Weninger’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Arsenius, Hermit and Abbot

detail from an icon of Saint Arsenius at the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, Massachusetts, USAArticle

Arsenius, one of the most celebrated Hermits, was born at Rome, of Christian parents, who, from his earliest childhood, reared him in the fear of the Lord. When more advanced in years, he became so proficient in Greek and Latin, in profane and sacred sciences, that he was considered the first among the learned men of Rome. The holy Pope Damasus ordained him Deacon, and soon after sent him to the Court of Constantinople, as the Emperor Theodosius had requested a learned man as tutor for his two sons. Arsenius employed all his talents to instruct these princes thoroughly in virtue and knowledge. One day, when the Emperor came into the apartment where Arsenius taught his sons, he saw that the former was standing while the latter received their instructions seated. He immediately made Arsenius sit down and ordered the princes to stand during the time of instruction; “for,” said he, “a teacher deserves more esteem than a father; the latter gives only temporal, but the former spiritual life, by teaching virtue and piety, which is far more valuable.” But, notwithstanding these lessons of the Emperor to his sons, Arcadius, on one occasion, was so embittered against his holy teacher, when he had been reproved on account of a great fault, that he hired one of his servants to put him secretly to death. The servant, fearing God more than Arcadius, informed Arsenius of the prince’s criminal design, and the man, who had long since grown tired of life at court, and in prayer had heard a voice, saying: “Flee the society of men, and you shalt save thy soul immediately resolved to quit Constantinople secretly. He therefore left during the night, and finding a ship ready to sail, he went on board and proceeded to Egypt. He then repaired to the desert of Scete. already famous for the many holy hermits who dwelt in it. He was already more than 65 years old; still he desired to receive the habit, as the mode of life of these hermits was very austere. As soon as they had appointed him a cell, he prayed to God on bended knees and with streaming eyes, to impart to him the grace to learn what he most needed to save his soul; and he again heard a voice saying: “Flee; be silent; be at rest.” To these three principles of salvation the former tutor, now a pious hermit, endeavored to conform the remainder of his life. He fled all company of men, allowed none to enter his cell, strictly kept silence, never spoke of the great knowledge he possessed, nor of the high position he had once held. When asked the reason for which he observed so strict a silence, he replied: “I have never regretted my silence, but often the words I had spoken.” He found peace in prayer, and in communing with God. His austerity was so great, that it astonished the oldest hermits. He fasted daily and much more strictly than the others; he slept at night upon the. bare ground, or a stone, and never longer than two hours, employing the remaining time in prayer. He observed most faithfully, the regulations and pious customs of the hermits, and, in one word, he lived, from the beginning, so perfect a life, that he was a model to all others, although they were much more accustomed to the austerities than he.

Meanwhile, the Emperor had employed people to search everywhere for Arsenius; and the hermits, with whom he dwelt, began. to think that he was the man for whom the Emperor manifested such solicitude. They interrogated him; but not until they had placed him under obedience, could he be persuaded to answer. When Arcadius, who, on his father’s death, succeeded to the throne, was informed of the abode of Arsenius, he immediately wrote to him, requesting forgiveness for past offences, begging him to return to court, and assuring him of his favor. The holy hermit, however, who had long tasted the sweetness of a solitary life, only answered, that he would pray daily for the Emperor, but would never leave the service of the Almighty. Solitude was much more agreeable to him than the tumult of the world, and to serve God was more glorious than to be. the courtier of a mortal monarch. Hence he desired to remain free from all temporal cares and from all society of men. A nobleman came from Rome, and brought him the will of a near relative, who had died, leaving him great possessions.

“How could he make me his heir, when I died long before him?” said the holy hermit. By this he intended to intimate, that he had died to the world and felt no longer any interest in temporal affairs. Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, visited the holy man, accompanied by the Governor, and desired, on leaving, to receive an instruction from him. Arsenius said: “I beg you to leave Arsenius in peace, and when they inform you of his abode, do not again take the trouble to visit him.” Still more severely did he treat a lady, who had travelled from Rome to Egypt, for the sole purpose of seeing this extraordinary man. Returning from a conference with the hermits, he met her on the way to his cell, w’here she, having waited for him, fell on her knees, saying that she had come only to see him and to recommend herself to his prayers. The holy man was almost angry, and without raising his eyes to her, he said, sternly: “Dost thou not know, that it ill becomes a woman to travel about the world alone? Thou wouldst have acted more wisely by remaining at home and superintending thy household, which work was given to thee by God, than by coming here and disturbing the hermits.” After saying these words, he entered his cell; but the woman cried after him: “Promise, at least, that you wilt pray to God for me.” “Yes,” replied he, “I will immediately pray to God to efface from my memory every recollection of thee.” By this the Saint showed his desire to be separated from the world and belong only to God. Sometimes, however, a feeling of weariness with his religious life would steal over him; but no sooner did he become aware of it, than he would say to himself:

“Arsenius, why hast you left the world and clothed thyself in the habit of a religious? Why hast you chosen this desert as a dwelling-place? Was it not in order to serve the Almighty? Endeavor then to follow in the steps of Him for whom you have come. If you do not wish to live like a hermit, you must to have remained in the world.” In this manner the holy man comforted himself, and freed himself from all indolence and weariness in the service of God. The temptations of Evil spirits, who sometimes appeared visibly to him, he conquered by meditation on death, by fervent prayers, and trust in God; frequently also, by the protection of the angels, who appeared to him during the contest. These instructed him also in many things, by means of visions, at the time of prayer. Thus he once saw a Moor, who cut wood and bound the pieces together to carry them home. Finding that the load was too heavy for him, he added still more wood, and then made an effort to carry the burden. At another time Arsenius saw a man, who stood by a river, and with great pains poured water into a barrel, which being full of holes, retained nothing, and thus all his efforts were in vain. When the holy man professed his surprise at both these performances, the angel explained them to him. “The first,” said he, “represents a sinner, who, already guilty of one or more mortal sins, still commits others, thinking that one confession will suffice for all. The second represents a man who performs a great deal of work, but without a good intention. The first renders his conversion very difficult, and the burden of his sins will eventually drag him down and precipitate him into hell. The second has no merit for his good works.” These, and other similar instructions Saint Arsenius received from the angels, and he made use of them for his own perfection and that of others.

When Arsenius had thus lived a most austere life for more than fifty years, God revealed to him his approaching end. Although the Saint fervently desired to see the Almighty face to face, those around him in his last moments, after he had received the Holy Sacraments, observed that he, who had lived so holy a life, feared death, and trembled at its approach. “Can it be, some one asked him, “dear father, that you should fear death? “Yes, truly,” answered he, “I fear death, and .have feared it ever since I began to lead a religious life.” But this fear did not last long; and soon peace and joy, such as trust in the Divine mercy imparts, beamed from his countenance. Comforted and happy, he ended his admirable life, in the 115th year of his life, or as others say, the 120th.

Practical Considerations

1. “Flee, be silent, be at rest:” three short but comprehensive lessons which heaven gave to Saint Arsenius, and by which he regulated his holy life. May you also conform your life to them! Flee all occasions and dangers of sin. Flee those who, by word or action, incite you to do wrong, or prevent your doing good. “Be silent.” Indulge not in useless, frivolous and sinful discourses. You have, in regard to this, already too much to answer for. “Be at rest.” Let not cares for the goods of this world so engross you that you cannot give sufficient time to the welfare of your soul. Occupy a portion of each day in prayer and other spiritual exercises. On Sundays and holy days do more. Read a devout book, and besides attending at mass, hear a sermon, and assist at other public devotions. At the end of each month, meditate on the state of your soul, and consider what you must do and what you must avoid in order to save your soul. This is to rest from all other labors, and to attend to what is the most important of all, the salvation of your soul. Consider the words of Saint Paul, which I have already given you elsewhere: “We entreat you, brethren, that you use your endeavor to be quiet, and that you do your own business;” that is, the one most needful and most important, that of your eternal salvation. (1st Thessalonians 4)

2. Saint Arsenius feared death, although he had lived during many years so holy a life. How happens it that you, leading so different and perhaps so sinful a life, do not fear death? Oh! you most probably think too little of death. You do not earnestly consider death and the life that follows it, or you think that your last hour is far off, and hence, that you have plenty of time left to be concerned about it. But perhaps you may belong to these who purposely avoid meditating on their last hour, that they may not be disturbed in their sinful career. They do not desire to hear anything about death, in order that no fear, no trepidation, no melancholy thoughts may take possession of their hearts. How devoid of sense is this! Does death put off his coming, or does he not make his appearance at all, if we do not think of him? Will he appear less awful, when we do not wish to hear and know anything about him? Experience teaches that death appears much more terrible to those who seldom or never think of him, than to those who have often meditated upon their last hour. He fills the soul of the former with much greater dread. If you wish your last hour to be free from fear, fear now, but let your fear be reasonable. Unreasonable is the fear of death, when we tremble at the thought of it, but do nothing further. Such fear I do not wish you to feel; for it is senseless and hurtful. Reasonable should your fear be: that is, it should incite you to avoid everything that is able to make your death unhappy, and to endeavor to do all that can be done to make your last hour one of happy trust in God’s infinite mercy. To become the possessor of this wholesome fear, it is necessary that you frequently think of death, not as far off, but as quite near. “Remember that death is not slow,” says the Holy Ghost, (Ecc. 24) “Behold the days of thy death are nigh.” (Deuteronomy 31) 44 Death stands before the doors of the aged, but he comes unawares to the young.” (Saint Bernard)

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weninger, DD, SJ. “Saint Arsenius, Hermit and Abbot”. Lives of the Saints, 1876. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 March 2018. Web. 21 October 2020. <>