One of my favorite books is the Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton.
That slender volume recounts some of the teachings of the desert fathers and mothers, Christian monastics in the fourth and fifth centuries within the Egyptian deserts. These are stories that on occasion recall the sayings and actions of the Chan masters of Medieval China. Discovering this book I was enormously excited at that connection.
And so it was a small sadness to see that Father Merton had, perhaps of course, carefully curated his collection and slightly reworked an account or two to enhance that sense of similarity.
Still, worthy reading. His book remains something I return to as a guide to the deep life. And I definitely find myself thinking of those monastics from time to time.
One of those fathers was Abba Moses the Black. Abba Moses appears to have started out as a fourth century Nubian slave, who became an Egyptian gang leader. He was a thief, and possibly a murderer. But out of an encounter with a desert monk, repented, and joined the community.There he slowly gained fame for his holiness and wisdom. Two stories:
Once he was called to join in the trial of a brother. He took a large bag of water slung over his shoulder as he walked. It had a small hole causing it to leak as he walked. When he arrived as he had been ordered and told help render judgment, he replied, “I walk along with my sins spilling out behind me. How can I possibly judge another?”
On another occasion during a time set aside for fasting, traveling monks arrived at his hut. He immediately invited them in, and set to cooking them a simple meal. When a fellow monk saw that he was eating during a fast he complained to their abbot. The abbot replied that Moses was faced with obeying their human made rule to fast, or God’s commandment to hospitality, and made the only right choice.
Here’s a link to some more the stories of the abba.
Eventually a community gathered around Abba Moses, which was said to grow to include seventy-five monks, the same number as had been in his gang.
He died a martyr in 405, when he refused to leave his monastery as a Barbarian hoard descended on his community.