Our Lord replied with a laugh, “You’re asking me for a difficult thing, my dear Kristos Samra!”

Material in this post is from “The Life and Visions of Krəstos Śämra, a Fifteenth-Century Ethiopian Woman Saint” by Wendy Laura Belcher from African Christian Biography: Stories, Lives, and Challenges edited by Dana Lee Robert (Cluster Publications, 2018), chapter 5, pp. 80-101. (Available online at wendybelcher.com.)

The autobiography of 16th-century Ethiopian nun and visionary, Saint Krestos Samra (meaning “Christ Delights in Her”), is likely the oldest account by any woman in Africa. Although dictated to a monk who wrote it down on the saint’s behalf, Gädlä Krəstos Śämra has strong claims for authenticity even from a secular historical standpoint. Saint Krestos Samra married into the imperial family, lived in extravagant wealth with hundreds of slaves attending her until about the age of forty, abandoned the last of her eleven children to enter the monastic life in penitence after killing a slave (who she raised from death by pleading with God), founded a renowned monastery after years of extreme asceticism, and is currently Ethiopia’s most beloved female saint. Despite its value, this work has never been translated into English.

Here are a few excerpts from the chapter that give a scholarly analysis of the document before the translated passages:

Gädlä Krəstos Śämra is an example of a distinctive Ethiopian genre called a gädl (spiritual struggle; plural: gädlat), used to tell the inspirational story of a saint’s life. This genre began to be written in the fourteenth century and flourished until the end of the seventeenth century.

…Her visions are not presented in abstract mystical language but are quite concrete, including clear stories about repentant magicians, fragments of consecrated bread that fly, abjecting the body by sucking Christ’s wounds, and meeting Satan in his guise as head of the church. In one, she demands that Christ forgive all the damned and then travels to hell to plead with Satan to accept Christ’s pardon so that human beings will no longer suffer due to their enmity (see Appendix 2 for an English translation of this section).

…Krəstos Śämra even debates with Christ, pressing him like a disobedient son to forgive humanity. In one of her miracles, a man was using a plant for magical protection. When Krǝstos Śämra prayed to Christ that the man be forgiven for practicing magic, Christ responded that he would not forgive him because the man had used the plant demonically. In a typical moment, she responded by arguing with Christ, pointing out, “You created the plants!” Christ bowed to this argument and forgave the man. It is for tactics like this that the scholar Ephraim Isaac has reportedly called her “the mother of peace” and an Ethiopian female philosopher.

Gädlä Krəstos Śämra is just one example of Ethiopia’s thousands of original texts, less than 5 percent of which are available in any European language.

This English translation of one portion of the autobiography Gädlä Krəstos Śämra is by Michael Kleiner and Wendy Laura Belcher:

Then my lord Jesus Christ came to me, in great glory. When I saw him, I fell at my Lord God’s feet. Immediately, however, he raised me up with his holy and blessed hands without blemish.

Then he said to me, “Don’t be afraid, my dear Kristos Samra. Rather, tell me your heart’s desire.”

I replied, “If you permit your maidservant [to ask], tell me why you created our father Adam in your image and likeness, and why you were crucified on the wood of the cross. Was it not for the sake of Adam and his offspring?”

Christ replied, “Yes, I was crucified for their sake.”

So I said to him, “If your crucifixion happened for their sake, pardon [all] those who have died, from Abel up to now and in eternity, O Lord! Truly, you are merciful, slow to be angered, given to compassion, and righteous. There is no other God than you, you are all-powerful, and nothing is impossible for you; the entire earth does not [even] fill your hands.”

Now Christ replied to me with these words, “Please judge [for yourself], my dear Kristos Samra. [Weigh] the sins that Adam and his offspring have committed [against] the cross that I, your creator, carried in the court of Caiaphas and Annas with Pontius Pilate as their superior: If they are weighed on the scales, which one is heavier? Does not my suffering [in human hands], which I received on [Good] Friday, weigh heavier?”

When Christ said this to me, I trembled and fell to the ground.

Immediately, he raised me up again with his holy hands and asked me, “All the tribulation that I suffered, for whom do you think it was? As the prophet Isaiah says, ‘He came to be slaughtered like a sheep, and like a sheep that does not give a sound before him who shears it, he too did not open his mouth despite his suffering.’ As scripture said, I was crucified on a wooden cross—a wicked servant slapped my face, impure people spat on me, and Pilate, sitting on his throne, ordered me to be whipped. Thus was I treated: Shall I show humanity mercy or shall I punish them? Please judge [for yourself], my dear Kristos Samra.”

When Christ had said these things to me, I fell on my face and said to him, “Why do you tell me all the time: ‘Judge [for yourself]?’ You judge, please! Can a servant pass judgment together with his master, or a maidservant together with her mistress? Don’t treat me in this way, O lord! [I merely ask,] Is there any wood that doesn’t smoke [when burned], are there humans who don’t sin? So, pardon them, without questions.”

So Christ replied, “Please tell me your heart’s desire, my dear Kristos Samra, that which is in your heart.”

At that point I replied to him as follows, “My lord, I would like you to pardon the devil, and for all humanity to be saved from being condemned to [eternal] suffering. Truly, you don’t desire the sinner’s death, but rather his turning back [from sin]! This is why I say to you: ‘Pardon the devil!’ Don’t think that I like to say all these things to you. Rather, [I do it] for the sake of Adam and his offspring, because their flesh is my flesh.”

After I had said these things to Christ, our Lord replied with a laugh, “You’re asking me for a difficult thing, my dear Kristos Samra! Many saints who were before you have not asked me for this.”

After saying this, Christ summoned Saint Michael, the head of the angels. He said to him, “Go and take her to Sheol, because she has asked me to liberate the devil from the [realm of] punishment with [eternal] suffering.”

Immediately, Saint Michael, the head of the angels, took me with him to Sheol. As we were on our way, I said to Saint Michael, head of the angels, “From now on, all humanity shall find rest because I believe that the devil wants to be pardoned and not to be Lord God.”

Then we arrived in hell. My brothers, what can I tell you about the suffering that is found there? I saw people biting each other as if they were dogs.

Then Saint Michael, the head of the angels, said to me, “Summon the devil [and find out] if he wants to be saved.”

So I called out for him, in the language of the angels, “Satan!”

Instantly, Satan shouted [back], in a loud voice, “Who calls out for me, in the place where I am Lord God of many hosts?”

After Satan had said this, he came to me and told me, “I‘ve been looking for you for a long time. Today you have finally come to my home.”

At this point, I replied to him, “Come out quickly! Our Lord has pardoned you, as well as those who are yours.”

When I said this to him, he became enraged. He seized my left hand and dragged me down to the lowest level of She‘ol. However, Saint Michael came to my [aid], following me with his sword of fire in his hands. [With it,] he then struck that abominable [creature] who knows no mercy.

My brothers, what can I tell you about the wailing that arose in that hour! All the [captive] souls swarmed me like bees. [Fortunately], the number of souls who escaped from [hell] on the wings of Saint Michael and on my own wings was something like 100,000. I was delighted when I saw how happy those souls were. I frolicked among them just like a young calf; I was like a horse that races in the king’s presence.

After that, I went to [Christ] my creator, and prostrated myself to the glory of his rule. I said to him, “Is this how you have judged, O Lord?”

He replied, “Have you taken some booty from the hands of the devil?”

I replied, “Yes, my lord, I have, through your power.”

Now he summoned Saint Michael, the head of the angels, and said to him, “Go, take those souls to the home of my dear Kristos Samra.”

At that point I asked him, “Where is that home of mine, my lord?”

He replied, “Your home shall be with my mother [in heaven]. I hereby give you the name of Batra Maryam and commission you as my mother’s shoes and adorn you with great grace and majesty. Blessed are all who love you.”

the ultimate mystery of evil must also be a personal one

Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism by Alexander Schmemann.

It is not our purpose to outline, even superficially, the Orthodox teaching concerning the Devil. In fact, the Church has never formulated it systematically, in the form of a clear and concise “doctrine.” What is of paramount importance for us, however, is that the Church has always had the experience of the demonic, has always, in plain words, known the Devil. If this direct knowledge has not resulted in a neat and orderly doctrine, it is because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, rationally to define the irrational. And the demonic and, more generally, evil are precisely the reality of the irrational. Some theologians and philosophers, in an attempt to explain and thus to “rationalize” the experience and the existence of evil, explained it as an absence: the absence of good. They compared it, for example, to darkness, which is nothing but the absence of light and which is dispelled when light appears. This theory was subsequently adopted by deists and humanists of all shades and still constitutes an integral part of our modern worldview. Here the remedy against all evil is always seen in “enlightenment” and “education.” For example: explain to teenagers the mechanics of sex, remove the “mystery” and the “taboos,” and they will use it rationally, i.e. well. Multiply the number of schools and man, who is naturally good, will ipso facto live and behave rationally, i.e. well.

Such however is certainly not the understanding of evil in the Bible and in the experience of the Church. Here evil is most emphatically not a mere absence. It is precisely in presence: the presence of something dark, irrational and very real, although the origin of that presence may not be clear and immediately understandable. Thus hatred is not a simple absence of love; it is the presence of a dark power which can indeed be extremely active, clever and even creative. And it is certainly not a result of ignorance. We may know and hate. The more some men knew Christ, saw His light and His goodness, the more they hated Him. This experience of evil as irrational power, as something which truly takes possession of us and directs our acts, has always been the experience of the Church and the experience also of all those who try, be it only a little, to “better” themselves, to oppose “nature” in themselves, to ascend to a more spiritual life.

Our first affirmation then is that there exists a demonic reality: evil as a dark power, as presence and not only absence. But we may go further. For just as there can be no love outside the “lover,” i.e. a person that loves, there can be no hatred outside the “hater,” i.e. a person that hates. And if the ultimate mystery of “goodness” lies in the person, the ultimate mystery of evil must also be a personal one. Behind the dark and irrational presence of evil there must be a person or persons. There must exist a personal world of those who have chosen to hate God, to hate light, to be against. Who are these persons? When, how, and why have they chosen to be against God? To these questions the Church gives no precise answers. The deeper the reality, the less it is presentable in formulas and propositions. Thus the answer is veiled in symbols and images, which tell of an initial rebellion against God within the spiritual world created by God, among angels led into that rebellion by pride. The origin of evil is viewed here not as ignorance and imperfection but, on the contrary, as knowledge and a degree of perfection which makes the temptation of pride possible. Whoever he is, the “Devil” is among the very first and the best creatures of God. He is, so to speak, perfect enough, wise enough, powerful enough, one can almost say divine enough, to know God and not to surrender to Him—to know Him and yet to opt against Him, to desire freedom from Him. But since this freedom is impossible in the love and light which always lead to God and to a free surrender to Him, it must of necessity be fulfilled in negation, hatred and rebellion.

These are, of course, poor words, almost totally inadequate to the horrifying mystery they are trying to express. For we know nothing about that initial catastrophe in the spiritual world—about that hatred against God ignited by pride and that bringing into existence of a strange and evil reality not willed, not created by God. Or rather, we know about it only through our own experience of that reality, through our own experience of evil. This experience indeed is always an experience of fall: of something precious and perfect deviated from and betraying its own nature, of the utterly unnatural character of that fall which yet became an integral and “natural” part of our nature. And when we contemplate evil in ourselves and outside ourselves in the world, how incredibly cheap and superficial appear all rational explanations, all “reductions” of evil to neat and rational theories. If there is one thing we learn from spiritual experience, it is that evil is not to be “explained” but faced and fought. This is the way God dealt with evil. He did not explain it. He sent His Only-Begotten Son to be crucified by all the powers of evil so as to destroy them by His love, faith and obedience.

This then is the way we must also follow. On this way we inescapably meet the Devil at the very moment we make the decision to follow Christ.

glad shrieks of the cherubim singing and shouting hosannah

I am perhaps the one man in all creation who loves the truth and genuinely desires good. I was there when the Word, Who died on the Cross, rose up into heaven bearing on His bosom the soul of the penitent thief. I heard the glad shrieks of the cherubim singing and shouting hosannah and the thunderous rapture of the seraphim which shook heaven and all creation, and I swear to you by all that’s sacred, I longed to join the choir and shout hosannah with them all. The word had almost escaped me, had almost broken from my lips… you know how susceptible and aesthetically impressionable I am. But common sense—oh, a most unhappy trait in my character—kept me in due bounds and I let the moment pass! For what would have happened, I reflected, what would have happened after my hosannah? Everything on earth would have been extinguished at once and no events could have occurred. And so, solely from a sense of duty and my social position, was forced to suppress the good moment and to stick to my nasty task. Somebody takes all the credit of what’s good for Himself, and nothing but nastiness is left for me. But I don’t envy the honour of a life of idle imposture, I am not ambitious.

From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (the devil speaking to Ivan).