Thursday, September 17, 2009


Before he became a hermit, Father Moses had been a bandit. Had anyone remarked on the oddity of this career change, Moses would have told them there was less difference between bandits and hermits than you might think. Both lived a hard life; both knew firsthand the pains of hunger and exposure. Both dwelt far from the civilized world and its temptations , and neither had much respect for the laws or customs of that world. Both had to take responsibility for their actions; neither could say, ‘My master commanded me to do so and so.’ You might almost say that a hermit was just a bandit purged of cruelty and greed. At least, Moses himself was living proof that a single touch of God’s unfathomable grace could turn one into the other.

Now as the sun cleared the desert horizon he came from his morning prayer within the cool cavern of his cell to water his herb-garden. The sand and rock underfoot still held the night’s chill, refreshing to the bare calloused soles of his feet. Before him, glorified under the level light, the salt-white plains of Scetis stretched away to the farther escarpment. As the sun rose they would first dazzle, then blind those who traversed them, but now in these first moments of day they looked like an enchanted snowfall.

Moses picked up one of the two wooden buckets that stood outside the cave, the one with holes in it, and lowered it into his shallow, brackish well. Behind the well grew rows of bean plants, herbs, straggling gourds; to water them, all he had to do was swing the loaded bucket at the end of one long lanky arm and let the water spout out of the holes. Moses enjoyed watering his plants in the cool of the morning. There were those in Scetis who thought it wrong to take pleasure in earthly things, but Moses could never accept this. You might, indeed you had to, turn from such things to the inner life of prayer if you were ever to perfect your soul. But how could it be God’s will that you should despise His own creation?

So the old bandit found a childlike delight in watching the water drops, golden in the horizontal beams of the dawning sun, spurt from his bucket and tumble down upon his thirsty plants. And also, on this particular morning, upon the mangy, yellowish, semi-skeletal cur that suddenly ejected itself, like a projectile, from the bean-patch that had sheltered it all night and then stood, its shameless member dangling, shaking water from a set of barrelstave ribs. ‘Get away, you brute!’ Moses snapped automatically, fearful lest his herbs be fouled or trampled, and then immediately, as the dog located a convenient rock to piss on, was stricken with contrition; anger, the animal that had ridden him for his first thirty years, was a coal burning the hand that threw it, and in any case didn’t the dog have as much right there as he did? More, perhaps. For a dog loved its master unreservedly, and would never judge its neighbor.

‘Sorry, Dog,’ Moses said out loud. ‘You’re a better Christian than I am. Stick around. If there’s any scraps left over from yesterday...’ But to his mingled regret and relief -- for unlike some hermits he really wasn’t into animals -- the dog took off across the glittering, barren flats. Following it, Moses’ eye, trained from early years to spot possible trouble at its first emergence, discerned in the far distance a small moving dot. Coming his way? It was impossible to be sure, the dot seemed to drift purposelessly back and forth. Human, certainly. A stranger, then. Lost? Coming from Nitria, a good twenty hours’ march. Alone, too.

After a while the stranger began to head in Moses’ direction, moving slowly and with difficulty over the uneven ground, but doggedly advancing towards the low escarpment that housed Moses’ cave. It looked like he had not seen Moses yet, but was drawn merely by the escarpment’s promise of shade and maybe even a spring.

Moses felt torn by two contrary impulses. The watering done, he wanted to get back to his cell and take up again the routine of prayer, meditation and basket-weaving that was his life. On the other hand, the stranger might need help of some kind. Predictably, for anyone who knew Moses, the second impulse won. He put down his empty bucket and waited, his lips soundlessly repeating ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner -- Lord have mercy’, as the stranger approached.
Twenty yards away, the stranger stopped -- he looked nervous, Moses thought -- and called out, ‘Excuse me, sir. Are you one of the holy men?’

‘Certainly not!’ Moses said indignantly.

‘Are you sure?’

‘How would I not be sure?’

‘Then what are you doing in the desert?’

Moses repressed a desire to say ‘What a cheek! I should be asking YOU what YOU’RE doing,’ and answered, mildly enough, ‘Fleeing the evils of the world and trying to follow Christ’s teachings, though God knows with how much success, or I should say, how little -- .’

‘Then you ARE one of the holy men,’ the stranger said triumphantly. ‘I was afraid you might be a bandit.’

‘Think what you like,’ Moses said. ‘Actually I’m one of the most miserable of sinners. What do you want with holy men, anyway?’

‘I want to become a hermit.’

Moses said nothing but took a long look at the stranger. He saw a young man of middle height, maybe no more than twenty years old. Handsome enough to be a temptation to hermits who knew no better, with his dark, curly hair, regular features, and most of all his dark, quick, curiously expressive eyes, which were quite clearly weighing Moses up, with a good measure of caution still in them. He was shorter and much slighter than Moses, whose size and build still looked threatening, even after years of the ascetic life. Whether his clothing was fashionable or not, Moses was the last person to ask, but even under its coating of desert dust it spelled money.

‘No you don’t,’ Moses said at last.

‘Say again?’

‘You don’t want to become a hermit. You just think you do.


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