Peace to You O Holy One of God, O Saint Mūsā, Who Seized the Kingdom of Heaven by Force!

al-Qiddīs Anbā Mūsá al-Aswad
Fig. 1: An icon of Saint Mūsā the Black, fronting the service translated below, from University of Pennsylvania CAJS Rar Ms 181

The following translation is of a short service devoted to Saint Moses (Mūsā in Arabic) the Black, one of the best-known and beloved saints from among the Desert Fathers of the late antique Egyptian desert wilds (and my name saint). He has been and is venerated all across the Orthodox world, with particularly strong veneration among Coptic Orthodox Christians, perhaps unsurprisingly given that Saint Mūsā, while of Ethiopian origin, lived most of his life and died in Egypt, following the trajectory of escaped slave, violent robber, repentant monk, and eventually priest and monastic leader. This service and the iconography above in fig. 1 come from a prayer book copied in 1745, almost certainly in Ottoman Egypt, entitled Kitāb al-salāmāt, which we might translate as ‘Book of Salutations’ or ‘Book of salāms,’ each prayer or short service- terminology is tricky here- devoted to a particular saint, with the unifying refrain of ‘Peace, O holy one of God,’ a phrase that could also be translated ‘Salutations, O holy one of God,’ on the model of Islamic devotional practice.

The language of this piece of devotional literature is Arabic, not Coptic, as by the early modern period Coptic was at most a liturgical language and was in fact even in that capacity as here often replaced or supplemented by Arabic, the language the average Coptic Christian spoke and, if literate, read and wrote. It seems likely to me that this is an original composition in Arabic, no doubt looking to Coptic exemplars (perhaps transmitted via translation), as there is no parallel Coptic text as is often the case with more ‘formal’ liturgical texts. While it is hard to pick up on in English translation, I have at points indicated in parentheses specific Arabic words with strong Islamic resonances, suggesting the extent to which Coptic Orthodox devotional culture and imagination intersected with Islamic, even if the end product was distinct from Islamic practice in a number of ways.

Fig. 2. The opening page of this liturgical composition, displaying some of the orthographical peculiarities as well as the signs of intense usage over the last two hundred plus years.

I do not know who would have used this devotional work, or exactly how, though it seems likely to me that it would have been for private usage (though a monastic or priestly use could not be ruled out), perhaps on each saint’s feast day, or perhaps on a more regular basis. The latter strikes me as more likely given the immense amount of wear and tear this manuscript displays (see fig. 2 above). Certainly like Islamic prayer books from the same period it is clearly written with the user in mind, employing an almost monumental script that is generally very easy to red, with rubrics (literally as they are in red!) scattered throughout. The history of devotional life among the Coptic Orthodox remains to be written, though there has been some important progress made in recent years (see this study as well as this one); much like contemporary Islamic devotional culture there is so far as I can tell no shortage of material but simply a lack of attention to it. Yet prayer books such as these served to facilitate devotion to the powerful and exemplary saints of God, through word and image, and as such should be seen as emanating from the very heart of Ottoman Coptic life and society. By distilling the life of the saints into a supplicatory format, the user of this manuscript could express his or her devotion to the saints, receive from their barakāt, and encounter inspiration towards a pious and holy life oriented towards God.

Christian Arabic 61 - Coptic 2

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God.

Peace, O holy saint (anbā) Mūsā the Black! The blessing of his intercession be with us, amen. Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, O one upon whom God bestowed mercy and there came to him a holy thought so that he went to the place of saint Īsaydurus [of Skétét] the Priest.

Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, who bore the charge of saint Paul the Messenger (al-rasūl) and his teaching, saying, ‘Let us put aside from ourselves the weapon of error and gird up with the weapon of piety and repentance!’

Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, who sought God saying, ‘O Savior of the world who saved the thief that was upon the cross with Him, save me also for I have fled to You!’

Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, who stood six years never sleeping in the night, carrying out many acts of worship (‘abādāt) until he overcame the shayṭān of fornication!

Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, who used to fast constantly, eating nothing but a raṭl of dry salty bread, and praying fifty times every day!

Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, to whom God gave immense grace so that afterwards he had no fear of the shayṭāns, but rather they became in his presence like flies flying around!

Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, upon whom the Spirit of Holiness settled, and the mad were cured, shayṭāns driven out from the people, the sick healed, and many wonders worked!

Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, to whom God gave you the priesthood and gathered together to you five hundred monastic brethren in Dayr Barmūs!

Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, who seized the Kingdom of Heaven by force!

Peace to you O holy one of God, O saint Mūsā, you who fulfilled the ordinances of Christ and gave Him satisfaction with your pious deeds! Continue reading “Peace to You O Holy One of God, O Saint Mūsā, Who Seized the Kingdom of Heaven by Force!”

Questions and Answers with the Elders of Gaza

Barsanuphe
Sts. Barsanuphius and John of Gaza (fl. first half of the 6th century).

Saints Barsanuphius and John (who was also known as John the Prophet) settled in the vicinity of Gaza, Palestine at some point during the reign of Justinian; the exact dates of their deaths are unknown though they are commemorated together in the Orthodox Church on February 6. Barsanuphius was of Coptic origin, having begun his monastic life in the fabled desert of Egypt, but, like many others in his time, he eventually traveled north into Palestine where he and his contemporaries developed a new form of embedded- quite literally in his case- monasticism in the well-populated countryside of Palestine. Barsanuphius and his disciple, John, who would come and settled alongside his master and live beside him for eighteen years, both practiced strict seclusion, communicating primarily through letters and intermediaries. However, their reputation drew other more conventional monsastics, and soon a thriving monastic community with handicraft production, medical services, a church, and other features grew up around them. Both Barsanuphius and John acted as spiritual counselors to not just the monastics around them but to ordinary laypeople in the nearby communities. Drawing upon years of spiritual practice and discernment, these two men provided careful and sympathetic, but frequently powerful and insightful, responses to the questions- some profound, some very quotidian- directed towards them. Below is a selection of these questions and answers, with an emphasis on matters pertaining to laypeople.

444. Question: If I am distracted during prayer, what should I do?

Response by Barsanuphius: If you are praying to God and become distracted, struggle until you begin to pray without distraction. And keep your intellect alert in order that it does not become too lofty. Nonetheless, should this occur, since we are weak, persist to the very end of your prayer; then prick your heart, and say with compunction, “Lord, have mercy on me and forgive me all of my offenses.” And, afterward, you will receive forgiveness of all your offenses as well as of the distraction that occurred at the beginning of your prayer.

463. A Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man [John] if one should reflect a great deal about the sacred mysteries, and whether a sinful person approaching these would be condemned as being unworthy.

Response by John: When you enter the holies, pay attention and have no doubt that you are about to receive the Body and Blood of Christ; indeed, this is the truth. As for how this is the case, do not reflect on it too much. According to him who said, “Take, eat; for this is my body and blood,” these were given to us for the forgiveness of our sins. One who believes this, we hope, will not be condemned.

Therefore, do not prevent yourself from approaching by judging yourself as being a sinner. Believe, rather, that a sinner who approaches the Savior is rendered worthy of the forgiveness of sins, in the manner that we encounter in Scripture those who approach him and hear the divine voice: “Your many sins are forgiven.” Had that person been worthy of approaching him, he would not have had any sins! Yet because he was a sinful man and a debtor, he received the forgiveness of his debts.

Again, listen to the words of the Lord: “I did not come to save the righteous, but sinners.” And again: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick.” So regard yourself as being sinful and unwell, and approach him who alone can save the lost.

686. Another Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man: I want to press some Jewish wine in my presser. Is this a sin?

Response by John: If, when God rains, it rains in your field but not in that of the Jew, then do not press his wine. If he is loving-kind to all and rains upon the just and the unjust, then why do you want to be inhumane and not compassionate, rather, as he says: “Be merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful.”

763. A Christ-loving layperson asked the same Old Man: “God created the human person free, but he also says: ‘Without me, you are not able to do anything.’ How, then, is this freedom reconciled with not being able to do anything without God?

Response by John: God created the human person free in order that we may be able to incline toward good; yet, even while inclining out of freedom, we are incapable of accomplishing this without the assistance of God. For it is written: “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.”

Therefore, if we incline the heart toward good and invoke God to our assistance, God will pay attention to our good intention and bestow strength upon our work. In this way, both are developed, namely human freedom and God’s power. For this is how good comes about, but it is accomplished through his saints. Thus God is glorified in all and again glorifies them.

765: Question: I have a servant who is wounded with leprosy. Should I keep him or not?

Response by John: It is not necessary for you to keep him in your house; for not everyone will bear to live with him. If they could bear this, that would be a pious thing to do. Yet, you should not afflict others on his account. Instead, send him to a hospice for poor lepers, and provide for his meals and as many garments as he requires, as well as his bed, so that he is no way burdened.

Excerpted from Barsanuphius and John, Letters from the Desert: A Selection of Questions and Responses, translated by John Chryssavgis (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003)