Behold now, what is so good or so joyous as for brethren to dwell together in unity? Psalm 132:1 LXX (133 Maesoretic)
He (“old man” Elias) called togerher everybody who lived near him and built cells for them in a single day, me delivering mortar, and another bricks, another drawing water, and another cutting wood. And when the cells had been completed, he himself saw to the needs of newcomers. Lives of the Desert Fathers, pg. 21
Ye see day’s united togeder in’vidually wit same interest if day had only one head and one heart, wid huder legs and huder hands. Dey’s more ‘commodatin’ dan any folks I’s ever seed afore or since. The Roving Editor, pg. 143
Nothing holds together a community of any sort as much as unity. This characteristic can hold even the smallest and weakest people together against the most impossible odds. Of course, they were chosen to be a liberated nation under God’s authority. But, the Israelites had to have this virtue among their 12 tribes to be victorious over the various Canaanite peoples and be survive among greater and stronger nations. Only when Israel was governed by self interested kings and infected with corruptions in their religion did they fall to Assyria and Babylon.
The Desert Fathers from Sketis to the Thebaid didn’t worry about a military adversary outside of themselves. They were soldiers at war against the enemy within. The struggle against one’s own passions and sins was highly individualistic. Yet, monks (and perhaps nuns) came together for mutual aid and support for the good of the community. This was not only seen among those in the monasteries with their Abbas. But, hermits and semi hermits were known to share work growing food, gathering material for rope and making goods, providing hospitality to pilgrims, and taking care of the elderly and sick among them. Barbarians invasions, Church schisms, and the Arab invasion ended the great era of African monasicism. But, who knows how many of these Christians were aided by unity to overcome their real enemy; Satan and his minions.
Life in the Dismal Swamp had it’s great difficulties as did the Egyptian deserts. Being of one heart and mind helped greatly in making survival there possible for the African diaspora. Some were Maroons who fled slavery and lived there for generations. Others were enslaved shingle cutters who enjoyed far more freedom than most in their position. There may have even been a few fugitives seeking a way up north. One Maroon who eventually fled to Canada, Charlie, had some good memories of how the black swamp dwellers lived among each other. The slaves were paid for the amount of shingles they cut. They hired their free brothers to help them exceed their quota. The white overseers paid the bondmen and they, in turn, gave a portion to their free swamp dwelling brothers. The overseers must have suspected that the slaves were being aided by the runaway community. But, as long as profits were being made by all, some were content to keep things as they were.
As with the deserts and Israelites, the unity found among the Dismal Swamp African diaspora had enemies from within and without. Charlie saw the worst in the community as well: “De master will offer a reward to some one in de swamp to ketch his runaway. So de colored folks got jist as much devil in dem as white folks; I sometimes tink de are jist as voracious arter money.”* He also saw fugitives brutally shot down in their attempt to flee the en-slavers. The love of money and craving for power were greater threats to the community than biting insects, poisonous plants and wild animals.
In the spiritual life, we must strive to let nothing break our brotherhood with other belivers. Our selfish desires and efforts to get ahead at the expense of others are toxic to any community and will, eventually, fall back on us. For biblical proof, we can look at the lives of Ananias and Saphira who tried to lie to the Apostles and the Church about their gift giving. Meanwhile, the believers who were of one heart and soul built strong communities of faith in the midst of persecution.** To dwell together in unity is a virtue that can lead to dwelling in eternity.
* The Roving Editor, pg. 243
** Acts 4:32-5:1-11
One thought on “Of Desert Fathers and Maroons: The Blessings of Unity”
Thank you, Fr. Dcn John! May the Lord show us the way to unity!