The Hard Sayings of Arsenius the Hermit

Among the Desert Fathers, Arsenius (360-449) is a model of the austere hermit and renouncer of the world. He was born to an extreme of privilege in Rome, of a wealthy senatorial family. Emperor Theodosius appointed him tutor of the princely sons Arcadius and Honorius. As an ancient source puts it, Arsenius was daily "surrounded by thousands of slaves with gold girdles, wearing collars of gold and garments of silk."

But Arsenius heeded the voice within him that warned him to flee from society in order to be saved. At the age of 34, he secretly quit the palace, sailed for Egypt, and joined the monks at Scetes, near Alexandria, where he remained for 40 years. After its destruction in 434, Arsenius became a hermit, moving deeper into the desert, to mountainous Troe, where he remained until his death at the age of 90.

Arsenius was described by a disciple as

angelic in appearance, like Jacob. His body was graceful and slender, his long beard reached to his waist. ... Tall of stature, he was bent with old age.

Despite his education, he refused to discuss theology and seldom wrote letters.

When he came to church occasionally he would sit behind a pillar so that no one would see his face and so that he would not be distracted by others

This was not arrogance but humility, for he was asked once why he consulted with an Egyptian peasant about his thoughts when his Greek and Latin education was so thorough. "For all my education, I know not even the alphabet of this peasant."  "We get nothing from our secular education," he elaborated on another occasion, "but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work."

Arsenius was renowned for his austerity in food, clothing, sleep, prayer, and solitude. He would receive a basket of bread as a gift and when his donors visited the following year he had not finished the basket. When given fruit, he politely tried one but never at the whole fruit.

Arsenius considered sleep a kind of luxury, preferring to be awake at night in contemplative vigil "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." "Abba Arsenius used to say that one hour's sleep is enough for a monk if he is a good fighter."

But his relations with others gave Arsenius his reputation as a hermit of unwavering austerity. For he refused to entertain nearly everyone and only reluctantly those who might legitimately claim his attention. When Archbishop Theophilus came to introduce himself and to hear a wise word from the famous hermit, he was met with silence until Arsenius said, "Will you do what I tell you?" The archbishop nodded his assent. Arsenius went on, "If you hear that Arsenius is at some place, don't go there."

From that time on, the archbishop apparently sent messengers to see if Arsenius would accept a visit, but Arsenius replied, "If I accept you then I must accept everyone."

Even fellow-monks he often refused to see. Once a group of monks were on their way to gather flax and thought to stop to see Arsenius. They sent one of their number ahead to alert the old man. But upon inquiring, Arsenius realized that the brothers were not coming on his account but because his dwelling was conveniently on the way, so Arsenius refused to see them.

A couple of sayings reflect the logic of Arsenius's solitude. When asked why he refused the company of others he responded: "I cannot live with God and with men,. The thousands and ten thousands of the heavenly hosts have but one will, which men have many."

Once a monk came to see him. Arsenius opened the door expecting his disciple. So he fell face to the ground, refusing to get up until the visitor left. Another time, a monk visited, and Arsenius kept silent until the monk left.

The most famous incident of this sort involved a female visitor from Rome. The young woman of wealth and senatorial rank inquired of Archbishop Theophilus whether Arsenius would see her. On her behalf, Theophilus went to the old man, who refused to receive her. But the young woman was not dissuaded. She had her donkey saddled and set out herself, telling Theophilus that she had not traveled all this way to see a man - there were plenty of these in Rome - but rather a prophet. When she reached his cell, Arsenius happened to be outside.

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 that 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 Arsenius? Then they will turn the sea into a thoroughfare with women coming to see me."

But she promised to tell no one and said, "Pray for me and remember me always." But Arsenius answered: "I pray God remove all memory of you from my heart." She quit the place, returned to the town and fell ill with fever. When Archbishop Theophilus heard of her illness, he came to see her and asked what had happened. She repeated what Arsenius had told her, adding that now she was dying of grief. Theophilus told her that those were the old man's way, that saints avoid women as temptation, but that he knew Arsenius would pray for her soul. At this she recovered and went back to Rome joyfully reconciled.

In his social relations, Arsenius fuels the image of hermit as cantankerous and blunt. But his eremiticism must be consistent and thorough-going if it is to yield fruit. Theophilus understood this single-mindedness and came to respect it. In fact, Arsenius frequently offered counsel to others. To one brother, he said, "Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God, and you will overcome exterior passions. This self-discipline was thorough. When a brother told him that he could not fast or work and opined that visiting the sick was an equivalent good work, Arsenius responded firmly, "Go, eat, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell."

As he was dying, Arsenius forbade his disciples to distribute his remains, disappointing the relic-hunters of his day. They told him that they did not know how to bury anyone, and Arsenius rebuked them. "Don't you know how to tie a rope to my feet and drag me to the mountain?" He left his disciples all of his possessions: a tunic, a hair-shirt, and palm-leaf scandals.