Abba Moses


I have been listening to the Conferences of Saint John Cassian, which I found in audio form here (incomplete and the NPNF edition, but worthwhile to listen to while bookbinding). I was recently given the Ramsey translation of both the Conferences and the Institutes (a wonderful gift!) and have also been reading Simon Cashmore’s Master’s thesis on Saint John Cassian (yes, the spirituality language jars a bit, but I am grateful that a South African is taking him seriously!) and so have been thinking that I should really get back to paying some attention to him. But, time and energy being what they are, listening while I work is easier to manage than reading, and the Conferences tend to lend themselves to that.

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of  Julia Hayes

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of Julia Hayes

Anyway, as I listened to the first two conferences, my thoughts turned to Abba Moses, or Saint Moses the Ethiopian, who is quoted extensively. Although I know that this is Cassian’s later reworking and re-presenting of the teaching that he found among the Desert Fathers, it struck me that it is difficult to deny that Saint Moses plays a crucial role in them. His teaching in the first two conferences on the goal and end of the monk and on the importance of discretion would go on to shape centuries of monastic understanding and Christian practice in both East and West.

I have written before on the infuriating cluelessness that many contemporary South African Christians seem to have about the history of African Christianity. And this now strikes me even more. While there are some – rather challenging – sayings of Saint Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which I have quoted previously, they belong to a particular genre and are perhaps easy to overlook. But when I was suddenly struck by the central role that he plays in the Conferences, I couldn’t help wondering that he has not received more attention from those interested in African Christianity and “African theology.”

Of course, part of the explanation for this may be that Saint John Cassian was himself viewed as suspect in the West after his run-in with Saint Augustine, and his legacy was largely kept alive in Benedictine monasteries. (Actually, as this post shows, he was once considerably more influential than he later became). But what suddenly struck me while I was binding was that this process of ignoring of Saint John Cassian’s works has not only deprived Western Christians of one of the foremost early teachers on Christian life, but it has also deprived African Christians of access to the rather centrally important teaching that he conveys of one of the leading lights of the African Church, namely, Saint Moses the Ethiopian.

Seven instructions which Abba Moses sent to Abba Poeman. He who puts them into practice will escape all punishment and will live in peace, whether he dwells in the desert or in the midst of the brethren.

1. The monk must die to his neighour and never judge him at all, in any way whatever.

2. The monk must die to everything before leaving the body, in order not to harm anyone.

3. If the monk does not think in his heart that he is a sinner, God will not hear him. The brother said, ‘What does that mean, to think in his heart that he is a sinner?’ Then the old man said, ‘When someone is occupied with his own faults, he does not see those of his neighbour.’

4. If a man’s deeds are not in harmony with his prayer, he labours in vain. The brother said, ‘What is this harmony between practice and prayer?’ The old man said, ‘We should no longer do those things against which we pray. For when a man gives up his own will, then God is reconciled with him and accepts his prayers.’ The brother asked, ‘In all the affliction which the monk gives himself, what helps him?’ The old man said, ‘It is written, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”‘ (Ps.46.1)

5. The old man was asked, ‘What is the good of the fasts and watchings which a man imposes on himself?’ and he replied, ‘They make the soul humble. For it is written, “Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.” (Ps.25.18) So if the soul gives itself all this hardship, God will have mercy on it.’

6. The old man was asked, ‘What should a man do in all the temptations and evil thoughts that come upon him?’ The old man said to him, ‘He should weep and implore the goodness of God to come to his aid, and he will obtain peace if he prays with discernment. For it is written, “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can man do to me?”‘(Ps. 118.6)

7. A brother asked the old man, ‘Here is a man who beats his servant because of a fault he has committed; what will the servant say?’ The old man said, ‘If the servant is good, he should say, “Forgive me, I have sinned.”‘ The brother said to him, ‘Nothing else?’ The old man said, ‘No, for from the moment he takes upon himself responsibility for the affair and says, “I have sinned,” immediately the Lord will have mercy on him. The aim of these things is not to judge one’s neighbour. For truly, when the hand of the Lord caused the first-born in the land of Egypt to die, no house was without its dead.’ The brother said, ‘What does that mean?’The old man said, ‘If we are on the watch to see our own faults, we shall not see those of our neighbour. It is folly for a man who has a dead person in his house to leave him there and to go and weep over his neighbour’s dead. To die to one’s neighbour is this: To bear your own faults and not to pay attention to anyone else wondering whether they are good or bad. Do no harm to anyone, do not think anything bad in your heart towards anyone, do not scorn the man who does evil, do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour. This is what dying to one’s neighbour means. Do not rail against anyone, but rather say, “God knows each one.” Do not agree with him who slanders, do not rejoice at his slander and do not hate him who slanders his neighbour. This is what it means not to judge. Do not have hostile feelings to anyone and do not let dislike dominate your heart; do not hate him who hates his neighbour. This is what peace is: Encourage yourself with this thought, “Affliction lasts but a short time, while peace is for ever, by the grace of God the Word. Amen.” ‘

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984]) 141-143.

If the last point raises questions for anyone, as it does for me, you may want to look at some remarks by Metropolitan Zizioulas here.

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984]) 138-139.