him through the Gospel, "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26). He left Constantinople and came by sea to Alexandria and fled into the wilderness. When he first presented himself to Saint Macarius the Great, the father of the monks of Scetis, he recommended him to the care of Saint John the Dwarf to try him.

Sometime around the year 400 he joined the desert monks at Scetes, Egypt, and asked to be admitted among the solitaries who dwelt there. Saint John the Dwarf, to whose cell he was conducted, though previously warned of the quality of his visitor, took no notice of him and left him standing by himself while he invited the rest to sit down at table. When the repast was half finished he threw down some bread before him, bidding him with an air of indifference eat if he would. Arsenius meekly picked up the bread and ate, sitting on the ground. Satisfied with this proof of humility, St. John kept him under his direction. The new solitary was from the first most exemplary yet unwittingly retained certain of his old habits, such as sitting cross-legged or laying one foot over the other. Noticing this, the abbot requested some one to imitate Arsenius's posture at the next gathering of the brethren, and upon his doing so, forthwith rebuked him publicly. Arsenius took the hint and corrected himself.

In 434 he was forced to leave due to raids on the monasteries and hermitages there by the Mazici (tribesmen from Libya). He relocated to Troe (near Memphis), and also spent some time on the island of Canopus (off Alexandria). He spent the next fifteen years wandering the desert wilderness before returning to Troe to die c. 445 at the age of around 100.

During the fifty-five years of his solitary life he was always the most meanly clad of all, thus punishing himself for his former seeming vanity in the world. In like manner, to atone for having used perfumes at court, he never changed the water in which he moistened the palm leaves of which he made mats, but only poured in fresh water upon it as it wasted, thus letting it become stenchy in the extreme. Even while engaged in manual labour he never relaxed in his application to prayer. At all times copious tears of devotion fell from his eyes. But what distinguished him most was his disinclination to all that might interrupt his union with God. When, after long search, his place of retreat was discovered, he not only refused to return to court and act as adviser to his former pupil, now Roman Emperor, Arcadius, but he would not even be his almoner to the poor and the monasteries of the neighbourhood. He invariably denied himself to visitors, no matter what their rank and condition and left to his disciples the care of entertaining them. A biography of Arsenius was written by Theodore the Studite.

Saint Arsenius was a man who was very quiet and often silent. He is most famous for always saying, “Many times I spoke, and as a result felt sorry, but I never regretted my silence.”
source: Wikipedia
The Hard Sayings of Arsenius the Hermit

Among the Desert Fathers, Arsenius (360-449) is a model of the austere hermit and renouncer of the world. He was born to an extreme of privilege in Rome, of a wealthy senatorial family. Emperor Theodosius appointed him tutor of the princely sons Arcadius and Honorius. As an ancient source puts it, Arsenius was daily "surrounded by thousands of slaves with gold girdles, wearing collars of gold and garments of silk."

But Arsenius heeded the voice within him that warned him to flee from society in order to be saved. At the age of 34, he secretly quit the palace, sailed for Egypt, and joined the monks at Scetes, near Alexandria, where he remained for 40 years. After its destruction in 434, Arsenius became a hermit, moving deeper into the desert, to mountainous Troe, where he remained until his death at the age of 90.

Arsenius was described by a disciple as angelic in appearance, like Jacob. His body was graceful and slender, his long beard reached to his waist. ... Tall of stature, he was bent with old age.

Despite his education, he refused to discuss theology and seldom wrote letters.

When he came to church occasionally he would sit behind a pillar so that no one would see his face and so that he would not be distracted by others

This was not arrogance but humility, for he was asked once why he consulted with an Egyptian peasant about his thoughts when his Greek and Latin education was so thorough. "For all my education, I know not even the alphabet of this peasant." "We get nothing from our secular education," he elaborated on another occasion, "but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work."

Arsenius was renowned for his austerity in food, clothing, sleep, prayer, and solitude. He would receive a basket of bread as a gift and when his donors visited the following year he had not finished the basket. When given fruit, he politely tried one but never at the whole fruit.

Arsenius considered sleep a kind of luxury, preferring to be awake at night in contemplative vigil "When nature compelled him to go to sleep, he would say to sleep, 'Come here, wicked servant.' Then seated, he would snatch a little sleep and soon wake up again." "Abba Arsenius used to say that one hour's sleep is enough for a monk if he is a good fighter."

But his relations with others gave Arsenius his reputation as a hermit of unwavering austerity. For he refused to entertain nearly everyone and only reluctantly those who might legitimately claim his attention. When Archbishop Theophilus came to introduce himself and to hear a wise word from the famous hermit, he was met with silence until Arsenius said, "Will you do what I tell you?" The archbishop nodded his assent. Arsenius went on, "If you hear that Arsenius is at some place, don't go there."

From that time on, the archbishop apparently sent messengers to see if Arsenius would accept a visit, but Arsenius replied, "If I accept you then I must accept everyone."

Even fellow-monks he often refused to see. Once a group of monks were on their way to gather flax and thought to stop to see Arsenius. They sent one of their number ahead to alert the old man. But upon inquiring, Arsenius realized that the brothers were not coming on his account but because his dwelling was conveniently on the way, so Arsenius refused to see them.

A couple of sayings reflect the logic of Arsenius's solitude. When asked why he refused the company of others he responded: "I cannot live with God and with men,. The thousands and ten thousands of the heavenly hosts have but one will, which men have many."

Once a monk came to see him. Arsenius opened the door expecting his disciple. So he fell face to the ground, refusing to get up until the visitor left. Another time, a monk visited, and Arsenius kept silent until the monk left.

The most famous incident of this sort involved a female visitor from Rome. The young woman of wealth and senatorial rank inquired of Archbishop Theophilus whether Arsenius would see her. On her behalf, Theophilus went to the old man, who refused to receive her. But the young woman was not dissuaded. She had her donkey saddled and set out herself, telling Theophilus that she had not traveled all this way to see a man - there were plenty of these in Rome - but rather a prophet. When she reached his cell, Arsenius happened to be outside.

Seeing him she threw herself at his feet. Outraged, he lifted her up again, and said, looking steadily at her, "If you must see my face, here it is, look." She was covered with shame and did not look at his face. Then the old man said to her, "Have you not heard tell of my way of life? It ought to be respected. How dare you make such a journey? Do you not realize that you are a woman and cannot go just anywhere? Or is it so that on returning to Rome you can say to other women: I have seen Arsenius? Then they will turn the sea into a thoroughfare with women coming to see me."

But she promised to tell no one and said, "Pray for me and remember me always." But Arsenius answered: "I pray God remove all memory of you from my heart." She quit the place, returned to the town and fell ill with fever. When Archbishop Theophilus heard of her illness, he came to see her and asked what had happened. She repeated what Arsenius had told her, adding that now she was dying of grief. Theophilus told her that those were the old man's way, that saints avoid women as temptation, but that he knew Arsenius would pray for her soul. At this she recovered and went back to Rome joyfully reconciled.

In his social relations, Arsenius fuels the image of hermit as cantankerous and blunt. But his eremiticism must be consistent and thorough-going if it is to yield fruit. Theophilus understood this single-mindedness and came to respect it. In fact, Arsenius frequently offered counsel to others. To one brother, he said, "Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God, and you will overcome exterior passions. This self-discipline was thorough. When a brother told him that he could not fast or work and opined that visiting the sick was an equivalent good work, Arsenius responded firmly, "Go, eat, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell."

As he was dying, Arsenius forbade his disciples to distribute his remains, disappointing the relic-hunters of his day. They told him that they did not know how to bury anyone, and Arsenius rebuked them. "Don't you know how to tie a rope to my feet and drag me to the mountain?" He left his disciples all of his possessions: a tunic, a hair-shirt, and palm-leaf scandals.
source: Hermitary
Arsenius of Scetis and Turah (Saint)
4th Century
Coptic Church

Arsenius was the most famous of the Desert Fathers, although not of Egyptian origin. In the alphabetical collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum (Cotelier, 1864) he comes immediately after Saint Antony, and tradition gives him, as it gives the latter, the title of "the Great." He was probably born to a senatorial family at Rome in the middle of the fourth century. He received an excellent education and held high office at the court of the emperor Theodosius. On the basis of a poorly interpreted sentence in one apothegm (Cotelier, 1864, Arsenius 42; cf. PL 73, col. 955 C), he has even been held to be the tutor or the godfather of the sons of Theodosius.

Concerned about his salvation, he prayed one day and heard a voice say to him, "Arsenius, flee mankind and you will be saved" (Arsenius 1). The fame of the monks of Egypt was by then solidly established. Arsenius made haste to join them at SCETIS. This must be placed around 390. It is understandable that such a person's vocation would have seemed suspect to the aged Copts, who thought it necessary to submit the matter to the test at the hands of the wise abbot JOHN COLOBOS.

Training was rough, ready and swift. The new solitary soon had his cell in a remote spot 32 miles (48 km) from the monastic center (Arsenius 21), where he led the most austere of lives. He moved from there only after the Maziks had devastated the region. This was after Rome had been taken by Alaric, for Arsenius wept and said, "The world has lost Rome and the monks have lost Scetis" (Arsenius 21). The remainder of his life was passed either at Canopus, near Alexandria, or at Troa (modernday Turah), some 10 miles (15 km) southeast of Cairo; he died in Troa. A monastery of some size remained there until the fifteenth century, composed partly of cells and churches hollowed out of the rock. From this monastery came the papyri that were discovered in 1942 in a neighboring grotto and that contained works of Origen and Didymus.

Saint Arsenius seems always and everywhere to have been held in great honor in the Coptic church, following the fashion of the most eminent of the Egyptian fathers. He is mentioned on 13 Bashans in the various recensions of the Copto-Arabic Synaxarion. He is commemorated on 8 May in the Greek Synaxarion and in the Georgian calendar. He also has his place in the Latin martyrologies on 19 July.

The apothegms tell us especially of the austerity with which Saint Arsenius always remained faithful to his initial vocation to forsake mankind. The divine voice drove him to it (Arsenius 2), and he encouraged himself to do it by ceaselessly repeating these words: "Arsenius, why have you gone forth [from the world]?" (Arsenius 40). Whether it was the patriarch, visitors of note, or people introducing themselves to him on the prelate's recommendation, the old man would hide (Arsenius 7 -8, 28). Even the brethren could not easily obtain an interview with him, and they were astonished at the fact (Arsenius 26, 34, 37, 38). When asked by the abbot Mark why he was fleeing from them, Arsenius replied, "God knows I love you but I cannot be both with God and with men" (Arsenius 13). The saint was in fact united with God to the point of seeming to be literally on fire when one of the brethren cast an indiscreet glance through his cell window (Arsenius 27). Above all, he was horrified at the esteem and consideration given him by men (Arsenius 31). He concealed his practices so well that it was said that nobody could lay hold of the secret behind them (Nau, 1907, p. 54). However, it is known that he lived in extreme destitution (Arsenius 20) and that in church he used to stand hidden behind a pillar (Arsenius 42) clad in the worst of garments (Arsenius 4). His diet was most frugal. Once a year his supply of bread was renewed and some fresh fruit was brought to him, which he ate giving thanks to God (Arsenius 16, 17, 19). He slept for hardly an hour each night (Arsenius 14) and wove rope all morning (Arsenius 18). Every Saturday night he would remain standing in prayer, with hands uplifted, facing east (Arsenius 30). It was above all his spiritual life, which remained concealed in those invisible activities, about which he said, "Struggle with all your might so that your inward acts may be according to God's will, and you will conquer your outward passions" (Arsenius 9).

He did perhaps betray himself a little when he said, "If we seek God, he will appear to us; and if we hold on to him, he will abide with us" (Arsenius 10). One day, too, some of the brethren heard him crying to God, "0 God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good in thy presence; but in thy goodness put it in my power to begin" (Arsenius 3). On the approach of death, he kept the fear that had been with him throughout his life as a monk (Arsenius 40)-an indubitable sign of his perfection (d. Sisoes 14), "filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith."

Despite the rather surly way in which he defended his solitude, Saint Arsenius did have a few disciples. We know of Alexander, Zoilus, and Daniel. But his contacts with them were intermittent (Arlienius 32) and he must have lived customarily alone in the desert. Some writings are attributed to him (Arsenius, 1864, cols. 1617-26). The most important is a letter preserved in Georgian and published by G. Garitte (1955). Its authenticity is acknowledged as probable by M. Van Parys (1981), a good judge, who stressed the points of convergence with the apothegms: attachment to his cell and to silence, perseverance in his cell, abstinence from food and sleep, and constant prayer. This letter completes the spiritual physiognomy of the saint and singularly enriches our knowledge of his teaching, which was wholly scriptural in its inspiration.

It is said that Arsenius "never wanted to speak about a question taken from Scripture, though capable of doing so, nor did he easily write a letter" (Arsenius 42). This text does not wholly exclude his having sometimes given directives to his disciples in writing or even scriptural explanations. In the Catenae (Chains) there are still some fragments at. tributed to him, the authenticity of which should not be rejected a priori. We know that Arsenius had contacts with Evagrius (Vitae Patrum, PL 73, cols. 912-13). With Van Parys, we may ask whether the great solitary would not be attached to the same spiritual current that was Origenist in inspiration.
source: Dictionary of African Christian Biography
Arsenius was born in Rome about 360. A well-educated man, of senatorial rank, he was appointed by the Emperor Tbeodosius I as tutor to the princes Arcadius and Honorius. He left the palace in 394 and sailed secretly to Alexandria. From there he went to Scetis and placed himself under the guidance of Abba John the Dwarf. He became an anchorite near Petra in Scetis. He seems to have had only three disciples, Alexander, Zoilus and Daniel. He was renowned for his austerity and silence and this combined with his learning made him seem somewhat forbidding to the Coptic monks. After the second devastation of Scetis in 434 he went to the mountain of Troe where he died in 449.

1. While still living in the palace, Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, 'Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.' And a voice came saying to him, 'Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved.'

2. Having withdrawn to the solitary life he made the same prayer again and he heard a voice saying to him, 'Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the
source of sinlessness.'

3. It happened that when Abba Arsenius was sitting in his cell that he was harassed by demons. His servants, on their return, stood outside his cell and heard him praying to God in these words, 'O God, do not leave me. I have done
nothing good in your sight, but according to your goodness, let me now make a beginning of good.'

4. It was said of him that, just as none in the palace had worn more splendid garments than he when he lived there, so no one in the Church wore such poor clothing.

5. Someone said to blessed Arsenius, 'How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many
virtues?' Abba Arsenius said to him, 'We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.'

6. One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, 'Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a
good Latin and Greek education ask this peasant about your thoughts?' He replied, 'I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.'

7. Blessed Archbishop Theophilus, accompanied by a magistrate, came one day to find Abba Arsenius. He questioned the old man, to hear a word from him. After a short silence the old man answered him ‘Will you put into, practice what I say to you?' They promised him this. 'If you hear Arsenius is anywhere, do not go there.'

8. Another time the archbishop, intending to come to see him, sent someone to see if the old man would receive him. Arsenius told him 'If you come, I shall receive you; but if I receive you, I receive everyone and therefore I shall no longer live here. 'Hearing that, the archbishop said, 'If I drive him away by going to him, I shall not go any more.'

9. A brother questioned Abba Arsenius to hear a word of him and the old man said to him, 'Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God, and you will overcome exterior passions.'

10. He also said, 'If we seek God, he will show himself to us, and if we keep him, he will remain close to us.'

11. Someone said to Abba Arsenius, 'My thoughts trouble me, saying, "You can neither fast nor work; at least go and visit the sick, for that is also charity."' But the old man, recognising the suggestions of the demons, said to him, 'Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell.'For he knew that steadfastness in the cell keeps a monk in the right way.

12. Abba Arsenius used to say that a monk travelling abroad should not get involved in anything; thus he will remain in peace.

13. Abba Mark said to Abba Arsenius, 'Why do you avoid us?' The old man said to him, 'God knows that I love you, but I cannot live with God and with men. The
thousands and ten thousands of the heavenly hosts have but one will, while men have many. So I cannot leave God to be with men.'

14. Abba Daniel said of Abba Arsenius that he used to pass the whole night without sleeping, and in the early morning when nature compelled him to go to sleep, he
would say to sleep, 'Come here, wicked servant.' Then, seated, he would snatch a little sleep and soon wake up again.

15. Abba Arsenius used to say that one-hour's sleep is enough for a monk if he is a good fighter.

16. The old man used to tell how one day someone handed round a few dried figs in Scetis. Because they were not worth anything, no one took any to Abba Arsenius in
order not to offend him. Learning of it, the old man did not come to the synaxis saying, 'You have cast me out by not giving me a share of the blessing which God had given the brethren and which I was not worthy to receive.' Everyone heard of this and was edified at the old man's humility. Then the priest went to take him the small dried figs and brought him to the synaxis with joy.

17. Abba Daniel used to say, 'He lived with us many a long year and every year we used to take him only one basket of bread and when we went to find him the next year
we would eat some of that bread.'

18. It was said of the same Abba Arsenius that he only changed the water for his palm-leaves once a year; the rest of the time he simply added to it. One old man implored him in these words, 'Why do you not change the water for these palm-leaves when it smells 'Instead of the perfumes and aromatics which bad? 'He said to him, I used in the world I must bear this bad smell.'

19. Abba Daniel used to tell how when Abba Arsenius learned that all the varieties of fruit were ripe he would say, 'Bring me some.' He would taste a very little of each, just once, giving thanks to God.

20. Once at Scetis Abba Arsenius was ill and he was without even a scrap of linen. As he had nothing with which to buy any, he received some through another's charity and he said, 'I give you thanks, Lord, for having considered me worthy to receive this charity in your name.'

21. It was said of him that his cell was thirty-two miles away and that he did not readily leave it: that in fact others did his errands. When Scetis was destroyed he left weeping and said, 'The world has lost Rome and the monks have lost Scetis.'

22. Abba Mark asked Abba Arsenius 'Is it good to have nothing extra in the cell? I know a brother who had some vegetables and he has pulled them up.' Abba Arsenius
replied, 'Undoubtedly that is good but it must be done according to a man's capacity. For if he does not have the strength for such a practice he will soon plant others.'

23. Abba Daniel, the disciple of Abba Arsenius, related this: 'One day I found myself close to Abba Alexander and he was full of sorrow. He lay down and stared up into the air because of his sorrow. Now it happened that the blessed Arsenius came to speak with him and saw him lying down. During their conversation he said to him, 'And who was the layman whom I saw here?' Abba Alexander said, here did you see him?' He said, 'As I was coming down the mountain I cast my eyes in this direction towards the cave and I saw a man stretched full length looking up into the air.' So Abba Alexander did penance, saying, 'Forgive me, it was I; I was overcome by sorrow. 'The old man said to him, 'Well now, so it was you? Good; I thought it was a layman and that was why I asked you.'

24. Another time Abba Arsenius said to Abba Alexander, 'When you have cut your palm-leaves, come and eat with me, but if visitors come, eat with them.' Now Abba Alexander worked slowly and carefully. When the time came, he had not finished the palm leaves and wishing to follow the old man's instructions, he waited until he had finished them. When Abba Arsenius saw that he was late, he ate, thinking
that he had had guests. But Abba Alexander, when at last he had finished, came away. And the old man said to him, 'Have you had visitors? "No, 'he said. 'Then why did you not come? 'The other replied, 'You told me to come when I had cut the
palm-leaves; and following your instructions, I did not come, because I had not finished.' The old man marvelled at his exactitude and said to him, 'Break. your fast at once so as to celebrate the synaxis untroubled, and drink some water,
otherwise your body will soon suffer.'
source: Selections from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers
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