10 September 2009

'Timeless Preacher of Repentance'—St Moses the Black

Today, 28 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Abba Moses the Black (c. 332-407), also known as St Moses the Ethiopian. As the Akathist Hymn for St Moses proclaims, ‘Behold all you who seek God, a new Moses has appeared in Egypt liberating those who were shackled in mental slavery and leading them into the promised land of faith, hope and love’ (‘Appendix II: Akathist to Our Holy Father Among the Saints, Moses the Black’, An Unbroken Circle: Linking Ancient African Christianity to the African-American Experience, ed. Fr Paisius Altschul [St Louis, MO: Brotherhood of St Moses the Black, 2007], p. 180). Stelios Ramfos notes that he ‘was clearly a warm and impulsive human being’ (Like a Pelican in the Wilderness: Reflections on the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. and abgd. Norman Russell [Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2000], p. 198). According to Palladius in the Lausiac History XIX:

A certain Moses—this was his name—an Ethiopian by race and black, was house-servant to a government official. His own master drove him out because of his immorality and brigandage. For he was said to go even the length of murder. I am compelled to tell his wicked acts in order to show the virtue of his repentance. Anyhow they used to say that he was leader of a robber-band . . . . In the end this abandoned man, conscience-stricken as a result of one of his adventures, gave himself up to a monastery and to such practising of asceticism that he brought publicly to the knowledge of Christ even his accomplice in crime from his youth . . . .

Here is part of the account of his life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p.249):

An Ethiopian, he was at first a robber and the leader of a robber band, but he then became a penitent and a great ascetic. . . . Because of his great physical strength and recklessness, the robbers chose him as their leader. Suddenly his conscience was filled with remorse and repentance for the crimes he had committed. He left the band, went to a monastery and gave himself entirely to obedience to his spiritual father and to the rule of the monastery. He made great use of the teaching of Saints Macarius, Arsenius and Isidore. Later, he withdrew to solitude in a cell, where he gave himself utterly to physical labour, prayer, vigils and pondering on God. Tormented by the demon of lust, he confessed to his spiritual father, Isidore, and received from him the advice to fast as much as possible, and never to eat his fill. When this proved to be of no help, he, at the elder’s advice, began to keep night-vigils and to pray standing; he then got into the way of carrying water from a distant well for the older monks. After six years of terrible striving, St Isidore finally healed him miraculously of the lustful thoughts, imaginings and dreams visited on him by the demon. He was ordained priest in old age. He founded a monastery of his own, and had seventy-five disciples, himself living to the age of seventy-five. He foresaw his own death . . . . (p. 249)

The Gerontikon narrates the death of St Moses—by martyrdom—as follows (Moses 10, in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed., trans. Benedicta Ward [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], p. 140):

10. One day, when the brethren were sitting beside him, he said to them, ‘Look, the barbarians are coming to Scetis today; get up and flee.’ They said to him, ‘Abba, won’t you flee too?’ He said to them, ‘As for me, I have been waiting for this day for many years, that the word of the Lord Christ may be fulfilled which says, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.”’ (Mt 26:52). They said to him, ‘We will not flee either, but we will die with you.’ He said to them: ‘That is nothing to do with me; let everyone decide for himself whether he stops or not.’ Now there were seven brothers there and he said to them: ‘Look, the barbarians are drawing near to the door.’ Then they came in and slew them. But one fled and hid under the cover of a pile of rope and he saw seven crowns descending and crowning them.

Here are a few of the sayings about St Moses in the Gerontikon, three under his name, and one under that of St Arsenius the Great:

2. A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him. (Ward, pp. 138-9)

6. A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ (Ward, p. 139)

12. Abba Poemen said that a brother asked Abba Moses how someone could consider himself as dead towards his neighbour. The old man said to him, ‘If a man does not think in his heart that he is already three days dead and in the tomb, he cannot attain this saying.’ (Ward, p. 141)

Arsenius 38. It was told of a brother who came to see Abba Arsenius at Scetis that, when he came to the church, he asked the clergy if he could visit Abba Arsenius. They said to him, ‘Brother, have a little refreshment and then go and see him.’ ‘I shall not eat anything,’ said he, ‘till I have met him.’ So, because Arsenius’ cell was far away, they sent a brother with him. Having knocked on the door, they entered, greeted the old man and sat down without saying anything. Then the brother from the church said, ‘I will leave you. Pray for me.’ Now the visiting brother, not feeling at ease with the old man, said, ‘I will come with you,’ and they went away together. Then the visitor asked, ‘Take me to Abba Moses, who used to be a robber.’ When they arrived the Abba welcomed them joyfully and then took leave of them with delight. The brother who had brought the other one said to his companion, ‘See, I have taken you to the foreigner and to the Egyptian, which of the two do you prefer?’ ‘As for me,’ he replied, ‘I prefer the Egyptian.’ Now a Father who heard this prayed to God saying, ‘Lord, explain this matter to me: for Thy name’s sake the one flees from men, and the other, for Thy name’s sake, receives them with open arms.’ Then two large boats were shown to him on a river and he saw Abba Arsenius and the Spirit of God sailing in the one, in perfect peace; and in the other was Abba Moses with the angels of God, and they were all eating honey cakes. (Ward, pp. 17-8)

Among many other interesting observations, Ramfos suggests that St Moses had long suffered from a deep wound which pushed his ‘sensitive’ nature (Macarius 22, in Ward, p. 132) ‘to extreme action’ (Ramfos, p. 203). Ramfos writes, ‘If Moses had not been such a sensitive person he would have lost himself in mediocrity which would not have pushed him anywhere. Mediocrity keeps us in a state of indecision in some role or other—it does not lead us to our real self, as does holiness and its extremism’ (Ramfos, p. 203).

There is a Brotherhood dedicated to St Moses the Black that reaches out to African Americans, in part through their annual Ancient Christianity and African American Conference (here are some photos from the 2009 conference). The Brotherhood also published the book, An Unbroken Circle (a collection of the papers from the 1997 conference), which I’ve cited above. The president, Fr Moses Berry, himself an African-American convert to Orthodoxy who took the name of St Moses, is the curator of Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum and the priest of Theotokos ‘Unexpected Joy’ Orthodox Mission (OCA) in Missouri. There is a documentary in the works about his life which promises to be fascinating.

Here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Moses from the Prologue. Finally, I offer—with minor corrections—Kontakion and Ikos 12 of the Akathist for St Moses (Fr Altschul, p. 183):

Kontakion 12

Timeless preacher of repentance for all who find themselves astray from God’s love, thou didst give hope to the hopeless, reminding us that there is no sin that exceeds God’s mercy. Moved to compunction, we offer our tears and sacrifice our broken hearts, crying out from the depths of our souls to God: Alleluia!

Ikos 12

Now dwelling in the heavenly Zion, thou dost partake in the majestic glory of the Almighty. By thine all-powerful prayers, beseech Him to grant us the strength to overcome the temptations of sin and send down upon us peace and great mercy as we sing these praises:

Rejoice, thou who didst overcome the world.
Rejoice, flaming fire ablaze with the love of God.
Rejoice, guiding star of wise men.
Rejoice, thou who wast lifted up on the wings of the Spirit.
Rejoice, thou who didst fly away to the heavenly homeland.
Rejoice, thou who art dwelling in the bosom of Abraham.
Rejoice, holy Elder Moses, righteous teacher of true spiritual wisdom!

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