Anti-Black Sentiment in the Vitae Patrum (Philip Mayerson, 1978)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 71, No. 3/4 (Jul. – Oct., 1978), pp. 304-311. It is an important article as it sheds light on why anti-Black sentiment exists amongst some of the monastics in the Greek monasteries here and why racial slurs are used freely in the monasteries. Besides, Geronda Ephraim named one of his cats “Arapis” while he was with Elder Joseph the Hesychast on Mt. Athos. “Arapis” is the Greek equivalent to the English derogatory word “nigger.” There have been black pets, or animals with large amounts of black color, at St. Anthony’s (AZ), St. Nektarios (NY), Holy Protection (PA), etc. that have been named Arapis by the Abbots/Abbesses. Though Fr. Vasileios was never called Arapis by the other monks (probably due to the respect factor of being an older father from Filotheou Monastery), lay people did refer to him by that racial slur amongst themselves and behind his back. However, after Mathaios and other African Americans started to become novices at St. Anthony’s Monastery, “Arapis” was used freely by certain monks behind their backs when referring to them. This also extends to other non-white cultures. It is said that at St. Nektarios Monastery, before Geronda Joseph secretly baptized the Woo family (who were of Asian descent), he mocked them to his monks during a homily, saying, “You know, the Woos” (simultaneously slanting his eyes with his fingers and making a laughing expression with his front teeth exposed. It is said that all the monks were roaring in laughter except Novice Vasileios Datch (now Fr. Panteleimon) who knew the family from when he lived in DC and Hieromonk Michael Santos (who is also of Asian descent). As well, some Orthodox monastics believe that Black people originated from Noah’s curse: i.e. when Ham (or Canaan depending on text) were cursed, God turned them Black. This teaching later was also the reason used to justify the African slave trade: When  Noah condemned and cursed Ham in the person of his son Canaan, he said that his offspring would be in slavery to the offspring of his brothers).

"Arapis" the black cat at St. Anthony's Monastery, AZ.
“Arapis” the black cat at St. Anthony’s Monastery, AZ.

Upon looking into the various editions of the Vitae Patrum, 1 this writer has come upon expressions of anti-black (i.e., Ethiopian or “Indian”) sentiment in the early monastic communities of Egypt (third to fifth centuries). The evidence is not one of highly articulated prejudice; on the other hand, it is neither overly subtle nor subliminal

A closer reading of some of the episodes in the life of this Desert Father [Moses the Ethiopian] will show, I believe, that he was abused and subjected to discriminatory treatment because of the color of his skin. On one occasion Moses openly declares himself to be inferior to his white brothers because he is black. In the Vitae Patrum these episodes are cited as examples of the black monk’s humility and fortitude, qualities which earned for him a distinguished place in the annals of the Desert Fathers. But these incidents, regardless of how they were interpreted by the compilers of the Vitae Patrum, are clear evidence of anti-black sentiment.

St. Moses the Ethiopian
St. Moses the Ethiopian

Abba Moses is the sole black among the Desert Fathers about whom we have any biographical information. The other blacks that are cited in the Vitae Pat rum are demons or devils. These, as far as I know, have not entered into any discussion regarding the attitude of early Christians towards Ethiopians or blacks. It is true that in imagery “blackness”was associated with the darker side of human nature. But as far as demons go, the Desert Fathers, who encountered multitudes of them, never characterize them by color or race with the exception of those comparatively few that are cited as Ethiopian or black. Specifically citing a demon as black or as an Ethiopian must surely indicate a sentiment among some unlettered and theologically uninformed monks that black was not always beautiful.

With regard to   Abba Moses, the evidence for the prejudicial treatment he received at the hands of his fellow monks or clerics is contained in four incidents. Moses is either insulted, treated with contempt, “tested,” or reviled; he was subjected to treatment of a kind that was not inflicted upon other monks, even those of a lesser reputation for ascetical good works.

Geronda Ephraim has named his black cats "Arapis" (the Greek equivalent to the slur "nigger")
Geronda Ephraim has named his black cats “Arapis” (the Greek equivalent to the slur “nigger”)

The clearest instance of color prejudice occurs on an occasion when the Fathers were gathered together, and because certain people wished to see Abba Moses, they treated him with contempt, saying, “Why does this Ethiopian come and go among us?” When Moses heard this he held his peace. And when the congregation was dismissed, they (the certain people?) said to him, “Abba Moses, were you not afraid?” And he said to them, “Although I was afraid, I did not say a word.”

The above is adapted with very little change from the Syriac version. The Greek text of the same incident makes no mention of “certain people wishing to see Abba Moses,” but that “the Fathers, wishing to test him, treated him as an object of contempt, saying, ‘Why does this Ethiopian come into our midst?’ Later when the congregation was dismissed, they (the Fathers?) asked him, ‘Abba, were you not in any way upset?’ He replied, ‘I was upset, but I did not speak.”‘

A similar, if not the same, incident is reported in the Syriac Vitae Patrum under the rubric of “Questions and Answers on the Ascetic Rule.” In this instance it is “certain men” who revile Abba Moses. The purpose in recalling the incident is to interpret the words of the monk’s reply: “Although I was troubled, yet I said nothing” The conclusion that is reached is that although Moses had demonstrated spiritual excellence in maintaining silence and in not showing his inner anger, he had not attained the perfect state of impassibility (apatheia?) by being angry neither inwardly nor outwardly.

Troy Polamalu, a Samoan spiritual child of Geronda Ephraim.
Troy Polamalu, a Samoan spiritual child of Geronda Ephraim.

Abba Moses is subjected to two more”tests”at a time when he was an old man and had become a member of the clergy. The two incidents are combined in the Syriac and Latin systematic collections to illustrate the virtue of humility. The translation of the Syriac text is as follows:

They used to say that when Abba Moses was one of the clergy he wore a long outer garment, and that the Bishop said unto him, “Behold , thou art wholly white, 0 Abba Moses.” The old man said unto him, “Is the Pappa within or without?” And again wishing to try him, the Bishop said unto the clergy, “When Abba Moses goeth into the sacrarium drive him out, and go after him and hear what he saith.” Now when he went into the sacrarium they rebuked him and drove him out, saying, “Get outside, 0 Ethiopian”; and having gone forth he began to say to himself , “They have treated thee rightly , 0 thou whose skin is dark and black ; thou shalt not go back as if thou wert a [white] man .””

The Greek text of the alphabetical collection does not differ substantially from the Syriac or Latin versions, but the impact of the treatment that Moses receives at the hands of the Bishop (or Archbishop) and his fellow clerics can be felt more strongly.

It is said of Abba Moses that when he became a member of the clergy and had been invested with the ephod, the Archbishop said to him, “See, Abba Moses, you have become entirely white.” The old man said to him, “Outwardly, Lord and Father; am I also so inwardly?” Wishing to test him, the Archbishop said to the clergy, “Whenever Abba Moses comes into the sanctuary, drive him out and follow him so that you may hear what he says. The old man came in and they abused him and drove him out saying, “Get out, Ethiopian!” He went out and said to himself, “They have treated you properly, you soot-skinned black! Since you’re not a man, why should you come into the company of men.”

However much these episodes were viewed in the past as demonstrations of Abba Moses’s humility, they were also deliberate acts of humiliation directed against the man because of the color of his skin.

Hieromonk Michael Santos, a Filipino convert. Geronda Ephraim use to refer to him as "the Chinaman."
Hieromonk Michael Santos, a Filipino convert. Geronda Ephraim use to refer to him as “the Chinaman.”

There can be no question but that the use of the word “Ethiopian” in these contexts is strongly deprecatory and is the equivalent of the most offensive word used against blacks in American society. The demoralizing effect that this treatment had upon Abba Moses understandably results in his denigrating appraisal of himself:”… you soot-skinned black! Since you’re not a man, why should you come into the company of men” He of course means “in the company of white men.” Further, the remark made by the Bishop, gratuitous at best, that Moses had become completely white because of his ephod stirs a hostile reaction within the black monk. His rejoinder-if it is accurately reported -is oblique yet pointed; he says in effect: “It seems that I am completely white outside because of my ephod, but do you think that I am completely white inside as well, and hence in every respect like you?”

The first grey tabby at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY) was named Arapi.
The first grey tabby at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY) was named Arapi.

Whereas Abba Moses is attacked because of the color of his skin, black demons-or even the devil himself in the form of a black -attack the monks as they strive to attain spiritual and moral perfection. These black demons appear in the form of a woman, a man, or as young boys. Four of the seven instances cited in the Vitae Patrum represent demons of fornication or lust; the others represent arrogance or pride, disobedience, and distracting thoughts. The brief narratives that follow are so explicit in characterizing black or Ethiopian spirits as evil that they hardly require further commentary.

Saints of Africa

The rest of the article recounts numerous stories from the Vitae Patrum concerning demons appearing as Ethiopians or Blacks to the Desert Faters.


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