The Desert Mothers: First Women Christian Hermits
I have had a lot of ideas floating around in my head for a post this week – on the meaning and energy of Solstice, on Jesus, on owning the darkness, and more, but none of them quite came together. So they are for another time, perhaps. I did do an article on Buddhist views of Jesus for BellaOnline that might interest some of you. And other bloggers have touched on some of the themes that intrigued me in their own recent posts, so I will share some of their posts at the end of this one.
For here I decided to add to the Women Mystics page (which I repeatedly vow to do monthly and then forget!) I wanted to profile some of my own favorite women Christian mystics – the Desert Mothers.
The ‘desert mothers’ are the counterpart to the ‘desert fathers’ – the first Christian ascetics, who headed out into the deserts of the Middle East to replicate Jesus’ own desert spiritual realizations through meditation, prayer, fasting, and very simple living. One of the most famous desert fathers, St. Anthony the Great, is considered the father of Christian monastics, and is attributed the following quote, which in a way encapsulates the difference in attitude between these early Christians and the later church (especially the medieval church):
“I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.”
These early Christians began heading out into the desert in the first century after Jesus’ death in order to escape persecution. They would live alone or in small groups, surviving off the land, and engaging in long periods of meditation and prayer, just as Jesus himself had done during his 40 days in the desert. Teachings and practices were passed orally from generation to generation. When the Roman Emperor Constantine cast his support for Christianity in 313, these communities and hermitages became more open, and continued to grow in strength. Eventually some of these communities began to formalize their structure, laying the foundation for monastic life.
Several communities of desert women ascetics sprang up, in spite of harsh disapproval from Christian ‘urban’ leaders. Their lifestyle was austere, partly because of the desert surroundings and partly because of their strict renunciate vows. As in the case of most ascetic traditions, their asceticism originated not as a rejection of material goods and the world, but instead as a means for stripping themselves down in order to hear ‘the voice of God.’ The process of simplification and purification was a means of lessening the ‘noise’ that blocked them from what they believed was their natural connection to God.
The desert mothers also highly prized humility and celibacy, both of which they also saw as a means to clear out distractions. At times their rigid rejection of sexuality can seem a bit tiresome to our modern sensibilities…but of course that’s been a problem with Christianity throughout its history, so I try and overlook that when I am reading their sayings. What I find inspiring is the great lengths they went to, defying the social expectations of women at the time, and the physical hardships they suffered, in order to follow the spiritual drive within.
We don’t know a lot about their lives, but many of their teachings and sayings have come down to us through later monastics. Here’s a few of my favorites (they are all referred to as ‘Amma’ which means mother.)
From Amma Matrona – from what little we know of her, she resided in the deserts of upper Egypt:
“We carry ourselves wherever we go and we cannot escape temptation through mere flight.”
In the context of her other quotes, this one has a lot of depth and relevance, as she is saying we can’t simply change our job, or our house, or our environment, or religion, or spiritual practices, or anything else and expect that on its own that will solve any of our problems or bring us any lasting happiness. It’s an ancient variation on “wherever you go, there you are.” The real change is always within.
From Amma Synclectica, who has many quotes ascribed to her and appears to have generated quite a following in her time:
“Those who have endured the labors and dangers of the sea and then amass material riches, even when they have gained much desire more. They consider what they have at present to be nothing, and reach out for what they have not got. We, who have nothing that we desire, wish to acquire everything through God.”
Of course this one could be right out of a Buddhist text, in terms of the assessment that desire just begets desire. And although Buddha ultimately rejected pure asceticism in favor of ‘the middle way’, I think this quote gets to the heart of what renunciation is really supposed to be about in both traditions (and other spiritual traditions, for that matter): It isn’t meant to be a moral rejection of the body, the material world, or physical reality in general. It is meant to be a simplification, a lessening of distraction, so that we can hear the quiet voice within.
From Amma Sarah, whom we have more life details for: She was born into a wealthy Christian family in Upper Egypt, and as an adult rejected her family to move near a women’s monastery in the desert. For many years, she lived alone nearby in a small ascetic cell, and was known for tending to the sick in the local community. Eventually she joined the monastery full-time and became a spiritual elder there. Many sayings are attributed to her, including:
“If I prayed that all people should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, so I shall rather pray that my heart shall be pure towards all.”
I think any of us can relate to this quote, in terms of the impossibility of ever earning the approval of everyone we know. We can never control others’ perceptions of us, only our response.
A few recent posts I’ve liked, that are related to this one or at the very least the holiday season:
A two-part series at Happy Lotus, When in Doubt: To Be Like John or Jesus?
An honest description of a Vipassana retreat (which is probably the most ascetic Buddhist tradition alive today) at Abundance Tapestry - Goenka Vipassana Meditation: Your Body as a Laboratory
By Mermaid from a personal perspective, an account of Embracing the Darkness (which is really what the energy of Winter Solstice is all about, from my perspective – embracing the darkness to come back into the light new)
And at Holistic Mama, ideas for celebrating Solstice/Yuletide/Winter without the hype of Christmas in Magic (mostly) Without Christmas
This will probably be the last post of the year for me, so I truly wish all of you a light-filled solstice/Christmas/New Year (or whatever!) May love and joy be yours.