(Died, c. A.D. 405)
One of the most notable religious movements in Christian history was the early Christian “flight from the world” of hundreds of men and women in search of higher things. It began in Egypt in the third century. They fled to the desert and became hermits and hermitesses living in voluntary poverty and prayer. The remarkable fact is that thousands persevered in this “dry martyrdom.”
Perhaps the most singular of these rugged spiritual individualists was Moses the Black.
Moses was anything but a saint at the outset. An Ethiopian who was the servant of an Egyptian, this huge, powerfully-built man was so much given to stealing and other immoralities that his master finally kicked him out of his home.
Moses left with no remorse. He found some fellow hoodlums whom he organized into a band of robbers. Soon they were terrorizing the countryside. One of Moses’s escapades was his vendetta against a local shepherd. The gang’s plans for a certain robbery had been foiled by the barking of this shepherd’s dog. Moses decided to take out his failure on the shepherd, and swam the Nile, sword in mouth, to kill him. The shepherd went into hiding and escaped his pursuer. All the madder, Moses killed four of the fugitive’s rams, ate their best parts, sold their pelts and then walked fifty miles to catch up with his fellow gangsters.
A hardened case, this Moses!
The next scene in his career was rather surprising. We find him among the hermits at Petra in the desert of Skete.
Whatever had happened? Perhaps he had fled to them to escape the police, but by the time the second curtain rises we find him already living the life of a hermit himself, or at least trying his hand at it.
Anyhow, one day four robbers (not from his own old gang) broke into his cell and attacked him. Moses easily overcame all four, tied them into a “bouquet”, carried the whole bouquet to the chapel on his back, and dropped it before his fellow hermits. “I am not allowed to hurt anybody,” he said. “So what do you want me to do with these rascals?” The monks’ decision was to talk the four into joining the hermits, and apparently they succeeded!
Obviously, Moses was now earnest about becoming a perfect Christian, but it was no easy task. Fortunately, St. Isidore the Hermit was his advisor. Isidore urged patience. At dawn, he reminded Moses, light drives off darkness gradually, not instantly: “So it is with the soul!” Isidore gave the irascible black especially good advice when he told him, “I have always striven not to suffer anger to mount as far as my throat.”
But the more Moses advanced, the more he realized how much farther he had to travel. In the year 400, for instance, Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria, ordaining him a priest, put the white priestly garment over his shoulders and said, “Now Father Moses, the black man is made white.” Father Moses replied, “Only outside. God knows that inwardly I am still dark!”
The last scene came in 405. A band of pagan Berbers attacked the monastery, of which Moses, now seventy-five, was superior. He sent most of the monks into hiding, remaining “on guard” with only seven hermits. Would he give battle to the invaders as in days of yore? No. He insisted that nobody defend himself, saying, “All that take to the sword shall perish with the sword.” So the Berbers killed the big Ethiopian and six of his companions.
God’s mysterious grace had changed Moses the Black Lion into St. Moses the Black Lamb. There’s still hope for the likes of us!
–Father Robert F. McNamara