Encouragement from the Desert Mothers in Troubling Times
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out
to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
Jesus may have prayed about several of the things that worry us today: the feeling that the world has been overrun by elements of evil can be overwhelming. So, it is good to remember that Jesus sustained himself by withdrawing to pray alone, often in the wilderness. And many were inspired to follow him there, particularly in the early centuries of Christianity.
While most of these Early Christian desert elders were men praying to God in the rough terrain of the hills outside of Palestinian villages and above the Nile, there were women as well who withdrew into the desert, seeking to truly live out the command of Christ. They, too, have left us a treasury of spiritual wisdom in their short sayings—apophthegmata—similar in form to the earliest remembered sayings of Jesus. Even within the Greek collection, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, (Apophthegmata Patrum), there are a trio of women elders remembered for their God-loving teaching.
The advice and exhortation of the Desert Mothers make them excellent spiritual guides in today’s troubling world. Their admirable inner stillness can be a helpful role model in conflicted times. In personal sessions between spiritual elder and disciple, they taught their followers to imitate Christ and to face off temptation, often leaving them with a Saying meant to personally guide their prayer throughout the day, uphold their courage, and inspire the spiritual warrior within each one of them to serve the highest good in the world.
The special appeal of this teaching to heroic souls remains strong today, and you may find yourself among them. The strength and tenacity and patience to overpower evil all come from the Lord. The Desert Mothers knew this intimately, and they taught their followers from the depth of their own faith in the risen Lord. These are wise elders who are walking the spiritual path before you—the Desert Mothers can help you. Their teaching reveals that, from the very beginning of the life of the Church, women elders have in the name of Jesus Christ been initiators of new patterns of prayer and askesis. Here are a few examples from the teaching of the three Desert Mothers who are recorded in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Remember that, before the sayings of Jesus were gathered into Gospel narratives, they were handed on by word-of-mouth, with hopefully a faithful spark of the initial memory carrying forward in each living parable. And so it is with the Sayings of the Desert Mothers: they were remembered by their followers, who in turn became elders themselves. So, like the remembered sayings of Jesus—abrupt and radiant in essential wisdom—many of the sayings of the Desert Mothers undoubtedly trace back to an individual follower’s memory of receiving advice from a wise spiritual guide—some short jewel of instruction writ large upon the heart, and then handed down to generations of spiritual seekers. In fact, it may be the spark of living wisdom still at work in these teachings which has kept them alive, and they can guide you today.
Mother Theodora said: “This present age is a storm, and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven” (Apophthegmata Patrum, Theodora, 2). This Desert Mother was thought to be the widow of a fourth-century Roman Prefect of Egypt in Alexandria, and she followed her faith in Jesus Christ into the desert. She is celebrated for being a trusted colleague of her Bishop, Theophilus, and she was often consulted about the secrets of the monastic life. Theodora is venerated as a saint on her feastday, September 11. The Desert Mothers were not simply focused on their own spiritual benefit; they were committed to a deep sense of justice and service to the Christian community—for the love of their neighbor.
“Raise your hands in prayer, my Sisters,” Mother Theodora said, “and beg God that, when it is your time, your soul and the souls of those dear to you, may pass by safely all the evil in the world impeding their way to Heaven” (Matericon: Instructions of Abba Isaiah to the Honorable Nun Theodora , 68). Like the Desert Mothers, strive to be a spiritual warrior of the highest good. Amma Theodora said: “Never forget that in a life of intense prayer, God becomes your defense in all the virtues. When needed, the mighty Lord will come to your defense, fully armed” (Ibid., 72). She also said, “Fasting can help you—it helps to rein in sin. See how the one who fails at fasting becomes like a stallion frantic for mares?” (Ibid., 46)
As you explore the spirituality of the Desert Mothers, at its deepest core is profound compassion and gratitude for the mercy of God. The Sayings resonate with respect and tenderness for the ancient elders teaching them, and with welcome for the zealous eagerness of newcomers who came among them. The teachings of the Desert Mothers can speak to you very personally because of the practical wisdom they offer in responding to their own followers. They knew the presence of God was hidden in silence—and in repeated prayer, such as the Jesus Prayer; and in deep, patient contemplation on passages of Scripture; and in small searching questions posed; and in simple fluid, very human stories; and often in short abrupt sayings.
Mother Sarah is another desert elder who is believed to have withdrawn up into the hills above the Nile, possibly near Scetis, and following the command of Christ, to have flourished in her life as a teaching hermit for 60 years. Her feastday is celebrated on July 13. At its heart, her ministry is founded on her personal search for peace in her relationship with God. As Amma Sarah navigated her commitment to sacred celibacy in the name of Jesus Christ, she experienced herself fighting sexual temptation so fierce that she perceived it as battling with a demon. The Sayings of the Fathers report that: “Amma Sarah waged warfare against the demon of her temptation for thirteen years. Yet, even in the worst of it, she refused to pray for it to cease; instead, she prayed ‘O God, give me strength’” (Apophthegmata Patrum, Sarah, 1).
One of her sayings tells how, in her valiant combat, even the Devil himself had to admit finally that she had overcome him. Yet, she answered, “It is not I who have overcome you, but my master, Christ” (Ibid., 2). In describing her ascetical prayer practice, it was said that from her hermitage, you could look down the slope of the hill and see the Nile flowing by; but that for 60 years, Amma Sarah remained so focused on her prayer to Christ that she never stopped to simply enjoy watching the river go by (Ibid., 3). To keep herself ever mindful of the seriousness of her ministry, she wisely taught that: “I never so much as take a step onto the ladder of spiritual progress without placing death before my eyes before going up it” (Ibid., 6). Once a follower cried out to the Elder, “Amma! Why does Temptation attack me in the night hours?”—and she replied: “Its container is inside you. Give back the mortgage, and it will leave you” (Matericon, 57).
Even the other Mothers in the Desert sought out Amma Sarah, and one of them asked her, “So much Evil in the world—I am assaulted by every injustice I witness—what shall I do?” The holy one answered: “Do not try to battle all of them. Fight against the chief one and all the others will perish. For this, my child, is your spiritual combat: the power of stillness, fasting, tears from the heart, and a multitude of prostrations and humble offerings in your prayer” (Ibid., 58).
The third Desert Mother included among the Sayings of the Fathers is Syncletica. She is thought to have come from Alexandria and to have begun her ascetical life within the home. This is how several deeply committed religious women were able to begin their spiritual journey toward God in the early centuries after Christ; Macrina, the older sister and teacher of Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great is another example. Amma Syncletica is known to have been a wise counselor of the soul, and many of her sayings survive to this day. “Your life striving for the presence of God,” she taught, “is like Paradise; it must be guarded by a flaming sword—of prayer and the remembrance of God” (Ibid., 61).
Teachings from the Desert Mothers can be useful in encouraging and coaching your faith life, especially when a prayer message in one of the Sayings still inspires you with its living wisdom:
“There is struggling and toil at first,” teaches Amma Syncletica,(Apophthegmata Patrum, Syncletica. 1)
“for all those advancing toward God; but afterward, my children,
inexpressible joy. Indeed, just as those seeking to light a fire at first
are engulfed in smoke and teary-eyed, thus they obtain what they seek.
As it is said, ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29). So, we
ought to kindle the Divine Fire in ourselves with tears and toil.”
Mother Syncletica coached all her followers to: “Constantly clean out the soul. Smoke out the poison and vermin of sinful thoughts with the divine incense of prayer” (Matericon, 66). Even when a disciple came to the Amma very upset, asking: “What if you realize you yourself have done evil?” Syncletica said: “Remember—if anytime you fall into sin, you say with humility, please forgive me, it will be forgiven you” (Ibid., 63).
The practical wisdom of all three of these Desert Mothers leaves us with a storehouse of their advice and encouragement to guide you along your own pathway of faith and its everyday challenges, navigating our harsh world these days. Some of the teachings of the Desert Mothers are remembered as simple stories or parables. Here is one from Mother Theodora about the ways that our flawed humanity can get in the way of our right relationship with God:
Once there was a true seeker of God who came to the Amma(Apophthegmata Patrum, Theodora, 6)
frustrated with the daily temptations in life. And Theodora
responded, coaching her spirit. “Try this,” she said. “Turn
and face your temptations—just talk to them, as if they were
Devils.” “Yes,” the woman cried out, and she turned and said,
“I can’t diet enough to get rid of you.” And they answered her:
“We do not eat or drink.” And she said: “What if I stay up all night
and pray the Vigil?” And they answered her: “We do not sleep.”
And she cried out: “What power, then, sends you away?” And her
Devils answered: “Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.
The wisdom of the Desert Mothers can help strengthen your personal prayer life and ultimately, your personal ministry in this world. Like the message of Jesus, the women elders from the early days of Christianity offer you their treasury of wise Sayings and true-life parables. Let us give St. Mary of Egypt the last word. She is remembered praying in the desert: “Now, therefore, lead me, where ever you please, Lord; lead me to salvation, teach me what is true, and go before me in the way of repentance.” (David G.B. Keller, Desert Banquet , 187)
V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. Her book, From Their Lips: Voices of Early Christian Women, is forthcoming from Gorgias Press. In this meditation presented to St. Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Mission, in the New York City, the icon of Mother Syncletica is written by Iconographer Eileen McGuckin.