I was always intrigued by the topic of whether people from the colored races had the same prospects of pleasing God as did the people of the white race, because I had never heard of any negro for example, who had become renowned for his spiritual labours and sainthood. Could it be – I had thought to myself - that the colour of one’s skin played some kind of role in matters of the soul? Could it be that God had shown some kind of disavowal in their case? But then, why would He disavow them?
So, once when I had visited the tiny cell of the blessed Nephon, it occurred to me to ask him about this matter. The righteous elder reassured me that God had called innumerable negro souls into His Kingdom, since they too are His creations, as they are the descendants of Shem and Ham – the sons of Noah. (see Genesis, 10:6-31) In fact - he stressed - quite a few of them had shone brightly because of their virtues and their miracles. And to prove the truth of his statement, the elder proceeded to narrate 2-3 such cases.
“In olden times,” he said, “the territory of Panephos (a significant city of Lower Egypt, not too far from the sea; in its place today lies the city of Menzaleh), was plagued by a plunderer - a heavily-built, savage man that was fearsome to behold and ruthless in his ways. His roaring cries alone could easily curdle the blood of his unsuspecting victim – even the bravest kind….
One night, however, he had an extremely frightening dream: it was as though he had suddenly found himself in the middle of an endless plain….on looking around him, he noticed a fiery river spewing towards him with a loud rumbling noise, devouring everything in its path – even the stones and the soil beneath it…. With small, hesitant steps, the robber edged towards that river to get a better look…But as soon as he reached its banks, four blazing spirits flew out of the fiery mass, grabbed him by the hair and tugged at him, in an attempt to drag him into the river… As they struggled to pull him in, one of the sprits said to him: ‘You wretch! If you had become a monk, we wouldn’t be dragging you into this place!’
He woke up in a sweat. He recalled that awesome sight with horror and giddiness. No matter how hard he tried to explain the dream, it seemed hopeless. His next thought was: “I think I will go and find an anachorite, (=a holy recluse that lives alone in the desert) and tell him of my dream. Monks usually know about such things; perhaps one of them will reveal the meaning of the fiery river that I saw in my dream.”
As soon as he uttered those words in his mind, he threw down the “tools of his robbing trade” and headed straight for the road leading to Panephos. After a while, he discerned a tiny anachorite cell in the distance. He hurried in that direction. No sooner had he knocked on the door, than it was opened immediately by an elderly man – it was almost as though he was expected there!
“Welcome! Welcome, young man! And may I ask what brought you to this part of the land? Were you perhaps upset by that fiery river and the four evil spirits that were dragging you by the hair, trying to pull you into the fire? What a horrible threat that river was, my child, wasn’t it? Did you see how it even devoured the stones that it passed over?....Well, if you truly do wish to escape those flames, there is a way: You should repent sincerely for all the robberies and the lawlessness that you have engaged in all your life, and become a monk. That way, you will surely be saved, because that river has been prepared exclusively for the unrepentant sinners…”
The elder had barely finished saying those words, when the robber threw himself at his feet, and began to cry like a little child….
“Show me some mercy, precious father! The darkness in my soul is far deeper than the darkness of my complexion”, he cried out, between sobs. “Show this wretch your mercy, and do with me as God instructs you!”
Indeed, not long after, that saintly elder tonsured the robber and made him a monk. After staying with him for a period of time and teaching him the appropriate order of monastic living, the elder left his cell to the new monk and departed for the innermost part of the desert, to continue with his ascetic living, amongst the wild beasts.
Well, that very same negro robber, with his own spiritual labours, reached such heights of virtue that during his moments of prayer, he would appear to glow all over, so intensely, like a brightly flickering flame or a radiant pillar of light… Innumerable demons would swarm upon him, but he, with his prayers, would burn them and destroy them altogether. God had also given him such a gift of wisdom that he had even written numerous spiritual teachings, and had also frequently sent many letters of counsel to the fathers of the scete and many other people as well….
Finally, when he passed away, his precious relic exuded so much fragrant myrrh that –according to the narrations of the people of that land- it had healed many sick and demon-possessed people….
There was also another poor and old negro, who lived in a city called Ysia. He used to wander about aimlessly, here and there, silently muttering words that nobody could understand. Because of this, many people had believed he was not in his right mind.
There came a time when a severe drought had fallen on the land….The animals were dying of thirst, the scorched earth had cracked open and the crops had all dried up…. The clergy and the faithful, with their bishop at the lead, made continuous entreaties and night-vigils with prayers for this plague to stop, but they were of no avail.
One night, the bishop saw in his dream an angel, who said to him: “This is what God commands you: Take your priests and go, first thing in the morning, and wait at the southern gate of the city; the first man that you see entering the city, approach him, stop him, and ask him to pray to the Lord to send you rain.”
Indeed, at the break of dawn the very next day, right after Matins. The Bishop took his ministers and went to the southern gate, just like the angel had instructed him. They didn’t have to wait for very long; shortly afterwards, a old negro man appeared, who seemed to be walking towards the city gate. He was extremely old, and was carrying on his hunched back a bundle of wood.
The bishop stopped him, and helped him to set down the bundle of wood.
“Old man”, begged the bishop, “please pray to God so that He might show His mercy and send rain, both for us and for this earth!”
Without any objection whatsoever, the old negro immediately raised his thin, bony arms towards the heavens and prayed.
In a matter of minutes, to everyone’s amazement, lightning and thunder began to manifest out of nowhere! Heavy black clouds started to gather rapidly, the sky darkened, and a torrential rain began to pour down from the sky. But oh, what a rainfall that was! A proper deluge! Houses began to be flooded and the surrounding fields soon resembled an expanse of sea!
The bishop was now forced to beseech the old man to pray again, for the rain to stop. The old man humbly and obediently raised up his arms once again to the heavens….and the downpour ceased immediately!
Amazed at this double miracle, the bishop then persistently asked the old stranger to reveal his life story and to tell them what his spiritual labours were, that had endowed him with such a closeness to God.
But the old man bashfully refused to reply to the bishop.
“Your eminence, as you can see, I am nothing more than an old, negro nobody… Why are you bothering to look for virtues in me?” he replied, without raising his head.
“In the name of the Lord of the heavens and the earth!” the bishop cried out imperatively. “You must reveal the whole truth, so that the name of our Lord may be praised accordingly!”
“Forgive me, your eminence! You see, I haven’t done anything worth mentioning. The only thing that I have strived to keep since the day that I was baptized a Christian, was to never eat my bread without deserving it, and to never become a burden to anyone. So, every day I go into the hills and collect a bundle of wood, I load it on my back and go down to the city to sell it. From the money I get, I only keep two small coins – just enough for the day’s meal. The rest of the money I give to poor people like me. Whenever the weather is bad and I can’t go up to the hills, I fast until the weather improves and then I go back up there again to bring my load of wood to the city, to sell it and provide for myself and my other poor townsfolk….
With these words, the elderly negro respectfully bade the bishop and the other clergymen farewell, hoisted the bundle of wood onto his back once again, and walked into the city to sell it….
To further reassure me that the benevolent Lord had called multitudes of colored people to His Kingdom, the blessed Nephon told me of one more case, which he himself had witnessed:
It was during the time that the benign, Christ-revering Constantine was still king, when the elder had gone to visit one of the northern monastic communes on the coast. He found himself in the company of brothers who happened to be discussing the salvation of the soul. During the conversation, the topic of races and colored people came up. Everyone there had admitted that very many such souls had pleased God. One of the brothers named Harisethes had said the following:
“I assure you, my brothers, that I was fortunate enough to meet one such person – a negro – who was a major ascetic figure.”
Seeing how the brothers were eager to learn more about this person, Harisethes continued with his narration:
“I was working for a period of time in our monastery’s vineyard ( that was my predefined ministry at the time ). One day, I noticed a negro, a stranger, sitting underneath a large vine. I didn’t know who he was – I had never seen him before. He had a flask of water in front of him to quench his thirst, and a handful of wild herbs was his meal. The sight of this man really impressed me. I didn’t disturb him, nor did I send him away. He stayed there, in the same spot, for a whole month. He remained absolutely silent, throughout the whole day, and throughout the night he would chant and pray incessantly. During all this time, he never emptied out the water in his flask, nor did he add any fresh water to it…. The water gradually became foul and stank, yet, despite my pleas, he did not let me change the water, nor did he accept to be given some bread to eat….On unbearably hot days, he would go down to the shore, sit on a rock and roast himself under the blazing sun all day long… And if anyone approached him to see how he was doing, he would pretend to be demented. ‘Yes, yes,’ he would say, ‘I know you have come to kill me! But God up there is watching you!’ and he would point upwards, at the sky….”.
With these examples that the blessed Nephon gave me, I was truly reassured that the Kingdom of Heaven is open to every soul, regardless of race or colour, since they too are God’s children.
“Just as the vineyard produces both white and colored grapes”, the blessed elder said, to finish his story, “thus God has created people of all colors – black, red, yellow, white…according to where they live. After all, the earth itself is also multiform.”
On saying these words, the servant of God withdrew into his cell to pray.
"AN ASCETIC BISHOP”, by the Holy Monastery of the Paraclete Publications, pages 113-120.