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May 7, 2015

Saint Arsenios the Great as a Model for our Lives

St. Arsenios the Great (Feast Day - May 8)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

The venerable Arsenios the Great was born in Old Rome. Later, invited by the emperor, as we shall see, he went to New Rome, namely Constantinople. Finally, he ended up in the desert of Alexandria, where he completed his earthly life.

Saint Arsenios was a wise man both "according to God" and "according to man." From a very young age he studied human knowledge and wisdom. But through prayer, a life of worship, spiritual study and the observance of the divine commandments he experienced and learned "hidden knowledge." Such knowledge cannot be understood by the human mind, but it is revealed by God to a pure heart. In other words, through study and his way of life, he was nurtured in the mysteries of the kingdom of God and was shown to be a wise teacher and excellent pedagogue. His fame as a wise pedagogue and teacher exceeded the limits of his homeland, and was so great that it forced Emperor Theodosius the Great to overlook all the great pedagogues of the Empire and invited him to Constantinople, to take over the education of both his children Honorius and Arcadius. Indeed, for Theodosius to achieve his purpose, he had to ask King Gratianos, and even resorted to seeking the assistance of Pope Innocent.

The Emperor honored and revered the Saint, while the rulers of the royal Senate considered him a great treasure and relic. But he, who never loved human glory, wanted to depart for the desert to devote himself to prayer. Towards this purpose he prayed day and night that God would reveal His will, and he received his answer: "Arsenios, flee and be saved." Then, without losing time, he changed his clothing to something more simple and departed for Scete in Alexandria. There he was informed by God to exercise greater silence and quietude.

Once he was visited by Archbishop Theophilos of Alexandria with others who asked him to give them some spiritually beneficial word. Arsenios the Great asked them: "If I tell you a word, will you apply it?" When they answered "yes," he said to them: "When you hear Arsenios is in a certain place, do not approach him." This incident shows his great humility. Daily he applied the following words to himself: "When people honor you, humble yourself all the more."

Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite also describes his external appearance, saying that Saint Arsenios "was withered in body and long in size, with a long beard that reached his belly, and a face that was angelic and revered, like the Patriarch Jacob." He reposed in deep old age, at around a hundred years old. When the time for his departure from this temporary life was approaching, his disciples asked him where and how they wanted to bury him, and the blessed one responded to them: "Oh my children, tie a cord to my feet and drag me to the mountains." This response also indicates his great humility, leading him to the point of having absolutely no estimation of himself. But the just Judge, who gives His Grace to the humble and glorifies them, raised him to lofty heights and showed him to be truly great.

Noteworthy are three sayings left to us that were spoken by Saint Arsenios:

First, he was accustomed to remind himself: "Arsenios, from where did you come from?" He urged himself never to forget the reason he lived where he did and departed for the desert. And the reason he did this was none other than to achieve theosis, which is the purpose of all of our lives. This is something we should never forget, and it must be our goal and orientation.

Second, he would pray: "My God, do not abandon me, for I have never done anything good before You, but by Your goodness help me to make a beginning." In other words, Arsenios considered himself to be very sinful, and he felt he never did anything good in his life, therefore he begged God to not abandon him, to make him worthy to begin to repent. The same is felt by all the saints. The nearer they approached God, the more they reproached themselves and considered themselves the worst of sinners.

Third, he advises: "All of our studies must be in order for the inner work according to God to take place, to conquer the external passions." Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite explains that this inner work is prayer and pure watchfulness, and the external passions are the passions of the body. It is noteworthy that the above advice of Saint Arsenios is mentioned many times by the great Father and Teacher of our Church, Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki.

Let us keep these exhortations of Saint Arsenios and try to apply them in our lives, simultaneously relying on his God-pleasing intercessions.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ὅσιος Ἀρσένιος ὁ Μέγας", May 2001. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.