May 8 – Arsenius the Great; Peter of Tarentaise

Arsenius the Great (354–449 or 450), a philosopher and rhetorician, was just giving up teaching to seek a life of monastic solitude when Emperor Theodosius collared him to teach the royal spawn. He refused at first, but consented after a stern talking-to by the Pope ((St.) Damasus). Uncomfortable in the spotlamp, he prayed for guidance, and a voice said, “Flee from men.” Within hours his resignation was on the table and his body was on the boat. For Alexandria, that is, whence he footed it to Scetis and begged to be monkified. He called himself a poor wand’ring one (cue Gilbert & Sullivan), and although they could see he was well-educated, they were too polite to bicker. Abba John the Dwarf (we’re not going to make any height jokes—that would be low) (Oct 17) took him on as apprentice. To test his humility, at mealtime John threw down a crust, saying, “Eat if you want.” Arsenius crawled to it on all fours, and picked it up with his mouth. This charmed John, and he welcomed him to the community.

After some time with the brethren, a voice told him, “Shut up and get lost” (well, to be more precise, “flee from men and practice silence”), which he did. To earn his living, he wove baskets from reeds he soaked in water he never changed, which naturally stank up his cell something fierce—a sort of olfactory hairshirt. (He sold enough to feed himself, so we have to assume that they lost the smell before he put the price tags on.) Needless to say monks and pilgrims swarmed to him for advice and “words”* (spiritually-edifying, koan-like bon mots dispensed by Desert Fathers). When a brother confessed that he didn’t want to read the Scriptures because he didn’t understand them, Arsenius told him to read them anyway—“If nothing else, it keeps the demons away.” He also said, “I have often regretted things I’ve said, but never my silence.” From which we may conclude he never failed to warn anyone who was directly in the path of an out-of-control omnibus.

Peter of Tarentaise (1102–1175), “the Runaway Bishop,” entered a Cistercian monastery at 20, and by the time he was 30 he was chosen abbot of a monastery high in the Alps overlooking the road between Geneva and Savoy. These were the happiest days of his life, spent hobnobbing with the Count of Savoy, founding a hospital and hospice for travelers, chatting with the sick, and personally seeing to the needs of same. Then, when he was 40, disaster struck—the bishop of Tarentaise was deposed, and Peter was forced into the slot at the insistence of (St.) Bernard, who could be pretty dogged about such things[1]. Peter made an excellent bishop, and brought some discipline to the lax clergy, replacing where necessary. I also found he founded foundations to educate the young and care for the poor. In his spare time he worked miracles of healing and multiplied victuals when they got too subtracted.

After thirteen years of this he snuck off to a remote monastery and enjoyed a quiet and contemplative year, after which he was found and dragged back to his see. He got right back to work, creating travelers’ refuges on the mountain passes, and creating a soup kitchen, Pain du Mai (Maybread), to feed the local farmers during the hungry weeks of late Spring.

During this period he also spoke out boldly against the antipope Victor, even to the face of his (Victor’s) supporter the Holy Roman Emperor. He was also sent to broker peace between the warring kings of France and England, although this proved beyond his capacity. On the way back he caught something, and died before he made it home. He is somewhat eclipsed by another Peter from Tarentaise, who went on to become (the merely Blessed) Pope Innocent V, which hardly seems fair.

[1] Arf, arf.