St Arsenius (July 19) became one of the leading Desert Fathers

Arsenius (c 350-445), tall, good-looking and aristocratic, went from riches to rags in the approved Christian fashion, to the extent of becoming one of the leading Desert Fathers.

He was born into a Roman senatorial family. Apparently his parents were Christian; at any rate, when they died, their daughter, Afrossity, was admitted into some form of nunnery (“a community of virgins”, we are told), while Arsenius gave the family fortune to the poor and dedicated himself to the ascetic life.

He could not, however, immediately escape his privileged background. Pope Damasus I made him a deacon, and around 383 recommended him as a tutor to the Emperor Theodosius’s sons, Arcadius and Honorius. For 10 years years he filled this post; and the story goes that when Theodosius came to check on the boys’ progress he was appalled to find them sitting down, while Arsenius was standing up.

Eventually, in 395, Arcadius inherited the eastern, and Honorius the western empire, though neither was able to hold the decaying structures together.

After more than 10 years at court Arsenius, desperate to escape, sailed off to Alexandria, and sought admission to a monastery in the desert. 

The superior, known as John the Dwarf, ordered that no one should take any notice of the newcomer beyond throwing him some bread. Arsenius submitted to this treatment with such humility that he was immediately accepted.

He took to making mats out of palm leaves, refusing to change the water used for moistening the leaves even when it became filthy. “I ought to be punished by this smell for the self-indulgence with which I once used scents,” he explained.

Told that he had inherited a fortune under a relation’s will, Arsenius responded: “I died before him and cannot be made his heir.”

Visitors were not encouraged. “God knows how dearly I love you all,” he told them, “but I cannot leave God to converse with men.” Conversation seemed to him a dangerous pastime. “I have always something to repent of after having talked,” he vouchsafed, “but have never been sorry for having been silent.”

Arsenius came to despise his own knowledge, and demurred when accused of wasting his time with a holy fool. “I am not unacquainted with the learning of the Greeks and the Romans,” he said, “but I have not yet learned the alphabet of the saints, whereof this seemingly ignorant person is master.”

Barbarian raids forced him to leave the desert around 434. He retreated first to a rock near Memphis, and then, 10 years later, to the island of Canopus, near Alexandria. 

Somewhat lachrymose in his latter years, Arsenius confessed that he had been terrified of death from the time he had arrived in the desert. When the moment came, however, he passed on in perfect peace.