Of Desert Fathers & Maroons II: Freedom & Purity

Flee also youthful lust, but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart – 2 Timothy 2:22

The goal of our profession … is the kingdom of God.  Its immediate purpose, however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal.  We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again ate once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule. – Abba Moses the Black; Philokalia Vol. 1; On the Holy Fathers of Sketis

Dragon Run Swamp is a huge backwater that borders four counties on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula.  It is known to be the second most ecologically important site of over 200 studied by the Smithsonian Institution.  There are very few public access points and no development beyond farming where it already exist.  Most visitors to the peninsula choose to enjoy the Rappahannock and York Rivers and the feed into the Chesapeake Bay.  The Dragon is off most people’s radar.  This helps to make it one of the state’s most pristine waterways. 

During Bacon’s Rebellion, local Native tribes hid in this meandering swamp away from the better-armed colonist.  Planters warned their enslaved people not to go there as a dragon would kill and eat them.  Runaways were not able to form longstanding Maroon communities as in the Great Dismal.  Nevertheless, Dragon Run had its share of freedom seekers who held out for weeks and months. 

To be a great or petit Maroon in either swamp was an act of great courage.  For the African born, the landscape was unfamiliar.  Permanent freedom was found for many between Virginia and North Carolina.  However, they had to face three venomous snake species as well as bears and panthers.  The wetland between Essex, King & Queen, Middlesex, and Gloucester Counties was much smaller with a greater risk of being caught.  Punishments ranged from a brutal beating to death.  From the colonial period to the end of the Civil War, numerous Negroes and mulattoes took their chances to be free from those who would keep them in chains. 

As I sat on a bench overlooking the Dragon’s tannin stained waters, I wondered if I had the same amount of courage as my ancestors who would have been there seeking refuge instead of photographic images.  This was not a question of historical comparison, but of spiritual resolve.  Am I doing all I can to free myself from the sinful actions, words, and thoughts that wish to keep me on their plantation?  The Apostle Paul does not tell Timothy to walk away from youthful lust and to the better manifestations of spiritual life.  He says, “flee” from them.  Abba Moses advises John Cassian that purity of the heart is our “immediate purpose” and prerequisite to achieve our ultimate goal.  We must return to this purpose at the slightest deviation from it. 

And how many times have I made excuses to find comfort in sins rather than run from them?  Too many to count.  How often have I continued to walk in wickedness astray from the cleansing path of the cross?  More that I would like to admit.  My skin tone is the same as my ancestors.  However, am I their equal in the struggle against the slavery of the soul?  I can see them not flinching through thousands of mosquito and snake bites as not to attract the “paddy-rollers” and their dogs.  I confess to times where I tied myself up to a whipping post of my own creation with the overseer not even realizing that I tried to resist in the first place. 

Spiritual freedom and purity of the soul are not things given to us because of the crosses we wear or the origin of our ancestors.  Nor can we gain these things by our efforts alone.  We have a responsibility to follow what the True Master taught us:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.  (Matthew 7:7)

Enter through the narrow gate … difficult is the way which leads to life … (Matthew 7:13, 14)

Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour … (Matthew 25:13)

Let us make every effort to obtain freedom from bad habits and purity.  May we be cautious to avoid that which will enslave us.  If we fall, let us take courage to repent and run on.  The day and hour is coming where we won’t have to run anymore.

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