Reflections on a Saying of a Desert Father: Abba Arsenios

Patriarch Theophilos and the prefect of Alexandria once went to Abba Arsenios’ hut to talk with him. They asked him to give them some word of advice.

“If I do, do you promise to follow it?” the great hesychast asked.

“Yes, you have our word,” they answered him.

“Ali, listen well, then. Wherever you hear that the sinner Arsenios is to be found, go far away from there and do not attempt to converse with him.”

“The visiting officials were not only not dissatisfied, but they showed wonderment at the great humility of the elder.”

We frequently don’t have clues about the age of a Saying.  In this case, Theophilus is an historical figure who was Patriarch of Alexander 385–412 CE. Sayings of Abba Arsenios are among the most collected.  So there is a lot of history attached to this particular Saying which was uttered 1600 years ago, at least, and still teaching people today.

Supplicants and young monks would approach one of the elder monks and say “Father, give us a word” by which they meant they were seeking spiritual direction. Hence, the collection is known as Sayings.

Here Abba Arsenisos says that he is a great sinner and has nothing to teach anyone. He had the opportunity to pontificate on the subject of holiness and he responded by calling himself a sinner. 

Which perhaps may be one of the true indicators of holiness in a person: an awareness of one’s own sin, and how far short one is from the glory of God. Which is why, I believe, Theophilus and the prefect were so impressed with Arsenios’ humility.

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