The monks around Arsenius were astonished. As death drew near to the old desert monk around the year 455, they saw him weeping and recognized that it was from fear. Not only they, but the whole world had long considered him the most holy of men.
"Truly, Father, are you also afraid?" they asked him.
"Indeed," answered Arsenius, "the fear which is mine at this hour has been with me ever since I became a monk."
This seems to summarize a serious weakness that was found in much of monasticism. If ever a man should have been confident of salvation at his death, that man was Arsenius. The son of a senator he became a courtier in Constantinople. As the years passed, his life of leisure and luxury left him dissatisfied. An insistent voice said to him, "Arsenius, flee the company of men, and you will be saved." Finally, he followed the voice, renouncing wealth and rank to become a monk.
Arsenius presented himself to be taught by another desert father, John the Dwarf. But when the monks sat down to eat, John left Arsenius standing. Arsenius waited patiently. Finally John threw a piece of bread at his feet, saying he might have it if he wished. Arsenius meekly squatted down to eat it off the floor. Satisfied with the newcomer's humility, John accepted him.
A decade later, Arsenius' uncle, also a senator, died, and left him a vast estate in his will. Arsenius rejected it, saying, "I was dead long before this senator who has just died."
Weeping constantly for his sins and the sins of others, he prayed for long hours, sleeping only an hour a day, eating very little, owning almost nothing, weaving baskets of palm leaves. He lived apart from even the other monks and repeatedly rejected those who came to see him. Asked why, he explained: "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."
Over forty sayings and tales about Arsenius have come down to us. Sadly, not one of these sayings mentions Jesus Christ. This was the weakness of that type of monasticism. Its emphasis was on heroic sufferings as a means to salvation, whereas in scripture we are taught, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." Arsenius adopted a lifestyle that showed that he thought the way to salvation was by shunning other men. As his dying showed, it brought him no peace. This was the same kind of difficulty that led Martin Luther, at last, to rejoice in the recovery of the biblical gospel---justification by faith alone through Christ alone.
Nonetheless, Arsenius is regarded as a saint in some church calendars. This day, July 19, is his feast day.
- "Arsenius the Great, Hermit." Saints O' the Day. http://users.erols.com/saintpat/ss/0719.htm
- "Saint Arsenius the Great, The Teacher of the Kings (A.D. 445)." http://www.saintmark.com/topics/synexarion/arsenius.html
- Vuibert, A. J. B. "St. Arsenius." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1907.
- Ward, Benedicta, translator. Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Cistercian Publications, 1975.
- Various other internet articles.
Last updated July, 2007