Gentled by grace. That’s the incredible and inspiring story of Abba Moses the Black.
He was a violent thief who became a humble and kind monk and one of the great Desert Fathers who served the Lord Jesus Christ in the 4th Century. From his life we see an example of how we can overcome our sins and the injustices we experience to be gloriously transformed by God’s nonjudgmental love, severe mercy, and prevailing grace-power.
A Slave Called “The Black”
Before he was Abba Moses we don’t know what his name was, except that he came to be called “The Black.” But no one called him that early in his life, as he was born in 330 in Ethiopia, Africa, where everyone had dark skin. But it seems he was a victim of evil, taken by slave traders, probably wrenched away from his family as a young teenager, chained like an animal, and shipped off to Egypt. We know that somehow he became a slave to a government official in Egypt. It seems it was then that he came to be derided as “The Black” by the Egyptians because his skin was much darker than theirs. (Years later, as you will see, he’d accept this name as a badge of honor so we will use it here.)
As a young Egyptian slave The Black was taught to worship the sun. But he often looked up to the sun and cried out, “O Sun, if you are God, let me know it!” Then he also prayed, “O God, whom I do not know, let know you.” At the same time he was being badly treated in this foreign land and he became increasingly angry and resentful over his lot in life as a slave who was in many ways alone in the world.
As you can see in this famous icon depicting him, he grew to be an enormous, angry, imposing man! His great size and strength intimidated people and he learned to use this to his advantage. He became a thief and he was even accused of killing a man. Apparently, his master and household became quite frightened of him and so finally the master dismissed him. But it’s also possible that he escaped.
In either case, The Black went out into the Egyptian wilderness of the Nile Valley. There he ran into a gang of violent bandits and joined with them. He was so powerful that they made him their leader. They roamed the wilderness, wreaking havoc and spreading terror, as they searched for travelers and ranchers who they could attack and steal from. Some people they killed.
One time The Black was trying to rob a sheep rancher and a barking dog prevented him. He swore vengeance on the owner. Another day he returned, sneaking up to the rancher’s hut by swimming in the river with his weapons in his mouth. But again the owner was alerted and this time sent for the police so The Black quickly slaughtered some sheep in anger and ran away.
The Black Finds Refuge at the Monastery of Scetes
The authorities were coming after him so he sought refuge in a desert colony of the monks in Scetes, near Alexandria. Someone had previously told him, “The monks of Scetes know the real God. Go to them and they will tell you.” When he arrived, Abba Isidore, the priest of the monastery, came out to meet The Black and was quite frightened by his imposing size and angry demeanor. But The Black insisted he wanted to know the real God.
So Abba Isidore took him to Saint Marcarius the Great and The Black confessed his sins to him. Saint Marcarius shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with him, taught him, and baptized him. The Black followed Abba Isidore back to the monastery at Scetes. He greatly admired Abba Isidore and all the monks’ dedication to Jesus and he deeply longed to experience the peace and contentment that he saw in them. (Priests like Isidore were called “Abba” because the shared the Abba love of God with people. Abba Father is a name for God that Jesus revealed to us, as recorded in Mark 14:36.)
Desperate to experience the love of God the Father that these friends of Jesus had, The Black wept and wept for them to admit him into their community. He kept at this for some time and would not leave! Finally, he was accepted him into the monastery at Scetes and he took the holy name of Moses as his own.
Moses the Black’s Spiritual Battles as a Monk
Not surprisingly, Moses had great difficulty with the monastic life. His old life didn’t just disappear with his new faith in Christ. His passions for excessive eating, drinking, lust, and anger assailed him all day long and all night long in his dreams. He went to Abba Isidore who listened to him, counseled him, and prayed for him. His Abba instructed him in the monastic disciplines, especially staying in his prayer cell for solitude and silence, Scripture meditation, and contemplative prayer. Moses spent day after day quietly alone in his cell. A hermit’s cell may feel to him like a prison in the early years. It was this way for The Black as he continually wrestled in prayer against demons, his sins, and his shame.
Like the Psalmist in his many laments, Moses’ intensive prayers surfaced from within his soul overwhelming distress. He became increasingly aware of his sinfulness, brokenness, and emotional wounds. Moses became so depressed that he wanted to quit. But he kept going back to find the consolation, grace, and strength of Christ through meeting with his spiritual director, Abba Isidore. His Abba kept caring for him with God’s nonjudgmental love and guiding him along.
Moses the Black had to be purged of all evil and worldliness, as he sought to love and worship God only, like his brother monks and learn their gentle way of being submitted to God in all things, staying always in the peace and contentment of Christ, ready to love and serve others above self. So Abba Isidore kept teaching Moses the monastic disciplines. He taught him how to keep a fast by never eating too much food, but choosing moderation to remain partly hungry and to feast on the Word and pray to his Heavenly Father for strength. He also taught him to keep an all night prayer vigil by standing up the whole night so he would not fall asleep.
One day an astonishing thing happened to Moses. He was in his cell praying when a group of four of the bandits from his old gang attacked him! Strong as ever, Moses the Black, was able to overpower all four of them, tying each one up! One-by-one, he threw them over his shoulder and carried them right into the chapel where his brother monks were praying and he dumped them on the floor in front of them! Then in a loud voice he spoke, “I don’t think Christ would want me to hurt these robbers. What should I do with them?”
Wow! Imagine how shocked the monks were when their prayer service was interrupted like this! But the best part of the story is what happened to the marauders. These four bandits were shocked to see that their former leader, who used to be a violent thief, now treated them so graciously and kindly, even when they violently attacked him and tried to steal from him. It’s said that they were moved to confess their sins, give up their thieving, convert to Christ, and enter the monastery as brothers under Moses’ direction!
The Humble Servant of Christ is Affirmed as “Abba Moses”
Moses continued to struggle with temptations and discouragement. So one day his Abba Isidore took him up to the roof early one morning before sunrise. Together they waited in prayer and watched the horizon. They saw the first rays of dawn peek over the horizon and gradually the light began to fill the sky and earth. Saint Isidore remarked, “Only slowly do the rays of the sun drive away the night and usher in a new day, and thus, only slowly does one become a perfect contemplative.”
This lesson stayed with Moses and slowly over the years, this man who was once so prideful, given to lust, and violent, learned to clothe himself in the compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience of Christ that the Apostle Paul testified to (Colossians 3:12). For instance, Moses practiced the teaching of Jesus who taught us to do good works in secret (Matthew 6:1, 4, 6, 18). Each night he began taking on a secret service to bless the other monks. While they were sleeping he went around to each monk’s cell and carried his water pot to the well and filled it with water. This took him a couple of hours. For the older monks it was especially difficult for them to do this task because the well was a quite a distance away. Moses did it for them and for all of the brothers — every night for years!
He might have felt like that was a “slave’s work” and found it too painful of a reminder of the past derisions and abuses he experienced. He might felt angry or ashamed to carry everyone’s water for hours each night. During the days when he was tired because he’d lost a couple of hours of sleep carrying water, he might have felt that old familiar resentment that used to flare up into contempt and rage. But he looked to his new Master, Lord and Savior Jesus Christ:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)
With that kind of a Master how could Moses not rejoice to serve as his slave! Even Paul in the Bible had called himself a slave of Christ (Romans 1:1). Abba Moses the Black was more than willing to be the water boy for his Lord and his brothers, he was eager and delighted to bless them and to live in the humble and loving way of Jesus. That’s how much the nonjudgmental love and grace of God had healed his hurts and delivered him of his sins.
But after he’d been doing this service for a number of years he was tested again: he became afflicted with a horrible sore on his foot which was so bad that he became sick and bed-ridden. You might wonder, Is this the thanks he gets for serving his brothers so humbly and sacrificially? Perhaps this was a temptation for him, but he felt sure it was the devil who had afflicted him and so he increased his fastings, prayers, and worship of God to defeat his enemy. The Lord Almighty brought a glorious deliverance and victory! It’s said that Moses’ body became so on fire with God’s presence as to be like burnt wood and his illness was healed!
Then Abba Isidore blessed Moses, testifying that all the passions of sin and worldliness had been purged out of him. He was united with Christ and could live in peace. Affirmed as a leader in the monastery at Scetes, from that time on it’s said that Abba Moses had a special manifestation of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
“Abba Moses the Black”: The Scorn Becomes His Honor
Abba Moses was becoming increasingly known as a devout disciple of Christ by monks throughout the desert and beyond to people in the cities. Nonetheless, he continued to be persecuted for the color of his skin and his African race so his love for Christ and neighbor was greatly tested.
One time when all the brothers were gathered for a meeting, some people interrupted and asked for Abba Moses. In front of the visitors the other monks looked at Moses and scorned him, “Why does this Ethiopian come and go in our midst?” But Moses kept his peace. Later they asked him, “Abba Moses, were you not upset?” He replied, “Although I was upset, I did not utter a word.” He reminds of us Christ our Lord who in his Passion kept silence before his accusers, so secure in his Father’s love and providence that he didn’t need human approval or to control his circumstances (Isaiah 53:7, Mark 14:61).
Another time the governor of the area wanted to visit the famous saint called Abba Moses and so he brought his servants and they traveled to the monastery. When Moses heard of this he decided to hide from them. But he happened upon their group anyway and they asked, “Tell us how to get to the cell of the desert-dweller Moses.” He answered them, “Go no farther to see this false and unworthy monk!”
Later the group talked with the brothers at Scetes and told them they couldn’t find Abba Moses. They went on to say they’d met an elder who had slandered Moses. When the brothers learned that it was a black elder who said this they told the governor’s group, “That was him! You met Abba Moses the Black and didn’t know it was him.” Like Paul in the Bible, Abba Moses saw himself as the chief of sinners, saved only by the grace of God through Christ (1 Timothy 1:15, Ephesians 2:8).
After many years of service, Moses was ordained a deacon by the local bishop. But before the service the patriarch wanted to test him and he took the elders into his secret plan. When they led Moses into the sanctuary before the bishop he rebuked them, “Who brought this black here? Cast him out!” Then the elders all drove him out, “Go outside, O Ethiopian!”
Moses didn’t complain, but accepted this with grace, telling himself, “It is good what they have done to you, O black colored one.” Then the bishop called him back. He ordained Moses as a priest, clothed him in a white robe, and affirmed him, “Moses, all of you now has become white!” The saint replied, “Only outwardly, for God knows that I am still dark within.”
These are just a few examples of the hurtful slanders that Abba Moses received. Each one had to remind him of his past slavery and all the abuses he experienced. Surely he was tempted to anger. Yet, the man who was once a violent bandit and a murderer had been gentled by the grace of God — his great strength was now reliably under the loving and wise control of the Holy Spirit. He had no shame in being black or being called “The Black” — now it was a sense of honor! It was his ancestry. He remembered the mercy and grace of Christ that saved him from sin and held him in love. He knew that he was indeed a beloved member of the monastery at Scetes, that they were brothers of a different color. He knew that these trials were tests, to prove his humility and devotion to Christ Jesus who gave his life for him.
Abba Moses the Black was like the humble tax collector in Jesus’ parable who depended solely on God’s mercy. The Pharisee in the temple stands in prayer and boasts of righteous deeds, but the tax collector bows down, beats his breast, and cries out, “O God, have mercy on me a sinner.” From this the Lord Jesus teaches that “Everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)
The tax collector’s prayer became “The Jesus Prayer” that the Desert Fathers, like Abba Moses the Black, prayed constantly, breathing the words in and out over and over, all day long, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner… Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner…” This prayer must have brought him such great solace and strength.
Look at what came of all the trials and discriminations that Moses endured! In his wildest imagination he could’ve never imagined that after his death he’d be honored by millions of people through the centuries as Abba Moses the Black, a servant of the Lord. But it’s happened! He has become ann exemplary model of Christ to countless African-Americans and others who are a minority in their culture or have been discriminated against for their race.
The Wisdom of Abba Moses the Black
The wisdom and grace of Abba Moses the Black became more and more renowned. Let’s look at a few more examples.
There was a time that the Abbot of Scetes called a one week fast, but during this some of the monks noticed smoke coming from Abba Moses’ fire pit and saw that he was cooking food. They reported his disobedience of the fast to the Abbot. But later they learned that he had received some unexpected visitors to his hut from outside the monastery and they realized their error. They commended Abba Moses, “You did not keep the command of men so that you might keep the command of God.” Here again, Abba Moses the Black holds to the teachings of Christ that the command of loving a neighbor supersedes sacred rituals and traditions (Matthew 5:23-24, Mark 7:8).
Probably the most famous story from Abba Moses the Black’s life happened after this. One time in his community of monks a brother was seen committing a fault. Perhaps he overslept and skipped a prayer session. Or he didn’t weave enough baskets for the poor that day. It was a “fault”, not a sin, but their community was about purity so an elder called for everyone to gather in a council to accuse him. However, Abba Moses refused to come. The elder sent a brother to implore him, “The whole community is waiting for you.” So Moses arose from his place of prayer and went. But first, he picked up a leaking jug, filled it with water, and carried it with him.
When he arrived he saw everyone seated straight and smug and surrounding the offending brother whose head was hung in shame. “Abba Moses,” they asked, “what do you have?” He held up his jug high. Water was dripping out from the crack. “My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the faults of another.” When the community heard this they made no more accusations of their brother, but rather forgave him. This is an example of how Abba Moses the Black learned to live by Jesus’ teaching, “Do not judge.” (Matthew 7:1-6)
Another time a certain brother went to Abba Moses in Scetes and asked him to speak a word to him. Moses replied, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
The humility and grace of Abba Moses was so admired that other Desert Fathers used him as an example in their teachings. For instance, Abba Eupraxius taught his students, “Choose the meekness of Moses so your heart, which is as hard as steel, may change into a fountain of water.”
The profound wisdom of Abba Moses the Black came out of his own intimacy with Christ, forged through years of solitary contemplative prayer, along with receiving spiritual direction and participating in the fellowship of his brother monks.
When Abba Moses the Black Was Martyred
Abba Moses the Black died a martyr for the Lord Jesus Christ in 405 at the age of 75. Word had come to him that a band of Berbers planned to attack the monastery. The brothers wanted to defend themselves but be forbade it.
At the time of the attack there were seven disciples seated around Abba Moses and he spoke, “This is the day the barbarians come to Scetes — rise up and flee!” They replied, “What about you? Will you not flee, father?” He answered, “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’’ (Matthew 16:52). And they said to him, ‘We then will not flee, but will die with you.”’
But one of the disciples was afraid and he hid himself behind some palm leaves. In horror he watched as all seven of his brothers were killed! But then he saw seven crowns come down from heaven and place themselves on their heads!
Abba Moses was buried at the Church of the Virgin Mary in the Paromeous Monastery. A murderer before he was gentled by the grace of Christ, today he is remembered as Saint Moses the Black, an apostle of non-violence and one of the most beloved and admired of the Desert Fathers. He is especially appreciated by Africans, African-Americans, minorities, and others who endure discrimination.
(Article sources: Wikipedia: Moses the Black, OrthodoxWiki: Moses the Black, Orthodox Church in America: Venerable Moses the Ethiopian of Scete, St Mary & St Moses Abbey: St Moses the Black, The Desert Fathers on Judging and How to Treat Others.)