Walking with the Saints
Moses the Black, Desert Father and Martyr, c. 400
According to Catholic.net, “Moses the Black, sometimes called the Ethiopian, was a slave of a government official in Egypt who dismissed him for theft and suspected murder. He became the leader of a gang of bandits who roamed the Nile Valley spreading terror and violence. He was a large, imposing figure. On one occasion, a barking dog prevented Moses from carrying out a robbery, so he swore vengeance on the owner. Weapons in his mouth, Moses swam the river toward the owner's hut. The owner, again alerted, hid, and the frustrated Moses took some of his sheep to slaughter. Attempting to hide from local authorities, he took shelter with some monks in a colony in the desert of Scete, near Alexandria. The dedication of their lives, as well as their peace and contentment, influenced Moses deeply. He soon gave up his old way of life and joined the monastic community at Scete.”
Moses “had a rather difficult time adjusting to regular monastic discipline. His flair for adventure remained with him. Attacked by a group of robbers in his desert cell, Moses fought back, overpowered the intruders, and dragged them to the chapel where the other monks were at prayer. He told the brothers that he didn't think it Christian to hurt the robbers and asked what he should do with them. The overwhelmed robbers repented, were converted, and themselves joined the community.”
“When a brother committed a fault and Moses was invited to a meeting to discuss an appropriate penance, Moses refused to attend. When he was again called to the meeting, Moses took a leaking jug filled with water and carried it on his shoulder. Another version of the story has him carrying a basket filled with sand. When he arrived at the meeting place, the others asked why he was carrying the jug. He replied, ‘My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, but today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ On hearing this, the assembled brothers forgave the erring monk.”
“Moses became the spiritual leader of a colony of hermits in the desert. At some time, he had been ordained priest. At about age 75, about the year 407, word came that a group of renegades planned to attack the colony. The brothers wanted to defend themselves, but Moses forbade it. He told them to retreat, rather than take up weapons. He and seven others remained behind and greeted the invaders with open arms, but all eight were martyred by the bandits. A modern interpretation honors St. Moses the Black as an apostle of non-violence.”
When I first read and reflected on this, I had a couple of observations and reactions: Moses the Black lived a life full of forgiveness, faith and courage. Here is a conversion story of impressive extremes: Moses went from being a man of violence and hair-trigger reaction to a man of faith and patience. Moses’ faith, patience and belief in non-violence ultimately led to his martyrdom.
While I admire Moses as a martyr, I must admit I’m not ready to become a martyr. But I do believe I can draw strength from and strive to emulate Moses’ example of faith, courage and forgiveness. What appeals to me in this story of forgiveness is the very public and dramatic way Moses reminded his fellow monks about forgiveness. Living in this fallen world, it is easy to proclaim the need for forgiveness. Indeed, if we are fortunate, we all benefit from big and small acts of forgiveness every day.
But Moses took this act of forgiveness to another level when he confronted his fellow monks with the bag of sand on his back. I admire Moses’ decision to act out the need for forgiveness in such a public way. It seems to me Moses fully understood he benefited from Christ’s complete and unearned forgiveness. And Moses did not want to be a hypocrite by refusing to forgive another. Instead, Moses was willing to live out his principles amongst his peers, seemingly without regard to the consequences. This courage to “put your money where your mouth is”, is not only an act of principle, but also an act of faith. Moses’ example of combining faith, courage and forgiveness is one we desperately need in today’s world.
Let’s think about how this trifecta of faith, courage and forgiveness can manifest itself in our own lives. What might our relationships look like if we lived into this practice of faith, courage and forgiveness daily? How might our work lives be changed? How might our communities be changed? How might our beloved Church of Our Saviour be changed? The possibilities are endless.
So, let’s remember the example of Moses the Black. Let’s remember his conversion. Let’s remember his life of faith as a monk. Let’s remember his display of courage amongst his peers. Let’s remember his personification of forgiveness. Finally, let’s remember we can all emulate Moses the Black, and by doing so, we can live our lives each day in ways that are pleasing to God.