Monday, August 28, 2017

Moses the Black ~ A Christian Hercules

Modern icon of Saint Moses
looking particularly fierce.
August 28 is best known as the feast day of Saint Augustine, the great theologian and apologist of Hippo Regius in Roman north Africa. However, it is also the feast of another African saint—one of the great desert fathers, St. Moses the Black. He is known by numerous alternate epithets, including Moses the Strong, Moses the Ethiopian, Moses of Scete, Moses of Abyssinia and Moses the Robber. He was an anchorite in the Egyptian desert and lived in the generation immediately after Saint Anthony the Abbot, that is, from about AD 330-400.

If you've never heard of Saint Moses before, read on. He is one of those tremendous heroic figures from antiquity who could conquer any man in single combat but struggled most mightily to conquer himself and the temptations that plagued him. However, unlike Hercules from Greco-Roman mythology whose sins ultimately led to his undoing, Moses found strength from a power more mighty than himself. Via the grace of Almighty God and the strict ascetic practices of the desert fathers, Moses was able to master the demons which tormented him.

A brief video of his life, drawn from the 5th century Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen may be seen below:

A more detailed biography of Saint Moses may be found in the so-called Lausiac History by Palladius of Galatia set down around the year AD 420--about 20 years after Moses's death:
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.

They said that Moses was leader of a robber-band, and among his acts of brigandage one stood out specially: that once he plotted vengeance against a shepherd who had one night with his dogs impeded him in a project. Desirous to kill him, he looked about to find the place where the shepherd kept his sheep. And he was informed that it was on the opposite bank of the Nile. And, since the river was in flood and about a mile in extent, he grasped his sword in his mouth and put his shirt on his head and so got over, swimming the river. While he was swimming over, the shepherd was able to escape him by burying himself in the sand. So, having killed the four best rams and tied them together with a cord, he swam back again. Having come to a little homestead he flayed the sheep, and having eaten the best of the flesh and sold the skins in exchange for wine, he drank a quart, and went off fifty miles further to where he had his 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 practicing of asceticism that he brought publicly to the knowledge of Christ even his accomplice in crime from his youth, the demon who had sinned with him. Among other tales this is told of him. One day robbers attacked him as he sat in his cell, not knowing who it was. They were four in number. He tied them all together and, putting them on his back like a truss of straw, brought them to the church of the brethren, saying: "Since I am not allowed to hurt anyone, what do you bid me do with these?" Then these robbers, having confessed their sins and recognized that it was Moses the erstwhile renowned and far-famed robber, themselves also glorified God and renounced the world because of his conversion, saying to themselves: "If he who was so great and powerful in brigandage has feared God, why should we defer our salvation?"

This Moses was attacked by demons, who tried to plunge him into his old habit of sexual incontinence. He was tempted so greatly, as he himself testified, that he almost relinquished his purpose. So, having come to the great Isidore, the one who lived in Scete, he told him about his conflict. And he said to him: "Do not be grieved. These are the beginnings, and therefore they have attacked you the more vehemently, seeking out your old habit. For just as a dog in a butcher's shop owing to his habits cannot tear himself away, but if the shop is closed and no one gives him anything, he no longer comes near it. So also with you; if you endure, the demon gets discouraged and has to leave you."

So he returned and from that hour practiced asceticism more vehemently, and especially refrained from food, taking nothing except dry bread to the extent of twelve ounces, accomplishing a great deal of work and completing fifty prayers (a day). Thus he mortified his body, but he still continued to burn and be troubled by dreams. Again he went to another one of the saints and said to him: "What am I to do, seeing that the dreams of my soul darken my reason, by reason of my sinful habits?"

More traditional icon
of Saint Moses
He said to him: "Because you have not withdrawn your mind from imagining these things, that is why you endure this. Give yourself to watching and pray with fasting and you will quickly be delivered from them."

Listening to this advice also he went away to his cell and gave his word that he would not sleep all night nor bend his knees. So he remained in his cell for six years and every night he stood in the middle of the cell praying and not closing his eyes. And he could not master the thing. So he suggested to himself yet another plan, and going out by night he would visit the cells of the older and more ascetic (monks), and taking their water-pots secretly would fill them with water. For they fetch their water from a distance, some from two miles off, some five miles, others half a mile. So one night the demon watched for him, having lost his patience, and as he stooped down at the well gave him a blow with a cudgel across the loins and left him (apparently) dead, with no perception of what he had suffered or from whom. So the next day a man came to draw water and found him lying there, and told the great Isidore, the priest of Scete. He therefore picked him up and brought him to the church, and for a year he was so ill that with difficulty did his body and soul recover strength. So the great Isidore said to him: "Moses, stop struggling with the demons, and do not provoke them."

But he said to him: "I will never cease until the appearance of the demons ceases."

So he said to him: "In the name of Jesus Christ your dreams have ceased. Come to Communion then with confidence, for, that you should not boast of having overcome passion, this is why you have been oppressed, for your good." And he went away again to his cell.

Afterwards when asked by Isidore, some two months later, he said that he no longer suffered anything. Indeed, he was counted worthy of such a gift (of power) over demons that we fear these flies more than he feared demons.

This was the manner of life of Moses the Ethiopian; he too was numbered among the great ones of the fathers. So he died in Scete seventy-five years old, having become a priest and he left seventy disciples.
Another translation of this biography offers the following final sentence:
When he was a thief, he had [as followers] seventy men and these now became his disciples, and they were perfect in the fear of God.
Moses the Black is numbered among the saints by the Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic Churches.

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