Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Arsenius
Arsenius, called "the Great," one of the most famous of the monks of Egypt. He was of high Roman family; born probably in 354. He was deeply read in Greek literature. About 383, Theodosius the Great being desirous of finding a suitable instructor for his sons Arcadius and Honorius, the elder of whom was then about six years old, Arsenius was recommended to him, it is said, by the Roman bishop, and in this way came into the service of the best of the Christian Caesars. The time that Arsenius spent at the court came to an end when he was forty years old, in 394. A thoughtful and high-souled Roman Christian living under the ascendancy of Rufinus might not unnaturally be impelled towards monastic seclusion by sheer disgust and despair as to the prospects of so-called Christian society. He gave up his charge, in obedience, as he said, to a voice which bade him "fly from men, if he would be safe."
Arsenius, arriving at the monastic wilderness of Scetis, begged the clergy there to put him in the way of salvation by making him a monk. They took him to abbot John Colobus (the Dwarfish), who invited them to a meal: Arsenius was kept standing while they sat; a biscuit was flung at him, which he ate in a kneeling posture. "He will make a monk," said John; and Arsenius stayed with him until he had learned enough of the monastic life from John's teaching, and then established himself as a hermit in Scetis, where he continued forty years. His love of solitude became intense; the inward voice had seemed to bid him "be silent, be quiet," if he would keep innocency. One visitor he even drove away with stones; he discouraged the visits of Theophilus the archbp.; and when a high-born Roman lady visited him during one of his occasional sojourns outside the desert, her request to be remembered in his prayers was met by the brusque expression of a hope that he might be able to forget her. Whenever he came into a church he hid himself behind a pillar; he even shrank at times from his brother hermits, remarking that the ten thousands of angels had but one will, but men had many. But with all his sternness, which was coupled with more than the usual monastic austerities, Arsenius could be cordial, and even tender. His humility was worthy of a follower of Anthony. He was heard to cry aloud in his cell, "Forsake me not, O God! I have done no good in Thy sight, but, in Thy goodness, grant me to make a beginning." A very famous saying of his referred to faults of the tongue: "often have I been sorry for having spoken—never for having been silent." The Exhortation to Monks, ascribed to him (Combefis, Gr. Patr. Auctarium, i. 301; Galland, Biblioth. vii. 427), exhibits the results of deep spiritual experience. It warns the monk not to forget that his great work is not the cleansing of the outer life, but of the inner man: spiritual sins, not carnal only, have to be conquered; many a good action has, through the tempter's sublety, become the door to unexpected evil; many who have thought their battle with sin accomplished have relapsed through the perilous hearing of other men's sin: "we must keep guard all round."
In 434 Arsenius left Scetis, driven forth by an irruption of the Mazici. He stayed at Troe, near Memphis, until 444; then spent three years at the little island (not the city) of Canopus; returned to Troe for the two remaining years of his long monastic life. The Greek church honours him as "our Father, Arsenius the Great," on May 8; the Latin, on July 19.