The Life of St. Arsenius

A hymn to the Theotokos:

 

Behold the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled: For thou, O Virgin, hast given birth and after as previous to giving birth Thou hast remained a Virgin. `For God Himself was born therefore nature is fashioned anew.  Therefore, O Mother of God, do not despise the supplications of thy servants offered to thee in thy temple.  But as thou hast embraced with thy hands the Tenderhearted One, be kindhearted towards thy servants, and pray that our souls may be saved.    

 

The Life of St. Arsenius

 

Our venerable and God-bearing father Arsenius was born in the ancient and glorious city ofNovgorodof faithful and reverent parents.  He was taught to read and write in his youth and from his early years he was God-fearing and sought purity.  He thus shunned the games and gaiety common to children; he rather preferred to frequent the holy Church, and so, the seed of God-inspired hymnology and Holy Scriptures was planted within the innocent youth.

 

As an occupation in the world he learned the art of forging metals by apprenticing with a blacksmith.  As he was merciful he gave much in alms to the poor.  He was very devout and strong in prayer, and was kindled with love for the divine life of the Church. And so, at the age of 20, he left parents, home and belongings; for he considered everything of this world as refuse and he entered the Lisogorsky Monastery in the area ofNovgorod.  There received the holy angelic habit. 

 

Father Arsenius thirsted for yet greater labors and to become more perfect in virtue and thus it was that a desire to go to theHolyMountainwas born within him.  And so it was that when several monks from Athos visited theNovgorodarea he received a blessing to return with them.  This was in the year 1390 about 17 years after entering the monastic life. 

 

On his arrival at theHolyMountainhe was graciously received by an Igumen named John.  Although his recorded life does not state which monastery this was, it is believed that he entered the Serbian Monastery of Hilandar.  Here he humbly and earnestly worked at whatever tasks which were required of him as he considered himself to be the least and worst of all the brotherhood.

 

His occupation in the world, as we have learned, was that of a blacksmith.  This was something at which he was quite skilled and it became a tool of divine providence.  When his trade was discovered both in his monastery and others of theHolyMountainhe forged whatever metal work they were in need of  Thus he spent time and labored in many of the monasteries of Athos.  We could rightly conclude that he not only offered his services but also had the opportunity to meet and converse with many of the revered fathers of Athos.  What did he learn from them?  In the monastery of his Russian homeland his soul thirsted for something more in the ascetic life.  The purpose of his move to Athos was in pursuit of a further ascent in his spiritual life. He must have been introduced to and immersed himself into the hesychast tradition.  This is a very logical conclusion as his stay on Athos was a generation after such great hesychast fathers as St. Gregory of Sinai, St. Gregory Palamas and St. Maximos Kapsokalivites.  Their teaching would have been flourishing on theHolyMountainat that time and the employment of such is what brought many saints to perfection.  The immersion in this tradition would have brought the blessed one what he sought, and so, we must conclude that this is exactly what he found on Athos and afterwards brought back to Russia. 

 

After three years on theHolyMountainthe thought came to him to return to his homeland and raise up a monastery in honor of the Most-Holy Theotokos in honor of her glorious Nativity.  When he came to the Igumen John and told him of his desire he was not deprived of it, but rather was given a blessing.  The Igumen  was endowed with the gift of prophecy, and looked upon him with his eyes of foresight and said, “By thy hands God will raise up a cloister in the northern land where many people shall be saved; and that land shall become free for many years.”(1)  He gave the blessed Arsenius an icon of the Mother of God and charged him to keep the rule of theHolyMountain.  Thereupon he prayed for his spiritual child: “O Lord our God, look upon thy servant Arsenius.  May Thy grace be upon him, so that wherever he settles there may be in that place the blessing of theHolyMountain.”(2)  Father Arsenius than made a circuit of the monasteries and sketes of theHolyMountaintelling the fathers of his desire and receiving their blessing.

 

And so, having returned to his homeland in the year 1393, Father Arsenius visited the Lisogorsky Monastery and having received a blessing from the igumen he set off traveling north by boat.  In sailing he came to shore onKonoIslandwhich, like Valaamo is onLakeLadoga.  Although this place did not attract him he was unable to depart because of strong winds which drove him back toKonoIsland.   In being drawn back to the island the sound of a mighty bell was heard.  Father Arsenius said to a disciple who was with him: “My child,  this sign was given to us in order that we should not think of departing hence but to assure us that it is according to the will of the Lord and the Most-Holy Theotokos that a monastery must be built on this island.  The Most-Pure One in a single moment, as if upon wings, brought us here.”(3) 

 

 

On coming toKonoIslandthe blessed Arsenius originally settled at a high location where he labored in a skete life for about five years.  In the year 1398 he received a blessing from Archbishop John ofNovgorodto establish a cenobitic monastery which was built close to the coast.  Thus having spent over two decades in the monastery, the blessed one erected a church, dining hall and cells for the brethren.  It happened that because of a violent storm and a flood in 1421 the saint decided to move the monastery to a higher location.  While a new location was in consideration the blessed one began to pray to God and the Most-Holy Theotokos to give him understanding.  One night, while taking a little rest as he prayed it seemed to him as though he saw himself walk to the place where the monastery now stands and outline its borders.  When St. Arsenius related everything to the brethren they attested to the fact they at times they either saw a bright light, heard bells, or smelled a strong sweet fragrance at that place.  And so, on this site, they built the new monastery and erected a church in honor of the Nativity of the Most-Holy Theotokos.

 

In his many years as a monk, the saint labored without ever altering his monastic rule.   As the month of June arrived in the year 1447 the saint having become weak understood that his end was near.  So he called the Igumen John who had taken his place as abbot along with the brethren and in such manner instructed them:

 

                 Continue firm in Orthodoxy, keep unity of mind, have purity of body

              and soul and unhypocritical love for your neighbor. Flee from evil and

              defiling thoughts and keep the rule of the Holy Mountain.  He ordered

              that at the meals the brethren should have everything equal and that

              drunkenness should not even be thought to occur in the monastery.

              Strangers and any who come to the monastery should be cordially re-

              ceived, refreshed, and given what they may need in going on their way.(4)

 

He affirmed:

 

                Such sacrifices the Lord receives and for such He blesses.  And if it be

             that you have such a life then the Lord will not forsake this place.  I am

             going to the Lord. I depart in the body, but in spirit I shall ever be with

             him who calls upon me.  After my departure this cloister shall not be in

             want as long as you execute my instructions and as long as you do so the

             blessing of God and the Most-Pure Mother of God will be with you.  Now

             I commit you to God Who is able to do all and the most pure Mother of

            God, may they be  a refuge  and shield  for you  from the  snares and

            reproaches of the enemies.(5)

 

Supported by the brethren he then partook of Holy Communion and departed to the Lord.  From his body there flowed a strong ineffable fragrance.  The brethren, with tears and lamentation gathered together and meetly honored him with hymns for the departed.  His face was bright as if he were still living, reflecting the purity of his soul.  They laid him to rest in the church of the Nativity of the most pure Theotokos.  Thus did the holy one live and thus did he depart to eternal life to the glory of God.  Amen.

 

Endnotes:

 

  1. The Life of Venerable Arsenius of Konevits the Wonderworker, Ed. and Comp. in contemporary Russian language by N. N. Elenoi, S.-Petersburg, Izd-vo “Belveder”, 2002,  p. 46
  2. Ibid. p. 47
  3. Ibid. p. 48
  4. Ibid. p. 56
  5. Ibid. p. 56-7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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