Have you ever found yourself inside a church with gorgeous stained glass windows, or walls of painted icons of the saints in our church, and then got the feeling that you definitely don’t fit in among the pure virgins, pious priests, or humble monks adorning the Lord’s house? I know I have and it’s a horrible way to feel. The holiness of the saints should inspire us to live holy lives and not discourage us. But hey, we are only human. We naturally compare ourselves to other people and the saints are people too. I believe part of the problem can also be that the lives of some of the saints are written in such a way that makes them seem not real, superhuman if you will. This is unfortunate.
The beauty of the Communion of Saints is found in the variety of the many different lives of God’s people. No matter who you are and what kind of background you have, there is always going to be a saint who can help you—a saint who will be more than an inspiration; someone who will be a friend, a companion to guide you along the path to God. St. Moses the Strong (or “the Ethiopian”) is one of these saints for me.
I recently read a newly written story of him and found it was disappointing. The story had been altered and “cleaned up” to leave out the more unsatisfying details of his sinful life. Then his life in the monastery was written in such a way that if this was my first reading of his story, I would have simply dismissed it. Why do we do this with the saints? And what does it say about how we see ourselves and our sinful lives? More importantly, how we see God and His mercy?
I first heard about St. Moses while visiting St. Antony Coptic Monastery, way out in the middle of the hot Mojave Desert of California. There is a tree on the monastery grounds above which St. Moses appeared. Since then, a beautiful church has been built there to honor him. I was very young in my Catholic faith when I heard the story of this unusual saint. I was still trying to find my own place in the church, reading and discovering many things, and at times feeling a bit uneasy. My own sinful youth now haunted me, learning about Catholic virtues and the lives of virtuous saints made me uncomfortable in many ways (and the attitudes among some of my new brothers and sisters didn’t help). Thankfully meeting St. Moses helped me to work through those issues.
When I heard his story, it was shockingly refreshing. Not refreshing because he was a murderous gang member in his lifetime, but refreshing to hear that this murderous gang member, known at one time in Egypt as the “Terror of the Nile,” could repent and change so deeply and become as holy as he did. St. Moses was an escaped slave and guilty of murder and robbery. He was a strong, fearsome man and this enabled him to become the leader of a gang. Moses and his notorious crew terrorized people all along the Nile River Valley by murder, theft, and many other evil deeds for several years.
There are different versions of Moses’ life. Some say he fled to the desert and hid there among the Christian monks where the witness of the monk’s lives converted him. Other stories say he went to the desert to rob the monks when one of them happily helped Moses carry his few belongings out—Moses was so struck with amazement, it changed him. Another story says Moses sought God out and was led to the desert and there encountered St. Isidore and St. Macarius the Great. Either way he ended up in the desert, become a monk and began a life of repentance.
When St. Moses converted and began to live alone in his cell, his sinful youth haunted him and would not leave him in peace. The devil attacked him with lustful thoughts and sleepless nights. He spent years fighting the demons of his past. Adjusting to his new disciplined Christian life was the hardest battle this former gang leader ever undertook.
He became so certain that he would never be holy enough that he almost despaired. St. Isidore (his abbot) took him to the roof one morning. Together they watched the first rays of sunlight come over the horizon (if you have ever seen a desert sunrise you can imagine how beautiful and striking this would have been). St. Isidore instructed St. Moses, “Only slowly do the rays of the sun drive away the night and usher in a new day, and thus, only slowly does one become a perfect contemplative.”
The spiritual progress St. Moses gained didn’t happen overnight. He had to learn to accept his own sinful past, make peace with it, and concentrate on good and holy things. He lived a life in service of his fellow monks. When sleepless nights tormented him, he would fetch water from the well and take it cell by cell, filling his brother’s containers. Some of his former gang members even converted and joined Moses after being amazed by the mercy he showed them when they tried to rob him one day. Slow but steady progress and a lifetime of conversion and repentance mark this great saint’s life.
Many times I have been (and still can be) impatient and too hard on myself—constantly taking my own “spiritual temperature” and getting wrapped up and focused on my sins and shortcomings. There are two serious problems with this: First, I cannot focus on God and pray if I am focused on me. No matter what kind of things I am focusing on, it is still a turning away from God and not prayer; it is still a self centered act. God doesn’t need me to brood over my sins. Acknowledge them, yes. Confess them, absolutely! But not dwell on them. Repent and accept God’s mercy and continue on. The second problem is I make myself judge over myself when I behave like this. We cannot judge anyone, including ourselves, only God can do that.
There is a famous story about St. Moses. Once the Fathers in the Skete asked Moses to come to an assembly to judge the fault of a brother, but he refused. When they insisted, he took a basket which had a hole in it, filled it with sand, and carried it on his shoulders. When the Fathers saw him coming they asked him why he had this leaking basket. He answered them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and I am come this day to judge failings which are not mine.” The brother in question was forgiven and the monks were all taught a valuable lesson.
Often we do not realize that our lack of patience with others extends to ourselves as well. St. Moses had to learn to be patient and to not judge himself; this would have been the source of his compassion and mercy for others too.
We must be careful to not judge our own past or the past of our brothers (even the saints). Do we think there are sins that are so great that God cannot forgive them? A life so drenched in evil that God’s mercy cannot bring deliverance? Whitewashing the past, ignoring it, or dwelling on it, are all types of judgment. In each instance we are saying this person is (or I myself am) too great of a sinner—God cannot change this life. If we want to reveal the glory and love of God, lives like St. Moses’ do a darn good job of that. God took a former murderer, adulterer, and robber, and made him a holy Desert Father. After many years, St. Moses became a priest. He eventually died a martyr’s death when a band of robbers killed him. He is known for his mercy, compassion, obedience, humility, and great ascetic struggle. If God can do that with the so called “Terror of the Nile,” then there is definitely hope for the rest of us! St. Moses the Strong, pray for us!