Thursday, August 28, 2003

More from the desert: Abba Moses the Ethiopian, robber, murderer, priest, martyr

Moses, a black Ethiopian, was a house servant to some official in the administration. His master discharged him for exasperating behavior and for stealing; he was thought even to have committed murder. He had been head of a robber gang, and the principal story of his stealing episodes was one in which he bore a grudge against a shepherd who one night stood between him and his objective with his dogs.

Desiring to kill the shepherd, he searched for the place where the sheep were kept. He was notified that it was across the Nile. The river was then in full flood and at least a mile across, so he put his sword between his teeth, placed his cloak on his head, plunged into the river, and swam to the other side. While he was swimming across the river, the shepherd was able to escape by burying himself in the sand. Moses killed four rams, tied them together with rope, and swam back again. He came to a small slaughtering place and skinned them. Then he ate the best part of the meat and sold the sheepskins to buy some wine. He then drank off a measure of wine, equal to eighteen Italian pints, and went off fifty miles to where he had his band. He was suddenly brought to his senses by some circumstance and he betook himself to a monastic place.

When Moses was still quite young in the life of grace, four robbers, not knowing who he was, fell upon him in his monastic cell. He tied them all together like a package, put them on his back like a bundle of sticks, and took them to the church where the other brothers had gathered. He asked, "Since I may not hurt anyone, what do you want me to do with these?"

The robbers confessed, and found out then that he was Moses, the onetime notorious robber. They glorified God and spurned the world because of his conversion. For they reasoned thus, "If he who was such a strong and powerful thief fears God, why should we put off our own salvation?"

The demons attacked Moses, trying to draw him back into his old ways of intemperance and impurity. He was tempted to such an extent, that he nearly failed in his resolution. So he went to his abba Isidore, and revealed all the details of the contest to him.

Isidore said, "Do not be discouraged. These were the beginnings, and for this reason they were the more severe as they attacked, since they were testing your character. A dog does not by nature stay away from a meat market, but only if the market is closed up and no one gives him anything does he stop coming by. So also in your case. If you stand firm, the demon will have to leave you in discouragement."

A brother at Scetis commited a fault. A council was called to judge him, to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. So the priest sent another messenger to Moses, urging him to come, since all the brothers were waiting for him. So Moses took his oldest, worn-out, leaky basket. filled it with sand. placed it on his back, and went to join the council of judgment. When the brothers saw him arriving, they went out to great him, asking him why he had arrived so burdened. Abba Moses said, "My many sins run out behind me, and I do not even see them, and yet today I have come to judge the sins of someone else." The brothers relented, called off the council, and forgave their erring brother.

When Abba Moses was instructing his disciple, who was to become the great abba Poemen, he taught: "The monk must die to his neighbor and never judge him at all, in any way whatever. The monk must die to everything before leaving the body, in order not to harm anyone. If the monk does not think in his heart that he is a sinner, God will not hear him." Young Poemen asked, "What does this mean, to think in his heart that he is a sinner?" Abba Moses answered him, "When a person is occupied with his own sins, he does not see the sins of his neighbor."

The brothers were told to disperse and head into the hills, for the barbarian hordes were coming. But Abba Moses chose to stay there until the end came, saying that it was the day he had been expecting and awaiting, that the Lord's word would be fulfilled, that he who takes up the sword (as Abba Moses had when he was a brigand and murderer) would also perish by the sword. A few other brothers stayed with him when the rest fled. One of the brothers, who hid in a pile of rope and was not killed, saw the angels descend with crowns for the Abba and the other brothers with him.

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