St Arsenius the Great

(entered heaven in 450)

Dear Nigil,

I can picture you busily preparing your lessons, now that you have returned from your extended vacation (well earned, I might add, after your conscientiously laborious four years of college) and are getting ready to take up your first full time teaching position.  I had a feeling you would be attracted to that honorable profession; maybe it was because you always sat in the front row of every class when you had the option.

I am sure you are nourishing your efforts with plenty of prayer, but I wanted to write today to encourage you to reflect for a moment or two on the example of today’s saint, one of the most famous of all teachers to make it into the heavenly court – though his fame is less for great teaching than for what his teaching efforts taught him.

Arsenius was a Roman noble, very learned and devout, with a promising career ahead of him.  So esteemed was he that the Pope recommended him when the Emperor was asking around for someone to tutor his two sons, Arcadus and Honorius.  The saint made his way to the luxurious court of Constantinople and did his best to educate these two boys into virtuous and wise young men, but they both turned into weak and selfish rogues (much to the empire’s chagrin).  The longer Arsenius remained at court, the more deeply he longed for solitude and a life of prayer. Finally, after ten years as an imperial tutor, he forsook the courtly comforts and made his way to Egypt, where he entreated entry into one of the many desert monastic communities.  After being mocked and humiliated for his previous worldly life, he was deemed worthy and admitted to the care of St John the Dwarf. There followed 55 years of solitude, prayer, work, and extreme asceticism, by which he grew closer to God, did penance for his previous excesses and enriched the spiritual patrimony of the Church.  They say he could frequently be found standing with his hands raised in prayer at sundown, and in the same, unaltered position when the sun came up next morning. He shunned visitors, but did take disciples, and was best known for his constant weeping, a gift which aided his prayer but wore out his eyelashes (literally).

I don’t think you have the same kind of vocation (though I could be wrong), but I do think you should prayerfully ponder one of this saint’s more famous sayings.  Another former courtier, after forsaking the world and donning the monastic habit, commented to Arsenius about the apparent ease with which ignorant Egyptian peasants could reach heights of sanctity, while the great intellectuals and scholars of Constantinople and Rome advanced so slowly down the path of virtue.  Arsenius explained, “We make no progress because we dwell in that exterior learning which puffs up the mind; but these illiterate Egyptians have a true sense of their own weakness, blindness, and insufficiency; and by that very thing they are qualified to labor successfully in the pursuit of virtue.”

So, my bright young nephew, as you take your first steps down the path of an academic career, your unworthy uncle encourages you to keep a healthy perspective on the value of intellectual prowess – so you don’t end up forsaking what really matters for what seems to matter.

Naturally yours, Uncle Eddy

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