Desert Mothers

The Desert Mothers were female Christian ascetics living in the desert of Egypt, Israel, and Syria in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. They typically lived in the monastic communities that began forming during that time, though sometimes they 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.[1]

The Desert Fathers are much more well known because most of the early lives of the saints "were written by men for a male monastic audience"[2]—the occasional stories about the Desert Mothers come from the early Desert Fathers and their biographers. Many desert women had leadership roles within the Christian community. The Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers, includes forty-seven sayings that are actually 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.[2] Other sources include the various stories told over the years about the lives of saints of that era, traditionally called vitae ("life").[3] The lives of twelve female desert saints are described in Book I of Vitae Patrum (Lives of the Fathers).[4]

Francisco de Zurbarán 043
Desert Mothers Saint Paula and her daughter Eustochium with their spiritual advisor Saint Jerome—painting by Francisco de Zurbarán

Notable examples

The Desert Mothers were known as ammas ("spiritual mothers"), comparable to the Desert Fathers (abbas), due to the respect they earned as spiritual teachers and directors.[5] One of the most well known Desert Mothers was Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, who had twenty-seven sayings attributed to her in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Two other ammas, Theodora of Alexandria and Amma Sarah of the Desert, also had sayings in that book. Desert Mothers described in the Lausiac History include Melania the Elder, Melania the Younger, Olympias, Saint Paula and her daughter Eustochium, and several women whom the author does not name.[6]

According to written accounts, Amma Syncletica might have been born around AD 270, since she is said to have lived to her eighties in about AD 350, to wealthy parents in Alexandria and was well educated, including an early study of the writings of Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus. 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 of Alexandria. Gradually a community of women ascetics grew up around her, who she served as their spiritual mother. Even though she was an ascetic and hermit, Syncletica taught moderation, and that asceticism was not an end in itself.[7]

Theodora of Alexandria was the amma of a monastic community of women near Alexandria. Prior to 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—reportedly Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria came to her for counsel.[8]

Sarah of the Desert's sayings indicate that she was a hermit living by a river for sixty years. Her sharp replies to some of the old men who challenged her show a distinctly strong personality.[6] According to one story, two male anchorites visited her in the desert and decided, "Let's humiliate this 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."[9]

Melania the Elder, the daughter of a Roman official, became widowed at a young age and moved to Alexandria, and then to the Nitrian Desert. She met several of the 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 the officials in Palestine. She eventually founded a convent in Jerusalem which had about fifty nuns.[10] Her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, was married at the age of thirteen and had two sons, both of whom died at a young age. When she was twenty, she and her husband Pinianus renounced the world, both founding convents and monasteries.[10]

According to Averil Cameron, women were quite prominent in the desert tradition, even though early accounts often leave women nameless. In Cameron’s opinion there is no distinction between the men’s wise sayings and that of Amma Sarah and Amma Syncletia. One text refers to Theodora, who had monks listening to her counsel and asking questions. Some women converted their houses into religious establishments and there were gender-mixed social/religious groups. Women could not obtain ordination as a deacon or a priest.[11]

Sayings

  • 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."[12]
  • 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."[13]
  • 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."[14]
  • 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?"[15]

See also

References

Citations

  1. ^ Cardman 2000, p. 373.
  2. ^ a b King nd.
  3. ^ Cardman 2000, pp. 373–374.
  4. ^ Beresford 2007, p. 10.
  5. ^ Earle 2007, pp. 1–2.
  6. ^ a b Cardman 2000, p. 374.
  7. ^ Chryssavgis 2008, pp. 29–32.
  8. ^ Earle 2007, p. 41; Swan 2001, p. 104.
  9. ^ Forman 2005, p. 32.
  10. ^ a b Palladius 1918.
  11. ^ Cameron 1993.
  12. ^ Swan 2001, p. 43.
  13. ^ Swan 2001, p. 39.
  14. ^ Chryssavgis 2008, p. 30.
  15. ^ Chryssavgis 2008, p. 73.

Works cited

Beresford, Andrew M. (2007). The Legends of the Holy Harlots: Thaïs and Pelagia in Medieval Spanish Literature. Colección Támesis, Serie A: Monografías. 238. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Tamesis Books. ISBN 978-1-85566-144-8. ISSN 0587-9914.
Cameron, Averil (1993). "Desert Mothers: Women Ascetics in Early Christian Egypt". In Puttick, Elizabeth; Clarke, Bernard (eds.). Women as Teachers and Disciples in Traditional and New Religions. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press. pp. 11–24. ISBN 978-0-7734-9346-9.
Cardman, Francine (2000). "Desert Mothers". In Johnston, William M. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Monasticism. 1. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. pp. 373–375. ISBN 978-1-57958-090-2.
Chryssavgis, John (2008). In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (rev. ed.). Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom. ISBN 978-1-933316-56-7.
Earle, Mary C. (2007). The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness. New York: Church Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8192-2156-8.
Forman, Mary (2005). Praying with the Desert Mothers. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press. ISBN 978-0-8146-1522-5.
King, Margot (nd). The Desert Mothers: A Survey of the Feminine Anchoretic Tradition in Western Europe. Peregrina Publishing. Archived from the original on 24 August 2014. Retrieved 25 June 2018.
Palladius of Galatia (1918). The Lausiac History. Translated by Clarke, W. K. L. London: SPCK. Retrieved 25 June 2018 – via Internet Medieval Source Book.
Swan, Laura (2001). The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women. New York: Paulist Press. ISBN 978-0-8091-4016-9.

Further reading

Ward, Benedicta (1985). "Apophthegmata Matrum". In Livingstone, E. A. (ed.). Studia Patristica. 16.2. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. pp. 63–66.
Agabus

Agabus (Greek: Ἄγαβος) was an early follower of Christianity mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as a prophet. He is traditionally remembered as one of the Seventy Disciples described in Luke 10:1-24.

Anam Cara

Anam Cara is a phrase that refers to the Celtic concept of the "soul friend" in religion and spirituality. The phrase is an anglicization of the Irish word anamchara, anam meaning "soul" and cara meaning "friend". The term was popularized by Irish author John O'Donohue in his 1997 book Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom about Celtic spirituality. In the Celtic tradition "soul friends" are considered an essential and integral part of spiritual development. The Martyrology of Óengus recounts an incident where Brigid of Kildare counseled a young cleric that "...anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head." A similar concept is found in the Welsh periglour.The Anam Cara involves a friendship that psychotherapist William P. Ryan describes as "compassionate presence". According to O'Donohue, the word anamchara originates in Irish monasticism, where it was applied to a monk's teacher, companion, or spiritual guide. However, Edward C. Sellner traces its origin to the early Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers: "This capacity for friendship and ability to read other people's hearts became the basis of the desert elders' effectiveness as spiritual guides." Their teachings were preserved and passed on by the Christian monk John Cassian, who explained that the soul friend could be clerical or lay, male or female.

Apophthegmata Patrum

The Apophthegmata Patrum (lit. Sayings of the Fathers) (Latin: Apophthegmata Patrum Aegyptiorum Greek: ἀποφθέγματα τῶν ἁγίων γερόντων, ἀποφθέγματα τῶν πατέρων, τὸ γεροντικόν) is the name given to various collections popularly known as of Sayings of the Desert Fathers, consisting of stories and sayings attributed to the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers from approximately the 5th century AD.The collections consist of wisdom stories describing the spiritual practices and experiences of early Christian hermits living in the desert of Egypt. They are typically in the form of a conversation between a younger monk and his spiritual father, or as advice given to visitors. Beginning as an oral tradition in the Coptic language, they were only later written down as Greek text. The stories were extremely popular among early Christian monks, and appeared in various forms and collections.The original sayings were passed down from monk to monk, though in their current version most simply describe the stories in the form of "Abba X said...." The early Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers also received many visitors seeking counseling, typically by asking "Give me a word, abba" or "Speak a word, amma, how can I be saved?" Some of the sayings are responses to those seeking guidance.Many notable Desert Fathers are mentioned in the collections, including Anthony the Great, Abba Arsenius, Abba Poemen, Abba Macarius of Egypt, and Abba Moses the Black. The sayings also include those of three different ammas, or Desert Mothers, most notably Syncletica of Alexandria. Sayings of the Desert Fathers influenced many notable theologians, including Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine.

Athleta Christi

"Athleta Christi" (Latin: "Champion of Christ") was a class of Early Christian soldier martyrs, of whom the most familiar example is one such "military saint," Saint Sebastian.

Cappadocian Fathers

The Cappadocian Fathers, also traditionally known as the Three Cappadocians, are Basil the Great (330–379), who was bishop of Caesarea; Basil's younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395), who was bishop of Nyssa; and a close friend, Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389), who became Patriarch of Constantinople. The Cappadocia region, in modern-day Turkey, was an early site of Christian activity, with several missions by Paul in this region.

The Cappadocians advanced the development of early Christian theology, for example the doctrine of the Trinity, and are highly respected as saints in both Western and Eastern churches.

Confessor of the Faith

The title Confessor, the short form of Confessor of the Faith, is a title given by the Christian Church to a type of saint.

Dalua of Tibradden

Saint Dalua of Tibradden (Irish: Do-Lúe, Latin: Daluanus), also called Dalua of Craoibheach, was an early Irish saint who is said to have been a disciple of St. Patrick. He founded a church that became known as Dun Tighe Bretan (Tibradden) which is located today in the townland of Cruagh, Co. Dublin.

Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers (along with Desert Mothers) were early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD. The Apophthegmata Patrum is a collection of the wisdom of some of the early desert monks and nuns, in print as Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The most well known was Anthony the Great, who moved to the desert in AD 270–271 and became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism. By the time Anthony died in AD 356, thousands of monks and nuns had been drawn to living in the desert following Anthony's example—his biographer, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote that "the desert had become a city." The Desert Fathers had a major influence on the development of Christianity.

The desert monastic communities that grew out of the informal gathering of hermit monks became the model for Christian monasticism. The eastern monastic tradition at Mount Athos and the western Rule of Saint Benedict both were strongly influenced by the traditions that began in the desert. All of the monastic revivals of the Middle Ages looked to the desert for inspiration and guidance. Much of Eastern Christian spirituality, including the Hesychast movement, had its roots in the practices of the Desert Fathers. Even religious renewals such as the German evangelicals and Pietists in Pennsylvania, the Devotio Moderna movement, and the Methodist Revival in England are seen by modern scholars as being influenced by the Desert Fathers.

Great martyr

Great Martyr or Great-Martyr (Greek: μεγαλομάρτυς or μεγαλομάρτυρ, megalomartys or megalomartyr, from megas, "great" + "martyr") is a classification of saints who are venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Rite of Constantinople.

Generally speaking, a Great Martyr is a martyr who has undergone excruciating tortures—often performing miracles and converting unbelievers to Christianity in the process—and who has attained widespread veneration throughout the Church. These saints are often from the first centuries of the Church, before the Edict of Milan. This term is normally not applied to saints who could be better described as hieromartyrs (martyred clergy) or protomartyrs (the first martyr in a given region).

Hermit

A hermit (adjectival form: eremitic or hermitic) is a person who lives in seclusion from society, usually for religious reasons. Hermits are a part of several sections of Christianity, and the concept is found in other religions as well.

Judas Barsabbas

Judas Barsabbas was a New Testament prophet and one of the 'leading men' in the early Christian community in Jerusalem at the time of the Council of Jerusalem in around 50 A.D.

Melchior (magus)

Saint Melchior, or Melichior, was purportedly one of the Biblical Magi along with Caspar and Balthazar who visited the infant Jesus after he was born. Melchior was often referred to as the oldest member of the Magi. He was traditionally called the King of Persia and brought the gift of gold to Jesus. In the Western Christian church, he is regarded as a saint (as are the other two Magi).

Michael of Synnada

Michael of Synnada (Michael the Confessor) (died 818) was a bishop of Synnada from 784. He represented Byzantium in diplomatic missions to Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne. He was exiled by Emperor Leo V the Armenian because of his opposition to iconoclasm. Honored by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, his feast day is May 23.

Military saint

The military saints or warrior saints (also called soldier saints) of the Early Christian Church are

Christian saints who were soldiers in the Roman Army during the persecution of Christians, especially the Diocletian persecution of AD 303–313.

Most were soldiers of the Empire who had become Christian and, after refusing to participate in rituals of loyalty to the Emperor (see Imperial cult), were subjected to corporal punishment including torture and martyrdom.

Veneration of these saints, most notably of Saint George, was reinforced in Western tradition during the time of the Crusades.

The title of "champion of Christ" (athleta Christi) was originally used for these saints, but in the late medieval period also conferred on contemporary rulers by the Pope.

Sarah of the Desert

Amma (Mother) Sarah of the Desert (5th century) was one of the early Desert Mothers who is known to us today solely through the collected Sayings of the Desert Fathers. She was a hermit and followed a life dedicated to strict asceticism for some sixty years.

Sarah is said to have dwelt in a monastic cell near a large river, likely the Nile, at which she would never look. Her sayings attest that this saint spent her life battling a demon that tempted her to fornication. Records indicate that Sarah lived near Skete in the early to mid-5th century.Sarah is commemorated on 13 July in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

Silas

Silas or Silvanus (; Greek: Σίλας/Σιλουανός; fl. 1st century AD) was a leading member of the Early Christian community, who accompanied Paul the Apostle on parts of his first and second missionary journeys.

Virgin (title)

The title Virgin (Latin Virgo, Greek Παρθένος) is an honorific bestowed on female saints and blesseds in both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Chastity is one of the seven virtues in Christian tradition, listed by Pope Gregory I at the end of the 6th century. In 1 Corinthians, Saint Paul suggests a special role for virgins or unmarried women (ἡ γυνὴ καὶ ἡ παρθένος ἡ ἄγαμος) as more suitable for "the things of the Lord" (μεριμνᾷ τὰ τοῦ κυρίου).

In 2 Corinthians 11:2, Paul alludes to the metaphor of the Church as Bride of Christ by addressing the congregation

"I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ".

In the theology of the Church Fathers, the prototype of the sacred virgin is Mary, the mother of Jesus, consecrated by the Holy Spirit at Annunciation.

Although not stated in the gospels, the perpetual virginity of Mary was widely upheld as a dogma by the Church Fathers from the 4th century.

Vitae Patrum

The Vitae Patrum (literally Lives of the Fathers, also called Lives of the Desert Fathers) is an encyclopedia of hagiographical writings on the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers of early Christianity. The bulk of the original texts date from the third and fourth centuries. The Lives that were originally written in Greek were translated into Latin between the fourth and the seventh century. An Italian vernacular translation was made by Dominican friar Domenico Cavalca from Pisa at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

A printed edition, edited by the Jesuit Heribert Rosweyde, was printed by Balthazar Moret in 1615. The book is a significant part of the much broader work, Acta Sanctorum.The Vitae Patrum is based on extensive research by Rosweyde into all the available literature he could find on the early desert monastics. Hippolyte Delehaye described the work as "the epic of the origins of monasticism in Egypt and Syria, an epic unsurpassed in interest and grandeur." In the thirteenth century, a version of Vitae Patrum had been translated into Latin. It was such a popular book that numerous versions and editions were published, with extensive changes and variations in the stories. Rosweyde based his book on twenty-three different versions of those earlier books, studying, dating, and classifying all the different versions and changes.Rosweyde's Vitae Patrum consists of ten books. Book I has the lives of sixteen saints under the title Vitae virorum and eleven saints under the title Vitae mulierum, beginning with St. Paul the Hermit and St. Anthony of the Desert, and including women saints such as Saint Mary the Harlot. Books II, Historia monachorum, and III, Verba seniorum (Sayings of the Elders), are attributed to Rufinus, who was later found to be only their translator. Book IV is a compilation of writings by Sulpicius Severus and John Cassian. Book V is another collection of Verba seniorum from Latin and Greek by Pelagius.Book VI and Book VII are further collections of Verba seniorum (Sayings of the Elders) by unknown Greek authors translated by John the subdeacon, possibly Pope John III, and by Paschasius. Book VIII is a text that was previously known as The Paradise of Heraclides, but which Rosweyde attributed to its real author, Palladius, and titled the Lausiac History. Book IX is De Vitis Patrum by Theodoret. Book X is The Spiritual Meadow of Moschus. Rosweyde wrote an introduction to each book.

Zechariah (Hebrew prophet)

Zechariah was a person in the Hebrew Bible and traditionally considered the author of the Book of Zechariah, the eleventh of the Twelve Minor Prophets. He was a prophet of the Kingdom of Judah, and, like the prophet Ezekiel, was of priestly extraction.

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Virgins
See also

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