The great people of every age have been purposeful people. The Holy Bible is resplendent with the names of great men who had high and honorable aims in life. Abraham who “waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10), Moses who “when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11: 24,25), and Joshua who said, “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15), and finally the Lord Jesus Christ who came to “seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Certainly these comprise those of the very greatest in life’s story.
There is another person who will be recorded among the great people, those who made the most out of their life, who looked straight ahead turning neither to the right hand nor to the left (Proverbs 4:25-27). A great person who steadfastly aims to be constructive, a sage and wise builder, who, through courage, determination, and industry has helped the Coptic Orthodox Church become stronger and stronger in an era in which many faiths are experiencing a decline not only in dedicated religious practices but in solidarity for the future as well.
It can be said of our beloved shepherd, His Holiness Pope III, the 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark: “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree…They shall still bear fruit in old age; They shall be fresh and flourishing” (Psalms 92:12-14). Assuredly His Holiness has made the most, not only of his ascetic life, but of His Holiness’ papacy as well. Coptic Christians through his Shephardship have become “growing people,” and viable Christians in the lands of immigration; Growth implying revitalization along with Church expansion particularly evident in lands far away from the mother church; and expansion necessitating becoming stronger and stronger. “The righteous will hold to his way, and he who has clean hands will be stronger and stronger” (Job 17:9).
During his papacy, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III has ardently taken the standard for growth of the Coptic Church to unprecedented levels particularly with the monastic revival of the Church. As a strong advocate and prominent, the interior member of this monastic revival and growth, His Holiness has repaired the ancient monasteries and led an inspirational spiritual revival among monks and nuns; himself being an example.
As His Holiness’ papacy continues forward, His Holiness’ love for the Monastic Life could not simply be contained beneath a bushel; or its bright shining light be contained within the boundaries of the Coptic homeland. For Coptic history will dramatically record Pope Shenouda III as the first pope to establish monasteries outside the land of Egypt; not just a single monastery in a single country abroad but monasteries which presently number more than ten spreading out across the world.
If one contemplates the nature of world current events today; with terrorism running rampant, and the death toll of the Iraq War, both often incorrectly attributed to the “Arab speaking world,” no one could have imagined the emergence of the Coptic monastic life outside the Western desert especially here in the United States of America where the second Coptic Orthodox monastery has now been established. Could this monastic movement possibly be considered a miracle of modern times? For the sake of His Holiness’ modesty, a parallel to His Holiness Pope Shenouda’s leadership can be found in the first Holy Book of the Bible, as it was said that “they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan” (Genesis 12:5). They went forth into the land of Canaan and they kept going and going and going with courage, determination, and endurance.
With the immensity of this achievement foremost in our minds this day, I would like to welcome His Holiness Pope Shenouda III to the St. Mary and St. Moses Abbey located in Corpus Christi, Texas within the Southern Diocese of the United States. I would also like to welcome the bishops, priests, deacons, servants, and all the Coptic faithful on this landmark occasion to the blessing by His Holiness of the St. Mary and St. Moses church altar. The Abbey is so named in honor of two great saints who made the most out of their earthly lives, St. Mary, the mother of God and St. Moses.
St. Mary, the mother of God, obediently submitted to every humbling circumstance the law had required. The Blessed Virgin Mary was zealously devoted to honoring God through every prescribed observance of His law delivered by Moses to the Jews concerning child-birth. For example, for forty days after the Immaculate Conception with her Son, St. Mary remained at home away from the public denying herself the liberty of entering into the Temple of God nor partaking of the sacred things in spite of the fact that she herself had become the living Temple of God.
Obedience, perpetual virginity, spiritual purity before, during, and after the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, and poverty were the quiet, unspoken vows of St. Mary the mother of God. Following the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, St. Mary made the cleansing-from -legal-impurity offering that was appointed for the poor. After the completion of her purification period, she took the Lord, as a first born son, to the temple to offer Him to God and ransom Him with a sum of money. In compliance with this ordinance she redeemed Him with the five shekel monetary requirement for the poor.
Methodius, an Anti-Nicene Father and bishop of Lycia states that in the Song of Songs, to anyone who is willing to see it, the Lord prior to the Immaculate Conception praises those who are firmly established in virginity, saying “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters” (Songs 2:2).
These virtues, among an infinite number of other virtues are also found with His Holiness Pope Shenouda III who sought the celibate, monastic way of the desert fathers, living in poverty and complete reliance upon God’s grace. His Holiness’s preferred way of life was in a cave in complete solitude and devotion to God. Yet, like St. Mary, His Holiness was called to obediently do God’s will accept to become consecrated Bishop of Christian education and President of the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary. St. Mary’s and His Holiness’s response to the call of the Lord, “let it not be my will but thy will be done” had been implanted in their hearts, both being chaste, impoverished, and obedient, living a life of virtue and spiritual growth.
St. Moses the Black was born in ancient Africa around the fourth century. Suspected of theft and murder, he became an escaped slave of an Egyptian government official. Following his escape he became the leader of a notorious mob of 75 robbers that terrorized and reeked havoc along the Nile River Valley.
St. Moses, also called the Ethiopian, was a large and foreboding man, whose fame was in seeking vengeance and spreading violence. Hiding from local authorities, St. Moses took refuge among monks in a colony in the desert of Scetis, near Alexandria. The dedication of their lives, as well as their peace and contentment helped St. Moses find the meaning of life and end his journey in seeking out the one eternal and true God of the Universe.
He was led to his spiritual father St. Isidore the priest of Scetis who introduced him to St. Macarius to whom he had confessed all his many sins. Following his confession, St. Moses the Black was taken by St. Macarius to a place which is now St. Bishoy’s Monastery to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In its infancy, his now new found spirituality immediately confronted a difficult time while adjusting to the monastic life. While in his cell, St. Moses soon got attacked by a band of robbers, He fought them overpowering them with his physical prowess, and then dragged them to the chapel where the other monks were at solemn prayer. He abruptly reported to the monks that he didn’t think it was Christian to hurt the robbers further and asked what he should do with the captured robbers. According to tradition, the extremely overwhelmed robbers repented, confessed, converted, and entered into monasticism under the leadership of their captor, St. Moses.
With zeal manifest in all his undertakings, and humbleness brought about by the monastic life, St. Moses quickly became discouraged and concluded that he would never become perfect enough in his ascetic life. Early one morning, St. Isidore, the abbot of the monastery took St. Moses to its roof and together watching the first faint rays of sunlight appear in the horizon. St. Isidore said to St. Moses, “Only slowly do the rays of the sun drive away the night and usher in a new day, and thus, only slowly does one become a perfect contemplative,” thus teaching him endurance in his struggles. It took St. Moses years of patient endurance to adapt to the simple, individualistic, rugged, and disciplined life of a monk in the monastery’s austere environment Indeed, he did become transformed and learned very well this life of concentrated search for salvation and unity with God.
The legacy of St. Moses the Black was that of a great, modest hermit, full of compassion and kindness towards sinners. He was distinguished as being worthy to be ordained a priest at the hands of Pope Theophilus, the 23rd to assist St. Isidore. This was an uncommon occurrence at that period of time for desert monks. St. Moses founded a monastery of 75 monks, the same number as his former group of thieves. He had been appealed to by his disciples for spiritual guidance and counsel.
St. Moses the Black grew to become an effective prophetic spiritual leader. He was known for his wisdom, as well as non-judgment of others. The story of St. Moses the Black’s sandbag is known by all. Once a brother had been caught in a particular sin, and the abbot of the monastery asked St. Moses to come to the church and join the group counsel in order to agree upon a punishment for the monk’s sin. He reluctantly came to the council, carrying on his back a leaking bag of sand. When he arrived, the brothers asked him why he was carrying that leaking sandbag. He simply said, “This sand is my sins which are trailing out behind me, while I go to judge the sins of another.” At such a reply the brothers forgave the offender and returned to focusing on their own salvation rather than the sins of their brother.
St. Moses’ humility was deeply ingrained in him by the desert way of life. It happened that on one occasion, St. Moses was accused by the monastery abbot whom he so respected, of breaking a command. The abbot called a week’s fast. During that week, St. Moses had unexpected visitors from outside the monastery. Seeing the smoke of his cooking labors, the neighboring monks told the abbot that St. Moses had broken the command to fast.
Upon discovering the true nature of his actions and knowing his remarkable way of life, these same monks confronted him saying, “You did not keep the commandment of men, but it was so that you might keep the commandment of God.” Some scholars see this recorded account related to St. Moses the Black as one of the earliest allusions to the Paschal fast which developed in the fourth century and later became known as the Holy Great Fast in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
In 405 AD, at age 75, St Moses welcomed a martyr’s death when his monastery was attacked by a group of marauding renegades. The monks wanted to retaliate to the terrorism about to befall them. However, St. Moses forbade it. He requested that all the monks retreat rather than take up the sword. He and seven other monks remained behind and greeted the barbarians with open arms, at which time he was martyred by the bandits.
Many historians mark his greeting the invaders with open arms by honoring St. Moses as “the apostle of non-violence.” He became transfigured (the final consummation of his earthly life) by his love for the Lord Jesus Christ and his diligence to be blameless. “be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless” (II Peter 3:14). Such is said of the transfiguration of St. Moses the Black.
Many consider all monks as prototypes of martyrdom in general. Origen and St. Clement of Alexandria spoke about asceticism as a daily practice of martyrdom. Many become monks to attain the heavenly life, which with monastic discipline is not far from them. Fr. Isaac the Syrian said, “If you are pure, heaven is within you; within yourself you will see the angels and the Lord of angels.” St. Pachomius said, “In the purity of his heart he saw the Invisible God as in a mirror.” Thus, it is not difficult to comprehend the spiritual growth and understand the transfiguration of St. Moses in greeting with open arms those who would take his life and the life of his disciples.
St. Moses the Black is remembered on the 1st of July as an honorable fourth century desert father. His body is kept beside the body of his beloved spiritual father St. Isidore, within the main church of Al-Baramus Monastery. We are blessed to have part of his relics in our Abbey here.
H.H. Pope Shenouda shares many similar parallels with this great saint. Both, upon entering into monasticism were hermits dedicating all their time to meditation, prayer, and asceticism. In the tradition of the desert fathers, H.H. Pope Shenouda also used to live for weeks at a time alone in a cave in the desert, one such cell is said to have been seven miles from His Holiness’ monastery of El Sourian and another one twenty five miles away. Both St. Moses and His Holiness were called away from the hermetic life to assume leadership roles in their respective eras. Both are known as men of peace, having spent much of their priesthood calling for reconciliation and forgiveness by word and example. Both have the spirit of His Master who “will not quarrel nor cry out, Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets” (Matthew 12:19).
May the blessing of this altar in the Coptic Orthodox Church Abbey of St. Mary and St. Moses the Black, further bring to our minds the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself lived in the most critical, difficult and terrorizing times for Christians. He honored celibacy, chastity, and purity in the person of His celibate mother and celibate beloved disciple St. John the Beloved. Thus The Lord Jesus Christ did not commit His mother except to His celibate disciple and did not command His celibate disciple to take care of except His celibate mother (John 19:26,27).
The greatest of people make the most out of their life for the Lord Jesus Christ. We must ensure the progression of greatness, further the continuous growth we have been blessed with thus far and possess the moral courage to continue to prosper and build. Following His Holiness’ example, we, the Southern Diocese, are called upon to grow in a country whose lukewarmness towards our culture is brought about through no fault of our own. However, to grow, we certainly must and will do so through uprightness and faith-filled love for the Lord Jesus Christ.
May the prayers of all those monumental characters, both historical and current, present among us today, who have been purposeful, of good courage, strong, made the most of their lives by reaching forth unto those things afore them, be with us all.
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States