Abba Arsenius
Abba Arsenius was born in Rome circa 360. He was well-educated, of senatorial rank,
and served as a tutor to the sons of Emperor Theodosius I. At the age of 34, Arsenius
sailed secretly from Rome to Alexandria and from there to Scetis where he became a
monk under Abba John the Dwarf. Abba Arsenius went to the Lord in 449.
The brethren said, "What is the meaning of the words which one of the old men
spake, saying, 'He who dwelleth with men, because of the commotion of worldly
affairs is unable to see his sins; but if he dwell in the silent repose of the desert he
will be able to see God in a pure manner?'"
The old man (Abba Arsenius) said, "The excellences which are cultivated in the world,
and to which our Lord, speaking in the Gospel, ascribed blessing, are lovingkindness,
peace-making and the other commandments which are like unto them, and it is quite
possible for such virtues to be cultivated in the world by certain strenuous persons.  
"But the purity of heart which seeth God, and to which our Lord ascribed blessing,
saying, 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,' cannot be acquired  
without dwelling in the desert and solitary and silent contemplation. The monk must
acquire it in the following way. First of all a man must go forth from the world, and
dwell in a monastery, and after his training in a monastery and having gone into his
cell, he must die through contemplation in silence, and through the other labors of
his body, and through striving against the passions, and through conflict with devils.
"Then through the tranquillity of mind (which he will acquire) in silent contemplation,
he will remember his sins, and when he hateth his passions, and hath petitioned for
the remission of his sins, and hath suppressed his thoughts, and hath become
constant in pure prayer, and hath cleansed his heart from odious thoughts, then shall
he be worthy to see in his heart, even as in a polished mirror, the light of the
revelation of our Lord (shining) upon it, even as the Fathers say.
"Well, then, did that holy man say to those brethren, 'Visit the sick, reconcile the
men of wrath,' for he who cultivateth spiritual excellences in the world cannot, by
reason of the commotion of the affairs thereof, see his sins; but if he continue in
silent contemplation and prayer he shall see God."
Is Asceticism Absolute? Or Relative?[2]
Abba Arsenius the Great is one of the most famous abbots and ascetics of Scetis,
near present-day Alexandria, Egypt. This illustration is very important in
understanding asceticism and how it applies differently to different people.
They used to say that on one occasion when Abba Arsenius the Great fell ill in Scete,
a priest went and brought him to the church, and he spread a palm-leaf mat for him,
and placed a small pillow under his head; and one of the old men came to visit him
and saw that he was lying upon a mat that he had a pillow under his head, and he
was offended and said, "And this is Arsenius lying upon such things!"
Then the priest took the old man aside privately, and said unto him, "What labor did
you do in your village?" And the old man said unto him, "I was a shepherd." And the
priest said unto him, "What manner of life did you lead in the world?" And he said
unto him, "A life of toil, and great want."  
And when the old man had described all the tribulation which he had endured in the
world, the priest said unto him, "And here what manner of life do you lead?" And the
old man said unto him, "In my cell I have everything comfortable, and I have more
than I want." And the priest said unto him, "Consider the position of Abba Arsenius
when he was in the world! He was the father of kings, and a thousand slaves, girt
about with gold-embroidered vests, and with chains and ornaments around their
necks, and clothed in silk, stood before him; and he had the most costly couches and
cushions to lie upon. But you were a shepherd, and the comforts which you never
enjoyed in the world, you have here; but his man Arsenius has not here the comforts
which he enjoyed in the world, and now you are at ease while he is troubled."
Then the mind of the old man was opened, and he expressed contrition and said,
"Father, forgive me; I have sinned. Verily this is the way of truth. He has come to a
state of humility, while I have attained to ease." And the old men having profited
went his way.
"Doing What is Right in the Sight of God" [3]
Abba David said, "Abba Arsenius told us the following, as though it referred to
someone else, but in fact it referred to himself. An old man was sitting in his cell and
a voice came to him which said, 'Come, and I will show you the works of men.' He got
up and followed. The voice led him to a certain place and showed him an Ethiopian
cutting wood and making a great pile. He struggled to carry it but in vain. Instead of
taking some off, he cut more wood which he added to the pile. He did this for a long
time. Going on a little further, the old man was shown a man standing on the shore
of a lake drawing up water and pouring it into a broken receptacle, so that the water
ran back into the lake. The voice said to the old man, 'Come and I will show you
something else.' He saw a temple and two men on horseback, opposite one another,
carrying a piece of wood crosswise. They wanted to go in through the door but could
not because they held their piece of wood crosswise. Neither of them would draw
back before the other, so as to carry the wood straight; so they remained outside the
door. The voice said to the old man, 'These men carry the yoke of righteousness with
pride, and do not humble themselves so as to correct themselves and walk in the
humble way of Christ. So they remain outside the Kingdom of God. The man cutting
the wood is he who lives in many sins and instead of repenting he adds more faults
to his sins. He who draws the water is he who does good deeds, but mixing bad ones
with them, he spoils even his good works. So, everyone must be watchful of his
actions, lest he labor in vain."
An old man said, "Every evening and every morning a monk ought to render an
account of himself and say to himself, ‘What have we not done of what God does not
want, and what have we done of that which God wills?’ In this way he must live in
[1] from E. A. Wallis Budge, "The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, vol. II," (Seattle: St.
Nectarios Press, 1984), pp. 319-320.
[2] from E. A. Wallis Budge, "The Paradise of the Holy Fathers", (Seattle: St.
Nectarios Press, 1984), pp. 106-107
[3] from "The Desert Christian," by Benedicta Ward, (New York; Macmillan, 1975), p.
Lives of the Saints
St. Arsenius Anchoret
A.D. 449
Buler's Lives of the Saints – July 19
He was a Roman by birth, and was related to senators. He had been trained up it
learning and piety, was sincerely virtuous and well skilled, not only in the holy
scriptures, but also in the profane sciences, and in the Latin and Greek languages
and literature. He was in deacon's orders, and led a retired life at home with his
sister, in Rome, when the emperor, Theodosius the Great, wanted a person to
whom he might entrust the care of his children, and desired the emperor Gratian to
apply for that purpose to the bishop of Rome, who recommended Arsenius. Gratian
sent him to Constantinople where he was kindly received by Theodosius, who
advanced him to the rank of a senator with orders that he should he respected as
the father of his children, whose tutor and preceptor he appointed him. No one in
the court at that time wore richer apparel, had more sumptuous furniture, or was
attended by a more numerous train of servants than Arsenius; he was attended by
no fewer than a thousand, all richly clad. Theodosius coming one day to see his
children at their studies, found them sitting, whilst Arsenius talked to them
standing. Being displeased thereat, he took from them for some time the marks of
their dignity, and caused Arsenius to sit, and them to listen to him standing.

Arsenius had always a great inclination to a retired life, which the care of his
employment and the encumbrances of a great fortune made him desire the more
ardently; for titles and honors were burdensome to him. At length, about the year
390, an opportunity offered itself. Arcadius having committed a considerable fault,
Arsenius whipped him for it. The young prince, resenting the chastisement, grew
the more obstinate. Arsenius laid hold of this occasion to execute the project he
had before formed of forsaking the world. The Lives of the Fathers, both in
Rosweide and Cotelier, make no mention of this resentment of Arcadius, which
circumstance is only related by Metaphrastes; on which account it is omitted by
Tillemont and others. It is most certain that retirement had long been the object of
the saint's most earnest wishes and desires; but before he left the court, he for a
long time begged by earnest prayer to know the will of God and one day making
this request with great fervor, he heard a voice, saying, "Arsenius, flee the
company of men, and thou shalt be saved." He obeyed the call of heaven without
delay, and going on board a vessel, sailed to Alexandria, and thence proceeded to
the desert of Scete, where he embraced an anachoretical life. This happened about
the year 394, he being in the fortieth year of his age, and having lived eleven years
at the court. There he renewed his prayers to God, begging to be instructed in the
way of salvation, having no other desire than to make it his only study to please
God in all things. Whilst he prayed thus, he again heard a voice, which said:
"Arsenius, flee, hold thy peace, and be quiet; these are the principles of salvation,"
that is, the main things to be observed in order to be saved. Pursuant to the
repeated advice or injunction of fleeing and avoiding human conversation, he made
choice of a very remote cell, and admitted very few visits, even from his own
brethren. When he went to the church, upwards of thirty miles distant from his
habitation, he would place himself behind one of the pillars the better to prevent
his seeing or being seen by any one. Theodosius, in great affliction for the loss of
him, caused search to be made for him both by sea and land; but being soon after
called into the West to revenge the death of Valentinian II, and to extinguish the
rebellion of Arbogastus, his murderer and Eugenius, died of a dropsy, at Milan in
395. Arcadius being left emperor of the East, advanced Rufin, who was the
prefectus praetorio and had been his flattering governor, to the rank of prime
minister, committing to him the direction not only of his armies, but also of the
whole empire. He at the same time earnestly desired to call back to court his holy
master Arsenius, that he might be assisted by his wise and faithful counsels. Being
informed that he was in the desert of Scete, he wrote to him, recommending
himself to his prayers, begging his forgiveness, and offering him the disposal of all
the tribute of Egypt, that he might make a provision for the monasteries and the
poor at kits discretion; but the saint had no other ambition on earth than to be
allowed the liberty of enjoying his solitude, that he might employ his time in
bewailing his sins, and in preparing his soul for eternity. He therefore answered the
emperor's message only by word of mouth, saying: "God grant us all the pardon of
our sins; as to the distribution of the money, I am not capable of such a charge,
being already dead to the world." When he first presented himself to the ancients
or superiors of the monks of Scete, and begged to be allowed to serve God under
their direction, they recommended him to the care of St. John the Dwarf, who, when
the rest in the evening sat down to take their repast, took his place among them,
and left Arsenius standing in the middle without taking notice of him. Such a
reception was a severe trial to a courtier, but was followed by another much
rougher, for in the middle of the repast, St. John took a loaf or portion of bread,
and threw it on the ground before him, bidding him with an air of indifference, eat if
he would. Arsenius cheerfully fell on the ground, and in that posture took his meal.
St. John was so satisfied with his behavior in this single instance that he required
no further triad for his admission, and said to his brethren, "Return to your cells
with the blessing of the Lord Pray for us. This person is fit for a religious life. "

Arsenius after his retreat only distinguished himself among the anchorets by his
greater humility and fervor. At first he used, without perceiving it, to do certain
things which he had practiced in the world, which seemed to savor of levity or
immortification, as, for instance, to sit cross-legged, or laying one knee over
another. The seniors were unwilling through the great respect they bore him, to tell
him of this in a public assembly in which they were met to hold a spiritual
conference together; but abbot Pemen or Pastor made use of this stratagem. He
agreed with another that he should put himself in that posture; and then he
rebuked him for his immodesty; nor did the other offer any excuse. Arsenius
perceived that the reproof was meant for him, and corrected d himself of that
custom. In other respects, he appeared from the beginning an accomplished master
in every exercise of virtue in that venerable company of saints. To punish himself
for his seeming vanity at court because he had there gone more richly habited than
others, his garments were always the meanest of all the monks in Scete. He
employed himself on working days till noon in making mats of palm-tree leaves,
and he always worked with a handkerchief in his bosom, to wipe off the tears which
continually fell from his eyes. He never changed the water in which he moistened
his palm tree leaves, but only poured in fresh water upon it as it wasted. When
some asked him one day why he did not cast away the corrupted water, he
answered, "I ought to be punished by this ill smell for the sensuality with which I
formerly used perfumes when I lived in the world." To satisfy for former
superfluities, he lived in the most universal poverty, so that in a violent fit of
illness having occasion for a small sum to procure him some little necessaries, he
was obliged to receive it in alms, whereupon he gave God thanks for being made
worthy to be thus reduced to the necessity of asking alms in his name. The
distemper continued so long upon him that the priest of this desert of Scete cause
him to be carried to his apartment contiguous to the church, and laid him on a little
bed made of the skinsof beasts, with a ppillow under his head. One of the monks
coming ot see him, was much scandalized at his lying so easy, and said, "Is this
the abbot Arsenius?" the priest took him aside, and asked him what his
employment had been in the village before he was monk? The old man answered, "I
was a shepherd, and lived with much pains and difficulty." Then the priest said, "Do
you see this abbot Arsenius? When he was in the world he was the father of the
emperors, he had a thousand slaves clothed in silk, with bracelets and girdles of
gold, and he slept on the softest and richest beds. You who were a shepherd, did
not find in the world the ease which you now enjoy." The old man, moved by these
words, fell down, and said, "Pardon me, father, I have sinned; he is in the true way
of humiliation"; and he went away exceedingly edified. Arsenius in his sickness
wanting a linen garment, accepted something given him in charity to buy one,
saying, "I return thanks to thee, O Lord, for thy grace and mercy, in permitting me
to receive alms in thy name."

One of the emperor's officers, at another thee, brought him the will of a senator,
his relation, who was lately dead, and had left him his heir. The saint took the will,
and would have torn it to pieces, but the officer threw himself at his feet, and
begged him not to tear it, saying, such an accident would expose him to be tried
for his life. St. Arsenius, however, refused the estate, saying, "I died before him,
and cannot be made his heir."
Though no one knew the saint's fasts, they must have been excessive, as the
measure of corn, called thallin sent him for the year, was exceeding small; this,
however, he managed so well as not only to make it suffice for himself, but also to
impart some of it to his disciples when they came to visit him. When new fruit was
brought him, he just tasted it, and gave thanks to God; but he took so little as to
show he did it only to avoid the vanity of singularity. Great abstinence makes little
sleep to suffice nature. Accordingly St. Arsenius often passed the whole night in
watching and prayer, as we learn from his disciple Daniel. At other times, having
watched a considerable part of the night, when nature could hold out no longer, he
would allow himself a short repose, which he took sitting, after which he resumed
his wanted exercises. On Saturday evenings,  as the same disciple relates, it was
his custom to go to prayers at sunset, and continue in that exercise with his hands
lifted up to heaven till the sun beat on his face the next morning. His affection for
the holy exercise of prayer, and his dread of the danger of vain-glory gave him the
strongest love of retirement. He had two disciples who lived near him, and and did
all his necessary usiness abroad. Their names were alexander and Zoilus; he
afterward admitted a third called Daniel. All three were famous for their sanctity
and discretion, and frequent mention is made of them in the histories of the fathers
of the deserts of Egypt. St. Arsenius would seldom see strangers who came to visit
him, saying, he would only use his eyes to behold the heavens.

Theophilus, the patriarch of Alexandria, came one day in company with a certain
great officer and others to visit him, and begged he would entertain them on some
spiritual subject for the good of their souls. The saint asked them whether they
were disposed to comply with his directions; and being answered in the affirmative,
he replied, "I entreat you, then, that wherever you are informed of Arsenius's
abode, you would leave him to himself, and spare yourselves the trouble of coming
after him." On another occasion, when the same patriarch sent to know if he would
open his door to him if he came, St. Arsenius returned for answer, that if he came
alone he would; but that if he brought others with him, he would seek out some
other place, and would stay there no longer. Melania, a noble Roman lady, traveled
as far as Egypt, only to see Arsenius, and by means of Theophilus contrived to
meet him as he was coming out of his cell. She threw herself at his feet. The saint
said to her, "A woman ought not to leave her house. You have crossed these great
seas that you may be able to say at Rome that you have seen Arsenius, and raise
in others a curiosity to come and see me."Not daring to lift up her eyes, as she lay
on the ground, she begged he would always remember her and pray for her. He
answered, "I pray that the remembrance of you be blotted out of my mind." Melania
returned to Alexandria in great grief at this answer; but Theophilus comforted her,
saying, "He only prayed that he might forget your person an account of your sex;
but as for your soul, doubt not but he will pray for you."

The saint never visited his brethren, contenting himself with meeting them at
spiritual conferences. The abbot Mark asked him one day in the name of the
hermits, why he so much shunned their conversation? The saint answered, "God
knoweth 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."This
disposition however did not hinder him from giving short lessons of virtue to his
brethren, and several of his apophthegms are recorded among those of the ancient
fathers. He said often, "I have always something to repent of after conversed with
men; but have never been sorry for having been silent." He had frequently in his
mouth those words which St. Euthymius and St. Bernard used also to repeat to
themselves, to renew their fervor in the discharge of the obligations of their
profession, "Arsenius, why hast thou forsaken the world, and wherefore art thou
come hither?" Being asked one day why he, being so well versed in the sciences,
sought the instruction and advice of a certain monk who was an utter stranger to
all human literature, he replied, "I am not unacquainted with the learning of the
Greeks and Romans; but I have not yet learned the alphabet of the science of the
saints, whereof this seemingly ignorant person is master."

Though the saint was excellently versed in sacred learning, and in the maxims and
practice of perfect Christian virtue, he never would discourse on any point of
scripture, and chose rather to hear than to instruct or speak, making it the first part
of his study to divest his mind of all secret opinion of himself, or confidence in his
own abilities or learning; and this he justly called the foundation of humility and all
Christian virtue. Evagrius of Pontus, who had distinguished himself at
Constantinople by his learning, and had retired to Jerusalem, and thence into the
deserts of Nitria in 385, expressed his surprise to our saint that many very learned
men made no progress in virtue, whilst many Egyptians, who knew not the very
letters of the alphabet, arrived at a high degree of sublime contemplation. To
whom Arsenius made this answer, "We make no progress in virtue, because we
dwell in that exterior learning which puffs up the mind; but these illiterate
Egyptians have a true sense of their own weakness, blindness, and insufficiency; by
which they are qualified to labor successfully in the pursuit of virtue." This saint
used often to cry out to God with tears, in the most profound sentiment of humility,
"O Lord, forsake me not; I have done nothing that can be acceptable in thy sight;
but for the sake of thy infinite mercy enable and assist me that I may now begin to
serve thee faithfully."

Nothing is so remarkable or so much spoken of by the ancients concerning our
saint, as the perpetual tears which flowed from his eves almost without
intermission. The source from which they sprung was the ardor with which he
sighed after the glorious light of eternity, and the spirit of compunction with which
he never ceased to bewail the sins of his life past, and the daily imperfections into
which he fell. But nothing was more amiable or sweet than these tears of devotion
as appeared in the venerable and majestic serenity of his countenance. His
example was a proof of what the saints assure us concerning the sweetness of the
tears of divine love. "When you hear tears named," says St. Chrysostom, "do not
represent to yourselves any thing grievous or terrible. They are sweeter than any
carnal delights which the world can enjoy." St. Austin says to the same purpose,
"The tears of devotion are sweeter than the joys of theatres." St. John Climacus
unfolds to us at large the incomparable advantages and holy pleasure of pious
tears, and among other things writes thus: "I am astonished when I consider the
happiness of holy compunction; and I wonder how carnal men can think it affliction.
It contains in it a pleasure and spiritual joy, as wax does honey. God in an invisible
manner visits and comforts the heart that is broken with this holy sorrow." Saint
Arsenius being asked by a certain person what he must do to deliver himself from a
troublesome temptation of impure thoughts, the saint gave him this answer: "What
did the Midianites do? They decked and adorned their daughters, and led them to
the Israelites, though they used no violence upon them. Those among the servants
of God that treated them with severity, and revenged their treachery and criminal
designs with their blood, put a stop to their lewdness. Behave in the same manner
with regard to your evil thoughts. Repulse them vigorously, and punish yourself for
this attempt made in yourself towards a revolt."

This great saint lived in a continual remembrance and apprehension of death and
the divine judgment. This made Theophilus, the busy patriarch of Alexandria, cry
out when he lay on his death-bed in 312. "Happy Arsenius! who has had this
moment always before his eyes." His tears did not disfigure his countenance,
which, from the inward peace and joy of his soul, mixed with sweet compunction,
and from his assiduous conversation with God, appeared to have something angelic
or heavenly, being equally venerable for a certain shining beauty and an
inexpressible air of majesty and meekness, in a fair and vigorous old age. The
great and experienced master in a contemplative life, St. John Climacus proposes
St. Arsenius as an accomplished model, and calls him a man equal to the angels,
saying that he shunned so rigorously the conversation of men, only that he might
not lose something more precious, which was God, who always filled his soul. Our
saint called it a capital and indispensable duty of a monk never to meddle in any
temporal concerns, and never to listen to any news of the world. He was tall and
comely, but stooped a little in his old age; had a graceful mien, his hair was all
white, and his beard reached down to his girdle; but the tears which he shed
continually had worn away his eyelashes. He was forty years old when he quit the
court, and he lived in the same austere manner from that time to the age of
ninety-five; he spent forty years in the desert of Scete, except that, about the year
395, he was obliged to leave it for a short time, on account of an irruption of the
Mazici, a barbarous people of Lybia; but the plunderers were no sooner returned
home but he hastened back to his former solitude, where he remained till a second
inroad of the same barbarians, in which they massacred several hermits, compelled
him entirely to forsake this abode about the year 434. He retired weeping to the
rock of Troe, called also Petra, over against Memphis, and, ten years after, to
Canopus near Alexandria; but not being able to bear the neighborhood of that great
city, he staid here only three years; then returned to Troe, where he died two years
after. Knowing that his end was drawing near, he said to his disciples, "One only
thing I beg of your charity, that when I am dead I may be remembered in the holy
sacrifice. If in my life I have done any thing that is accepted by God, through his
mercy, that I shall now find again." They were much grieved to hear him speak as if
they were going soon to lose him. Upon which he said, "My hour is not yet come. I
will acquaint you of it, but you shall answer it at the tribunal of Christ, if you suffer
any thing belonging to me to be kept as a relic." They said with tears (being
solicitous for a funeral procession), "What shall we do alone, father, for we know
not how to bury the dead?" The saint answered, "Tie a cord to my feet, and drag
my carcass to the top of the mountain, and there leave it." His brethren seeing him
weep in his agony said to him, "Father, why do you weep? Are you, like others,
afraid to die?" The saint answered, "I am seized with great fear; nor has this dread
ever forsaken me from the time I first came into these deserts." The saints all
serve God in fear and trembling, in the constant remembrance of his judgment; but
this is always accompanied with a sweet confidence in his infinite love and mercies.
The Holy Ghost indeed so diversifies his gifts and graces as to make these
dispositions more sensible in some than in others. Notwithstanding this fear, St.
Arsenius expired in great peace, full of faith and of that humble confidence which
perfect charity inspires, about the year 449. He was ninety-five years old, of which
he had spent fifty-five in the desert. Abbot Pemen having seen him expire, said
with tears, "Happy Arsenius, who have wept for yourself so much here on earth!
Those who weep not here shall weep eternally hereafter." This saint was looked
upon by the most eminent monks of succeeding ages as a most illustrious pattern
of their state. The great St. Euthymius endeavored in all his exercises to form
himself upon the model of his life, and to copy in himself his humility, his
meekness and constant evenness of mind, his abstinence and watching, his
compunction and tears, his love of retirement, his charity, discretion, fervor,
assiduous application to prayer, and that greatness of soul which appeared with so
much luster in all his actions. The name of St. Arsenius occurs in the Roman
Martyrology on the 19th of July. See his life written by Saint Theodore the Studite;
and another in Metaphrastes; also the Lives of the Fathers of the Desert, in
Rosweide and D'Andilly, t. 2, p. 183, collated with a very fair ancient MS. probably
of Saint Edmund's-bury, more ample than that published by Rosweide. in the hands
of Mr. Martin, attorney at law in Palgrave, in Suffolk. See likewise the Apophthegms
of the Fathers in Cotelier's Monumenta Eeclesiae Graecae; the collections and
remarks of Pinius the Bollandist, Julij t. 4 p. 605; and F. Marian, Vies des Peres des
Déserts d'Orient, t. 3, p. 284 ad 339.