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.
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
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.