I’m fascinated by many of the monks of the early Church. Reading through their tales and sayings, they sometimes feel like ancient superheroes because of their incredible acts of self-discipline as they engaged in constant spiritual battle. Abba Arsenius supposedly only needed an hour of sleep a night. Abba Agathon kept a stone in his mouth for three years to learn the value of silence. Abba Evagrius was so devout in his service to the poor that he even sold his Bible to feed them. And then there’s Abba Moses the Black . . .
A former slave and brigand, Moses the Black was known for his immense physical strength, quick temper, love of food and drink, and delight in fornication. He was violent in personality and action, and thieving and murder were just part of his daily life. Raised by sun-worshippers, he spent many early years searching for the true God before encountering a priest named Esidorous. Some sources say that he sought out the priest as part of his search for the true God; others say that he sought refuge in the monastery after a robbery. Either way, the encounter changed his life, and he renounced his past lifestyle, dedicating his life to Christ. Though he would often struggle with the temptations of his old lifestyle, Moses maintained a servant’s heart and fervently resisted the violence that once plagued his spirit, choosing instead the path of strict nonviolence. When verbally assaulted by fellow monks for his dark skin, he maintained disciplined silence. When assailed physically by his former partners in crime, he merely disarmed and released them rather than inflicted physical harm. When threatened with death by Berber raiders, he willingly accepted martyrdom rather than resist. There is one particular story that causes him to stick out in my mind though:
One of the monks at Scetis had faltered in his vows, and a council was put together to determine his punishment. Moses was summoned to take part, but he refused to go. When asked again, Moses consented to attend, but as he set out, he picked up a basket and tore a hole in the bottom. Filling the basket with sand and slinging it over his shoulder, he began the walk, and the sand trailed out behind him. As he approached his destination, a group of monks came out to meet him, and seeing the trickling sand, asked, “What is this, Father?” Moses replied, “I carry behind me my manifold sins where I cannot see them, and I come to judge the errors of another.” On hearing this and understanding the symbol, the monks promptly forgave their brother and repented of their own sins as well.
Moses the Black’s story is particularly significant given a statistic cited in Sunday’s sermon and in last Wednesday’s LOFT lesson: 87% of church outsiders think of Christians as judgmental, and 52% of the churchgoers surveyed agreed. Christianity, despite being a religion centered on the forgiveness of sins, has an unfortunate reputation for being judgmental. And indeed, our faith does require some judgment calls on our part. We are constantly called to discern between sin and righteousness in our lives, and this sometimes means admonishing one another too. Paul did this constantly in his letters, and Jesus had more than a few things to say about sin as well! To help us with this, the Bible presents guidelines for how to lovingly rebuke a wayward brother or sister (such as the pattern of “church discipline” outlined in Matthew 18). Just like the founders of the Church, we are called to hold each other accountable and help one another out of patterns of sinful behavior, and this is where prayer, Scripture, and the examples of early Church leaders are invaluable.
Moses’s tale is a reminder that we must stay aware of our own sinful tendencies as we seek to correct and lead one another. He used a literal broken vessel to show that we are all of us sinners and not proper judges (unlike Christ). When tempted to pass judgment, we must remember our own sins. We must remember our imperfection in the eyes of the Law. And we must remember Christ’s labor on the cross to redeem us in spite of all this. Our ability to admonish and correct one another must come not from our own understanding of the Law, but from the love and mercy delivered into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Only then can we help hone one another into proper disciples. To borrow the language of Proverbs 27:17, as iron sharpens iron, so one Christian should sharpen another, and the first step in that process is acknowledging our own shortcomings.
Grace and Peace,