The Monk Arsenius the Great

Commemorated on May 8

      The Monk Arsenius the Great was born in the year 354 at Rome into a pious Christian family, which provided him a fine education and upbringing. Having studied the secular sciences and mastered to perfection the Latin and Greek languages, the Monk Arsenius acquired profound knowledge, combined with a pious and virtuous life. His deep faith impelled the youth to leave his preoccupation with the sciences and choose service to God. When he entered into the ranks of the clergy at one of the Roman churches, he was then elevated to the dignity of deacon.
      The emperor Theodosius (379-395), ruling the Eastern half of the Roman empire, heard about his erudition and piety, and he entrusted to Arsenius the education of his sons Arcadius and Honorius. Against his will, in obedience however to the command of the Roman pope Dymas, the Monk Arsenius was compelled to withdraw from service at the holy altar, at which time he was 29 years old.
      Having arrived at Constantinople, Arsenius was received with great honour by the emperor Theodosius, who gave him charge to educate the imperial sons not only as regards wisdom, but also piety, guarding them from the passions of youth. "Though also they be imperial sons, said Theodosius, yet must they be obedient unto thee in everything, as to their father and teacher".
      With fervour the monk concerned himself with the education of the youths, but the high esteem with which he was surrounded troubled his spirit, which yearned for service to God and the quietude of monastic life. In fervent prayer the monk besought the Lord to show him the way to salvation. The Lord hearkened to his prayer and one time he heard a voice, telling him: "Arsenius, flee people and be saved". And then, removing his rich clothing and replacing it by that of a wanderer, he secretly left the court, got upon a ship and sailed off to Alexandria, from whence he quickly hastened to a skete monastery. Arriving at the church, he besought the presbyter to accept him into the monks, calling himself a wretched wanderer, though his very manner betrayed him as not a simple but rather cultivated man. The brethren led him off to the Monk Abba John Koloves (Comm. 9 November), famed for his holiness of life. That one, wishing to test the humility of the newcomer, during the time of the refectory meal did not seat Arsenius amongst the monks, but rather threw him sugar, saying: "Eat if thou dost wish". With great humility Saint Arsenius fell to his knees, came up to the sugar laying there and did eat, having gone off into a corner. Seeing this, Starets-elder John said: "He will be a great ascetic!" Then accepting Arsenius with love, he tonsured the beginning ascetic into monasticism.
      The Monk Arsenius with zeal passed through his obediences and soon he surpassed many of the wilderness fathers in asceticism. One time at prayer the monk again heard the Voice: "Arsenius, flee people and dwell in silence this is the root of sinlessness". From that moment the Monk Arsenius settled outside the Skete, in a solitary cell, and having taken on the exploit of silence he seldom left from his seclusion, arriving in church only on Sundays and feastdays, and in observing complete silence he conversed with no one. To the question of one monk, why he so hid himself from people, the ascetic answered: "God sees, that I love all, but I am not able to be simultaneously with God and with people. The Heavenly Powers all have one will and unanimously do they praise God, upon the earth however each man has his own will and thoughts of various people. I am not able, to forsake God and live with people".
      Dwelling in constant prayer, the monk however did not refuse arriving monks counsel and guidance, giving short, but perceptive answers to their questions. One time a monk from the Skete coming to the great elder saw him through a windowlet standing at prayer, surrounded by a flame. The handcraft of the Monk Arsenius was woven baskets, for which he took the leaves of Phoenician palms from which he plaited baskets, having soaked them in water. For a whole year the Monk Arsenius did not replace the water in a container, from which issued forth a putrid stench. To the question why thus he did this, the monk answered that by it he would humble himself, since having lived in the world he had been surrounded by fragrant smells, and now instead he would endure the stench, so that after death he should not know the stench of hell.
      The fame of the great ascetic spread far, and many wanted to see him by this they disturbed the quietude of the great ascetic, and as a result the monk was forced to move around from place to place. But those thirsting to receive guidance and blessing still found him.
      The Monk Arsenius taught: many take upon themselves great exploits of repentance and vigil, but rare is the one who would guard his soul from jealousy, anger, remembrance of evil, judgement and pride, being in such like adorned graves, filled within by the stench of bones. A certain monk asked the saint what he should do, when he in reading the Psalms did not understand their meaning. The elder answered, that he should continue the reading of the Psalms, since the evil powers flee from us, not able to bear the power of the written Word of God. The monks happened to hear, how the saint often urged himself on in his efforts with the words: "Work, Arsenius, do not loaf around; thou hast come not for rest, but for work". The monk also said: "Many a time repented I about my words, but about my silence never".
      The great ascetic and keeper of silence was bestown the gift of gracious tears, by which his eyes were constantly filled. He spent 55 years at monastic exploits, meriting from his contemporaries the title "the Great", and he died at age 95 in the year 449 or 450.

1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.

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The Monk Arsenius
the Great

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