A Gathering of Yellow... Northern Maine
Amma Sarah, an early Christian ascetic of North Egypt, lived as a desert solitary in the early centuries of the Church - apparently in the Nile Delta, in a cell beside a river - possibly the Nile. In time, she became more closely aligned with a nearby monastery, assuming monastic garb and serving as an elder. Amma Sarah continued to live seven years in a cave by the river. Central to her teaching and life was purity of heart. She died aged 80.
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Amma Sarah said regarding purity of heart -
If I prayed God that all people should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, but I shall rather pray that my heart may be pure toward all.
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I have been determined to follow my own paths. I have not always, however, been as accepting as I would have liked with the consequences. I often lamented the vocational, social, and relationship outcomes of someone vowed to a life of solitude in the world, not apart like those in enclosed communities. Further, as a teen, I was in Christian ministry; this led to much loneliness, as other teens respected me, but they were of a very different lifestyle. This isolation was deeply disturbing to me for many years until converting the loneliness as an absence into a fruitful solitude.
As I have gotten older, now age 60, I have become even more at peace with the path I feel right for me, including being alone as my way to live out a contemplative vocation. This change has been facilitated, too, by venturing into a new region of the country apart from the past and everyone I had known - the deep south of the United States to Maine in the far northeast. I now live right beside the Canadian border in the rural area of Aroostook County. Living a vowed life alone in a simple apartment made from converting some space from a machine shop has encouraged me to live a less conventional, more simple way more thoroughly - not to be different but to fulfill a sense of calling.
Such solitude means I am not exposed to much human interaction. While many persons fear solitude, I find it a sanctuary, an isle of peace. For much of my life, even as a child, I felt drawn to quiet and aloneness. Also, I have often felt too exposed to, frequently overwhelmed by, the emotional drama often part of human interaction. I find I feel closer to people now than when among them more. This is partly for in the Silence one grows in intimacy with beings. And I feel drawn more intimately into a life where prayer for others, human and otherwise, is a way to love them. The contemplative honors the fact that interior solitude is a way to express solidarity with all peoples. This includes daily prayers that express compassion for all beings.
Yet, we know we can never be pleasing to everyone whether living in solitude or not. Amma Sarah knew regardless of her intent, being true to herself and her God meant some persons would disapprove of her. She realized the futility of being overly concerned with others liking and agreeing with her. Purity of heart meant, among other things, singleness of heart - keeping with one center: love for God and living a holy life. She understood fornication in a broader sense than in only sexual; for her, fornication entailed compromising herself to whatever did not honor her center. This degree of dedication appears rare.
Amma Sarah did not take an attitude of "So what" either. She took responsibility for the part she could choose in her relationships: she prayed for purity of heart to everyone. We cannot decide how others respond to us, whether they like us or not, or whether they agree with our values and way of life. We can, however, do as Amma Sarah: pray that our heart will be pure toward others.
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So, what is this purity of heart toward others? One aspect of this is to have no desire to bring harm to anyone by thought, act, or word. Many Buddhists recite a confession of sins of these three: body, mind, speech (i.e., act, thought, word). The chant Om Ah Hum (or Hung) is a chant for the purification of these three. One may suffer pain from what we think, say, or do, but we wish to live free of intending harm. We know often the pain others feel is due to their woundedness, as we may see our adverse reactions arise from our inner woundedness. Yet, another hurting from, for example, something we say is not the same as our being harmful. While knowing others will be hurt in interacting with us, our intent is not to bring harm.
Some twenty years ago, a friend I had not seen in many years visited me. She brought her friend, a woman I had not met before. We three met for lunch at a restaurant. My friend's friend began speaking rudely to the server over something minor. The server was a girl about age twenty, likely a university student, for the University of Florida was nearby. My friend's friend spoke loudly, not caring who in the restaurant heard - and everyone probably could. The server was shocked at this. I intervened, seeking to assist the waitress by encouraging the friend's friend to stop her verbal tirade. Then, the friend's friend turned on me and began her tirade of accusation against me. It was clear she was on some trip of thinking it was mature for anyone to speak as they wished regardless of how it might be harmful to another. While she still accosted me, I got up, paid my bill, offered some consoling words to the server, and left. This episode exemplifies how persons can be impure in intent by thinking their right to act in a particular manner is more important than the other's right to be treated kindly. With purity of heart, we do not value a felt right to express ourselves as more important than the other having the right to be free of abuse. What did my friend's friend prove that day?
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A second factor of purity of heart is to seek to be free of anger and ill-will toward others. For many years I lived with an underground kind of anger and malice, though appearing calm. Persons would be shocked when the anger erupted in an outburst. One can appear composed and collected and live with seething resentment inside. We can be walking volcanoes.
Purity of heart does not mean, however, going to war with anger and malice. We recognize this if it arises, and we engage whatever spiritual way we embrace to see these afflictive emotions converted in the Fire of Love. This Fire is not condemnatory. It is healing. I do not believe anyone is above such afflictive feelings. These emotions are invitations for us to grow. As a friend recently told me, "We've all been damaged." Of course, our heart - True Self - remains untouched, but this body-mind carries hurt from the past.
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I have learned no matter what I do or say, sooner or later, someone will be disgruntled with it. Seeking to live in peace within and among others, I aim to avoid these times of upsetness. I aim to follow wise talking, and that often includes wise silence. As for me, I need to enter times of the Silence daily for the taming of the tongue. Knowing I am not above afflictive feelings toward others encourages me to be honest in the Presence. This inner Sanctuary is a safe space to acknowledge this and pray for divine help.
Hence, Amma Sarah, like other Desert Fathers and Mothers, points to this turning to her God in prayer as the way of purity of heart and intent. The self, unaided by Grace, cannot be trusted in living this purity. Wise are we in following Amma Sarah's insight on this matter.
Jesus spoke, in the Gospel of Matthew 5.9, "How blessed are those who spread peace/for they shall be called children of the Divine." Amma Sarah is remembered as a being of peace, not for she pleased everyone, but for she lived with an intent to be pure of heart in herself and toward others in devotion to her Beloved. May we do the same, following Amma Sarah's spirit. For world peace, we start in how we treat others in our everyday interactions, including strangers we meet for only a moment. Yet, even before this, peace begins within us. In the being of goodwill, goodwill is the desire for all beings.
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I referred above to the power of remaining silent in expressing purity of heart. I recently heard someone speak forth angrily about another person. I was shocked at the intensity. I simply looked at the person, listening nonjudgmentally. I wondered, later, if I should I have said something. Do we not underestimate how silence has power to diffuse the expression of anger, and all sorts of talk that proves divisive and hurtful? In the Hebrew Scripture, Proverbs 26.20 reads:
Where there is no wood, a fire goes out,
and where there is no gossip, contention ceases (NET).
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Last, one way to cultivate the seeds of goodwill is through prayer. Each day, I pray a Buddhist prayer for all beings. This prayer reminds me of the intent embodied in the words. Such repetition, over time, aids: the intent in the prayer sinks in, becoming part of the self.
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*(C) Brian K. Wilcox, 2021
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse. The book is a collection of poems based on wisdom traditions, predominantly Christian, Buddhist, and Sufi, with extensive notes on the poetry's teachings and imagery.
*Background and quote of Amma Sarah, from Laura Swan. Forgotten Desert Mothers: The Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women.