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Abba Moses on the Christian vocation

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate St. Moses the Ethiopian, also simply known as St. Moses the Black. His life and teachings have enriched the Christian spiritual tradition for more than 1,600 years, and he has something to teach us about the concept of vocation.

Abba Moses was one of the desert fathers, the first Christian monks who lived in the wilderness of ancient Egypt and dedicated their lives to the pursuit of virtue and holiness. According to tradition, he was born a slave, but was so unruly that he was eventually set free. After that time, he basically became a desert pirate or, we might even say, an ancient gangster. He led a band of robbers, terrorizing and pillaging, until one day he was struck with remorse, repented, and left everything for Scete, where he became the disciple of St. Isidore, another desert father.

Abba Moses was known for his extreme humility and great wisdom. And it was these that led St. John Cassian and his companion St. Germanus to seek him out. Cassian records this in his Conferences, the first two being records of conversations they had with Abba Moses. The genre is an adaptation of philosophical dialogue, so in some cases, like Socrates in Plato’s dialogues, there may be more of Cassian in the words recorded than the teacher he names in each conference. Nevertheless, the words he attributes to Abba Moses are consistent with his life, character, and teachings as recorded elsewhere.

Cassian and Germanus wanted wisdom from Abba Moses, but instead he puts them on the spot with a question: Why do we do what we do? That is, what’s the point of being a monk?

Now, I don’t expect many monks are reading this blog, so I should make clear why I think anyone else ought to care. While monks have the privilege of living their lives with a singular focus on spiritual matters, and those of us who live “in the world” have more distractions (see 1 Corinthians 7:32-35), nevertheless all Christians are called to embrace some ascetic practices: for example, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and so on. So while at times the teachings of monastics, usually written primarily for other monks, can be extreme in their austerity, more often than not there is a lot that all Christians can learn and apply to their own lives.

That said, Cassian and Germanus didn’t want to waste Abba Moses’s time, but they also didn’t want to give a wrong answer. After some hesitation, they finally said that they became monks for the kingdom of God.

To this Abba Moses responds,

Good, you have spoken cleverly of the (ultimate) end. But what should be our (immediate) goal or mark, by constantly sticking close to which we can gain our end, you ought first to know.

The distinction here is between a scopos and a telos. The scopos is the immediate goal. The telos is the ultimate goal. Knowing one’s telos is important, but one will never achieve it if one does not also know and work at the scopos that leads to it.

Cassian and Germanus don’t know how to respond to this, so Moses provides a few examples:

[T]he farmer who has for his aim to live free from care and with plenty, while his crops are springing has this as his immediate object and goal; [namely], to keep his field clear from all brambles, and weeds, and [he] does not fancy that he can otherwise ensure wealth and a peaceful end, unless he first secures by some plan of work and hope that which he is anxious to obtain.

If the farmer doesn’t clear the field of weeds, they will choke his crops and ruin the harvest.

He continues,

The business man too does not lay aside the desire of procuring wares, by means of which he may more profitably amass riches, because he would desire gain to no purpose, unless he chose the road which leads to it …

The merchant must acquire things to sell before he can make a profit from his business.

Moses adds one last example:

[A]nd those men who are anxious to be decorated with the honours of this world, first make up their minds to what duties and conditions they must devote themselves, that in the regular course of hope they may succeed in gaining the honours they desire.

He had previously mentioned this to specifically apply to soldiers who hope for the honor of valor. They must first fulfill all their duties, or they will never have the opportunity to be valorous and receive the honor that valor commands.

Then Moses turns the discourse back on Cassian and Germanus:

And so the end of our way of life is indeed the kingdom of God. But what is the (immediate) goal you must earnestly ask, for if it is not in the same way discovered by us, we shall strive and wear ourselves out to no purpose, because a man who is travelling in a wrong direction, has all the trouble and gets none of the good of his journey.

“[W]e stood gaping at this remark,” Cassian tells us.

Thankfully, Abba Moses did not leave them at that:

The end of our profession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven: but the immediate aim or goal, is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end….

Again, Abba Moses is speaking to monks about the monastic life, but look at how worldly his examples are: a farmer, a merchant, a soldier. These are all vocations that monks leave behind. But Moses, despite being a hermit, thinks they have something to teach us about our life in Christ. And don’t we all seek the kingdom of heaven? Shouldn’t we all strive for purity of heart in order to obtain it? Isn’t this everyone’s ultimate vocation?

What I think Abba Moses has to teach us non-monks about our vocations is this: Reflect upon what it takes to do your job well, whether as a worker, parent, student, volunteer, or otherwise. Think of all the little things you do each day, answering emails, cleaning, instructing, learning, serving — you can’t fulfill a worldly vocation without all these little practices. And it takes virtue to accomplish even many of them. So we may not have the time or energy for all-night prayer vigils like a monk, but in our various vocations we are constantly given opportunities to grow in love and patience toward one another and communion with God. We, too, must keep purity of heart before our mind’s eye in all that we do and remember those essential practices of our spiritual vocation we can manage, like prayer, in the midst of our worldly vocations.

As it is his day, I’ll let Abba Moses have the last word:

[F]ixing our gaze then steadily on this goal [purity of heart], as if on a definite mark, let us direct our course as straight towards it as possible, and if our thoughts wander somewhat from this, let us revert to our gaze upon it, and check them accurately as by a sure standard, which will always bring back all our efforts to this one mark, and will show at once if our mind has wandered ever so little from the direction marked out for it.

Image source: Venerable Moses the Black. A fragment of the Novgorod icon of the late XV century.” [Преподобный Моисей Мурин. Фрагмент новгородской иконы конца XV века.], Wikimedia Commons

More from Acton

Dylan Pahman, “The monk as merchant: Economic wisdom from a desert hermit,” Acton Commentary, January 21, 2015.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.