At the dawn of monastic life, in the Middle Eastern and African deserts, not only men sought the solitude and entered the desert, there were also women of extraordinary pre-eminence called the Mothers of the desert. John Chrysostom (344-407), a monk in his youth and later bishop of Constantinople, a great preacher, so tells the virgins whom he met in the Egyptian deserts:
“The women here have no less philosophy and vigour than the men: vigour not to handle the shield or to ride, as the most severe Greek legislators and philosophers would like, but to participate in a much more bitter and harsher battles. With the men they battle a common enemy, a war against the devil and the powers of darkness. The fragility of their gender is in no way an impediment to these battles. These struggles do not require a strength of body, but the good will of the soul. Therefore, very often, in this kind of warfare, women have been seen to fight with greater courage and generosity than the men and therefore they win the most glorious of victories”
Among the Mothers of the desert we must remember the noblewoman Syncletica of Alexandria in Egypt, who renounced a wealth inheritance to live in a crypt with her blind sister, and Theodora, wife of a Prefect and the Roman Governor of Egypt, who in order to perform penance for a sin she committed, she disguised herself as a man and joined a monastery in Thebaid. Her true identity as a woman was not discovered until after her death.
Of Syncletica we remember a thought that is often and willingly repeated in monasteries even today:“Obedience is preferable to asceticism, the one teaches pride the other humility”.
While for those who teach, we recall a thought by Theodora: “A teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vain-glory, and pride; one should not be able to fool him with flattery, nor blind him by gifts, nor conquer him by the stomach, nor dominate him by anger; but he should be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible, he must be tested and without partisanship, full of concern, and a lover of souls” (from the ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’ Theodora 5).
The Desert Mothers were known as ammas (“spiritual mothers”), comparable to the Desert Fathers (abbas), due to the respect they had earned as spiritual teachers and directors. One of the most famous Mothers of the Desert was Saint Syncletica, who had 27 sayings attributed among the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Two other ammas, Theodora of Alexandria and Sarah of the Desert, also had sayings in that book. The Desert Mothers described in The Lausiac History compiled by Palladius of Galatia include Melania the Elder, Melania the Younger, Olympia The Deaconess of Nicomedia, Paula of Rome and her daughter Eustochium Julia, and several other women whose names the author does not mention.
According to written sources, St. Syncletica may have been born around AD 270, as it is said that she came to be around eighty in AD 350, with wealthy parents in Alexandria and that she was well educated, including a study of the Father’s of the Desert in the writings of the Evagrius Pontus. After her parents died, she sold everything she had and gave the proceeds to the poor. After leaving the city with her blind sister, she lived as a hermit among the graves outside Alexandria. Gradually a community of ascetic women grew up around her, and she became their spiritual mother. Although she was an ascetic and a hermit, she Syncletica teaches moderation, and that asceticism is not an end in itself.
Theodora of Alexandria was the amma of a monastic community of women near Alexandria. Before that, she had escaped into the desert disguised as a man and joined a community of monks. She was in great demand by the Desert Fathers for her advice from her – even Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria sought her out for advice.
The sayings of Sarah of the Desert indicate that she was a hermit who lived near a river for sixty years. Her sharp responses to some old men who challenged her show her strong personality. According to one story, two anchorites visited her in the desert, with the intention of humiliating her. They told her “Be careful not to get a presumptuous thinking of yourself:” Look how the anchorites come to find me, who am only a woman. She replied “By nature I am a woman, but not by my thoughts.”
Melania the Elder, daughter of a Roman officer, became a widow at a young age and moved to Alexandria, and then to the Wadi El Natrun Desert. She met with several Desert Fathers, followed them on their travels and provided for them with her money. At one point she was thrown into prison for helping them, after several Fathers had been banished by Roman officers in Palestine. Later she founded a convent in Jerusalem with about fifty nuns. Her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, married at thirteen and had two children, both of whom died young. At the age of twenty, she and her husband Valerius Pinianus (Pinian) renounced the world. In 417, the couple moved to Palestine founding convents and monasteries.
Women were quite prominent in the desert tradition, although early accounts left them unnamed. There is no distinction between the sayings of the male Abbas and those of Amma Sarah and Amma Syncletica. One text refers to Theodora, who had monks who listened to her advice and asked her questions. Some women turned their homes into religious structures where there were social-religious groups with men and women. Women could not be ordained deacons or priests.
Amma Sarah said “If I prayed to God for everyone to approve my conduct, I would find myself penitent at everyone’s door, but I’d rather pray that my heart will always remain pure.”
Amma Syncletica said “In the beginning there are many great battles and a fair amount of suffering for those who move towards God and then, ineffable joy. It is like those who hope to start a fire; at first they cough from the smoke and cry, and with that they get what they want … we must therefore kindle the divine fire within ourselves through tears and hard work.”
Amma Syncletica said “There are many people who live in the mountains and act as if they are in the city; they waste their time. It is possible to be lonely in the mind living in the crowd and it is possible for those who are lonely to live in the crowd of their thoughts.”
Amma Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor wakefulness, nor any kind of suffering are able to save. Only true humility can do this. There was a hermit who was capable of casting out demons. And he asked them: “What makes you go away? Fasting?” They replied: “We don’t eat or drink.” “Is it the wake?” They replied, “We don’t sleep.” “So what power takes you away?” They replied, “Nothing can overwhelm us, only humility.” Amma Theodora said: “Do you see how humility wins against demons?”
Image: Saint Syncletica of Alexandria depicted in the Menologion of Basil II.
The forgotten desert mothers : sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women by Swan, Laura, 1954-
The Desert Mothers : spiritual practices from the women of the wilderness by Earle, Mary C
Virgins of God : the making of asceticism in late antiquity by Elm, Susanna
Source: Claudia Colucci, Monaci e conventi: la storia, gli ordini, la regola: spiritualità e vita quotidiana: Le Arti del Convento; Edizioni del Baldo, Verona, 2015.