This week, we celebrate the feast of one of the great saints of Christianity whose life and example are a light to all of us, the Strong Saint Abba Moses.
Let us first speak of the details of Abba Moses’ life. We know about Abba Moses primarily from an early Christian work known as the Lausiac History. This book was written by a pious Christian named Palladius at the request of Lausus, a chamberlain in the court of Emperor Theodosius II. Palladius dwelt among the great ascetics and monks in the deserts of Egypt for several years, recording their lives and sayings.
In this work, we learn that Moses was a black man who was by nationality Ethiopian. He was a slave who left his earthly master and became a robber, fornicator, and savage killer. Despite his sinful life, Moses worshipped idols and searched for the One True God. It is said that he spoke to the sun, saying, “If you are the True God, reveal yourself to me.”
One day, he heard a voice, saying, “If you want to know the true God, go to the wilderness of Shiheet.” He went, and there he found Abba Isidore the priest, who was a spiritual father to all of the monks dwelling in Shiheet. The two spoke about the true God and Abba Moses’ heart was opened towards repentance. He received the grace of the Mystery of Repentance and Confession at the hands of Abba Macarius the Great who, during the Mystery, saw a black tablet that became whiter with each sin Abba Moses confessed. Abba Macarius prophesied that Moses would be great among all the monks and that he would die as a martyr.
After several years of testing, Abba Macarius placed the eskeem on Abba Moses and made him a full monk.
During his life of struggle in the desert, Abba Moses exhibited many virtues: he served others indiscriminately; he refused to judge anyone; he constantly struggled against the passions and lusts of the flesh; he displayed great humility in sincerely considering himself to be less than everyone else; he practiced the mystery of silence even in the face of insults; he constantly worshipped God and meditated on the Holy Scriptures.
Abba Moses received not only the grace of the Mysteries of Repentance and Holy Baptism, but also the priesthood as well. He became a father to hundreds of monks in their struggle as ascetics in the wilderness.
When he reached old age, the prophecy of Abba Macarius was fulfilled. Barbarians attacked the monastery and Abba Moses offered himself to them without any resistance. He received the crown of martyrdom at approximately the age of 75.
Let us now consider the amazing story of the blessed Abba Moses in only four points.
A Message of Hope
The first point is that the story of Abba Moses the Strong is a message of hope to each and every one of us. Like the stories of St. Mary of Egypt, St. Augustine, and many others, the story of Abba Moses teaches us that there is always hope for those who seek forgiveness of their sins in their lives.
We see in the life of Abba Moses how repentance and the grace of God can convert a person from one extreme to the entirely opposite extreme. Abba Moses went from being the chief of an evil gang of thieves to the spiritual father of a blessed group of monks; he went from being a murderer who took life to an ascetic who gave his life freely not only to God, but to anyone who needed him; he was transformed from an adulterer to a virgin. These radical changes give each and every one of us hope that we, too, can change ourselves and draw near God in our own lives.
The Power of Repentance
The second point is that the story of Abba Moses shows us the power of repentance. Repentance is not an emotional feeling of regret over our sins; it is a change of mind, a metanoia. A change of mind above all means a change of behavior. In the life of Saint Moses the Ethiopian, there is a clear change of behavior.
I would like to highlight two stories in the life of Saint Moses the Ethiopian that demonstrate this change. Before his repentance and conversion, we read of his encounter with the shepherd:
He had as an enemy a certain shepherd, against whom he remembered certain evil things, and he went to steal sheep from his flock. The shepherd was told by a certain man, “Moses has crossed the Nile by swimming, and he holds a sword in his hand, and his clothes are placed on his head, and he has crossed the river by swimming.” The shepherd entirely covered himself with sand and hid from him. When Moses came and did not find the shepherd, he chose out two fine rams from the sheep, slew them, tied them together with a rope, and swam across the river with them. Having come to a small village, he skinned the rams and ate the best portions of them. He sold the remainder for wine and drank. After these things he went back to his companions.
The other story happened after his conversion, and demonstrates the change which happened in his life, in his attitude, and in his mind.
About him they tell the story that [four] thieves once came to him and went into his cell, because they did not know who he was. He tied them all together with cords and lifted them up on his shoulders like a bag of chopped straw. He brought them to the brethren in the church, and said to the brethren, “Since I have not the power to do evil to any man, what do you command me to do to those who rose up against me to slay me?” Now at that time Moses had been fasting for seven days, and he had eaten nothing. After he had done this he informed the thieves, saying, “I indeed am Moses who was formerly the captain of a band of thieves.” Having heard this, they praised and glorified God. When they saw the sincerity of his repentance they also removed themselves from their evil deeds, and said within themselves, “Let us also draw near to repentance, so that we may become worthy of the forgiveness of sins, even as he also is worthy.”
Repentance is a Lifelong Struggle for Holiness
Third, we learn from the story of Abba Moses that repentance is not a momentary change; it is a struggle for holiness that lasts throughout one’s whole life. In the life of Saint Moses the Black we discover a clear metanoia in his life. This change was a beginning; it was not an end. After his repentance, he had to struggle against temptation against the Devil. In his life, we read:
While fasting often, and during the time of prayer and silent contemplation, that devil of error, who brings back to the remembrance of the mind the wickedness of former habits, would come to him, and tempt him to such a degree that, even as he himself has told us, he wanted exceedingly little to make Moses fall from his covenant.
He used to go to his father of confession, Saint Isidore, to tell him about his struggle. His father of confession told him,
Do not be distressed, for these are the beginning of the birth pangs, and they come upon you seeking what they are accustomed to receive. When a dog comes continually to the cook, if a man gives him nothing he will not go there again. Thus also it is with you: for if you will continue in fasting, in prayer, and in silent contemplation, the Devil will immediately fall into despair and will flee from you.
We often hear complaints from people that they fell again after they repented. They think that repentance is a momentary change, after which the Devil will not return to attack and tempt them. But the story of Saint Moses the Ethiopian tells us that repentance is a beginning of struggle. We should not give up; we should not be distressed. Rather, we have to continue. The Devil will come, time and again. But if we reject his tricks and his devices, he will not return, as in the example of the dog mentioned by Saint Isidore.
The Victorious Life is the Gift of Divine Grace
We learn from the story of Saint Moses the Ethiopian that repentance and the life of holiness is not only our work as human beings, but also a gift of Divine Grace. His struggle was very ascetic. He fasted; he journeyed to help the other monks; and he performed numerous ascetic works. But his father of confession, Saint Isidore, said to him:
Rest yourself, O Moses. Do not trouble yourself against the devils, and do not seek to make attacks on them. There is moderation in everything, even in the works of ascetic life.
And he assured him saying,
In the Name of Jesus Christ, from this time forward the devils shall cease from you. Draw near, then, and participate in the Holy Mysteries, and you shall be free from all impurity both of the flesh and of the spirit. You must not boast within yourself, and say, ‘I have overcome the devils,’ for it was for your benefit that they have waxed strong against you.” So Moses returned again to his cell. After two months, Abba Isidore came to him and asked him concerning himself. Moses said to him, “I never see now anything which is hateful to me.” Now he was also held to be worthy of the gift of Divine Grace.
So, in our repentance, we have to struggle. But we have to know that the victorious life is not our action; it is a gift from above. When God sees our sincere desire to struggle for a life of holiness, He will grant us, as Divine Grace granted Saint Moses the Ethiopian, rest from the continuous attacks of the Devil.
The Importance of the Father of Confession
The life of Saint Moses the Ethiopian shows us the importance of the father of confession. Through his life, he was supported by a great father of confession, Saint Isidore. He received Moses when he came to the wilderness of Shiheet. He helped Moses to know the Christian faith. He led Moses in his repentance, and guided him in his first confession. He helped him through his struggle. He guided him how to be strong against the temptation of the Devil, not to boast within himself, and how to depend on Divine Grace. He guided him, on the one hand, in the ascetic life with moderation, and on the other, in the spiritual life, participating in the Holy Mysteries, praying, and asking God to help him.
So, in our struggle and repentance, we need guidance. Therefore, our church arranged for every believer to be guided by his father of confession and to be a true disciple of his father of confession.
Again, the story of Saint Moses the Ethiopian gives to each one of us joy and hope, shows us the power of repentance, teaches us that repentance is a struggle of our life, and warns us not to depend on ourselves, but to depend on Divine Grace to grant us the gift of victorious life under the direction of our father of confession.