May 8, 2017

Life and Sayings of Holy Abba Arsenios the Great (+ 449)

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


Beloved Arsenios lived unnoticed,
His death was not altogether unnoticed.

Arsenios was born in Rome about 360. A well-educated man, of senatorial rank, be was appointed by the Emperor Theodosius I as tutor to the princes Arcadius and Honorius. He left the palace in 394 and sailed secretly to Alexandria. From there he went to Scetis and placed himself under the guidance of Abba John the Dwarf. He became an anchorite near Petra in Scetis. He seems to have had only three disciples, Alexander, Zoilus and Daniel. He was renowned for his austerity and silence and this combined with his learning made him seem somewhat forbidding to the Egyptian monks. After the second devastation of Seeds in 434 he went to the mountain of Troe (near Memphis) where he died in 449.

1. While still living in the palace, Abba Arsenios prayed to God in these words, 'Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.' And a voice came saying to him, 'Arsenios, flee from men and you will be saved.'

2. Having withdrawn to the solitary life he made the same prayer again and he heard a voice saying to him, Arsenios, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness.'

3. It happened that when Abba Arsenios was sitting in his cell that he was harassed by demons. His servants, on their return, stood outside his cell and heard him praying to God in these words, 'O God, do not leave me. I have done nothing good in your sight, but according to your goodness, let me now make a beginning of good.'

4. It was said of him that, just as none in the palace had worn more splendid garments than he when he lived there, so no-one in the Church wore such poor clothing.

5. Someone said to blessed Arsenios, 'How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?' Abba Arsenios said to him, 'We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.'

6. One day Abba Arsenios consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, Abba Arsenios, 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.'

7. Blessed Archbishop Theophilos, accompanied by a magistrate, came one day to find Abba Arsenios. He questioned the old man, to hear a word from him. After a short silence the old man answered him, 'Will you put into practice what I say to you?' They promised him this. 'If you hear Arsenios is anywhere, do not go there.'

8. Another time the archbishop, intending to come to see him, sent someone to see if the old man would receive him. Arsenios told him, 'If you come, I shall receive you; but if I receive you, I receive everyone and therefore I shall no longer live here.' Hearing that, the archbishop said, 'If I drive him away by going to him, I shall not go any more.'

9. A brother questioned Abba Arsenios to hear a word of him and the old man said to him, 'Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God, and you will overcome exterior passions.'

10. He also said, 'If we seek God, he will shew himself to us, and if we keep him, he will remain close to us.'

11. Someone said to Abba Arsenios, 'My thoughts trouble me, saying, "You can neither fast nor work; at least go and visit the sick, for that is also charity." ' But the old man, recognizing the suggestions of the demons, said to him, 'Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell.' For he knew that steadfastness in the cell keeps a monk in the right way.

12. Abba Arsenios used to say that a monk traveling abroad should not get involved in anything; thus he will remain in peace.

13. Abba Mark said to Abba Arsenios, 'Why do you avoid us?' The old man said to him, 'God knows that I love you, but I cannot live with God and with men. The thousands and ten thousands of the heavenly hosts have but one will, while men have many. So I cannot leave God to be with men.'

14. Abba Daniel said of Abba Arsenios that he used to pass the whole night without sleeping, and in the early morning when nature compelled him to go to sleep, he would say to sleep, 'Come here, wicked servant.' Then, seated, he would snatch a little sleep and soon wake up again.

15. Abba Arsenios used to say that one hour's sleep is enough for a monk if he is a good fighter.

16. The old man used to tell how one day someone handed round a few dried figs in Scetis. Because they were not worth anything, no one took any to Abba Arsenios in order not to offend him. Learning of it, the old man did not come to the synaxis saying, 'You have cast me out by not giving me a share of the blessing which God had given the brethren and which I was not worthy to receive.' Everyone heard of this and was edified at the old man's humility. Then the priest went to take him the small dried figs and brought him to the synaxis with joy.

17. Abba Daniel used to say, 'He lived with us many a long year and every year we used to take him only one basket of bread and when we went to find him the next year we would eat some of that bread.'

18. It was said of the same Abba Arsenios that he only changed the water for his palm-leaves once a year; the rest of the time he simply added to it. One old man implored him in these words, 'Why do you not change the water for these palm-leaves when it smells bad?' He said to him, 'Instead of the perfumes and aromatics which I used in the world I must bear this bad smell.'

19. Abba Daniel used to tell how when Abba Arsenios learned that all the varieties of fruit were ripe he would say, 'Bring me some.' He would taste a very little of each, just once, giving thanks to God.

20. Once at Scetis Abba Arsenios was ill and he was without even a scrap of linen. As he had nothing with which to buy any, he received some through another's charity and he said, 'I give you thanks, Lord, for having considered me worthy to receive this charity in your name.'

21. It was said of him that his cell was thirty -two miles away and that he did not readily leave it: that in fact others did his errands. When Scetis was destroyed he left weeping and said, 'The world has lost Rome and the monks have lost Scetis.'

22. Abba Mark asked Abba Arsenios, 'Is it good to have nothing extra in the cell? I know a brother who had some vegetables and he has pulled them up.' Abba Arsenios replied, '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.'

23. Abba Daniel, the disciple of Abba Arsenios, related this: 'One day I found myself close to Abba Alexander and he was full of sorrow. He lay down and stared up into the air because of his sorrow. Now it happened that the blessed Arsenios came to speak with him and saw him lying down. During their conversation he said to him, And who was the layman whom I saw here?' Abba Alexander said, 'Where did you see him?' He said, As I was coming down the mountain I cast my eyes in this direction towards the cave and I saw a man stretched full length looking up into the air.' So Abba Alexander did penance, saying, 'Forgive me, it was I; I was overcome by sorrow.' The old man said to him, 'Well now, so it was you? Good; I thought it was a layman and that was why I asked you.'

24. Another time Abba Arsenios said to Abba Alexander, 'When you have cut your palm-leaves, come and eat with me, but if visitors come, eat with them.' Now Abba Alexander worked slowly and carefully. When the time came, he had not finished the palm leaves and wishing to follow the old man's instructions, he waited until he had finished them. When Abba Arsenios saw that he was late, he ate, thinking that he had had guests. But Abba Alexander, when at last he had finished, came away. And the old man said to him, 'Have you had visitors?' 'No,' he said. 'Then why did you not come?' The other replied, 'You told me to come when I had cut the palm-leaves; and following your instructions, I did not come, because I had not finished.' The old man marveled at his exactitude and said to him, 'Break your fast at once so as to celebrate the synaxis untroubled, and drink some water, otherwise your body will soon suffer.'

25. One day Abba Arsenios came to a place where there were reeds blowing in the wind. The old man said to the brothers, '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.'

26. Abba Daniel said that some brothers proposing to go to the Thebaid to find some flax said, 'Let us also take the opportunity to see Abba Arsenios.' So Abba Alexander came to tell the old man, 'Some brothers who have come from Alexandria wish to see you.' The old man answered, Ask them why they have come.' Having learned that they were going to the Thebaid to look for flax, he reported this to the old man, who said, 'They will certainly not see the face of Arsenios for they have not come on my account but because of their work. Make them rest and send them away in peace and tell them the old man cannot receive them.'

27. A brother came to the cell of Abba Arsenios at Scetis. 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.

28. When Abba Arsenios was living at Canopus, a very rich and God-fearing virgin of senatorial rank came from Rome to see him. When the Archbishop Theophilos met her, she asked him to persuade the old man to receive her. So he went to ask him to do so in these words, A certain person of senatorial rank has come from Rome and wishes to see you.' The old man refused to meet her. But when the archbishop told the young girl this, she ordered the beast of burden to be saddled saying, 'I trust in God that I shall see him, for it is not a man whom I have come to see (there are plenty of those in our town), but a prophet.' When she had reached the old man's cell, by a dispensation of God, he was outside it. Seeing him, she threw herself at his feet. Outraged, he lifted her up again, and said, looking steadily at her, 'If you must see my face, here it is, look.' She was covered with shame and did not look at his face. Then the old man said to her, 'Have you not heard tell of my way of life? It ought to be respected. How dare you make such a journey? Do you not realize you are a woman and cannot go just anywhere? Or is it so that on returning to Rome you can say to other women: I have seen Arsenios? Then they will turn the sea into a thoroughfare with women coming to see me.' She said, 'May it please the Lord, I shall not let anyone come here; but pray for me and remember me always.' But he answered her, 'I pray God to remove remembrance of you from my heart.' Overcome at hearing these words, she withdrew. When she had returned to the town, in her grief she fell ill with a fever, and blessed Archbishop Theophilos was informed that she was ill. He came to see her and asked her to tell him what was the matter. She said to him, 'If only I had not gone there! For I asked the old man to remember me, he said to me, "I pray God to take the remembrance of you from my heart." So now I am dying of grief.' The archbishop said to her, 'Do you not realize that you are a woman, and that it is through women that the enemy wars against the Saints? That is the explanation of the old man's words; but as for your soul, he will pray for it continually.' At this, her spirit was healed and she returned home joyfully.

29. Abba David related this about Abba Arsenios. One day a magistrate came, bringing him the will of a senator, a member of his family who had left him a very large inheritance. Arsenios took it and was about to destroy it. But the magistrate threw himself at his feet saying, 'I beg you, do not destroy it or they will cut off my head.' Abba Arsenios said to him, 'But I was dead long before this senator who has just died,' and he returned the will to him without accepting anything.

30. It was also said of him that on Saturday evenings, preparing for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the sun and stretch out his hands in prayer towards the heavens, till once again the sun shone on his face. Then he would sit down.

31. It was said of Abba Arsenios and Abba Theodore of Pherme that, more than any of the others, they hated the esteem of other men. Abba Arsenios would not readily meet people, while Abba Theodore was like steel when he met anyone.

32. In the days when Abba Arsenios was living in Lower Egypt he was continually interrupted there and so he judged it right to leave his cell. Without taking anything away with him, he went to his disciples at Pharan, Alexander and Zoilus. He said to Alexander, 'Get up, and get into the boat,' which he did. And he said to Zoilus, 'Come with me as far as the river and find me a boat which will take me to Alexandria; then embark, so as to rejoin your brother.' Zoilus was troubled by these words but he said nothing. So they parted company. The old man went down to the regions of Alexandria where he fell seriously ill. His disciples said to each other, 'Perhaps one of us has annoyed the old man, and that is the reason why he has gone away from us?' But they found nothing with which to reproach themselves nor any disobedience. Once he was better, the old man said, 'I will return to my Fathers.' Going upstream again, he came to Petra where his disciples were. While he was close to the river, a little Ethiopian slave-girl came and touched his sheepskin. The old man rebuked her and she replied, 'If you are a monk, go to the mountain.' Alexander and Zoilus met him there. Then, when they threw themselves at his feet, the old man fell down with them also and they wept together. The old man said to them, 'Did you not hear that I was ill?' They answered, 'Yes.' 'Then,' he continued, 'why did you not come to see me?' Abba Alexander said, 'Your going from us has not been good for us, and many have not been edified by it, saying, "If they had not disobeyed the old man, he would not have left them.'" Abba Arsenios said, 'On the other hand, they will now be saying, "The dove, not finding anywhere to rest, returned to Noah in the ark.'" So they were confronted and he remained with them till his death.

33. Abba David said, Abba Arsenios told us the following, as though it referred to someone else, but in fact it referred to himself. An old man was sitting in his cell and a voice came to him which said, "Come, and I will show you the works of men." He got up and followed. The voice led him to a certain place and shewed him an Ethiopian cutting wood and making a great pile. He struggled to carry it but in vain. But instead of taking some off, he cut more wood which he added to the pile. He did this for a long time. Going on a little further, the old man was shown a man standing on the shore of a lake drawing up water and pouring it into a broken receptacle, so that the water ran back into the lake. Then the voice said to the old man, "Come, and I will shew you something else." He saw a temple and two men on horseback, opposite one another, carrying a piece of wood crosswise. They wanted to go in through the door but could not because they held their piece of wood crosswise. Neither of them would draw back before the other, so as to carry the wood straight; so they remained outside the door. The voice said to the old man, "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. 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. So everyone must be watchful of his actions, lest he labor in vain."

34. The same abba told of some Fathers who came one day from Alexandria to see Abba Arsenios. Amongst them was the aged Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria, surnamed the Poor and he refused to see them, for fear others would come and trouble him. In those days he was living in Petra of Troe. So they went back again, feeling annoyed. Now there was a barbarian invasion and the old man went to live in lower Egypt. Having heard this they came to see him again and he received them with joy. The brother who was with them said to him, Abba, don't you know that we came to see you at Troe and you did not receive us?' The old man said to him, 'You have eaten bread and drunk water, but truly, my son, I tasted neither bread nor water nor did I sit down until I thought you had reached home, to punish myself because you had been wearied through me. But forgive me, my brothers.' So they went away consoled.

35. The same abba said, 'One day Abba Arsenios called me and said, "Be a comfort to your Father, so that when he goes to the Lord, he may pray for you that the Lord may be good to you in your turn.'"

36. It was said of Abba Arsenios that once when he was ill at Scetis, the priest came to take him to church and put him on a bed with a small pillow under his head. Now behold an old man who was coming to see him, saw him lying on a bed with a little pillow under his head and he was shocked and said, 'Is this really Abba Arsenios, this man lying down like this?' Then the priest took him aside and said to him, 'In the village where you lived, what was your trade?' 'I was a shepherd,' he replied. 'And how did you live?' 'I had a very hard life.' Then the priest said, And how do you live in your cell now?' The other replied, 'I am more comfortable.' Then he said to him, 'Do you see this Abba Arsenios? When he was in the world he was the father of the emperor, surrounded by thousands of slaves with golden girdles, all wearing collars of gold and garments of silk. Beneath him were spread rich coverings. While you were in the world as a shepherd you did not enjoy even the comforts you now have but he no longer enjoys the delicate life he led in the world. So you are comforted while he is afflicted.' At these words the old man was filled with compunction and prostrated himself saying, 'Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. Truly the way this man follows is the way of truth, for it leads to humility, while mine leads to comfort.' So the old man withdrew, edified.

37. A Father went to see Abba Arsenios. When he knocked at the door the old man opened it, thinking that it was his servant. But when he saw that it was someone else he fell on his face to the ground. The other said to him, 'Get up, Father, so that I may greet you.' But the old man replied, 'I shall not get up till you have gone,' and in spite of much pleading he did not get up until the other had gone away.

38. It was told of a brother who came to see Abba Arsenios at Scetis that, when he came to the church, he asked the clergy if he could visit Abba Arsenios. They said to him, 'Brother, have a little refreshment and then go and see him.' 'I shall not eat anything,' said he, 'till I have met him.' So, because Arsenios' cell was far away, they sent a brother with him. Having knocked on the door, they entered, greeted the old man and sat down without saying anything. Then the brother from the church said, 'I will leave you. Pray for me.' Now the visiting brother, not feeling at ease with the old man, said, 'I will come with you,' and they went away together. Then the visitor asked, 'Take me to Abba Moses, who used to be a robber.' When they arrived the Abba welcomed them joyfully and then took leave of them with delight. The brother who had brought the other one said to his companion, 'See, I have taken you to the foreigner and to the Egyptian, which of the two do you prefer?' 'As for me,' he replied, 'I prefer the Egyptian.' Now a Father who heard this prayed to God saying, 'Lord, explain this matter to me: for Thy name's sake the one flees from men, and the other, for Thy name's sake, receives them with open arms.' Then two large boats were shown to him on a river and he saw Abba Arsenios and the Spirit of God sailing in the one, in perfect peace; and in the other was Abba Moses with the angels of God, and they were all eating honey cakes.

39. Abba Daniel said At the point of death, Abba Arsenios sent us this message, "Do not trouble to make offerings for me, for truly I have made an offering for myself and I shall find it again.'"

40. When Abba Arsenous was at the point of death, his disciples were troubled. He said to them, 'The time has not yet come; when it comes, I will tell you. But if ever you give my remains to anyone, we will be judged before the dreadful seat of judgment.' They said to him, 'What shall we do? We do not know how to bury anyone.' The old man said to them, 'Don't you know how to tie a rope to my feet and drag me to the mountain?' The old man used to say to himself: Arsenios, why have you left the world? I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent.' When his death drew near, the brethren saw him weeping and they said to him 'Truly, Father, are you also afraid?' 'Indeed,' he answered them, 'the fear which is mine at this hour has been with me ever since I became a monk.' Upon this he fell asleep.

41. It was said of him that he had a hollow in his chest channeled out by the tears which fell from his eyes all his life while he sat at his manual work. When Abba Poemen learned that he was dead, he said weeping, 'Truly you are blessed, Abba Arsenios, for you wept for yourself in this world! He who does not weep for himself here below will weep eternally hereafter; so it is impossible not to weep, either voluntarily or when compelled through suffering.'

42. Abba Daniel used to say this about him: 'He never wanted to reply to a question concerning the Scriptures, though he could well have done so had he wished, just as he never readily wrote a letter. When from time to time he came to church he would sit behind a pillar, so that no-one should see his face and so that he himself would not notice others. His appearance was angelic, like that of Jacob. His body was graceful and slender; his long beard reached down to his waist. Through much weeping his eye-lashes had fallen out. Tall of stature, he was bent with old age. He was ninety-five when he died. For forty years he was employed in the palace of Theodosius the Great of divine memory, who was the father of the divine Arcadius and Honorius; then he lived forty years in Scetis, ten years in Troe' above Babylon, opposite Memphis and three years at Canopus of Alexandria. The last two years he returned to Troe where he died, finishing his course in peace and the fear of God. He was a good man "filled with the Holy Spirit and faith." (Acts 11.24) He left me his leather tunic, his white hair-shirt and his palm-leaf sandals. Although unworthy, I wear them, in order to gain his blessing.'

43. Abba Daniel used to tell this also about Abba Arsenios: 'One day he called my Fathers, Abba Alexander and Abba Zoilus, and by way of humiliating himself, said to them, "Since the demons attack me and I do not know if they will not rob me when I am asleep tonight, share my suffering and watch lest I fall asleep during my vigil." Late at night they sat in silence, one on his right and the other on his left. My Fathers said, "As for us, we fell asleep, then woke again, but we did not notice that he had drowsed. Early in the morning (God knows if he did it on purpose to make us believe that he had slept, or whether he had really given way to sleep) he gave three sighs, then immediately got up, saying, 'I have been to sleep, haven't I?' We replied that we did not know.'"

44. Some old men came one day to Abba Arsenios and insisted on seeing him. He received them. Then they asked him to say a word to them about those who live in solitude without seeing anyone. The old man said to them, 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 favor 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.'

Apolytikion in Plagal of the First Tone
Thou didst spurn fleeting delights, when commanded from heaven like Abraham, and in thy life thou didst emulate the Angels; thou wast famous in wisdom, word and deed. O God-bearing Arsenios, entreat Christ our God unceasingly that He will have mercy on our souls.

Kontakion in the Second Tone
While living on earth thou didst show forth the life of the Angels, O God-bearing Arsenios, and thou wast granted their honour. Now as thou art standing with them before the throne of God, thou dost pray for forgiveness for all.