While still living in the palace, Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, ‘Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.’ And a voice came to him saying, ‘Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved.’ Having withdrawn to a solitary life he made the same prayer again and he heard a voice saying to him, Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinfulness.
——-Arsenius of the Desert
Location does not cause us to sin or save us from sin. That is the message of this desert saying. At first glance such an idea takes us by surprise. Most of us think that if we get away from the bad place, the bad company ,or whatever else seems to vex us, things will automatically get better. Arsenius prayed with sincerity asking for an answer to his plight, and he thought he had found one. Going from the palace to the monastery would take care of everything. Apparently after his move, he still felt an emptiness or restlessness. He once again prayed and to his surprise heard the same answer. The fleeing he was called to do came from the inside out not the outside in.
Nothing has changed in the past 1500 years. Change begins in our hearts. Solitude is not a place; it is a condition. There are places that seem more conducive to prayer and contemplation, and we should seek them, but in the end we must find a contemplative heart. Let us not pine away over our inability to change our physical location and work diligently to change the location of our hearts.
It was said of him that he had a hollow in his chest channeled out by the tears which fell from his eyes all his life while he sat at his manual work. When Abba Poemen learned that he was dead, he said weeping, ‘Truly you are blessed, Abba Arsenius, for you wept for yourself in this world! He who does not weep for himself here below will weep eternally hereafter; so it is impossible not to weep, either voluntarily or when compelled through suffering.’
—- Sayings of the Desert
How many of us really take sin seriously enough to weep for ourselves. In a world of much rationalization and warped reasoning, it is woefully easy to excuse ourselves from blame for anything. In the early ‘70s, psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled Whatever Became of Sin? Years after Dr. Menninger’s death, his question still remains. Our culture has scraped the idea of sin as glibly as we dispose of our obsolete cell phones and computers. People who attend our churches don’t want to hear anything on Sunday that would upset them or cause just the slightest feeling of discomfort. When the words of the pastor or scripture itself cause introspection, it is time to flee. After all, I come to church to make myself feel better.
Abba Arsenius gives us an entirely different model for this matter. His feeling of sin was so deep that he spent untold hours weeping on his own behalf. Arsenius understood the gravity of the human condition and the gratefulness we should express because of God’s grace. No presumption was made that God loves us so much that we are forgiven even if do not repent. He wept for his own sins, and I believe the world would be a far better place if we did the same.
“While still living in the palace, Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, ‘Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.’ And a voice came saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved. ‘Having withdrawn to the solitary life he made the same prayer again and he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness.’ “
—sayings of the Desert Fathers
Threefold is the call to perfection. First we must flee. We flee from the slavery of the demands of the world. We are no longer obedient vassals to what “everyone else” is doing and saying. Second, we must practice silence. The call to silence is a call to be attentive to the voice of God. God speaks loudest when we are silent . The third call is to pray always. In the practice of constant prayer ,we open ourselves to the will of God, and we draw closer to Him. These three concepts are a path to perfection.
Abba Arsenius used to say that a monk travelling abroad should not get involved in anything; thus he will remain in peace.
—sayings of the Desert Fathers
Once again, we come to the importance of focus on the Christian journey. Though the words may seem harsh, and the suggestion of Abba Arsenius contradictory of the gospel, it is essential to doing a good work. The idea of non – involvement while on mission may seem somewhat confusing to us. However, it is the heart of the single-mindedness of a fully devoted follower of Christ. As you travel the roads of this life make sure you don’t forget that the most important task you can have is remaining at peace.
Someone said to Abba Arsenius, ‘My thoughts trouble me, saying, “You can neither fast nor work; at least go and visit the sick, for that is also charity.”‘ But the old man, recognizing the suggestions of the demons, said to him, ‘Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell.’ For he knew that steadfastness in the cell keeps a monk in the right way.
—sayings of the Desert Fathers
A great “demon” of all people is restlessness. This feeling can cause us to stray away from our purpose in life. We have a tendency to fill our days with meaningless activities that accomplish nothing. The greatest tool of the evil one is distraction from purpose. Most believers get up every morning with the intention to “do no evil,” but the demands of the world can sidetrack the best among us. Keeping our focus on our “cells” of life will keep us on track. We pray, we care, we are other focused, and this is the calling of all Christ followers.
Abba Mark said to Abba Arsenius, ‘Why do you avoid us?’ The old man said to him, ‘God knows that I love you, but I cannot live with God and with men. The thousands and ten thousands of the heavenly hosts have but one will, while men have many. So I cannot leave God to be with men.’
—–sayings of the desert
The heavenly hosts have but one will, but men have many directions. At first glance it seems Arsenius is advocating total isolation, with further thought, there is perhaps a deeper meaning. Men are so scattered and confused when attempting to follow after God. We search in many directions, and fail to find peace with God. Constant discussion and speculation dominate our lives, and no truth is found. For thousands of years men have discussed and debated the meaning of miracles, healings, suffering, and have found few answers. The Abba calls us to put God first, and with that decision, we can have the freedom to find His will. Putting God first can be as simple as beginning each day in prayer, or having a time of silence to keep our focus. The Abba warns that we must not abandon God to be in the world.
Abba Mark asked Abba Arsenius ‘Is it good to have nothing extra in the cell? I know a brother who had some vegetables and he has pulled them up.’ Abba Arsenius replied, ‘Undoubtedly that is good but it must be done according to a man’s capacity. For if he does not have the strength for such a practice he will soon plant others.’
——Sayings of the Desert Fathers
I suppose the toughest part of the Christian journey is to discover my capacity. I want answers, handles, methods to live my life as a devoted follower of Christ. The wisdom of the desert tells me that there is no one answer, but our loving God accommodates my “capacity”. What does that mean? It seems to ring the tone of situational ethics but no, it is really scriptural. First Corinthians 10: 13 tells us that we will not be given more than we can bear. In our “one right answer society” we expect everyone to be of the same belief, actions and journey but that is not reality. God gives each person a capacity of faith that we offer to him and He, in turn, gives a faith journey that we can accomplish.
Sacred Heart Church of Gibraltar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A brother questioned Abba Arsenius to hear a word of him and the old man said to him, ‘Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God, and you will overcome exterior passions.
—-Sayings of the Desert Fathers
The message of the old man is simple. Change your heart and the rest will follow. Too many of us make the mistake of thinking that we can change our behavior and our hearts will change. True change, God given change, begins with a change of heart. Jesus said, “It is what is inside of a man that corrupts .”
- Small Handful Of Faith (simplelifeheartenings.com)
Someone said to blessed Arsenius, ‘How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get no- where, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?’ Abba Arsenius said to him, ‘We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.’
Virtue (Photo credit: Leonard John Matthews)
It would do us all well to learn the lesson of humble work. Such work is the prayer of the desert Monk. In our world we tend to devalue the work of our hands, hard work that builds our character and spirit. We replace it by such sayings as,”Work smarter, not harder.” While I would be the first to advise smart work, I must add that true work builds virtue, the kind of virtue that stands against the temptations of the evil one.
Latin Alphabet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, ‘Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education ask this peasant about your thoughts?’ He replied, ‘I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.’
What an interesting thought, “The alphabet of a peasant.” We all know that everything we write or say comes from our alphabet. How amazing was it that a highly educated Roman citizen, when looking through the eyes of Christ, gave more credence to the wisdom of the peasant than the wisdom of education. The challenge is: Who do we learn from? Who sets our agenda? Can any of us say that we listen and learn from those who are living through the pure mercy of God.