Saint of the Day – 19 July – Saint Arsenius the Great (c 354-c 449) Deacon, Hermit, Ascetic, theologian, writer. Born in s 354 in Rome and died in c 449 at Troë near Memphis, Egypt of natural causes. Arsenius one of the most highly regarded of the Desert Fathers, whose teachings were greatly influential on the development of asceticism and the contemplative life. His contemporaries so admired him as to surname him “the Great”. Also known as – Arsenius the Roman, Arsenius the Deacon.
The Roman Martyrology states of him today: “At Scete, a mountain in Eqypt, St Arsenius, a Deacon of the Roman Church, in the time of Theodosius, he retired into a wilderness, where, endowed with every virtue and shedding continual tears, he yielded his soul to God.”
Arsenius was born 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 virtue and wisdom. Emperor Theodosius the Great, having requested the Emperor Gratian and Pope Damasus to find him in the West a tutor for his son Arcadius, decided on Arsenius, a man well read in Greek literature, a member of a noble Roman family and a Deacon. Upon receving the request to become the tutor of young Arcadius, he left and 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 pupil’s brother ,Honorius.
Coming one day to see his children at their studies, Theodosius found them sitting while Arsenius talked to them standing. This he would not tolerate and he ordered the teacher to sit while the pupils stood.
Upon his arrival at Court, Arsenius had been given a splendid establishment, and probably because the Emperor so desired, he lived a very great lifestyle but all the time felt a growing inclination to renounce the world. After praying for a long time to be enlightened as to what he should do, he heard a voice saying “Arsenius, flee the company of men and thou shalt be saved.” Thereupon he embarked secretly for Alexandria and hastening to the desert of Scetis, asked to be admitted among the solitaries who dwelt there.
St 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 John was half finished with his meal, he threw down some bread before Arsenius, bidding him, with an air of indifference, to 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 beginning most exemplary, yet unwittingly retained some of his old habits, such as sitting cross-legged or laying one foot over the other. Noticing this, the Abbot requested someone to imitate Arsenius’s posture at the next gathering of the brethren and upon his doing so, forthwith rebuked him publicly. Arsenius took the overt hint and corrected himself.
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 of bad odour.
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 the most ,was his disinclination to all that might interrupt his union with God. When, after a long period of searching, his place of retreat was discovered, he not only refused to return to Court and act as adviser to his former pupil the 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.
His contemporaries so greatly admired him that they gave him the surname “the Great.” A biography of Arsenius was written by Theodore the Studite (750–826). Two of his writings are still extant – a guideline for monastic life titled “Instruction and Advice” and a commentary on the Gospel of Luke titled “On the Temptation of the Law.” Apart from this, many sayings attributed to St Arsenius are contained in a collection of quotations of the Saints in the Orthodoz tradition.
Saint Arsenius was a man who lived in solitude and silence, as evidenced by an adage of his: “Many times I spoke and as a result felt sorry but I never regretted my silence.”