Abba Moses the Ethiopian - Part 1
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Abba Moses the Ethiopian?
There are few stories that underscore the power of the Gospel as well as that of Abba Moses the Ethiopian. Once infamous for his dark skin and murderous ways, he became known as a significant spiritual leader of the desert.
Abba Moses spent his younger years as a servant to a wealthy family. He had a reputation for anger, and his large, muscular frame only furthered that agenda. Eventually, he was thrown out of the house on suspected murder and thievery. Moses soon joined a band of robbers in northern Egypt and began terrorizing the region.
He stole livestock, murdered those who got in his way (and those who annoyed him), broke into monastic communities, and generally wreaked havoc everywhere he went with his gang of thieves. One story even has him taking revenge on a shepherd whose dog barked and interrupted the crime he and his gang were committing. He stalked the man by night in order to kill him. The shepherd saw Moses coming from a distance and hid. Moses, upon not being able to find the man, selected the best of his livestock and slaughtered the choicest rams.
However, it would not be long before he met the grace of God and dedicated his life to monasticism. The details of his conversion are not preserved in history, but he was found by Christ and sought out the desert fathers of Egypt. At first, his attempts to join the community were rebuffed. After all, this is the Moses who was infamous in the region. Eventually, seeing that his conversion was authentic, he was welcomed and mentored by Abba Isidore.
The outset of the spiritual life was a struggle for Moses. He immediately dedicated himself to prayer, solitude, and fasting. For the first few years he wrestled significantly with lustful thoughts. After every battle, he would redouble his efforts in ascetic discipline. At one point, he would refuse sleep in order to travel to fill the buckets of the other fathers with water for the following day, unbeknownst to the community. His goal was purity of thought and his hindrances were his past memories.
Abba Moses asked Abba Silvanus: ”Can a man make a new beginning every day?” The Elder replied: ”If he is a true laborer, he can make a new beginning at every moment."
In the process of growth in the spiritual life, we must come to grips with the fact that we will fail, and we will fail often. God does not expect perfection, he expects faithfulness. Eventually, as we make new beginnings moment by moment, we recognize our own fallibility and our tendency to fail, yet our struggle produces perseverance. Abba Moses is a prime example of this perseverance.
An encouraging vision
One time, he approached Abba Isidore and confessed his struggle. Isidore led him to the roof of the dwelling and both saw the same vision simultaneously. Isidore beckoned Moses to look to the west. When he did, he saw a host of demons spreading confusion. Isidore then motioned for Moses to look to the east, where he then saw an innumerable multitude of angels providing help to the saints. Isidore explained the meaning of the vision,
“Our allies, therefore, are greater in number. This is why you should have courage and not be afraid.”
Moses left encouraged to continue fighting.
The struggle continued for a number of years until he had reached the end of his strength. He had spent the previous year recovering from a near death injury. Abba Isidore cautioned Moses to lighten his discipline,
”From now and henceforth, stop your struggle with the demons, Brother Moses, and do not oppose them so ruthlessly; for there must be a certain moderation in the ascetic struggle against the demons.”
Moses’ struggle was essentially the same root identity issue that drove him in his previous life. Moderation tempers the extreme tendencies of the soul. As Moses was extreme in his previous life, so his practice was derived from the same drive. Moses needed healing.
Isidore offered him the wisdom that would bring peace to his soul.
“It was so that you might not have occasion to think that by your ascetic efforts you conquered this passion that you were so tortured by Satan; this was for your benefit, so that you did not become proud.”
God allowed Moses to be tempted in order to prove to Moses that he lacked the strength to advance on his own. It was through this trial that Moses learned humility and embraced the spiritual life. Through trial he came to know grace.
During that time a rather comical episode occurred. One night, Moses was attacked by four thieves in his dwelling. He quickly overpowered all four, tied them up, and dragged them to the church. Upon dropping the men in front of some of the fathers, Moses said,
“Since I no longer allow myself to do wrong to anyone, what do you advise me to do with these four here, who attacked me in order to rob me?”
Astonished, the fathers untied the thieves and freed them. When the four thieves realized who had conquered them, they promptly followed Moses’ example and repented of their former ways. Eventually, those four thieves became shining examples of the spiritual life.
Moses was sought for his wisdom and guidance
He quickly grew to be on the most influential fathers in Egypt. But the constant stream of visitors began to take its toll on him. He went to Abba Macarius for advice.
“’I should like to live in quiet prayer and the brethren do not let me.’ Abba Macarius said to him, ‘I see that you are a sensitive man and incapable of sending a brother away. Well, if you want to live in peace, go to the interior desert, to Petra, and there you will be at peace.’”
He retired deeper into the desert in order to find peace.
Abba Moses was ordained as priest and oversaw his own monastic community. He was deferential to his disciples. Once, when he asked his disciple Zacharias for some spiritual advice, Zacharias expressed astonishment that he would be asked. Abba Moses responded,
“Believe me, Zacharias, my child, I saw the Holy Spirit descending on you and that is why I am compelled to ask you.”
Zacharias responded by giving a stunning example of the need for brokenness.
“Zacharias then took his monastic hat from his head and placed it under his feet; and trampling on it, he said: ”Unless a man is crushed in this way, he cannot be a monk.” As Psalm 51:17 says, “A broken and contrite heart You will not despise.”
He was known to have prophetic foreknowledge. Once, when a certain Elder in the community fell ill, the brothers exhausted themselves taking care of him. The Elder, upon recognizing this said he would go to the city of Alexandria to seek help.
But Abba Moses told him: ”Do not go to Alexandria, for if you do, you will fall to fornication.” Upset at this advice, the Elder replied: ”My body is dead, and you tell me this?”
When the Elder arrived in Alexandria, he eventually fell into sin with the woman who nursed him back to health. His story became a cautionary tale to guard the heart even in old age.
He was soft towards the faults of others. When a certain brother had committed a sin, a council was called to judge the matter. Abba Moses was sent for, however, he did not want to come. The fathers pressed him and eventually he acquiesced. Moses took a worn out basket with holes, filled it with sand and carried it to the meeting. When the fathers at the meeting greeted him, they asked him,
“’What is this, Father?’ The Elder replied to them: ‘My sins are flowing out behind me, and I do not see them; and yet, I have come today to judge someone else's sins.’ When they heard this, they said nothing to the brother, but forgave him.”
When his fame had sufficiently spread, a political leader of the day heard about Abba Moses and desired to visit him. When Moses caught wind of this, he left his dwelling, but the leader persisted. When the political leader passed by Abba Moses on the road, he asked him where he could find Moses. Moses responded,
”What do you want with him? ”That man is a fool.”
The man listened and gave up his desire to see Moses. Later, when asked why they had left he told some of the fathers that he had been told Moses was a fool. Indignant, the fathers asked him who would have said that. The political leader described the figure as tall and black, and it was then that the fathers realized that Moses had turned the political figure away. They all marvelled at Moses’ humility.