(This is not the fourth-fifth century St Arsenios that I have been translating, who is the namesake of the one I refer to here, but a nineteenth-twentieth century saint. I’ll be returning to the Sayings of the Fathers soon. But the connection is there.)
St Arsenios the Cappadocian (whose life is well-told by Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain in this lovely volume) lived a long life in the village of Farasa in Cappadocia, before being subjected, along with the rest of the village’s Christian inhabitants, to the “Transfer of Populations” in 1923, after which he lived in Greece, falling asleep there in the Lord in 1924, at the age of eighty-three. Elder Paisios,when young, learned of St Arsenios from another inhabitant of Farasa, Prodromos Kortsinoglou, who had been St Arsenios’ chanter, and thus eventually wrote the above-mentioned book (the original Greek title being Ο Αγιος Αρσενιος ο Καππαδοκης, also published by and available from the Holy Convent of the Evangelist John the Theologian, Souroti, 570 06 Vasilika, Thessaloniki, Greece). The book is evocative of the life lived in that era in many such Christian villages throughout the former Byzantine lands. The poverty, the illness, the humble lives and concerns of the villagers are all reflected in the course of relating various incidents from the life of this modern saint.
One of the things learned by Elder Paisios which is not included in the book involves St Arsenios’ use of the Psalms as a book of needs, as some call such things, or a blessing-psalter. The full listing is provided here, in the St Pachomius Library. I ran across this description of St Arsenios’ usage of the psalms as prayers a number of years ago, even before I was Orthodox and knew anything about St Arsenios, and have always found it extraordinary. One finds in it the concerns of a small, poor village, where the people find themselves in suffering from such varied things as rebellious children, hard-hearted spouses, the oppressing enemy, thieves, earthquakes, bad teeth and other ailments, as well as interest in enlightening leaders, enemies, and various people so that everyone can live together in peace. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s not particularly clear why certain psalms are assigned the use as prayer that St Arsenios has given them, of course. The point of such things is rather that living a life of prayer is of more importance than a life of rational exactitude in such correspondences in any case.
Two things come to me, and comfort me, in reading the list of situations for which St Arsenios used the psalms as prayers. One is that we learn from this saint, as from all others, that ultimately, everything in life is under the mercy of God. The breadth of concerns covered by the list of situations is that of nearly all of life: marriage, family, productive agriculture, good relations with neighbors and authorities, protection from crime, release from illness, and so on. While the specific issues may be different than our own, the broader categories of concerns are still very much those in our own lives. Everything in life is prayed for, in this way. The second thing that comes to me is respect, and even love, for this saint, who so obviously loved his own people, his family, his neighbors, and even his enemies, that he would include all of them, their worries, their troubles, in prayers for their comfort and release from their dangers and sorrows, all here in his psalter. That’s what saints do.
Kontakion for St Arsenios (fourth tone)
Cappadocia’s new-sprung flower
and precious vessel of virtues,
Holy Arsenios, let me hymn.
For as an angel he lived in the flesh,
and now resides with all the saints.
With them, he ever prays to Christ
to grant us forgiveness of our sins.