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The Desert Mothers: First Women Christian Hermits

December 19, 2009

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.

If you want to learn more about the desert mothers, a couple of good books are The Forgotten Desert Mothers, by Laura Swan and  The Desert Mothers by Mary Earle.

——————————————————

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.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2009 1:54 am

    This was really fascinating, Lisa. I’ve never heard of these “desert mothers” before, but they seem really interesting. I’m going to have to check out these books you recommend, so I can learn more. Ever since I read ‘The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright, I’ve been fascinated by the earliest Christians; specifically how their beliefs differed from “mainstream” Christianity during the first and second centuries. Thank you for showing me a different group to learn about!

  2. December 19, 2009 2:33 am

    I like what you said about renunciation: “It is meant to be a simplification, a lessening of distraction, so that we can hear the quiet voice within.” Your words made me stop to think about renunciation as a choice.

    I have not heard about Amma Matrona. However, from the little you shared, she sounds like she has a lot to share. Thanks for the recommendation! Also, much thanks to your link love to my post on the retreat I attended.

  3. December 19, 2009 2:38 am

    I appreciate you lifting up the desert mothers in this post, and offering such helpful insight into what motivated them to live their lives of asceticism. We could all use the kind of quiet they were after! I rarely remember to look at self-denial as a way of pursuing freedom, but it’s good in this day and time to have that reminder. Thanks for the book recommendations, too. I look forward to checking them out!

  4. December 19, 2009 3:23 am

    this is so interesting, thank you for sharing it. I also hope you decide to write down those other ideas, because I would very much like to read them. Wishing you many blessings!

  5. December 19, 2009 3:48 am

    Funny but I live in the desert :) and my life is all about “…a simplification, a lessening of distraction, so that [I] can hear the quiet voice within.” The more I simplify the closer I come to my own true freedom. It’s a sweet way to live and in these times when our cultural values have become so obviously outrageous more of us are moving toward the sane option of simpler lives. I’m so happy to learn the desert mothers were paving the way so long ago.

  6. mommymystic permalink*
    December 19, 2009 4:21 am

    So glad people are liking this post!

    Jay – yes, to me the early Christians are those I resonate with the most, and certain ‘rebel’ mystics since…the rest of the history of Christianity is kind of a tragedy, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of mostly being a story of politics and power (like most of history, I suppose.) I have not read Wright’s book, thanks for mentioning.

    Evelyn – yes, I don’t personally resonate with renunciation as my main path, but I do know it has been valuable to me at times as a method for clearing away distraction…I view a lot of the current ‘simple living’ trends as being related to this. We know in the depths of our beings that we have gotten hyped up and distracted. This is why I Iiked my own Vipassana experience, and your post on yours.

    Susan – Thanks for visiting. As I mentioned to Evelyn, renunciation isn’t my main path either, but there is value in exploring its lessons in our own way.

    Sarah – Thanks for the encouragement, I would really like to do the Jesus post especially, but it needs some time to percolate (maybe by Easter??) and blessings to you too:-)

    Trish – Yes, we have a home in the desert that we spend whatever time we can at, and it is so dear to me. I do think this is partly why I resonate with these women. It is an acquired taste – I didn’t appreciate the peace and luminosity of the desert when I first visited, but now I do. The doorways between the worlds are open there.

  7. catefneely permalink
    December 19, 2009 4:40 am

    I was looking for other blogs featuring seasonal meditations and all I could find were the same rehashed phrases and prayers, each probably meaningful to the author, but featuring language that no longer carries meaning for me.

    So it was a lovely joy to come on your article. Thank you.

    Cate
    http://www.catefneely.wordpress.com

  8. December 19, 2009 11:00 am

    I’m still digesting your last post, which like this one, has been playing around my head and heart in ways I feel are too long-winded to enter into here. Suffice to say, I find you a bit spooky Lisa! I mean that in a good way!

    Forgive me if I’m being opaque – I’m referring to little coincidences/synchronicities in terms of what I’ve been encountering and feeling preoccupied lately. The lines I immediately glanced at here were:

    “It is meant to be a simplification, a lessening of distraction, so that we can hear the quiet voice within”.
    Renunciation is a powerful choice, a profound offering/dedication isn’t it? I think there is also a compassion for self in the heart of it also, seemingly in contradiction to the idea of denial it seems to embody. In defence of historical morality, could it have been also from a very pragmatic perspective also? That in putting aside one’s sexuality (the actively engaged physicality) then there was not the enmeshment (psychological and spiritual) with others that provide a distraction, and which can also lead to procreation, (which makes renunciation a bit bloody hard when you have children tugging at your skirts…hehe).

    The idea that it is a simplification and less distraction makes intuitive sense, and it’s not nearly as harsh as it’s been painted to be. Not an easy life though, I’ll warrant.

    And although it may seem a strange tangent to go on right now, your discussion of Vipaassana has made me think of a very different (less ascetic) set of Buddhist teachings that I was initiated into about 10 years ago (Vajrayana). Almost by “accident”, because I didn’t consciously seek this out, nor did I go looking for a teacher. But there you go. I would so love to sit and chat with you about all of this!

    Anyway, best wishes for the coming festivities, and blessings to you and yours.

  9. mommymystic permalink*
    December 19, 2009 4:40 pm

    Cate – glad it resonated. It did seem a bit at odds with the usual ‘Christmas’ spirit to write something focused on renunciation and asceticism, but to me it is part of what the winter solstice season is about- the stripping down in order to face truth directly. Then Xmas afterwards is the ‘celebratory’ part, welcoming the return of the light. So that’s how I celebrate the season personally. And these women are deeply inspiring in terms of being models of that journey.

    Nettles – spooky, huh? Well I have to say ‘back atcha’ to that one. I am sure you are right, re: celibacy being a pragmatic choice, in terms of avoiding the ‘children tugging at skirts’ phenomenon (which of course is exactly the stage I am at, but we are living in a much different time with laundry machines, and microwaves, and all sorts of other conveniences that mean childcare/homemaking is not the 24/7 back-breaking labor it once was. Not that that entirely prevents me from complaining at times of course:-) And I like what you said about it being a choice made out of ‘compassion for self’. What bothers me usually in the writings of these and other historical women mystics, particularly Christian ones, is that the renunciation too often comes off sounding like self-punishment for impurity, and there’s all this embedded language about the inherent moral weakness of women, etc. So I just ignore that stuff, partly because it often feels like the women themselves are just paying lip service to those ideas in order to avoid being burned at the stake or stoned (and who can blame them?) but in fact, they have reached a level of realization that is beyond all that ridiculousness.That’s the version of the story I have decided to focus on anyway:-) As for Vajrayana, I would really love to chat about that, you have not mentioned it before, but I always think of Tsultrim Allione when i think of you, have you read her? Anyway, that is also my background and I would say still my primary reference point…

  10. December 19, 2009 8:01 pm

    I had never encountered information about the Desert Mothers before, thank you for the post. My husband and I are trying to live simply and embrace blessings without trying to seek too much. It is hard in a capitalist/consumer driven society. Pressures all over. That is without mention of the distractions. Being on this computer is a distraction, media in general. We have so much information at our fingertips it has become hard to rely on the “still small voice” within, or to even hear it. Then, to think about even processing all the information we come across. There is a great video clip of Yogi Bhajan on YouTube (I wish I had a link) where he mentions our time now (I think the video was recorded in the early 90s). How we have so much information and we’ll drink it all in, but we won’t process it, or be able to use it and that will be damaging to us. Overload. Being a mother, I can’t imagine completely cutting off. I am actually planning on getting some part time work so that my husband and I can have health insurance and we can take the girls places like the national parks… maybe free ourselves of some debt… but I read posts like this and I wonder if those goals are for naught. I seek to be in the world a little more, as I see my isolation now affecting my patience in mothering. However, in my time of being a little closed off I have sought out a renewal of spirituality that is beginning to change my whole system of beliefs in that vein. I think it has been good. I think it is good in periods. For me, as a mother, probably not all the time. ;)

  11. December 20, 2009 4:01 am

    Lisa, What a greatly appreciated post this time of year as I try to make sense of motherhood, the Christmas story, living in darkness, and the coming of the light of the Sun! Having lived in Egypt for several years, knowing the ways of the desert landscape and the clarity the desert night sky offers, I consider it my spiritual home. And yet, while there and even after (especially while studying at seminary), never was there a mention of the Desert Mothers. How ironic and how typical, really. I wonder how the landscape would have changed for me had I known there were these significant women who had lived in the desert. But now I have this resource, thanks to your post. It does make me sad though how the politics and power of Christianity have all but erased this perspective of early women. Makes me wonder what else is missing.

    It is refreshing to hear of these women who lived so long ago at such an early stage of Christianity. And while my life has been a journey to discover the spirituality of women, I still long to find women today who somehow bring together these spiritual/mystical voices with the modern mother/woman experience of today. Basically, I am looking for women out there who are contemporary mystics–not necessarily ones who flee society, but ones who live within it (and even still practice a healthy mothering) while maintaining a mystical voice. I am on the look out for these mystics. I sometimes find them in artists, in writers, in mothers, an in bloggers. Still working this idea out but would love to hear your thoughts on the modern mystic experience of women.

  12. December 20, 2009 6:03 am

    Wow. To be mentioned here is an honor. I’m not sure why. Sometimes I see such beauty in others, and forget that it is already there within, just asking me to be still so I can feel it.

    Thanks for the introduction to the desert mothers. There is so much similarity in religious practices, it seems almost silly to claim one trumps another.

  13. December 20, 2009 10:22 am

    Love these chicks. Like you, I ignore a large chunk of their ideas and ways, but overall, I’ve always liked the Christian mystics. Because, as was their point, they were connected to the spirit of their beliefs at an intensity and peace that is rarely found with other Christ followers of the time.

    Would you mind picking one of those books as the preferred general text? I own broad Christian mysticism books but would like one on the desert mothers. Preferrably the one with the most of their quotes.

    Have a wonderful time!

  14. mommymystic permalink*
    December 20, 2009 4:13 pm

    Kelli, so many things in your comment that I relate to. First, I do agree media, including the internet, can be such a distraction. On the other hand, it can be a great form of community, a way of finding people that we really resonate with, because the chances of finding that right in our local communities is not always high. So I think it is what we make of it. But it can certainly be addictive and crossover into over-stimulation and useless data, as Yogi Bhajan alludes to. Finding the balance is a day to day process for me I think (and one of the reasons my blogging and commenting is a bit sporadic!!) As for mothering, I can relate to both things you said – a desire for more connection to the outside world, feeling like being home impacts your patience, but also the idea that you want a certain level of ‘hermitage’ or nesting for yourself and your family. I think it is different for each family, each mother, and we have to be honest with ourselves. These women in this article did not have children, so we can only use them as models to a certain extent. Being a mother automatically connects us to the world in a different way, and creates new needs and responsibilities, both for ourselves and our family, that we have to honor. It is a different kind of spiritual journey I think, as you alluded to.

    Nicki – Wow, Egypt, I would so love to visit. I also love the desert and spend a lot of time there, mostly the deserts of the southwest U.S. I guess I’m not surprised there was no mention of the Desert Mothers (or Fathers?) in seminary – officially these early Christians are kind of considered rogues I guess (which is probably why I like them so much:-) As for the contemporary women mystics you describe, I am looking for those same women! And I have found them, in the blogs I read, and in classes I attend. There really is an explosion of interest in a new kind of spirituality, a kind merged with mothering and living in the world, I think. Although my definition of ‘mystic’ is pretty broad, not necessarily tied to any specific spiritual or religions tradition. I do look forward to dialoguing more with you on this topic…

    Mermaid – I think that was a powerful post of yours. I almost emailed you first to ask if it was ok to link to it, but then I realized you had decided to share it, on a public blog already, so hope that was OK. I had been thinking of doing a post on facing the darkness, on transmuting it, ‘feeding your demons’ Tsultrim Allione type of thing, as to me that is the energy and symbolism of winter solstice, but it didn’t come together. In the end, I think your post said it much better anyway! You have a gift for verbalizing the inner life…

    Mon – The Swan book definitely has the most quotes. The Earle book kind of focuses on adapting the practices of the women to modern life. I think the Sayings book has the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon, so you can preview the first few chapters and see if it resonates for you. A lot of their quotes are of the ‘lead us not into temptation’ variety, so you definitely have to look past all that…but I do think there is this power that comes ‘between the lines’ so to speak…

  15. December 21, 2009 3:06 am

    Happy Solstice! “See” you in the New Year!

    ~~~~ blessings ~~~~

  16. December 21, 2009 5:59 pm

    Hi Lisa,

    What a fascinating post! Thank you so much for sharing that wealth of information with all of us. I love to learn new things and so much of what you wrote was new to me. Those women were really pioneers and truly must have felt so called by God to go through such experiences.

    Your words on renunication were beautiful. Renunication is something that has been a part of me for sometime. As you know, I almost became a nun because I do much felt called to serve and renounce the world but I just could not give up on the idea of being married. Now the irony is that I got married and I still live a very spiritually based life. So I think renunication can mean so much more than we realize and your words just hit the nail on the head.

    Thank you too for including my posts in your article. I am honored.

    Have a blessed holiday season! :)

  17. December 23, 2009 10:40 pm

    Marvelous post, Lisa. I am so glad more people are finally recognizing the Desert Mothers. Do you know that when I was in my training program to become a spiritual director we studied the Desert Fathers only? Amazing! These women have so much to offer us, especially in their devotion and passion to God as they understood it. And the choices they made, how misunderstood to many they might have been. Thanks for recognizing their soulful lives.

    And just wanted to say what a joy and blessing it has been to meet you this year. I feel so kindred with you and to know you (as best we can through the blog world) has been pure pleasure. I admire you and offer my deepest respect for all the choices you continue to make for yourself and your family that honor the Sacred…

    Love to you, always, all ways,
    Jan

  18. December 24, 2009 7:43 pm

    “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.”

    Beautiful. It reaffirms that there aren’t any practices or paths that lead to natural being. As Krishnamurti said, Truth is pathless. And yet, practice can have the effect of settling the peaks of particular points of view in Awareness, so we can see that we already are Awareness.

    Great post, and happy holidays!

    k

  19. December 25, 2009 6:03 pm

    Hi Lisa

    Just wanted to drop by and say Merry Christmas and thank you for all the inspiring articles this year. You do so much to promote women, even ancient desert mothers. I hope those three children are filling you with joy today. Happy Holidays!

  20. mommymystic permalink*
    December 28, 2009 12:03 am

    Glad everyone enjoyed the post and thanks for the well wishes…I am (mostly) offline this week on vacation with family, hope everyone has a wonderful start to the New Year!

  21. December 30, 2009 5:46 am

    Hi there Lisa – I see from your last post that you like the holiday period – so I hope you are having a good one!

    Thanks for introducing me to the desert mothers – they seemed to be quite aware people.

    Cheers Lisa – Robin

  22. January 3, 2010 3:49 am

    Glad you included your “Buddhist views of Jesus” link – those parallel quotes are interesting.

    If I had to bet, to me it seems more straightforward and likely to attribute the similarities to the fact that mystical experience is something that people have known around the world rather than suppose that Jesus traveled to the Far East.

  23. mommymystic permalink*
    January 4, 2010 11:23 pm

    Paul, I tend to think in those terms too, although there is some interesting ‘proof’ out there in that regard…and certainly many of Jesus’ teachings seem to have more in common with Eastern philosophy of the period than with the Jewish teachings of his upbringing.

  24. sanjay patidar permalink
    December 23, 2010 6:39 pm

    lisa i appreciate your search and want toask you wheather you reached there or still searcing Iam a sanyasi and can help in mysticism

  25. January 13, 2011 3:16 am

    Sanjay – We are all still searching…and yet not! I think enlightenment in infinite so the process is also…

  26. Anonymous permalink
    December 26, 2012 1:02 pm

    Very interesting and clear to read.. thank you for posting this.

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