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.
On despondency and the mercy of God
Photo: azbyka.ru How can a soul not fall into despondency when it remains alone with its sins, passions, and infirmities? How can it not fall into despondency when it sees only evil within itself, only impurity, and it has no strength to get out of this state of perdition and even can’t see the exit that it could take? But when it turns to God, when the abyss of God’s mercy for mankind—the ways of His good providence that saves a lost man—is revealed to it, when it begins to seek its salvation in this abyss of mercy, when it walks by faith along the path of His providence, which unspeakably saves us, it destroys all doubts within itself—then it will sense strength, and peace, and consolation. Then gloomy despondency will depart from the soul; the stone of insensibility will be rolled away.
Peace and joy are the fruit of humility. Here is the pier where all the good ascetics have found their rest, all those who grieved in soul, all who thirsted for salvation. Don’t fear to lose everything in order to acquire humility; don’t be afraid to pass through the desert of despondency where the soul loses everything and the poor, insensitive soul is unable to move. From this path, it’s most likely to come to humility by renunciation of oneself.
Love is good because it gives freedom; it is not limited in where it can follow its beloved to, but on the contrary, it follows them even into Hell. That’s why it’s strong, and has more than once admired its loved ones from the pits of Hell.
If you love your neighbor for yourself, you must desire the fulfillment of your own desires, your own carnal will. If you love him for his own sake, then you must fulfill his will, his desire. But if you love your neighbor for the sake of the Lord, then you must strive to fulfill the will of God in relation to him and walk blamelessly in His righteousness. Let us love our neighbor for the Lord’s sake. We must be cut off, but not from man, not from things, but from our own predilection to one or the other.
On the mercy of God
We need not only the mercy of God, which forgives our sins, bears our infirmities, and endures our iniquities, but also the bounties of God, which cleanse us from our iniquities, enlighten our minds to the knowledge of His will, strengthen our spirit to the pursuit of what is pleasing to God, and direct our will to fulfilling His commandments.
When the soul comes to know how much it needs God’s bounties and sees how much His bounties benefit us in both our external and internal lives, then only the soul is able to pray to Him with a contrite and grateful heart, and only then will prayer be the living word of the soul. The holy Prophet David was led into the knowledge of the merciful and bountiful Lord, and therefore his prayer was full of thanksgiving, doxology, and contrition. Only the knowledge of one’s sinfulness leads to the search for the mercy of God; only knowledge of one’s impotence, helplessness, and complete infirmity leads to the knowledge of the most merciful Lord.
Silence is more fruitful than any word.
Silence in word, thought, and feeling—this is the type of silence that is desired, because everything you say, think, and feel is passionate and sinful.
Peace of soul
Peace of soul is not always found in external peace and quiet. On the contrary, often, if not always, in this external peace, a storm of passions arises in the soul. And if temperance is needed during a time of distraction, then patience is all the more necessary during solitude. Patience is also a vital power of the soul with spiritual understanding, discerning the changes in things and all things earthly, with faith in the heart and humility of spirit. Patience gives the soul constancy; it turns into courage and then becomes not a passive, but an active sense.
On the will of God
Our heart is so corrupted, so darkened by sin, our life is so entangled with our vices, corrupted by the self-willed intentions of our sin-loving heart, that not only can we not do the will of God or know it, but we don’t even allow the all-holy will of God to act in us and in our lives. The Prophet says: In the saints that are in His earth hath the Lord been wondrous; He hath wrought all His desires in them (Ps. 15:3). Do you see that in holy souls, and only in them, the Lord fulfills His will? There are no obstacles in them to the fulfillment of the will of God. The sinner who lives in his passions lives constantly in opposition to the will of God. It’s good if he accepts what the Lord allows him to endure, if he is humbled by this permissiveness of God. Such humble submission to what God has allowed is a sign of a penitent sinner.
On the monastic life
A goal gives the direction and character of a man’s whole future life and activity, and therefore it’s very important.
If you only look at the external side of life, and because of the sorrows of life you desire to find peace in the quietness of the monastic life, then you’re mistaken. The monastery has its own sorrows, perhaps even heavier than those in the world. If you have understood the vanity of earthly life in your spirit, if you don’t find satisfaction for your soul there, and you desire to find this fullness in the spiritual life, to live for eternity, for God, then your aspiration is correct. But with this decision you must prepare yourself for all sorrows, both spiritual and bodily.
Much is required of a man who desires salvation. The walls of the monastery, a black cassock, even all the external labors of the monastic life mean nothing without the inner labor that is the goal of the monastic life. It consists in the perfect rebirth of the entire man, in the removal of all things earthly, in the mortification of everything that is of him—human reason, every human feeling—in order to come alive for God and in God. As far as a man is from God, so great is the abyss that separates him from God, so great is the work of reunification. Not only is this path difficult, but it’s not even accessible to everyone, it’s not open to everyone; not everyone finds it, not everyone seeks it, not even everyone wants it.
This path is desired, sought, and found only by those who are called to it by the Lord Himself. The soul feels the calling of God when it’s not satisfied by anything in earthly life, when it constantly feels some kind of incompleteness and when it seeks to discover in itself a sense of immortality that leads it into eternal life and brings it near to the Eternal Lord. The soul can’t resist such a Divine calling; it becomes obedient and will not stop in its search for the inner life, for communion with the Lord until it finds the path that leads to this goal; and then it will not stop, but will continue to labor in the field of its heart; it will go further and further, despite the path becoming more and more difficult…
If you don’t accept this inner labor, if you aren’t seeking this path, then don’t go to a monastery. People enter a monastery in order to form their spirit in this school of spiritual life, to find guides and all the means for passing through this spiritual arena.
We must love ourselves
We also have to learn how to love ourselves.
Indeed, this is something we truly must labor over.
For example, sometimes a man is unfair to himself, demanding more than he can give. He demands victory over his passions and grieves, worries, and resents himself when he sees that he is being taken over by those very passions that he had decided to leave behind. But is such indignation against oneself justified? No. Man will never be able to defeat his passions by his own power: They are overcome in us by the power of God. This power is inherent in His commandments. When, with the help of God, a man makes them his own, when they live in his heart, then sin and the passions weaken and completely cease to operate in his heart. We must constantly revive in our hearts the desire to live according to Christ’s commandments; we must entreat His help in prayer, humble ourselves in our deviations, endure our infirmity, and not resent ourselves for it. After all, if I’m not strong enough to overcome it in myself, why demand from myself that which only the Lord can give? Why should I grieve myself for not becoming higher than myself? Such a demand for spiritual success reveals our pride. Let us await everything from the One Lord and deeply humble ourselves in our infirmities and sinfulness.
On the soul and the flesh
Our spirit is so closely connected with the flesh that they make up one inseparable being. If we develop all the animal powers in ourselves, then we’ll become bestial. By animal powers, I mean not just the physical powers, but also all the powers of the soul given for earthly life. If, with the help of God, we strive to develop the powers of the immortal spirit within ourselves, this will certainly be to the detriment of the animal powers, and will even contradict all the laws and demands of our animal nature. Only a soul strengthened by the grace of God can rise above this nature.
The law of nature draws us to the actions inherent to it, regardless of whether they’re holy or sinful, without even asking our consent. This attraction of the law of our animal nature is called natural in our fallen human nature. It’s unnatural for our spirit, because it oppresses, suppresses, and kills it.
Living by the laws of our fallen nature, we still sometimes feel an unaccountable longing, dissatisfaction, desire for something higher, for freedom from everything that makes up our earthly life. This longing, this desire, reveals the need of our spirit. If we drown out this voice in ourselves, then it will fall completely silent or turn into a feeling of despair. But why is it so weak? Because due to our fall, we can’t do any good by our own strength, and only the grace of God can do good in us when we give room to grace by our humility and faith. That’s why the spiritual life is called “above nature.” We have to work on ourselves, we have to see what is above earthly interests, and we have to believe that everything holy is obtained only by the grace of God—and that’s why we have to humble ourselves.
The way of Christ’s commandments
Although all Christians must follow the path of Christ’s commandments, the path of renunciation of our sinful passions, there is a difference in spiritual labors and approaches to life, so to speak. A recluse, a novice, and a layman can all achieve the renunciation of their will, but they achieve this goal in different ways. The first of them sees the will of God before which he renounces his own will in light of the word of God; the second—in the will of his spiritual father; and the third—in the circumstances of life. Purity of heart is possible for all three, but the first strives for it with unceasing prayer, the second with the work of obedience and confession of thoughts, and the third by the honest fulfillment of his work and familial duties. They all achieve the same goal, but in different ways. It’s the same in all matters of life. I have mentioned the main characteristics, briefly pointed them out, but I want to tell you only one thing: I’m afraid you might veer too much into asceticism. Monasticism is nothing more than an external form of life, and however good it may be, it mustn’t be the ultimate goal of our search. Strive for the best gifts, says the Apostle (cf. 1 Cor. 12:31). In the commandments of Christ is hidden all spiritual treasure: to love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves. How much we must renounce our passions in order to love God more all things earthly—more than ourselves! How much we must struggle over ourselves in order to love our neighbor as ourselves! These two commandments contain all the purity, all the holiness of the soul.
Human dignity and nobility
The dignity and nobility of man is not so much in the privileges he received from his ancestors as in those good qualities of the soul that he acquired by working on himself. This is how the Lord appreciates all the good in us; this is how rational people appreciate us. And man himself must appreciate everything that the Lord gives him.