In the fourth century, many Christians fled to the deserts of northern Africa and the Middle East to escape worldly distractions and struggle against their temptations. Some were tired of the growing complacency that was creeping into the Church now that Christianity had become legal. Others had little trust in government protection even though Emperor Constantine ended the persecutions. Life in the desert was harsh and very simple. But, the desert fathers and mothers found freedom in the wasteland.
Some were in the wastelands for only a short time. Yet, they carried the spirit of detatchment from worldly greed and power in the cities and towns they lived in. Some noted bishops and priest gave liberally to the poor and maintained a rather Spartan existence. In every generation there were those who imitated those original desert fathers. Russia had it’s Northern Thebaid. Other monks eked out a living on the wind-swept British Isles and the escarpments of Ethiopia. Even in an old mining town north of San Francisco, a pair of believers wanted nothing more than to pray, read, and publish writings of ancient Christianity.
Perhaps it was in the early 1700’s that a few enslaved Africans found a similar freedom in a wasteland. Native Americans were the first to reatreat to the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina as a refuge from the encroaching colonist. Slave owners counted their “property” that ran away into the swamp as lost to the bears and snakes. European indentured servants, who were treated almost as bad as slaves, also found a home there. Although full of valuable bald cypress trees, the land was deemed untameable by the colonial and national government. The runaways, called maroons, had very harsh elements to deal with. But, in overcoming the obstacles they found freedom. There were thriving communities on both sides of the swamp. Maroons would slip into “civilization” every now and then to get what they need or visit loved ones on the plantations. But, they quickly made their way back to their wet wilderness where they were free and safe.
In exploring Orthodox Christianity, American Christians of all backgrounds would do well to follow the example of our desert fathers, their followers and Maroon ancestors. As individuals and a community, we have sins to struggle against. Yet, too often we get distracted by the pursuit of money, politics, and other worldly cares. This is not to say we should not participate in society. But, there is a great temptation to be so focused on the earthly kingdom that we forget there is one to come. The virtues of patience, honesty, chastity, and others cannot be legislated and can be gained no matter who is in the White House or wins the NBA Finals. Gaining the virtues cleanses our souls and gives us victory both now and later. Renunciation of the world and keeping watch over our what we take into our hearts and minds is how we gain them.
Shall we all physically move between Suffolk, Virginia and Elizabeth City, North Carolina? That would be impossible. But, we can establish a sense of maroon like watchfulness in our lives little by little. Making deliberate times for prayer, such as keeping the Hours brings us in God’s presence. An icon corner in our homes can be as much of a refuge for our souls as the buttress of a bald cypress was for a runnaway slave. Feeding on the spiritual wisdom of our monastic ancestors who renounced the world nourishes our souls.
The Psalmist declared that God prepares a table for him in the midst of his enemies (Psalm 22:5 LLX/23:5). The maroons still had to overcome bears, mosquitoes, and snakes. Yet, God granted them freedom. Satan and his minions will pester and threaten us in our quest for the Kingdom. But, as we practice spiritual watchfulness, there will be a refuge for us to thrive in.