(The following is Part One, Abba Moses the Black, from my workshop, Encountering Your True Self with the Desert Mystics, presented at the Center for Spiritual Development, The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, Saturday, February 5, 2022.)
I am only a fellow desert sojourner with you. For over thirty years, the deserts of California have been for me a soul-saving refuge during chronic health crises in our family.
This desert landscape purged my anxieties and fears, and I was surprised to be embraced by the joy and love of the Lord.
I asked myself: why was I asked to be the presenter on the desert mystics? I believe the answer could be that the Holy Spirit invites me to enter the lives and teachings of these desert mystics so that I may know more deeply God’s forgiveness, compassion and love. I hope that is also why the Spirit has drawn you by the hand to join me this morning.
From ancient times, God has been leading people to the desert, to the edge of life. Abraham, Moses, Mohammed, the Hebrew people in the Exodus, John the Baptist and Jesus.
Writer and teacher Belden Lane writes:
The wilderness is a place of suffering, out on the edge. It is a place of letting go, a place for dying, and yet also a place for coming alive. The desert is where things fall apart and where things may come together for us in unanticipated ways.
It is a place of love, where God meets us where we are, in our deepest longings.
With the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313, some Christians did not believe that a truly Christian society could be created between the Church and the Roman Empire. They saw withdrawal and asceticism to be a purer way. So, they left the cities, heading out to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria. At first, living solitary lives as hermits in caves or holes dug into cliffs and more and more men and women moved out into the desert, they formed clusters that became the first monastic communities, an alternative Christian society. These spiritual desert families could be led by an abba father or amma mother who cared for their spiritual welfare.
These monastic communities were well established by the time of Abba Moses in the 4th century.
Saint Moses (330-405 AD) had many aliases: the Ethiopian, the Black, the Robber, the Strong. The Egyptians mocked him as the Black because of his much darker skin. Later in life, he accepted this as “a badge of honor.” A ruthless robber, he is remembered for his superhuman strength and later repentance.
We are counseled that as we hear his story, in which Abba Moses moves from profound sinner to luminous saint, we need to realize this was a slow process.
Kidnapped from his homeland, Moses became a slave to an important Egyptian. He eventually gave Moses his freedom because he couldn’t be controlled and was said to have murdered someone. Moses was a huge, powerfully built man and that slave owner may have felt intimidated. Abba Moses became head of a ruthless gang of robbers, descending into a violent life of deceit, malice, anger and lust.
The story goes that a shepherd had insulted him. In his wrath for vengeance, Moses waited until night to swim across the Nile River (a task requiring great strength) to sneak into the herd of that shepherd, killing four of his rams, the most important part of the flock, decimating the future of the flock and ruining the livelihood of the shepherd. He tied the 4 rams together, swam back across the Nile to the other side, cooked some of the meat, feasting on it, and sold the rest of the meat to buy wine and to party with his gang.
A wanted man, always on the run, one day Moses hides out at the monastery of Scetia (seet-ia) or Skete (scate) in the Nitrian Desert of Egypt (between Alexandria and Cairo). The monks are still there today after 1600 years. Hiding in a corner somewhere, he witnessed the monastic life, the serenity and peace. The Spirit of God touched his heart, pressing through his superficial passions to a much deeper place in his soul, connecting to his longing for God. Where did that come from? He wanted to be like them and was called to repentance.
I imagine Moses looking down into the abyss of his sins. He would fall into dark nothingness were it not for the Lord’s firm embrace of love. Moses could only honestly repent if he faced his violent past, allowing God’s love to sustain him. He confessed his sins to Abba Marcarius, who taught him about Jesus and baptized him.
The monks were skeptical, thinking he only wanted to hide out with them. But Moses persisted, retreating to a monastic cell for fasting and prayer. The monks finally allowed him into their community. He surrendered his ego to the authority of the abba.
A common theme among the desert mystics: the soul grows toward God with the help of a spiritual director. Moses found that spiritual counsel with St. Isidore.
Moses had three obstacles to his life with God and in the monastery: Vindictive Pride, Restless Passions and Raging Violence.
- He acted out his vindictive pride ruining the life of that shepherd when he stole the 4 rams. Even in the monastery, the monks abused him because of his black skin. He was deeply hurt but did not respond. The community must have confirmed his spiritual progress, because they ordained him a priest, a very rare occurrence among the desert fathers.
Quoting from the original Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Sister Benedicta Ward SLG of Oxford University:
“It was said of Abba Moses that he was ordained, and the ephod was placed upon him. The archbishop said to him, ‘See, Abba Moses, now you are entirely white.’ The old man (Abba Moses) said to him, ‘It is true of the outside, lord and father, but what about Him who sees the inside’ Wishing to test him the archbishop said to the priests, ‘When Abba Moses comes into the sanctuary, drive him out, and go with him to hear what he says.’ So, the old man (Abba Moses) came in and they covered him with abuse, and drove him out, saying, ‘Outside, black man!’ Going out, he said to himself, ‘They have acted rightly concerning you, for your skin is as black as ashes. You are not a man, so why should you be allowed to meet men?”
This difficult story expresses Abba Moses’ core spiritual goal, apatheia (apa-they-a), fierce indifference to unimportant things, learning to be indifferent to what does not matter. At this desert monastery, Abba Moses dies to much of what had been his violent, reactive life.
For the desert mystics, apatheia was holy indifference to the values of the dominant Roman culture, the military industrial complex of Rome.
In this desert wasteland, where your life is stripped to essentials, you must learn to ignore the False Self (all the efforts you exert to hold up a persona, a reputation in the eyes of other people, your sense of self-importance).
Henri Nouwen writes: “If we enter the deep silence of God’s presence in the desert, we would lose the false self and meet God in our nakedness alone.”
Spiritual writer and teacher Belden Lane shares: “The desert place is where we loosen our grip on the false self: that projected an image of wholeness and competence that we constantly present to everyone else. Jesus invites us into the desert to claim our True Self. What we are most deeply in him.”
The False Self is always with us. It served a purpose as we fall back on it in trauma of early childhood. It protects us from being hurt by childhood wounds and teaches us how to survive in a dangerous world. The false self is that nagging voice that still says: don’t mess up.
Belden Lane continues, “When you aim the indifference of Apatheia at your false self, the true self is set free to live in all its joyous expansiveness.”
- A second obstacle to Abba Moses’ spiritual life was that his earthly passions had been running his life, leading to violence, assault, and murder. The frenzy of those passions swirled around him constantly, which he countered with profound austerities: going sleepless for days, standing up for long hours, limiting diet to 12 oz a day. Demons assaulted him with lustful thoughts, and he almost broke under all this. You can see this was a slow, painful process, 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Within this spiritual warfare, his horrible old deeds haunted him.
Slowly, his love for Jesus purged the physical passions. And grace brought him home to God.
- A third obstacle to Abba Moses spiritual life was Violence. Was it rage from the abuse he experienced as a slave? Violence had been Moses’ DNA. One day four thieves come to pillage this monastery. Moses recognized his old gang members. He tied them up in a bundle, carried them like the four rams, to the abbot of the monastery, dumped them on the ground and asked: what do you want me to do with them. His instinct was to brutally beat up these guys, but the Spirit took that away and. Of course, you know that those four robbers also would become monks.
In the year 405, at the age of 75, Abba Moses heard that a band of Berbers planned to attack and pillage the monastery. The monks wanted to put up a fight, but Moses said no.
When the assault on the monastery began, seven monks were seated around Abba Moses. He urged the monks to run away, but said he would remain, saying:
“I have been expecting this day to come for many years past, so that the teaching of our Redeemer might be fulfilled, ‘Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword’”. And they said to him, ‘We then will not flee, but will die with you.
One disciple hid behind palms leaves and saw all seven brothers murdered, but then he saw seven crowns descending from heaven and placed over the heads of the dead monks.
Abba Moses, a vicious robber and murderer, was transformed by the desert and the grace of Jesus Christ to be remembered as Moses the Black and an apostle of non-violence. Very little is known about Abba Moses in the African-American community, The Fellowship of St. Moses the Black has a mission of equipping Orthodox Christians for the ministry of racial reconciliation and to share the Orthodox Christian faith with the African Americans.
What do you imagine that Abba Moses and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might say to each other about non-violence?
Contemplate the following quotations from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, by Sister Benedicta Ward SLG. Consider how these sayings may connect with your life with God today.
- 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.
- A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man (Abba Moses) said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
- Abba Moses said, “The man who flees and lives in solitude is like a bunch of grapes ripened by the sun, but he who remains amongst men is like an unripe grape.”
Collect for Saint Moses the Strong.
Let us pray.
God of transforming power and transfiguring mercy: Listen to the prayers of all who, like Abba Moses, cry to you: “O God whom we do not know, let us know you!” Draw them and all of us from unbelief to faith and from violence into your peace, through the cross of Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
 Lane, Belden. Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, p. 16
 Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 139.
 For a Coptic Orthodox commentary on the “Colorist” undertones of this passage please visit: Coptic Voice, March 14, 2018, “The Blackness of St. Moses the Strong.”