Abba Arsenius The Great
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Abba Arsenius the Great?
Abba Arsenius the Great began his life serving in the emperor’s court and ended his life in solitude with God. He was born in Rome about the year 360 AD and destined for influence. He was educated in the best Greek schools and was considered a master of theology. He served in the court of Emperor Theodosius I for ten years, and he was selected by the emperor to tutor his two sons, Aracadius and Honorius. Abba Arsenius was a man of senatorial rank, a high position in the Roman government.
After ten years of serving the emperor, Abba Arsenius the Great prayed to God,
“Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.”
Arsenius clearly heard the voice of the Lord respond,
“Flee the company of men and you shall be saved.”
Those words became the foundation upon which he built the spiritual life. His desire was to converse with God alone and always.
Making his way to Scetis in Egypt, he sought out Abba John the Short in order to be trained in the spiritual life of the fathers. Upon their meeting, Abba John dropped a loaf of bread on the floor and bid Arsenius to eat. When Abba Arsenius sat and began eating the loaf with no complaint, John recommended that he be made a monk. The test of his humility passed, Arsenius was invited into the monastic community of Scetis.
Upon entering into the solitary life, Arsenius again saught the Lord and asked,
“Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.”
This time, the Lord responded and said,
“Arsenius, flee, keep silence, and lead a life of silent contemplation, for these are the fundamental causes which prevent a man from committing sin.”
Abba Arsenius took the instruction seriously.
Once, upon being asked why he made it a custom to only meet with others at special gatherings and not regularly, 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 had no want for recognition, preferring to remain alone and in silence with a few disciples upon which he could spend his time. If anonymity provided him more time to converse with his Lord and Savior, as well as mentor those few disciples that stayed with him, he was content.
Arsenius became a notable figure in the desert community. His was well-educated, well-spoken, and well-liked. However, due to his tendency toward solitude and silence, he remained an elusive figure. Amma Melania the Younger visited Abba Arsenius on her trip to the desert of Egypt to learn from the fathers and mothers of the desert. He shied away from writing and speaking of any kind, but not for lack of ability. His desire was the sweet interior contemplation of Christ.
Once, when visited by a brother, the brother stood waiting outside of Abba Arsenius’s door.
“Waiting outside the door he saw the old man entirely like a flame (the brother was worthy of this sight). When he knocked, the old man came out and saw the brother marvelling. He said to him, 'Have you been knocking long? Did you see anything here?' The other answered, 'No.' So then he talked with him and sent him away.”
He was a graceful, tall man with a beard down to his waist and known to carry himself as an angel. In gatherings, he would sit behind the pillar of the building in order to remain unseen with Christ in thought and heart.
He was not without humor. When visited by a few important Christian leaders for advice and wisdom in the spiritual life, Arsenius fell silent for a few moments.
After those few moments of silence, he spoke.
“Will you put into practice what I say to you?”
They heartily agreed. Arsenius then said, in line with his love of solitude and silence,
“If you hear Arsenius is anywhere, do not go there.”
He carried with him three disciples, Alexander, Zoilus, and Daniel. All three grew in stature and were made famous in the desert before men.
After 40 years of monastic life at Scetis, the area was invaded by barbarians. Many of the monks were driven from the place that had become their spiritual home. The mountain had become dear to Abba Arsenius.
“When Scetis was destroyed he left weeping and said, ‘The world has lost Rome and the monks have lost Scetis.’”
The Spiritual Life
He recognized that any amount of education does not make one spiritually mature. Arsenius was trained in the best schools of the day, yet deferred to those who had more experience in spiritual matters than him. Once, when seen consulting an experienced monk about his thought life, someone asked 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.'”
Contrary to great learning, repentance, righteousness, and humility were key to the spiritual life. This lesson was taught to Arsenius in a vision he recounted to his disciples. While he was sitting in his room, a voice spoke to him and beckoned him to follow. He was shown a man chopping wood, a man filling containers with water, and two men in front of a doorway. The man chopping wood kept adding more wood to his pile, making the pile much to heavy for him to carry. The man filling containers with water never noticed that the containers were full of holes and the water ran back to the lake he was taking the water from. The two men in front of a doorway were holding a plank lengthwise and were unable to move through the door into the temple beyond.
The voice then interpreted this vision for him.
“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. 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.”
Sin will burden the man and keep him focused on his sin, lack of righteousness will prevent one from progressing to greater virtue, and pride will keep one from entering into the heart of God.
Arsenius taught that each monk should practice according to his or her own strength. Abba Macarius asked him about a brother who kept a small garden in his room, but fearing that he would find pleasure in the garden apart from God, the brother uprooted the plants. Arsenius responded,
“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.”
If a man lacks the strength to entertain the discipline he sets out to accomplish, he will turn back to the thing that he attempted to cut out in the first place. To many of the desert fathers, progress in the spiritual life was a step at a time. It is the responsibility of the monk to determine what he has been called to practice.
The point of the spiritual life was to form the interior life.
“Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God, and you will overcome exterior passions.”
By exterior passions Arsenius meant the passions of the body, greed, lust, anger, etc... An interior life formed by and with God brought the passions of the body to rest within the soul. The peace of Christ reigns within the heart formed according to Christ.
This formation was not done apart from insatiable hunger for the presence of God.
“If we seek God, he will show himself to us, and if we keep him, he will remain close to us.”
To Arsenius, silence would aid this formation and pursuit. Once, when speaking with some brothers, Abba Arsenius heard the reeds rustling in the wind. With the noise of the reeds as his backdrop, he said,
“‘What is this movement?’ They said, ‘Some reeds.’ Then the old man said to them, ‘When one who is living in silent prayer hears the song of a little sparrow, his heart no longer experiences the same peace. How much worse it is when you hear the movement of those reeds.’”
Aside from the practical application of silence to the formation of the heart, he recognized the value of silence over speech.
“I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent.”
Solitude helped to teach the spiritual man the value of hidden virtue.
“As long as a young girl is living in her father's house, many young men wish to marry her, but when she has taken a husband, she is no longer pleasing to everyone; despised by some, approved by others, she no longer enjoys the favour of former times, when she lived a hidden life. So it is with the soul; from the day when it is shown to everyone, it is no longer able to satisfy everyone.”
When the secret place of the heart is cultivated before God and him alone, it is a source of intimacy, trust, and peace. Upon being exposed for the world to see, it can become a mark of pride to the spiritual one, thus hindering what was developed in secret.
Simplicity, or non-acquisitiveness, allowed the monk to look towards the reward of heaven. Arsenius understood that we are called aliens or foreigners to this earth (1 Peter 2:11), and as such we should not look for earthly gain over heavenly reward. When a member of his family left him a large inheritance, Arsenius rejected the financial gain. He said to the one who brought him the will promising his inheritance,
“’I was dead long before this senator who has just died,' and he returned the will to him without accepting anything.”
He taught that fiery trials provided the necessary environment to establish a lasting foundation.
“When an unbaked [or moist] brick is laid in the foundations of a building by the river-side, it will not support it, but if it be burnt in the furnace it will support the building like a stone.”
The man who operates from the carnal mind is the man whose brick has never been through the fire of formation. When he attempts to make progress his lack of a firm foundation will be made evident to all. But fiery trials prepare the brick to be a proper building block, they can purge and prepare the mind to ascend to God. His example is Joseph. Through the trials Joseph faced in Egypt he began a moral reformation of the country that brought the name of God to the forefront of the land. Joseph became the brick that God built upon.
As far as prayer was concerned, his practice was to…
“…take care each day to stand before God without sin, and draw nigh unto Him with tears as did the sinful woman; and pray unto the Lord God as if He were standing before you, for He is near and looks at you carefully.”
Stand before God, shed tears, and believe that he is near to you.
The great prayer that Abba Arsenios left us with is this:
“My God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good before You, but grant me, in Your compassion, the power to make a start.”
Abba Arsenios recognized that the whole of our salvation lives in God’s mercy and compassion. In light of God’s holiness we have never done a single good thing. In comparison to God Jesus is able to say that there is none good but God (Mark 10:18), but to the degree that God loves us he calls us good (Genesis 1:31).
Abba Arsenius died around 450 AD. In the hours before he passed, he wept. His brothers asked him,
“Father, why do you weep ? Are you, like others, afraid to die?” The saint answered, “I am very afraid — nor has this dread ever forsaken me from the time I first came into these deserts.”
Fear of God had never departed from him for the duration of his life in the desert.
Abba Arsenius loved Jesus deeply and feared God greatly. Arsenius was known in his day as the monk whose tears had worn away his eye lashes. In his last days he carried “a certain shining beauty and air of both majesty and meekness.” His eye lashes told the tale of a man who had seen the love of Christ, lamented his distance from God, and drawn close to God’s heart.