The goal of our profession is the kingdom of God. Its immediate purpose, however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind …
St. Moses from St. John Cassian’s On the Holy Fathers of Sketis (Philokalia vol. I)
For anyone that thinks that Moses the Black (aka the Ethiopian, Robber, Strong) is some mere lightweight that is lifted up by the Orthodox Church simply to help convert African-Americans, think again. John Cassian ( aka the Roman) traveled to the deserts of Egypt in the early third century and spent time listening to this very dark skinned priest-monk. No doubt, Moses and other African monks that he met and learned from, influenced John Cassian to bring Christian monasticism to southern France and write books that were very influential in Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and old school Anglican circles. Stories of this former slave and gang leader who repented of his former life and became full of holy wisdom were circulated throughout the early Christian world. In Eastern Orthodox Churches of any jurisdiction as well as Coptic and Ethiopian Churches of North-East Africa, it is not uncommon to find icons of this revered desert dweller. St. Moses the Black was no lightweight by any means!
During his conversation with John Cassian, Moses revealed a gem of wisdom that we have a tendency to overlook in our modern Christian age of “Get Your Praise On” and “Holy Ghost Party Don’t Stop” catch phrases. We cannot achieve our overall goal of entering the kingdom of God without having a pure heart. Jesus Christ Himself says the same thing in the Beatitudes, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8). Our interior selves of who we truly are must be cleansed of the sins and vices that keep us from being in communion with God and our neighbor. If we are not striving for this cleansing, we are blocking our path to salvation no matter what else we do. Praise, though a good thing, can be faked in worship services of all sorts and in all ways. Being able to sound religious can be done with little effort. Good deeds can be corrupted with ulterior motives (including self-pride). But, purity of heart takes effort in prayer, spiritual reading and study, and living the life. Monks and nuns fled the world to dwell in caves or monastic communities. They have been called to live in full concentration and devotion to prayer. We who live in society are not exonerated from this purpose. Our families and professions must be tended to. But, there is no excuse for us not to retreat to our homes and rooms for prayer. There are no reasons why we can’t read and study the Bible and the Christian wisdom of 2,000 years. Love for others in all situations must be as natural to us as breathing to a point that like the sheep in the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) that we don’t even realize that we are doing good to Christ.
“Getting your praise on,” indicates that it can be turned “off.” No matter how good a “Holy Ghost Party” may be, it must come to an end when the worship service is over. But, the pursuit of a pure heart is something that we must never stop. In the words of St. Moses, “should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once… .” This is why it is essential for Christians of all walks of life to develop a rule of prayer and spiritual reading daily and to squelch even those “not so bad” habits that can lead us into undeniable sins. The process is not easy nor quick. But unless we choose and make the effort for purity of heart, God will not grant it to us no matter how many praises we send up or candles we burn. St. Moses, as the story goes, fought against his passions for 14 years alone in the desert. We in our modern age are surrounded temptations and forms of wickedness that the Desert Fathers wouldn’t have imagined were possible. But, as our Lord has taught us, “… take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33) and “With man this is impossible. But with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).
I wish all a blessed feast of St. Moses the Black.