Abba Moses the Ethiopian - Part 2
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.
The Spiritual Life
Abba Moses took what he was taught by Abba Isidore, Abba Macarius and the other desert fathers of the 4th century, practiced it, and then in turn taught others how to enter into the depths of the spiritual life. He was passionately committed to his fathers, viewing submission to a father as vital to the spiritual life. After all, without submission to a father, how could one test their own submission to their Father in heaven?
Moses understood that intimacy with Christ would not come without effort, he said:
“It is impossible for the heart to acquire Jesus without toil, humility, and unceasing prayer.”
Nothing of worth is easily attained, how much more is that true for Christ? If we hope to gain intimacy with God, what type of effort should we put in? If we put in little effort we can expect little return. To gain Christ, we must enter into prayer and discipline, attuning our hearts to his presence.
Growth in prayer begins in silence and solitude. Moses taught that a man could not hope to make progress without spending time alone, in silence, with no one else. It is in these moments of quiet repose that we begin to become familiar with ourselves. If silence and solitude is required it is because knowledge of the heart is required. The interior life is a mystery to those who spend their time distracted by noise. Abba Moses said,
“The man who flees and lives in solitude is like a bunch of grapes ripened by the sun, but he who remains amongst men is like an unripe grape.” A man who refuses to spend time, alone before God will spend his days “un-ripened.”
When asked by a brother for some advice, Abba Moses replied,
“Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Silence and solitude were so foundational, they were the path to true depth. Without external silence, internal silence is hard to come by. Without solitude, peace is difficult to come by. Solitude will develop the habit of contentment in present need. When you spend time in solitude you realize how little you actually need.
All a person needs to convince them they have little control over their thought life is a little bit of silence and solitude. Most of us last about 10 seconds before our thoughts wander. Many times, the thought life wanders to the very thing we don’t want to think about, glory, money, sex, etc… So what is one to do when these moments come to pass? Abba Moses had simple advice for the individual suffering from wandering, evil thoughts.
“He should weep and implore the goodness of God to come to his aid, and he will obtain peace if he prays with discernment. For it is written, ‘With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can man do to me (Ps. 118.6)?’”
Prayer with discernment is simply to see yourself in the presence of God. Prayer is not to be mere discipline, prayer is intimacy developed. It is time spent in loving union with the Spirit of Christ. When this is the aim of prayer, the Spirit of God is present and the individual is strengthened. When prayer is obligation, there is little intimacy.
So what are we to do when we fail in all of this?
“The strength of those who wish to acquire the virtues is as follows: if they fall, let them not lose their courage, but let them be sure to make a new beginning at their endeavor.”
Strength is to get back up in the midst of failure and begin again. Fear of failure keeps so many from pursuing depth of intimacy. But failure has the potential to breed humility and intimacy with grace, if the individual will just get back up.
“…without fail He will strengthen us with His mercy and bestow His Grace on us in abundance, in which case we will accomplish every good easily and without exertion.”
If we are overcome, the answer is to repent and mourn.
“Have we been overcome physically by some passion? Let us not be negligent, but let us repent and mourn over this…”
The purpose of the disciplines is to humble the soul and attract the presence of Christ. The goal is softness of heart. When asked about the disciplines of fasting and watchfulness (paying attention to the heart), Moses responded,
“They make the soul humble. For it is written, ‘Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.’ (Ps.25.18) So if the soul gives itself all this hardship, God will have mercy on it.”
Fasting can be considered self-inflicted hardship. If the individual is choosing to subject themselves to hardship on behalf of God, what better way to attract his presence?
The mark of the person who has been led into spiritual maturity is the refusal to judge others. Judgement keeps an individual focused on personal offense and pain. The desire to judge another generally stems from the need to justify one’s own opinion, usually unknowingly. Judgement nearly always justifies self above another. It sees the position another holds as less than the one you hold, or the pain they inflicted upon you is somehow worse, or more worthy of recompense, than the pain you have inflicted upon someone else. If most of us would take a few moments to think about our personal judgements, we may begin to realize how rooted in our own insecurity they actually are.
Abba Moses said that the monk must consider themselves dead to his neighbor. If the individual is dead to their own neighbor, that means they have a dead person in their own house. It is insanity to deal with the dead in another house while neglecting the dead in your own house. Besides, if you spent time dealing with your own faults, you would probably lack the time or energy to deal with your neighbors. Most of the time our offense towards others is actually a refusal to deal with our own heart.
Silence and solitude were to lead the individual to a true estimation of themselves and what is within the heart.
How could it be that God would not hear his prayer? It is the hinging point of the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18. The Pharisee spends his time justifying himself, while the tax collector humbly asks for God’s mercy. The tax collector is justified before God, while the Pharisee is not. In other words, the prayer of the tax collector justified God to act on his behalf, while the Pharisee is left wanting.
Spiritual maturity should include inner harmony between deeds and prayer. The longer the time spent in intimacy with God the more your will comes into line with the will of God. You become his image. As the will of the individual is divested in favor of the will of God, our actions ought to change. We should no longer be doing the very things we are praying not to do. Nothing is more hypocritical than the one who gives the advice that he refuses to follow.
Of course, in all this, Moses recognized that growth could not be attributed to the individual. When he was asked,
“’In all the affliction which the monk gives himself, what helps him?’ The old man said, ‘It is written, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Ps 46:1)’”
One story related to Abba Moses resounds more loudly than nearly any other story attributed to him, and it involves the discipline of self-accusation. Self-accusation is the attitude that refuses to find fault with another, and instead maintains that anything someone else has done to cause me pain, injury, discomfort, anxiety, etc…has served to expose those very things in the depths of my own heart.
Self-accusation determines to treat the source of offense and pain as the presence of Christ as healer and doctor of the soul. If we were perfectly united with Christ, pain would be of no consequence. It is only suffering because we add pain to the circumstances. So rather than find others at fault for our own pain, we ought to find the place in our heart that refuses to trust God. This is one of the deepest lessons the Desert Fathers and Mothers can hand down to us. The source of your pain is also the source of your healing. The very one who offended and hurt you is Christ to you.
When Moses was rejected from a certain gathering by a group of fathers on the basis of his skin color and nationality, Abba Moses refuses to rail against them, and instead, this incredible man of God says,
“Why, my wretched soul, are you acting crazy? Why have you become anger, like those who foam at the mouth? With precisely this anger you show that you are ill; for, if you were not ill, you would not have felt pain. Why, hapless soul, have you forsaken self-reproach for the condemnation of your brother, since it was he who revealed your illness, which was hidden within you and of which you were ignorant until now?”
He goes on to extol himself to imitate Christ, who was mocked but resisted retaliation, who was beaten, and offered his back to the Roman centurions who whipped him. One offense and we are ready to throw years of progress out the window. We are truly fickle beings.
And we think that if we can bite out tongues when we are insulted we are mature, yet a later author, while commenting on Abba Moses, says,
“We, however, are very much inferior to Abba Moses, for we cannot even attain to the beginner’s stage on account of our great neglect; and so we think that these commandments are immense and impossible. For, to be troubled and not to speak is not for those who are perfect, but for beginners.”
It is the work of a beginner to remain in silence. And that is where the disciplines of the desert come full circle. How can one hope to respond in silence without having practiced silence? Silence is the entryway to maturity, but the true test of intimacy with Christ is the ability to bless those who curse you. If you can see those who have wronged you as the source of your healing, you are one step closer to displaying Christ to a broken world.
Abba Moses was martyred in 405 AD, when the desert was invaded by barbarians. He waited in silence as the barbarians broke into his dwelling. He was about 75 years old when he was slain.