Sunday, May 8, 2016

May 8 - Arsenius the Great, Tutor, Monastic, Ascetic

When Arsenius knocked on the door of the monastery, he brought with him the air of a man who had lived a life of luxury. He had been brought to the eastern Roman empire by the emperor Theodosius I to become a tutor for his sons who would later rule the empire as well. He had been well recommended by leaders in the Church at the time and so he had been gladly accepted into the world that accompanied the role of imperial tutor. He was given to standing and lecturing while his two students sat but Theodosius put an end to this and insisted that the students stand and the teacher rest. Furthermore, though Arsenius was not given to a life of luxury and pleasure at the first he was expected to live a life worth of envy in the empire since he was specially and personally chosen from among many to represent the emperor to his own sons. Theodosius could not imagine one of his men living in less than opulence and so he fitted him with fine clothes and provided him with rich foods. Slowly, Arsenius became accustomed to the pleasures and vanities of the imperial life and though he had been raised in a Christian family and taught to fear the seductive power of material goods, he became comfortable with their sway and pull upon him. All of this continued for some time until one day he realized how deeply into the grip of the world he had fallen. With each comfort, he had increasingly lost the ability to relate to and love the God who had called him to take up a cross and follow. So, he ran away.

He had done a good job of educating his students--the emperor's two sons--but he could stay no longer within the grip of luxury and comfort and feel that he was living into the calling that God had placed upon his life. Though he identified himself as a "wretched wanderer" and wore tattered rags when he arrived at the monastery in Scetes, Egypt, it was clear to those who met him that he was a man accustomed to culture and comfort.Accordingly, they expected that he would balk at the commitments expected of an ascetic monk like themselves. They put him in the care of John the Dwarf so that he might be tested. He went with other monks to John's cell for a meal. John loudly and brightly greeted each man but passed over Arsenius as if he was unworthy of recognition. After some time talking to everybody--that is to say everybody except Arsenius--John invited all of them to sit and eat at his table. There were enough chairs for everybody except Arsenius and John told each man where to sit conveniently leaving Arsenius out of the invitation. They ate and paid Arsenius no mind as he stood by watching. Finally, about half way through the meal, Arsenius threw a small piece of bread onto the floor of the cell at Arsenius' feet and said, "I guess you can eat that if you want." In the climax of the test, every monk waited to see what noble Arsenius would do. Would he finally suffer no more indignation and give up his foolish quest to renounce everything to gain Christ? Instead, Arsenius sat on the floor and quietly ate the piece of bread. John knew at that moment that there was hope for Arsenius yet.

For the rest of Arsenius' life he lived within the walls of the monastery and accepted only the most basic of comforts (and occasionally not even those). Daily he grew in humility and devotion and soon he was well known in the monastic circles as a man who never seemed to cease in his prayer. By praying so constantly his prayers had escaped the need for words and became the ever present silence on his lips and dwelling in every beat of his heart. Prayer had become a way of life for Arsenius and renunciation had become the path that led him to salvation. Willing to cast aside anything and everything he was able to rise to meet his God. At one point the emperor Arcadius--one of Theodosius' children he had tutored--found him and offered him the job of imperial almoner. If he accepted, he would be given the opportunity to care for poor and hungry people by distributing alms on behalf of the emperor. It seems that Arsenius' lessons had stuck with Arcadius but Arsenius refused the position because he did not want to return to a world where might be tempted to regain his comfort and lose his calling. Eventually, he was forced to flee the monastery because of raids by the Mazici. The remainder of his life was spent wandering in the desert. He did so for fifteen years before finally stopping to dwell and rest in a monastery long enough to die and pass on his blessing and teaching to another group of monastics who had decided to give up everything to gain salvation.

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