June 15, 2020 – During times that seem filled with uncertainty, we can look to the early Coptic Christians, the Desert Mothers and Fathers for spiritual guidance and wisdom. Reading scripture always has its place and cannot be replaced. I don’t mean to imply any kind of substitution or the worship of humans over God. I am simply suggesting that by reading their writings, and seeing how they lived and what struggles they endured, we can gain strength and hope to persevere in our own battles.
The Desert Mothers were early female Christian ascetics that lived around Syria, Israel and Egypt during the 4th and 5th Centuries AD. As Christianity began to flourish under Constantine’s rule in the 4th Century and to become more mainstream, some Christians opted for a life of solitude. As Christians momentarily became less persecuted, the Desert Fathers sought a distinction and replacement for Martyrdom.
Melania the Elder
Widowed at the age of 22, Melania the Elder “created her own desert through self-imposed exile” and refused to sink back into the ranks of her powerful family (Brown 1988, 279). Instead of settling into another marriage, Melania the Elder pilgrimaged into the Egyptian desert, selling all of her possessions and set out to learn more about the ascetic way of life. In doing so, she eventually established both women’s and men’s monasteries, investing her familial riches into increasing the ascetic way of life (Swan, 115-116). Adopting the rigorous scholarly lifestyle of her male counterparts, Melania challenged the normative gender structures in choosing to lead an ascetic lifestyle. Palladius details Melania as a “female man of God” when she confronts a Palestinian governor as she is on her way to minister to exiled Egyptian bishops and priests asserting, “I am So-and-So’s daughter and So-and-So’s wife. I am Christ’s slave”. The governor apologizes, revers her, and allows her to meet with the men she is ministering to (Cox Miller 2005, 208). This interaction not only subverts the political boundaries between the elite Palestinian governor and an elite Christian but also the gender boundaries of woman and man. By ministering to exiled Christian men and asserting her masculine authority over the governor, Melania establishes herself as a strong Christian leader, unbound to the gender norms prevalent at this time. Through leading male and female monasteries and asserting her dedication as Christ’s slave, Melania overtly resists the androcentric culture of desert asceticism thus paves the way for future Desert Mothers. – Sex and Gender in Early Christianity
Melania was one Desert Mother who turned down a life of affluence, for a life of solitude and prayer. This challenged the prevailing notion at the time that women were evil creatures of Eve, and that they couldn’t handle the monastic life. These Desert Mothers were a force to be reckoned with.
According to Hibba Memon, in an article entitled “The Desert Mothers: Women Who Shunned All But God,” we learn about the dedication of the Desert Mothers to live as Christ wanted:
The Desert Mothers were one such force to be reckoned with. Deep in the deserts of Arabia, these women practiced complete abstinence from vanity, excessive display or persuasion of desires entirely. Called ‘ammas’ (their male counterpart the Desert Fathers were referred to as ‘abbas’), the ladies avoided indulging in extravagance of any sort like silk clothes, jewellery, hairstyles, musk and even sometimes, bathing.
Roberta Bondi, a theology professor has pointed out in her books that the Desert Mothers and Fathers are remarkable for their daily practice of seeking to ‘love as God loves’. Even though the Mothers shunned societal practices of any kind, they took lost souls under their wings, providing guidance and prayers to those who sought them, and at the same time spreading the teachings of Christ to all those who encountered them. Sheltered yet socially adept, these women were paving the road for salvation and progression (the likes of which was never witnessed before) in the early days of Christianity.
Although not much is known regarding the lives of particular ‘Mothers’, there were brave contemporary Christian scholars like Palladius and Jerome who managed to record whatever they could about them. Melania the Elder was one such prominent ‘Mother’, who founded religious communities on the Mount of Olives in present-day Jerusalem.
Born to a wealthy noble Roman family and married into one too, Melania converted to Christianity when she was only 22. The death of her husband and two of her three sons, leaving her widowed and broken completely led her to seek solace within the teachings of Christ. That could have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. Melania decided to travel to Arabia – the deserts of Egypt in particular – to look for something much deeper than what the church had to offer.
It is estimated that there were more than 3000 Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers trawling along the vast, empty and arid desert landscape, paving the road for the monastic (monkhood) Christian life. Melania was one of these people. She gave up all wealth, her worldly desires, never remarried and remained celibate till the very end. Her only remaining son was placed under someone else’s care while she went off on her own spiritual journey.
Her reputation for caring for the underdogs is what got her into trouble (she went into prison for aiding exiled monks), yet also allowed her to travel to Jerusalem and expand her influence even further. She sold all the land she owned and invested into the monastic communities in Jerusalem. Dedicated and steadfast in her purpose, she achieved sainthood in her lifetime, breathing her last at the ripe age of 70, dying as a fearless devotee of the Christ.
Like Melania, there were other ‘Ammas’ who are briefly mentioned in between the lines, in the many books written about the Desert Fathers. Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, Amma Theodora, Amma Sara and Amma Melania the Younger (Melania I’s granddaughter) are some of the few. Each one celebrated as a saint in smaller denominations, mostly in the Christian communities based in the Middle East. Their names have only managed to survive through the sands of time because of a few kindred spirits, who recognized the need for an equalized guidance rather than that in the hands of a mostly male-centric society.
The Desert Mothers were women who freed themselves from the manacles of the society; who gave up their status, wealth, and their earthly and bodily desires. Dressed like men, they left their families and survived the harsh conditions of these deserts just to figure out their ‘True Calling’. Almost all religions speak of it, but rarely does one ever hear of a woman defying the norms and living as a complete nomad. – Hibba Memon
These Christians dedicated their lives to ministering to others, and spent much of their time at hard manual labor and in focused prayer.
They valued humility and virtue, abstaining from earthly pleasures and desires.
Amma Sarah said, “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.”
Amma Syncletica said, “In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek … so we must also kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.”
Amma Syncletica said, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town; they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd; and it is possible for those who are solitaries to live in the crowd of their own thoughts.”
Amma Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor vigils, nor any kind of suffering are able to save. Only true humility can do that. There was a hermit who was able to banish the demons. And he asked them: “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?” They replied: “We do not eat or drink.” “Is it vigils?” They said: “We do not sleep.” “Then what power sends you away?” They replied: “Nothing can overcome us except humility alone.” Amma Theodora said: “Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons? – Jay Toups, Hope in the Storm
An example of wisdom of the Desert Mothers:
Amma Sarah of the Desert
Modeling the ideal ascetic life Amma Sarah’s life challenged the lives of male ascetics who heard of her desert life. Born into a wealthy Christian family, Sarah was well educated and an avid reader. She eventually moved from the city into the desert living in a cell within the vicinity of a women’s monastery. Much of her struggle in the desert was centered on the demons of fornication and lust that attacked her. This passion of her sexuality was a battle that she fought her whole life, seeking to rid any lustful desire that separated her from God (Swan, 36-37). It seems as though by seeking to overcome her sexual desires, Sarah also is overcoming her feminine nature that so often is regarded to as an instrument of the devil (Brown, 3). This decomposition of her femaleness and assertion of masculinity culminates in Sarah telling other male monks, “It is I who am a man, you who are women” (Cox Miller, 249). By stating this, Sarah has acknowledged her transformation from a tool of the devil as a female into a warrior of God in the masculinity found in ascetic practice. – Sex and Gender in Early Christianity
Most modern women can relate to Amma Sarah’s struggles, I think . We are constantly being bombarded with erotic and sexual imagery, as well as the unattainable Hollywood “icons” they want us to worship. The Desert Mothers understood this was evil and demonic, and they fought against such wickedness even within themselves.
The Desert Mothers lived a very rough austere life, certainly not for everyone. They engaged in spiritual practices and spiritual warfare on a very high level. These are people who gave up their own Will to follow Jesus.
Alex Mar from Atlas Obscura writes of these incredible women and details some of their exploits in the article, “The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers Who Have Been Written Out of Christianity“:
Many of the female leaders of Christianity—in the Catholic Church in particular, with its 1.25 billion followers around the world—are barred from being fully ordained and are closely overseen by men. But this was not always the case. Scores of early Christian women—like Marcella, the desert-dwelling Susan, or the scholars Melania and Paula—embraced radical lives, helping the young religion fan out across the Roman Empire and beyond.
From the beginning, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth comprised a movement that was extreme, countercultural—a revolution that embraced both men and women, even social outcasts and slaves. In those first centuries, while the religion was still defining itself as an institution, many devout women flouted cultural convention and chose Jesus himself—not bishops and bureaucrats—as their personal guide. These women had permission to live beyond their gender as the leaders and patrons of local congregations, as preachers and ecstatic prophets and tough ascetics. They defied Roman family laws and rejected their sexuality. They walked the streets, spreading the gospel. They taught themselves Hebrew, analyzed Scripture, corresponded with other Christian leaders. They were aristocrats who seized control of their money and funneled it into the movement, building monasteries and helping prisoners and the poor.
It started with the virgins.
In the first two centuries of Christianity, many of the cultures in which it took hold had stubborn gender roles—but these roles weren’t as hardline as you might think. Women had long been the managers of their households, and since followers of the new movement met in private, in intimate ‘house churches,’ women often became the natural leaders of the congregation. Christian women and men alike could become full-fledged ministers…
…Marcella, Melania, Susan, and Paula—they chose to live at the very edge of society. Between them, they disobeyed their families, gave away all they owned, educated themselves, produced scholarly works, founded entire communities, and were sainted. But their own words were not considered significant enough to pass down. What could they have to say about the Gospel that their male peers hadn’t said already? How could they understand their actions well enough to tell their own stories? What we know about the virginity movement, we know through a small number of early Christian writers and bishops. What we know about Susan, we know through John of Ephesus. And we know Melania through Palladius and Jerome. – Alex Mar, Atlas Obscura
The Desert Mothers chose to live a life that was harder than most women of their time endured. They offer us an amazing look at how faith can help us endure even the hardest of times.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in a recent article for Red Letter Christians wrote “The Work We Can Do During Quarantine“ that offers Christians advice for these uneasy times:
While there may not be any time in history when most people on earth faced this particular challenge, there is a long tradition of people who have embraced long-term isolation for the sake of their own growth in service to the world. As our household learns to live under a stay-at-home order, I’ve been thinking about the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers from 3rd and 4th century Egypt and Syria.
‘Go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything,’ Abba Anthony, the father of desert monasticism taught. The cell became a teacher for thousands of women and men who fled the cities of Roman society. ‘The desert became a city,’ one observer wrote, struck by the sudden mass appeal of the ascetic life. Each monastic sat in a cell alone, stripped of the normal conveniences and pattern of their former lives. They did not have a set of books to read, a 12-step program, or a series of lectures to listen to online. But they were conscious of the need to re-train their whole selves for a new way of life. Isolation itself, they learned, can teach us who we really are and who we want to become.
The cell taught them, among other things, the importance of rhythm to an integrated life in isolation. Of course, nature is filled with rhythm, as day turns to night and winter turns to spring. In normal life, societies have a rhythm too. Meetings are scheduled, planes take off, school bells ring, and meals are served. We set alarms to teach our bodies the rhythms of our world. But in isolation, we lose our schedule. We sleep in, forget to eat lunch, miss Zoom meetings or forget what day it is.
The ammas and abbas of the 4th century taught that our bodies and our spirits need a rhythm of going back and forth between work and contemplation. The Benedictines would eventually make this insight their motto: ora et labora—prayer and work. But for the early monks in isolation, it was a basic realization that we grow in the way of love as we make time each day for both soul work and practical necessities. Human transformation doesn’t come through a retreat from ordinary life. It comes as we reimagine how we spend our days.
In the quiet of prayer—what we usually call contemplation—the desert monastics found that the strife they had hated in society was in fact inside of them. Amidst the ebb and flow of this prayer and work, they noticed the thoughts that troubled their spirits and stirred inside each of them. ‘Logismoi’—bad thoughts—couldn’t be ignored or drowned out by conversation or entertainment. Isolation drew out their twisted desires and impure motives. They learned not to blame others or to run away, but to face these thoughts. They could not make them disappear, but they did get to decide how to respond to them. Recognizing that became its own kind of freedom.
No doubt, the boredom, depression, self-importance and twisted desires those ancient monastics learned to name and wrestle will be there for each of us as we face isolation in the months ahead. In the story of Abba Anthony, he had an experience of being assaulted by these thoughts and feeling like a physical being had jumped on top of him with its hands around his neck. Anthony called on the name of Jesus and experienced relief in that moment, but the monastics passed on his experience as a way of remembering that facing what we find in the cell teaches us to turn from our own strength and ability to God. Yes, we get to choose how we respond to bad thoughts. But they are often stronger than we are. And so we must learn to root our life in something stronger than we are.
Because they recognized human dependence, the desert monastics also advocated a practice they called the ‘manifestation of thoughts.’ It wasn’t enough to recognize the inner struggle and turn to God for strength. The ammas and abbas also advocated a regular practice of sharing with someone else the experiences they had in isolation. In our modern era, telephones and the Internet make it possible to maintain quarantine without losing human connection. Monastic wisdom suggests that we need to regularly share our dreams and struggles with someone else. And we need to trust their feedback. It’s easy to get lost in ourselves during times of isolation. If a trusted ear tells you that you need help, listen to them. – Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Red Letter Christians
We are not the first humans to suffer through a pandemic and quarantine. The Desert Mothers and Fathers also lived a life of isolation and hardship. We can learn from how they lived Christ-centered lives and focused on loving and helping one’s neighbors. The development of these monastic communities had a major impact on the Church and the world.
These church fathers and elders still have so much more wisdom to teach us. Like the scriptures, they are simple and yet so practical. We can learn to live each day for Christ, and share the Good News with others. We can learn how to be humble, loyal and devoted during times of hardship and suffering. We can draw inner strength and fortitude from the many Christian mothers and fathers who came before us, and are depending on us to pass the Truth on to the next generation.