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August 28, 2019

Black People and the Kingdom of Heaven

The following comes from the book An Ascetic Bishop: Stories, Sermons & Prayers of St. Nephon ("Blacks With White Souls," pp. 48-50), which is a translation of a manuscript discovered in the library of the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mount Athos that dates back to the year 1334. It was most likely originally written in the 9th or 10th century, though it is set in the 4th century, and reflects Orthodox Christian sentiments of the medieval Roman Empire, through the mouth of Saint Nephon, on the equality before God of the entire human race, for which grace does not discriminate based on skin color.

Another time again, when we were together in his cell, I found the opportunity to answer a question of mine in respect to the black race. The question as to whether the color of their bodies had any effect on their souls preoccupied me. Could God have an aversion to them? Because, according to what I believed, there weren't any people from their race who had fought the good fight and had been saved. I had never heard of any black person who had pleased God.

“I'll answer you,” the saint said. “The Ethiopians are genealogically descended from Shem. And there are many from their race whom God called to His Kingdom. Indeed their virtues glittered with miracles, too. I shall relate three examples to you:

Years ago there lived one such black thief. He was a very tall man with a fearful appearance. He used to steal in the area of Pannephus. He was so terrible that, whenever he groaned you died of fear. One night, however, he saw a terrifying dream. There was, he said, an endless plain, and he was standing in the middle. At one point he turned his gaze and saw a fiery river flowing very tumultuously, and in its path it devoured even the dirt and rocks. He took a few steps closer to see. However, as soon as he drew near, four flames came out, grabbed him from the hair and were dragging him to throw him into the fiery river to burn him up. As he was being dragged, it seemed to him that a spirit said to him: ‘Miserable wretch, had you repented and become a monk we wouldn't be able to submerge you in here.’

He awoke terrified. Dizziness and horror had seized him from the terrible vision. ‘What could it mean?’ he would ask himself. And since he couldn't give an explanation, he decided to go to an anchorite monk and ask him what this fiery river in his vision was.

He immediately threw away the tools of his trade and took the road to Pannephus. He travelled quite a way, and shortly, glancing around him, he saw the anchorite's cell. He drew near and knocked on the door. An elder opened the door to him at once. ‘Welcome, young man! Why did you put yourself through this trouble? Could it be that the fiery river and the four flames that grabbed you to throw you in scared you? My son, how horrible is the threat of that river! Do you want to escape from its horror? Repent for your robber's exploits and become a monk. Then you will be saved.’

Thunderstruck the thief heeded the words of the hermit. He fell at his feet immediately: ‘Have pity on me, honorable father,’ he begged, the black in soul and body. 'Have mercy on me, the wretch, and do with me whatever God commands you.' He continued to implore him with tears until that holy elder tonsured him a monk. And after he taught him all the duties of the monastic life, he left him his own cell and retreated deeper into the desert, to live among the beasts.

Then, with a lot of ascesis that black man attained such heights of virtue, that at the time that he was praying his whole body resembled a glowing, fiery pillar. Thousands, countless demons would throw themselves on him, but he would scorn them all. His prayer would burn them and make them disappear completely. The wisdom of God had illumined his mind. He would write books and send letters to the fathers of Scetis and to many others. He would benefit everyone with the pure and lucid truth of Christ. And when that black man died his holy relics exuded a lot of myrrh which, as all from that area confirm, cured all those possessed by demons and all the ill. But enough about him.

Another black man - old and poor - lived in a town where he would go here and there always mumbling something. That's why many thought he was crazy. Once a big drought came to that town. The earth was completely dry, the animals were dying, all the plants were turning yellow. The inhabitants of the town with their bishop continually held litanies and vigils, but to no avail! Finally, one night, the bishop saw an angel in his dream saying to him: ‘God commands you to take all your clergy and go to the southern gate of the town. There, the first farmer you see coming in, you must beg at length, until you convince him to pray to God to send you rain.’

The angel said this and disappeared. The next day, very early in the morning, after Matins, the bishop with his clergy set out for the gate the angel had pointed out. No time went by when they saw a very old black man coming from outside carrying wood on his shoulders. ‘Father,’ the bishop immediately implored him, ‘pray to our merciful God to take pity on us and send a little rain to this very your earth.’

No sooner said than done, the old man lifted up his aged inky-black hands and prayed. Suddenly, it began to flash with lightning and thunder loudly. A strong wind started blowing, clouds gathered in the sky, and rain began to come down in torrents. All this happened in a twinkling of an eye and with only the prayer of the black man. It rained so much that the houses were in danger of flooding. Then the bishop again implored the old man to slop the rain. And he raised his hands to heaven a second time. The violent rainstorm ceased!

When everything calmed down, the bishop pleaded with him to reveal who he was, how he lived, and what he did to have such boldness with God. And that venerable old man answered humbly: ‘You see that I am an insignificant black man, and you seek to find virtue in me?' 'For God's sake,’ the bishop insisted, ‘tell me the whole truth for the glory of our Lord.’ ‘I haven't done anything good, Father. Except that from the time I became a Christian, I never accepted charity from anyone. Every day I go up the mountain and gather a small load of wood, I put it on my shoulders and go down to town to sell it. From what I earn, I keep only two obols, just enough for my daily food. The rest I give to those like me, the poor. When winter comes and I can't climb up the mountain for wood, I fast until I find a good day. Then I climb up the mountain again, as is my custom, and I bring my small load to sell and make do, always sharing with the poor.’

The old man again put the wood on his shoulders, bid farewell to the bishop and clergy and entered the town to sell the wood.

But enough about him also, I shall relate to you the life of another, my child, so that you may be assured that our Good God has also called large numbers of blacks to His Kingdom.

When the devout Emperor Constantine was living, I visited the area around Mount Boeum where there was a coenobium by the seaside. As I was discussing spiritual topics with the brothers, the subject of the blacks came up: that God had honored a large number of them. Then one of the brothers named Charisethes said: ‘I met a black who became a great ascetic.’ And since everyone sought to learn his hardships, Charisethes started:

'I was in a certain field of the coenobium and I was working in the vineyard. One day I saw a black sitting under a grapevine. He had in front of him a washed pumpkin full of water and some weeks which he was eating. I observed him continuously for several days and admired his hardship, because for a month he didn't change the water in the pumpkin. So much so that the water became putrid and stunk unbearably. Many times I begged him to let me change the water or to bring him a little bread, but to no avail. He stayed continually in this same place maintaining silence, and all night long he would chant and pray.

When the summer days were very hot, he would go to the seashore, sit on a rock, and bake in the sun all day. Many times, when someone would go to see him, he pretended to be crazy and would say: "Yes! Yes! I know you came to kill me, but God sees you from above!" and he would point to heaven with his finger.'

My child, these are the accomplishments of the blacks,” Nephon said as he finished. “That's why you must not think that they are rejected by God. But just as the grapevine gives both black and white grapes, man was created the same way by God: some are black, some are yellow, and some white. Let's say, like the earth, because there is a great variety there, too.” This is what the servant of God told me and got up to pray. He lifted up his hands to Heaven and began to supplicate.