Abba Moses, the Black Hermit

Black people in the United States do not use public wilderness areas for recreation, according to researchers1, because they are wary of remote and isolated locales. Residence or economic status is not a factor. Rather, hearsay or deduced conclusions about the potential danger and experienced hostility from the majority race in the United States, particularly in the South and West, was sufficient to discourage blacks from wilderness areas. In the historical South, younger blacks are familiar enough with accounts of lynching and violence; older blacks have direct experience of prejudice and segregationist violence. Remote and wilderness areas are seen as dangerous for blacks, who feel security in numbers. Recreational patterns reflect this preference.

The ill treatment of blacks by the majority race has been a perennial historical phenomenon that has shaped the psychology of blacks in the Western world towards the concept of solitude. Even in a religious setting where the values of Christianity should have overridden prejudices, the shameful treatment of black men who became religious is recorded in the biography of Saint Martin of Porres in sixteenth century Latin America, and as far back as the time of the Christian desert fathers in the biography of the monk and hermit Moses.

Abba Moses

Moses was described by Paschasius2 as "converted from among thieves," and by Sozomen3 as "Moses the Libyan." He was a black man and a monk at Scetis, the famous Egyptian monastery of the fourth century. Moses was trained by Isidore the Priest, a companion of the famous Macarius and a prominent head of one of the Scetis communities. Moses himself became a priest at an advanced age (he is called "old man") in all the narratives), eventually journeying to Petra late in life to become a hermit on the advice of Macarius.

A number of wise sayings are attributed to Moses in John Cassian's first and second Conferences, but these are generic sayings that do not bring out the personality of Moses or the context of his life and teaching. It is in the traditional Sayings collection that we can see the struggles of a black man whose character and vocation was not enough to convince his fellow monks of his dignity. Here are several examples:4

[One] day when a council was being held in Scetis, the Fathers treated Moses with contempt in order to test him, saying, "Why does this black man come among us?" When he [Moses] heard this he kept silence. When the council was dismissed, they said to him, "Abba, did that not grieve you at all?" He said to them, "I was grieved, but I kept my silence."

This is the infamous silence expected of black men over the centuries, a silence, however, that deafens the voices of prejudice and shames the hypocrisy of even the professed virtuous.

It was said of Abba Moses that he was ordained and the ephod [that is, sacerdotal vestment] was placed upon him. The archbishop said to him, "See, Abba Moses, now you are entirely white." The old man said to him, "It is true of the outside, lord and father, but what about Him who sees the inside?"

Moses' silence was not absolute. Here is the bold and necessary riposte to the archbishop's assumption that the color of Moses' skin was the object of an apt analogy. Moses turns it back against the archbishop by making the assumed virtue of color unavailable to the maker of the analogy. Using the archbishop's analogy, the archbishop himself may be black within, Moses implies. It is too much for the archbishop. The narrative continues:

Wishing to test him the archbishop said to the priests, "When Abba Moses comes into the sanctuary, drive him out, and go with him to hear what he says." So the old man came in and they covered him with abuse, and drove him out, saying, "Outside, black man!"

Is there any redeeming value to this group behavior sanctioned by an archbishop concerning a brother priest? What is Moses to think? The narrative concludes:

Going out, he [Moses] said to himself, "They have acted rightly concerning you, for your skin is as black as ashes. You are not a man, so why should you be allowed to meet men?"

In Zen monasteries, when abbots struck disciples for thoughtless replies to koans or for falling asleep during meditation, we see an overuse of authority targeted to a specific action or response but not to a person's character or physical feature. The Zen abbot's technique was that of an evolved religious authority, while the treatment of Moses pretends no didactic purpose, and was certainly not a humiliation that was deserved or was practiced universally with all monks and priests.

But Moses persevered, and his reputation for holiness and austerity grew, such that the priest and monks of Scetis ended up treating him fairly. On one occasion, Moses prepared food for guests during a fast ordered by the abbot. Some jealous monks pointed this out to the monastery council. However,

since they knew Abba Moses' remarkable way of life, the ministers said to him in front of everyone, "O Abba Moses, you did not keep the commandment of men, but it was so you might keep the commandment of God."

In another instance, when a brother had committed a fault, a council was summoned to deal with it. Abba Moses was invited to attend but refused until urged. He made his point of view about judging others perfectly clear.

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.

These and other sayings about Moses suggest that humility was the chief fruit or virtue of his spiritual progress. But humility was no mere abstraction for him. What began in humiliation was transformed by Moses -- with what must have been a heroic effort -- into humility and that sense of what may be called "no-self," of the notion of dying to self and neighbor.

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 his neighbour.

This is what it means not to judge: Do not have hostile feelings towards 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 with Word. Amen."


  1. Floyd, Myron F., "Managing National Parks in a Multicultural Society: Searching for Common Ground." George Wright Forum, v. 18, no. 3, 2001, p. 41-51. ( Includes bibliographical references on this topic.
  2. Palladius. Lausiac History 100, 22.
  3. Sozomen. Historia Ecclesiastica 6, 29.
  4. Quotations from Sayings of the Desert Fathers, edited and translated by Benedicta Ward. Rev. ed. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987.