Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Arsenios the Great

When Arsenios the Great fell ill and understood that at last he had reached the end of his earthly life, he began to cry.

“Are you afraid, Abba?” his disciple asked with perplexity.

“This fear, my child, has never left my heart, since the time I became a monk,” this great friend of God answered, his wise lips closing forever.


This Saying disturbs me.  Arsenious is one of the most quoted of all the Desert Christians, a respected teacher and monk and even he, after years of faithfulness, is terrified to die because he didn’t know if his asceticism, his efforts during his life had won him his salvation or not.

It’s hard for us on this side of the millennia to appreciate how seriously sin was taken.  Sin was sin was sin to them, all equally horrible and any sin could cost a person salvation. Some people even postponed baptism because of their belief that any sin committed after baptism would cancel the effects of baptism and send them to hell.  So they were baptized on their death beds.

Yes, of course, that kind of thinking was extreme.  But isn’t it just as extreme to think sin doesn’t matter, that it is all human nature and therefore excusable? 

I don’t think so. A continuum has two opposite ends.  Arsenious is at one end and those of us who excuse sin as human nature are at the other.  After all, Jesus came to make us better people, which means we can change, we don’t have to be bound by human nature.  Paul tells us to put on the mind of Christ.  Paul tells us to let ourselves decrease so that Christ might increase within us.

That means we have to challenge our human nature.


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