St. Arsenia of Ust-Medvedits On October 21, 2016, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church canonized St. Arsenia of Ust-Medvedits as a locally venerated saint of the Volgograd Metropolis.
Abbess Arsenia (1833-1905) came from a notable family of the Don region. At the age of seventeen, Anna Mikhailova entered the Ust-Medvedits Monastery of her own accord. The monastery reached its highest peak in the forty years of her abbacy, from 1864 until her repose on August 3, 1905.
Besides her educational and charitable activities, the main fruits of Venerable Arsenia’s labors were the Kazan Cathedral, which was erected from 1785 to 1885, and the famous caves, dug in the image of the Kiev Caves. Today the monastery’s main shrine is there—the miraculous stone slab with hand and knee imprints of people kneeling in prayer, where the faithful come to beseech St. Arsenia for healings, the good arrangement of worldly affairs, and prosperous family lives.
In addition to her holy life, St. Arsenia left us valuable writings on the spiritual life, which we present in honor of the anniversary of her canonization.
What does it mean to believe in God?
What does it mean to believe in God? It’s necessary to believe not only in the existence of God the Creator and in the salvation given us through Jesus Christ, but we must also believe unwaveringly, in all circumstances of life, no matter how difficult, that God is merciful, that He desires our salvation; and seeing in this and knowing not only our temporary well-being, but also eternal, leads us to Him as a loving but wise father for His children, guiding them with equal love, tenderness, and firmness. Therefore, we must accept everything with hope in the mercy of God, asking only for His help in every trial or temptation, whether it comes from outside, from our infirmities, or from men—God’s instruments for our salvation, and often mutual. Our humility will save even those who grieve us.
Remembrance of God
The unceasing remembrance of God is hindered by the dispersion of our thoughts, which draw our mind into vain cares. Only when our entire life is completely directed towards God do we become capable and begin to see God in everything by faith—both in the most important circumstances of life and in the smallest—and to submit to His will in all things, without which there can be no remembrance of God, no pure and unceasing prayer. Emotions and passions are even more harmful to the remembrance of God, and therefore to prayer. Therefore, we must strictly and constantly pay heed to the heart and the things that attract it, firmly resisting them, for attraction leads the soul into impenetrable darkness. Every passion is a suffering of the soul, a sickness, and demands immediate treatment. Despondency and other forms of the heart’s cooling towards spiritual activity are diseases. Just as a man who was sick with a fever remains weak, sluggish, and unable to work even after the sickness has passed, so the soul, sick with a passion, becomes indifferent, weak, infirm, insensitive, and incapable of spiritual work. These are spiritual passions. To be armed and battle against them and defeat them is our main work. We must labor fervently in this battle with spiritual passions. Prayer reveals to us the passions that live in our hearts. Whatever passion hinders our prayer, we must urgently battle against it; and prayer itself will help in this battle, and by prayer the passion will be uprooted.
The prayer of faith, prayer with the consciousness of one’s own sinfulness, overall infirmity, and insufficiency—this is the sole form of non-deluded prayer of a man who has not achieved pure prayer. It is improper for me to speak of pure prayer, as one not having it. It’s a gift of God; it’s possible with the action of God’s grace in the heart, or better yet—it is the very action of grace. The path to it is purity. It’s not difficult to acquire purity of thoughts and purity of senses by means of solitude, reading, and exercise in prayer; but purity of heart is acquired by many deaths—it is the cessation of the passions. Try to repair to seclusion for a time, try to renounce all cares and concerns, give yourself over to prayer, and you’ll see how the distraught thoughts will subside, how swayed feelings will calm down, and you’ll begin to pray with a peaceful and attentive disposition. But there, in the chest, there is an incomprehensible heaviness that presses and presses. Without any impulses, without any desires, it lies like a stone on the heart, causing darkness and tightness that stand like a wall between the soul and the Lord. This wall can only be destroyed by the grace of God, with our resolute struggle against the passions according to the commandments of God. And for us, living in the darkness of the passions, we need contrite prayer with faith in the Lord Who saves.
The Jesus Prayer is an expression of a living sense of faith.
When we have no prayer because of laziness or distraction, we must search for it with great effort; when it departs because of the rebellion of the passions, then we must wrestle against and cut off all causes of the passions; when the soul can’t find it due to despondency, due to spiritual darkness, then it’s best to remain in the confession of the One Who saves.
Prayer requires purity of soul, and it is acquired by self-sacrificial activity according to the commandments of God.
On spiritual peace and prayer
Spiritual peace is needed not only to constantly abide in prayer, but even to fulfill the rule of prayer. If spiritual peace is somehow violated, then prayer becomes either only oral, or is said with the mind with great effort; it will never be said with the heart. Spiritual peace as the property of the “pure of heart” is acquired, or more correctly, is sent down by the Lord after many labors and feats of struggle with spiritual passions and after many renunciations. But let us sinners, who feed upon crumbs from the tables of the rich, strive to acquire peace at least during prayer. This also requires a difficult and long-lasting struggle: completely cutting off the thoughts during prayer, renouncing the senses and the whole surrounding world, surrendering everything to the will of God, the unshakeable affirmation of the heart in faith, unquestioning faith in the power of God. With this affirmation of the heart, prayer becomes peaceful. But if this state is achieved through our labors, and isn’t a gift of God’s grace, then sometimes our inner world is suppressed and clouded by two opposing states: either the coldness of the heart, or the joy of the senses, replacing the turmoil of thoughts and agitation of emotions. Coldness of heart is such a beast that human strength can’t defeat it. It takes many feats of love for neighbor, much mercy towards the shortcomings of others and forgiveness of them to soften the heart. And during the prayer of hope in the power of God, we must pray for our neighbors, for the whole world, for the forgiveness of sins of all sinners, of whom I am chief. The coldness will pass, and there comes joy that excites the senses and disturbs our peace. Then deep humility is needed, even a temporary laying aside of prayer due to unworthiness, selflessness to one’s neighbor in word or deed. It is only in the depths of humility and self-deprecation that the inner peace that facilitates true prayer is to be found.
Repentance, like prayer, must not be wistful. True repentance is a gift of God, full of contrition. Our repentance must only be the consciousness and assurance of our sinfulness, and a lack of self-reliance. This is what leads to faith.
The purpose of life
The purpose of human life is communion with God, which is the salvation of our souls—their eternal beatitude. And the means of fulfilling His commandments: submission to His will, which reveals itself in the circumstances of life; labor: the purification of the heart from passions; and humility that leads to faith, to accepting His grace, without which nothing good or holy can be accomplished in us.
The commandments of God
The Lord indicated two main commandments that contain everything: love for God and love for neighbor. But there are commandments indicated by Him in the Beatitudes, when He said blessed are the pure in spirit, and so on. These words of Christ indicate the qualities of heart and soul that we must acquire, and only then can can be fulfilled those higher commandments, of which it’s said that everything is contained within them. Begin with the first: poverty of spirit consists in destroying one’s ego in order to see all the impotence of our soul, all its infirmities, sinfulness. If the soul sees, knows, and senses itself this way, then it will certainly come to faith, to the conviction that in God, and in Him alone, is its strength, its purification, its salvation; and this faith of the soul is the door of the Kingdom of Heaven—not only to the Heavenly Kingdom that will be the inheritance of holy souls in eternity, but to that Kingdom that is within us. This poverty of spirit is truly blessed, because the soul, having seen its powerlessness, its impurity, and its inadequacy for anything good, loses faith in itself, ceases to hope in itself—and this is the beginning of faith and hope in God. It finds Him there where it loses itself. It’s difficult, it’s bitter to remain in this poverty, in this hopelessness; the soul feels that it’s perishing, that it has no salvation, no help from anywhere. But this state of hopelessness must be overcome in order to come to faith. We must not only know our infirmity with the mind, but sense it with our entire being, live in it, and only then does the soul come to living faith in God. It will see Him acting in everything, when it itself ceases, with all its egotism, to act in everything. It will see Him reigning when it stops relying on its own reasoning for everything.
Open the Gospel, read it, delve into what the Lord taught His disciples, and you’ll learn what commandments He gave His followers. He taught them to renounce everything, mainly themselves, even to the point of rejecting their own soul. This renunciation is necessary because the soul has so much impurity, so many passions contrary to the spirit of Christ, that without cutting them off, communion with Christ is impossible. This renunciation of self is possible only when we have a goal for which we can renounce ourselves and reject our passions. This goal is love of neighbor. In order to fulfill the duty of loving our neighbor, we must abandon ourselves, renounce our own souls. The Lord showed this love in both word and example. He taught us to forgive our enemies, to have mercy on the weak, not to condemn sinners, to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. This commandment about loving one’s neighbors can’t be fulfilled without renouncing our predilections for earthly goods. We can renounce our own selves and yield in everything to our neighbor only when we see eternal life, when we strive to love the eternal One, the unchanging Good, the only perfect One—God.
And here is the first and most important commandment of Christ: to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength. In a nutshell, the Lord indicated the perfection of the spiritual path, but a whole human lifetime isn’t enough to master, to fulfill this word from Christ. Renounce yourself. But what does this mean? To know yourself properly, to see all the impurity of your soul, all its passion, all its infirmity—this is the lifetime task for those who seek salvation. I said salvation, but what are we being saved from? We are being saved from the perdition we find ourselves in. That means that finding out what kind of perdition surrounds us is the most pressing question. This is our common perdition—a perdition we have built for ourselves out of our passions and sins; a perdition that we don’t see within ourselves, and don’t even suspect. Meanwhile, that which lives in us prevents us from following Christ, despite our determination and desire. Thus, we must first of all purify the secret places of the soul; purify the vessel from which, according to the Lord, come fornication, murder, thievery, and all kinds of passions and sins.
Humility is the sole state of spirit through which all the spiritual gifts can come to a man. It’s a door that opens the heart and makes it capable of spiritual sensations. Humility brings imperturbable calm to the heart, peace to the mind, wakefulness to the thoughts. Humility is a power that embraces the heart, giving it an idea of that feeling of eternal life that can’t enter the heart of a carnal man. Humility gives the mind its original purity. It clearly begins to see the difference between good and evil in everything. There can be no pure, spiritual prayer until the heart feels humility.