One of the most famous of the DESERT FATHERS, although not of Egyptian origin. In the alphabetical collection of the APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM (Cotelier, 1864) he comes immediately after Saint ANTONY, and tradition gives him, as it gives the latter, the title of “the Great.” He was probably born to a senatorial family at Rome in the middle of the fourth century. He received an excellent education and held high office at the court of the emperor Theodosius. On the basis of a poorly interpreted sentence in one apothegm (Cotelier, 1864, Arsenius 42; cf. PL 73, col. 955 C), he has even been held to be the tutor or the godfather of the sons of Theodosius.
Concerned about his salvation, he prayed one day and heard a voice say to him, “Arsenius, flee mankind and you will be saved” (Arsenius 1). The fame of the monks of Egypt was by then solidly established. Arsenius made haste to join them at SCETIS. This must be placed around 390. It is understandable that such a person’s vocation would have seemed suspect to the aged Copts, who thought it necessary to submit the matter to the test at the hands of the wise abbot JOHN COLOBOS.
Training was rough, ready and swift. The new solitary soon had his cell in a remote spot 32 miles (48 km) from the monastic center (Arsenius 21), where he led the most austere of lives. He moved from there only after the Maziks had devastated the region. This was after Rome had been taken by Alaric, for Arsenius wept and said, “The world has lost Rome and the monks have lost Scetis” (Arsenius 21). The remainder of his life was passed either at Canopus, near Alexandria, or at Troa (modern-day Turah), some 10 miles (15 km) southeast of Cairo; he died in Troa. A monastery of some size remained there until the fifteenth century, composed partly of cells and churches hollowed out of the rock. From this monastery came the papyri that were discovered in 1942 in a neighboring grotto and that contained works of ORIGEN and DIDYMUS.
Saint Arsenius seems always and everywhere to have been held in great honor in the Coptic church, following the fashion of the most eminent of the Egyptian fathers. He is mentioned on 13 Bashans in the various recensions of the Copto-Arabic SYNAXARION. He is commemorated on 8 May in the Greek Synaxarion and in the Georgian calendar. He also has his place in the Latin martyrologies on 19 July.
The apothegms tell us especially of the austerity with which Saint Arsenius always remained faithful to his initial vocation to forsake mankind. The divine voice drove him to it (Arsenius 2), and he encouraged himself to do it by ceaselessly repeating these words: “Arsenius, why have you gone forth [from the world]?” (Arsenius 40). Whether it was the patriarch, visitors of note, or people introducing themselves to him on the prelate’s recommendation, the old man would hide (Arsenius 7-8, 28).
Even the brethren could not easily obtain an interview with him, and they were astonished at the fact (Arsenius 26, 34, 37, 38). When asked by the abbot Mark why he was fleeing from them, Arsenius replied, “God knows I love you but I cannot be both with God and with men” (Arsenius 13). The saint was in fact united with God to the point of seeming to be literally on fire when one of the brethren cast an indiscreet glance through his cell window (Arsenius 27). Above all, he was horrified at the esteem and consideration given him by men (Arsenius 31).
He concealed his practices so well that it was said that nobody could lay hold of the secret behind them (Nau, 1907, p. 54). However, it is known that he lived in extreme destitution (Arsenius 20) and that in church he used to stand hidden behind a pillar (Arsenius 42) clad in the worst of garments (Arsenius 4). His diet was most frugal. Once a year his supply of bread was renewed and some fresh fruit was brought to him, which he ate giving thanks to God (Arsenius 16, 17, 19).
He slept for hardly an hour each night (Arsenius 14) and wove rope all morning (Arsenius 18). Every Saturday night he would remain standing in prayer, with hands uplifted, facing east (Arsenius 30). It was above all his spiritual life, which remained concealed in those invisible activities, about which he said, “Struggle with all your might so that your inward acts may be according to God’s will, and you will conquer your outward passions” (Arsenius 9).
He did perhaps betray himself a little when he said, “If we seek God, he will appear to us; and if we hold on to him, he will abide with us” (Arsenius 10). One day, too, some of the brethren heard him crying to God, “O God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good in thy presence; but in thy goodness put it in my power to begin” (Arsenius 3). On the approach of death, he kept the fear that had been with him throughout his life as a monk (Arsenius 40)—an indubitable sign of his perfection (cf. Sisoes 14), “filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith.”
Despite the rather surly way in which he defended his solitude, Saint Arsenius did have a few disciples. We know of Alexander, Zoilus, and Daniel. But his contacts with them were intermittent (Arsenius 32) and he must have lived customarily alone in the desert. Some writings are attributed to him (Arsenius, 1864, cols. 1617-26).
The most important is a letter preserved in Georgian and published by G. Garitte (1955). Its authenticity is acknowledged as probable by M. Van Parys (1981), a good judge, who stressed the points of convergence with the apothegms: attachment to his cell and to silence, perseverance in his cell, abstinence from food and sleep, and constant prayer. This letter completes the spiritual physiognomy of the saint and singularly enriches our knowledge of his teaching, which was wholly scriptural in its inspiration.
It is said that Arsenius “never wanted to speak about a question taken from Scripture, though capable of doing so, nor did he easily write a letter” (Arsenius 42). This text does not wholly exclude his having sometimes given directives to his disciples in writing or even scriptural explanations. In the Catenae (Chains) there are still some fragments attributed to him, the authenticity of which should not be rejected a priori. We know that Arsenius had contacts with Evagrius (Vitae Patrum, PL 73, cols. 912-13). With Van Parys, we may ask whether the great solitary would not be attached to the same spiritual current that was Origenist in inspiration.
- Acta sanctorum julii, Vol. 4, pp. 605-631. Antwerp, 1725.
- Arsenius Eremita. Doctrina et exhortatio. In PG 66, cols. 1617-26. Paris, 1864.
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- . Propyl. ad Acta SS. Novembris, p. 296, no. 8. Brussels, 1940.
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- Freire, J. G., ed. Commonitiones sanctorum patrum 6, pp. 393-98. Coimbra, 1974.
- Garitte, G. “Une lettre de S. Arsène en géorgien.” Le Muséon 68 (1955):259-78.
- Geerard, M., ed. Clavis Patrum Graecorum, Vol. 3, pp. 57-58. Turnhout, 1979.
- Meinardus, O. F. A. Christian Egypt Ancient and Modern, pp. 144, 350-53. Cairo, 1977.
- Nau, F. N. “Histoire des solitaires égyptiens.” Revue de l’Orient chrétien 15 (1907):54.
- Schwartz, E., ed. Kyrillos von Skythopolis: Leben des Euthymios, p. 34. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 49, 1. Leipzig, 1939.
- Theodorus Studita. Laudatio S. Arsenii. In PG 99, pp. 849-81. Paris, 1903.
- Tillemont, L. de. Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire ecclésiastique, Vol. 14, pp. 676-702, 795-97. Paris, 1709.
- Van Parys, M. “La Lettre de saint Arsène.” Irenikon 54 (1981):62- 86.