The life of Holy Arnold




How to be alone

Three weeks in October

Desert spirituality

Living with the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Attitudes to the Desert fathers

Urban Fathers

Fairacres article

Holy Arnold

Poetry of the Desert

Guthlac prayers

New urban fathers

18 Theses on the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Holy Arnold left his old life when he was 34.  He had been a highflying financier with left-wing sympathies and had many connections in New Labour.  People say he was being groomed for a safe Labour seat but it never got that far[1].  One day he was using a brief moment of quiet in his office to pray and meditate, for he had begun to feel the need for a change to his high-powered existence and he had been exploring spirituality.  As he read a small portion of Scripture he heard a voice which said to him "Seek solitude, Arnold, that is the only way you will become free".  So he turned his back on Parliament, on power and money and took the short trip across Bishopsgate into the obscure corners of East London.  At first he found it very difficult and began to doubt his calling, but once again when he was praying he heard a voice saying "Be silent, Arnold, focus your attention on God, this is your way to liberation".
Arnold lived for many years in East Hackney before Olympic fever took over and, so it is believed, he spent his last years in one of the overspill estates in the extreme east of London.  Arnold was highly respected amongst the holy people but it would be difficult to say that he was popular.  He had previously been charming and gregarious, even if people were wary of a touch of ice in his soul.  But when he left the City that outward veneer melted away and he shunned contact with people, especially those who were not sincere seekers.  He particularly disliked dressing up smartly for that reminded him too much of his old life when sharp suits were necessary in order to project the right image.  Nonetheless he had three close friends Alexander, Zaheer and Daniel and it is through these that we have learnt the details of his life as a seeker of God.
He bought a small house and sound proofed the cellar so that he could have a place for quiet contemplation.  This was certainly considered strange amongst the other holy people and once when he visited a small community of seekers in a quiet road he said to them "How can you pray with the constant noise of traffic ringing in your ears?".  The seekers were greatly surprised for they loved their house precisely because it was so quiet and free of disturbance.  But Arnold was never a man to do things by halves, he loved his solitude and he loved silence.  Nonetheless his life was not without struggle:  one day his friends let themselves into his house, for he gave the key to his trusted companions and they heard him praying out loud "I just can't do it God.  I don’t have the strength…  but what else can I do?  Only if you give me the strength can I follow your way”.  When he came up from his cell to meet them he was burning with the fiery intensity, the like of which they have never seen before. 
Occasionally visitors were able to get to see holy Arnold, particularly through the offices of the Bishop of Hackney who was a great supporter of Arnold's.  Once the Bishop brought a local journalist to meet Arnold whom he trusted,  for he was a devout Christian.  Arnold, however, was slow to answer questions and eventually silence descended on the three of them.  Then Arnold asked the journalist a question by way of answering his questions "Will you put into practice what I suggest to you?", they both readily agreed, so he said "If you find out that I am staying somewhere or visiting a particular place make sure you tell no one about it and avoid going there yourself".  At another time the Bishop asked if he could come and see Arnold but Arnold said to him "If you keep coming to see me, everyone will start wanting to come and I will have to move away" So after that the Bishop said "I no longer go to see Arnold for if I do I will drive him away and then everyone will suffer".  There was also a theologian who once talked with him and said to him "You're a very intelligent man Arnold, you had money and contacts, you could have explored many different spiritualities so why did you come to east London and concentrate all your efforts on what seems to me an unsophisticated and, frankly, anti-intellectual spiritual path".  Arnold said to him "These holy people are fluent in the language of the Spirit and I have not even begun to learn their alphabet".  Many years later the theologian had retired and was gravely ill when Arnold came to visit him and the theologian said to him "You were right Arnold I had access to all the libraries of the world and a host of spiritual traditions but I have got nowhere compared to these so-called unsophisticated holy people".  Arnold replied "Yes it is true, their big advantage is that they concentrate all their strength on working at the things which really matter".
Holy Arnold loved the other holy people but they sometimes were hurt that he seemed to avoid them so often.  Holy Mark once asked him about this and Arnold said to him "God knows that I love you but I find it distracting to spend too much time with people.  Everyone has their own opinions and their own way of doing things and I find I lose my way if I pay too much attention to them.  I am sorry that it hurts you but my way is to be alone with God".  Arnold was concerned, above all else, with focusing his will on God alone, he was once asked by a seeker what was the secret of happiness and he said to him "Focus your will entirely on God and you will find that happiness, contentment and peace will naturally follow".  He also said "If you seek God wholeheartedly he will reveal himself to you.  If we hold on to God, God will hold onto us".  Arnold discouraged the young seekers from breaking their routine and said to them "If you go searching for new experiences you will lose the peace that you have found".  A seeker once came to him in great distress saying "This life of prayer is useless, I just can't do it, surely it would be better for me to go and do something useful" Arnold knew that the seeker had a true call to the contemplative life so said "Be courageous.  Hold onto your calling, don't think about what is useful or not useful.  Eat properly; sleep regularly; don't work too hard but above all spend time alone in quietness".
Although Arnold did live such as solitary life he felt deeply his connection with the other holy people.  One day someone brought a slightly stale box of Milk Tray to the community but people thought holy Arnold might be offended if anyone disturbed him by sharing one with him.  But Arnold heard about this and decided not to come to the community meeting saying "You have marginalised me by not including me in this gift, but it is my own fault for I marginalise myself".  This made the community love Arnold all the more and the leader made a point of taking him the last Orange Creme.
Holy Arnold was extremely tough and very disciplined; the other seekers greatly admired the way he remained true to the ideal of the holy people -- living a very simple life and doing everything he could to reduce his carbon footprint.  He had a remarkable ability to put up with hardship, his little house was very plain and simple and when some seekers offered to do some simple home improvements he refused saying "In my previous life I lived and worked in places that were beautifully designed to create the right image and I became heartily sick of it.  I live with what I have and that is enough".  But he was still able to appreciate beauty and good things, in particular he enjoyed tasting new foods: trying just a little and savouring it carefully, he would give thanks to God for the abundance of creation.  In fact Arsenius was always full of thankfulness, a neighbour once gave him a plaster when he cut his finger and it was a kindness that Arsenius never forgot.
Holy Arnold had three particular friends whom he trusted more than anyone else.  The most well known of these was holy Daniel.  Daniel collected stories about his life and knew more about him than anyone else.  He said that Arnold was extremely unwilling to write anything down or give his opinion on theological matters -- particularly the interpretation of the Bible.  Daniel protected Arnold from unwelcome visitors, subsequently he said that Arnold would occasionally agree to see someone who had a particular reason but tried to avoid spiritual tourists at all times.  He records that he was a tall graceful man and had a beautiful face -- like that of an angel, although it bore a certain look of sadness.  He was not a great churchgoer for he avoided public places and when he did go to church he tried to find an obscure spot where people wouldn't notice him and he could concentrate on the service.  When Arnold died he left his few possessions to Daniel -- particularly a small leather cross which Daniel always wore next to his skin saying "Arnold was a man truly full of the Holy Spirit and I pray that by keeping his memory close to me I also will be filled the same Spirit".  Daniel also records Arnold's last words when he lay dying "Do not worry yourselves about me when I die.  I have given myself to God and I know that in doing so I shall find my true self on the other side".
Holy Daniel was in many ways the public face of Arnold but the two friends who were closest to him on a spiritual level were Alexander and Zaheer.  Zaheer, especially, was particularly shy and retiring but if anyone shared in the intimacy of Arnold’s prayer life it was these two quiet men.  Occasionally they shared brief insights into his spirituality.  Arnold was particularly keen on the night vigil and always praised it as an effective means for spiritual growth.  On one occasion he shared a vigil with Alexander and Zaheer, the two younger men sitting on either side of him.  Alexander recorded how they both fell asleep before waking again, then early in the morning Arnold let out three great sighs and said to his companions 'I've been asleep haven't I?' But they replied 'We don't know'.  Reflecting on it afterwards they said they didn't know whether Arnold had really fallen asleep or whether he was just pretending to have done so as to make them feel better.  This was typical of Arnold, he always believed in the benefits of strong discipline but he would then go to great lengths to avoid making people feel bad if their discipline failed.
As holy Arnold's fame spread, everyone wanted to meet the wealthy financier and politician who had given up everything to live amongst the poor, but this meant he found himself becoming constantly interrupted.  A friend of his offered him a room in Westminster which was very quiet and hidden away so with the help of Alexander and Zaheer he gathered up his few belongings and took the bus down to Westminster.  Zaheer was very unhappy about this but didn't say anything.  Once Arnold got to Westminster he became gravely ill.  Meanwhile his friends talked amongst themselves trying to work out what they had done to drive Arnold way.  Then when Arnold recovered he decided to return home and met up with Alexander and Zaheer at Parliament Square.  When he was there someone recognised him and said to him 'You're one of those holy men aren't you?  I thought you lived amongst the poor, what are you doing here in the centre of power?' But when the three friends met up they were overjoyed and hugged each other with undisguised relief.  Then they went to a cafe to catch up.  Arnold asked his two friends "I was seriously ill but you did not come to visit me -- why not?" They replied by saying that they thought they must have offended him in some way and that that is why he had left.  Furthermore they explained that some of the seekers had been whispering about how they had driven him away, but Arnold explained his motivation and said "Now they will be making fun of me, saying I am like a teenage runaway who found he couldn't cope in the big city and so returned home!"  The three friends laughed at this but didn't care what other people thought, they were just glad to be together again.
Another person who knew Arnold better than most was holy Daniella.  She tells the story of talking to him one day about why he decided to leave his old life where he had known so much success.  Holy Arnold told her about a dream he had had.  In this dream he saw a great strong man cutting down a forest with a chainsaw.  When he had cut down a tree and sawn it up he tried to carry away the logs but was not able to, yet instead of reducing the number of logs he continued to cut down trees and load himself with more logs which he could not carry.  Next he was led in his dream to a woman who walked many miles to a lake to collect water but the bucket she was using was full of holes and as soon as she started on her return journey the water ran back into the lake.  Finally he saw a man and a woman carrying a sofa into their new house but they were carrying it crosswise and it would not fit through the door yet neither of them was prepared to retreat so that one could go first and easily fit the sofa through the door.  Daniella asked Arnold what he thought the dream meant and Arnold replied "I thought about the dream for a long time and came to the conclusion that it was a picture of the world in which I used to be entangled.  The story of the sofa taught me that because of our lack of humility we are not able to make any progress for fear of letting another person get ahead of us.  The story of a man cutting down the forest showed me that we continue to do evil even when we are not able to bear the consequences of our actions.  Finally the story of the woman taught me that we work hard to do good but our lack of attention to our interior life means that all our good works drain away and are useless.  For this reason I decided to dedicate myself to the interior life, to stop doing those things which I hated but seemed unavoidable, and to give up my wealth and status so that I could discover humility".  This is why holy Arnold was so staunch in resisting anything which could draw him back into his old life; he was once, for instance, left a very large sum as an inheritance but he refused to have anything to do with it.  Eventually the executor administering the inheritance came to see him to tell him he was being accused of malpractice because Arnold refused to have anything to do with him.  So Arnold relented, looked at the papers and signed a document rejecting the gift.
Other stories are told of Arnold's unrelenting commitment to his new, solitary way of life.  One day a young woman from America decided she wanted to meet this famous holy man.  She had good contacts so she went to see the Bishop of Hackney to see if he could arrange a visit, the Bishop asked Arnold but he refused point-blank.  Nonetheless the woman was very determined and she found out where Holy Arnold lived and went to see him.  As luck would have it when she arrived he was in the front garden tending his herbs and she exclaimed in her joy "O Holy Arnold, at last I have got to meet you..." Arnold looked up and seeing the attractive young woman was furious "So you have disobeyed me and taken it upon yourself to disturb me.  Well have a good look so you can tell all your friends that you have met the famous holy Arnold and then I will have hordes of young women coming to see me.  Thank you so much that's just what I need!  Now go away and forget about me".  The woman was shocked but said "I'm sorry father but please pray for me, I need your prayers" but Arnold replied "I will not pray for you for I do not want to remember you.  I will do my best to forget that this has ever happened".  The young woman went away feeling sad and very shaken.  She went to see the Bishop and tearfully explained to him what had happened.  So the Bishop said to her "What holy Arnold wants above all else is to avoid being a celebrity.  This is a great temptation for such a gifted and charismatic man.  He must be completely resolute in order to avoid it.  Don't worry he is not personally rejecting you just keeping true to the calling that God has laid on his heart".  At last the young woman began to understand and she went away, keeping quiet about her experiences.  On another occasion Arnold was visited by two Third World bishops who were visiting London and who were renowned for their godliness and struggles against injustice.  But even these people Arnold refused to see.  Many years later Arnold met up with these two bishops and said to them "I am very sorry for my inhospitality, I castigated myself often for it but nonetheless I was determined to keep true to my calling".  The bishops were impressed that there was someone in England who was so committed and loyal to what God laid on his heart.
This then is all that we know of holy Arnold.  A few short stories gathered from the many years that he spent in East London.  The holy people loved him dearly, even if they did feel intimidated by his self-discipline and relentless commitment.  He was for them a shining beacon of how a man could completely change his life if he was sufficiently determined and able to trust completely in God.  There is much that we do not know about Arnold, what went on for him in those long hours of silence and solitude, how exactly he ordered his life and the temptations which he overcame.  But the truth is, this is exactly as he would have wanted it.

The story of holy Arnold is based on the desert father Arsenius

[1] Some people believe that it was Arnold's disappointment in not receiving political advancement that prompted his spiritual search