A fellow monk appeared at the entrance to the big, powerfully-built black brother’s cell in the Sinai desert, asking him to attend a meeting of all the monks in the lavra* to decide on an appropriate penance for an erring brother. The monk—Moses the Ethiopian—refused to attend.
Some time later, another brother appeared and demanded Moses’ attendance. Moses filled a leaking water jug and carried it to the meeting on his shoulder, leaving a trail of spilled water behind him. Upon his arrival, the assembled monks asked why he was carrying the jug. He replied, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, but today I am coming to judge the errors of another.”
The monks decided to forgive the erring brother.
Abba Moses (330-405) eventually became the leader of a lavra of his own, but his violent early career was always at the back of his mind.
Moses had been a slave to an Egyptian government official. Dismissed for theft and suspected murder, he took up with an infamous gang of seventy-five violent robbers who terrorized the Nile Valley.
After a botched robbery attempt, Moses fled for shelter to a lavra in Scetis (now known as the Wadi El Natrun), near Alexandria. Whilst hiding amongst them from the authorities, he found their life of peace and contentment powerfully attractive. He was baptized and joined the community as a monk.
Moses found the adjustment to a peaceful and dedicated life difficult. When a gang of robbers attacked him in his cell, he overpowered them and dragged them to the chapel where the other monks were praying. Telling them he didn’t think it Christian to harm the robbers, he asked his brothers what he ought to do with them. According to legend, the robbers repented on the spot and joined the community.
Finding his progress in monastic discipline and the contemplative life frustratingly slow, Moses became discouraged. One morning before dawn, the abbot Isidore took Moses to the chapel roof, where they watched the first rays of dawn appear.
“Only slowly do the rays of the sun drive away the night and usher in a new day,” said the abbot to Moses, “and thus, only slowly does one become a perfect contemplative.”
At about 75 years of age, Moses, now the leader of a community of his own, learned that a group Berbers were planning to attack the monastery. The brothers wanted to take up arms in its defense, but Moses forbade it, ordering them instead to flee.
Remembering his own violent days as a bandit, Moses quoted Jesus’ saying that “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). He remained behind with seven other brothers, and all were martyred by the Berber robbers.
Today, Moses the Ethiopian is venerated as an apostle of non-violence, and a patron saint of Africa.
*The monasteries of the early Desert Fathers and Mothers comprised clusters of caves and mud huts, called lavras, set up by devotees near the dwelling of a hermit who had acquired a reputation for holiness.