August 28 – Moses the Black; Augustine of Hippo

Moses the Black (ca. 330–ca. 405), slave to an Egyptian official, was driven out when he committed a murder. A large and imposing man, Moses formed a band of brigands (every account uses the word “brigands” so brigands they are (and besides it’s fun to say)) who went about murdering, robbing, and stuff like that. One day a robbery attempt was thwarted by a barking dog, so Moses swore he would kill it, later that night, or some other day. Swimming the Nile with a knife in his teeth, he came to the property, but the owner had taken the dog and fled. Moses killed a couple of sheep out of spite, then ran away to Scetis—the Monkville of the day—to hide from the authorities.

Living among the monks, he was struck by, and then converted to, their way of life. He accepted monastic tonsure and settled in to atone for his sins. His transition was not an easy one. Once four of his former fellow brigands tried to rob him in his cell, but he overpowered them, tied them up, flung them over his shoulders, and carried them to the abbot. “I know I shouldn’t kill these guys,” he said,. “but what should I do with them?” The abbot suggested he set them free, and the brigands were so overcome by this act of mercy that they themselves accepted baptism and tonsure.

Eventually Moses got the hang of it, and developed his own message to give to inquirers: judge not. Once he was asked to come to a conclave: a brother had sinned, and his punishment must be decided. Moses filled a large, leaky jug with water[1], strapped it to his back, and set off to the gathering. When the brothers saw the jug, they asked, “What’s this nonsense?” “My sins run out behind me,” said Moses, “and I do not see them, but here I am, ready to judge the sins of another.” After a brief period of sandal contemplation, they forgave the brother.

Moses patiently endured a lot of what today we would call racism. When he was ordained a deacon, the priest put a snowy robe over his head and said, “Now you’re white, Moses!” He replied, “I am white on the outside, but God sees the heart.” After that, a group of brothers attacked him in the altar (!) saying, “You can’t be a deacon, you’re too black.” He began to take his robe off, and they were so amazed at his humility that they ordained him a priest. Ultimately he became an abbot in his own right. Finally, he learned his monastery was going to be attacked by brigands. He sent his monks away, but stayed, saying, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Seven monks remained behind; six were martyred with Moses, while one hid and beheld crowns coming down from heaven for the martyrs.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430), the son of a dissolute pagan and the righteous Monica (Aug 27), had the proverbial misspent youth. A teacher of rhetoric, he set up a school in Rome, but, stiffed by his students for the tuition, took a court job in Milan. There he gave up his concubine of 15 years (she and their son drop out of the story, hopefully caught by the social safety net), and was converted and baptized by the master rhetorician (St.) Ambrose (Dec 7). He returned to Africa, sold the family goods, and began to preach the gospel. He was made priest, adjutant bishop, and bishop, and was especially keen to teach against the errors of Manichaeism, the somewhat bizarre (for values of “somewhat” equaling “whoa mama”) religion he had embraced in his youth. A prolific writer, he left over 350 sermons, as well as his magna opera (that’s really the plural), Confessions and The City of God. He is a Doctor of the Church, and his writings are immensely important in Catholic theology. His relics have been moved more times than the German-French border, and may or may not reside in Milan. He is the patron saint of brewers, and sore eyes.

[1] In some versions it’s a basket full of sand. Same principle.