05 January 2022

With the Saints through Christmas (11):
5 January 2022, the Desert Mothers

The Desert Mothers were often neglected in Patristic Studies, unlike the Desert Fathers

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is a season that continues for 40 days until the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas (2 February).

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

I have been continuing my Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Christmas;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

This morning, I am reflecting on the lives of the Desert Mothers who, like the Desert Fathers, were ammas or ascetics and spiritual guides living in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the fourth and fifth centuries.

They typically lived in the monastic communities that began forming at that time, though some lived as hermits. Other women from that era who influenced the early ascetic or monastic tradition while living outside the desert are also described as Desert Mothers.

The Desert Mothers were known as ammas or spiritual mothers, comparable to the Desert Fathers (abbas), and they were respected as spiritual teachers and directors.

The Desert Fathers are better known because most of the early lives of the saints were written by men for a male monastic audience. The occasional stories about the Desert Mothers come from the early Desert Fathers and their biographers. But many desert women had leadership roles within the Church too.

Some women converted their houses into religious establishments, although they could not be ordained deacon or priest.

The Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers, includes 47 sayings attributed to the Desert Mothers. There are several chapters dedicated to the Desert Mothers in the Lausiac History by Palladius, who mentions 2,975 women living in the desert. Other sources include the stories told over the years about the lives of saints of that time, traditionally called vitae. The lives of 12 female desert saints are described in Book I of Vitae Patrum (Lives of the Fathers).

One of the best-known Desert Mothers was Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, who has 27 sayings attributed to her in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Two other ammas, Theodora of Alexandria and Amma Sarah of the Desert, also have sayings in that book. Desert Mothers described by Palladius include Melania the Elder, Melania the Younger, Olympias, Saint Paula and her daughter Eustochium, and several women whom go unnamed.

Amma Syncletica may have been born ca 270, and is said to have lived to her 80s ca 350. She was born to wealthy parents in Alexandria and was well educated, studying the writings of Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus at an early age.

After the death of her parents, she sold everything she had and gave the money to the poor. Moving outside the city with her blind sister, she lived as a hermit among the tombs outside Alexandria. Gradually, a community of women ascetics grew up around her, and she served them as their spiritual mother. Although she was an ascetic and hermit, Syncletica taught moderation, and that asceticism was not an end in itself.

Theodora of Alexandria was the amma of a monastic community of women near Alexandria. Before that, she had fled to the desert disguised as a man and joined a community of monks. She was sought out by many of the Desert Fathers for advice, including Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria.

Sarah of the Desert was a hermit who lived by a river for 60 years. Her sharp replies to some of the old men who challenged her show a distinctly strong personality. One story recalls how two male anchorites visited her in the desert and decided to humiliate the old woman. They said to her, ‘Be careful not to become conceited thinking to yourself: Look how anchorites are coming to see me, a mere woman.’ She replied, ‘According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.’

Melania the Elder, the daughter of a Roman official, was widowed at a young age and moved to Alexandria, and then to the Nitrian Desert. She met several Desert Fathers, following them in their travels and ministering to them using her own money. At one point, she was thrown into prison for supporting them, after several of the Fathers had been banished by officials in Palestine. She eventually founded a convent in Jerusalem with about 50 nuns.

Her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, was married at the age of 13, but her two sons died at a young age. When she was 20, she and her husband Pinianus renounced the world and founded convents and monasteries.

The Desert Mothers are honoured with a Lesser Feast on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church on this day, 5 January.

John 1: 43-51 (NRSVA):

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46 Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49 Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50 Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51 And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

The prayer in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) invites us to pray this morning (5 January 2022):

We pray for the work of the Ecumenical Mission in Solidarity (in India) as they foster relationships across denominations.

Yesterday: Elizabeth Ann Seton

Tomorrow: Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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