The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness

The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness

by Mary C. Earle

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At the dawn of Christianity, holy women went into the wilderness of the deserts of northern Egypt to give themselves totally to lives of prayer. An Episcopal priest and retreat leader explores the spirituality of these little known fourth-century “desert mothers,” inviting readers to learn to apply their ancient wisdom today.See more details below


At the dawn of Christianity, holy women went into the wilderness of the deserts of northern Egypt to give themselves totally to lives of prayer. An Episcopal priest and retreat leader explores the spirituality of these little known fourth-century “desert mothers,” inviting readers to learn to apply their ancient wisdom today.

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The Desert Mothers

Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness

By Mary C. Earle

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2007Mary C. Earle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2617-4




Where Are the Mothers?

In the late 1980s, as I began life as an Episcopal priest, I kept wondering where all the women were. We had learned of church fathers, desert fathers, and male apostles, bishops, and martyrs. That was all well and good, as far as it went. Common sense told me that there had to be many untold stories of women who had lived this Christian faith. I had an intuitive conviction that women had played a far larger role than the scholarship of the time was revealing. I would walk around asking out loud, "Where are my mothers?" "Where are my sisters?" "Where are all of those women without whom there would be no faith, no church, no tradition?"

Thanks to women scholars of the last generation, we are discovering that the women were there all along. We are discovering, often through painstaking, detailed examination of primary texts (scraps of papyrus, fragments of vellum, hints and allusions in texts written by men), that women played an essential role in the early years of the Christian faith. In those first centuries, before the church was marked by the institutional division between East and West, women were functioning in a variety of roles. They were seeking to live out the faith in Christ crucified, resurrected, and living in ways that were authentic and true to the gospel. They were spiritual guides. They were teachers. They were leaders of their monastic communities. And some of them, as Christianity became an official religion of the Roman Empire, became what are known as the "desert mothers" or ammas. The ammas, or spiritual mothers, were women who offered wise counsel to others and who, through that counsel, became "lovers of souls."

These were women who left their established roles and sought to live both in communities and as hermits in the deserts of what are now Egypt, Israel, and Syria. Others established communities in the area that is now Turkey. The desert mothers were many, and they were from a variety of different backgrounds. They sought to embody the Christian faith in simple, straightforward fashion, daily living out the Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27; Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).

As I have learned more about these desert mothers, as well as about the many men who lived comparable lives in the arid wilderness, I have discovered the truth of an observation made by scholar Roberta Bondi: "I have found in them a fleshing out of what Christian love is: God's for all of us, ours for each other, God's world, and God." The sayings and the stories that come from these desert sages speak to us in straightforward fashion about living the Great Commandment, not just talking about it. These ammas and abbas (the desert fathers) are down-to-earth, blunt, and savvy about what is needed to mend the ragged fabric of human community. They help us become more open with one another, with God, and with ourselves. They name what needs to be named. And they never forget that love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self are patiently knit together by daily practice.

Historical Background

Throughout the pages of this book, we will be praying with the desert mothers. The term "desert mother" may be completely new to you and may sound odd at first. These are women who lived during a particular moment in church history—a time during the fourth century when Christianity had been sanctioned by the Roman Empire and active persecutions had stopped. The desert mothers lived long ago and, in one sense, in a galaxy far, far away. Their cultural and social settings were so very different from our own that in some ways it is hard for us to imagine their daily lives. The church as we know it did not exist. The Bible as we know it was just being formed. As always, different languages and cultures produced varieties of expressions of the Christian faith. Regional differences were appearing, despite all official attempts to create a unified practice and worship.

Even before the time of the desert mothers, women's lives were more varied than we previously understood. Though men were primarily (though not uniformly) the public leaders of both religious and political institutions, women of means sometimes managed their own land and resources. Women of the upper class were literate, and some Christian women were schooled in Latin and Greek so that they might study the scriptures. The home remained the primary sphere of women's lives, yet within the boundaries of the home, women exercised authority. As has often been the case throughout women's history, particular women found ways to live within the accepted structures of their societies and yet also to be true to themselves and to Christ. Others, pioneers in the faith, created new expressions of daily practice of faith, hope, and love.

We know from the New Testament that house churches were often led by women and, as often as not, one woman's conversion would lead to the conversion of her whole household. Saint Paul gives us the names of women who were his coworkers for the gospel. In Romans 16:7, Paul names Junia as an apostle, one sent by the resurrected Christ to proclaim the gospel. Phoebe, a deacon, was sent to the Romans (Romans 16:1). Paul greets nine different women at the close of this letter, clearly indicating their prominence in the very earliest years of the formation of the Christian community.

As the Christian faith began to spread in the second and third centuries, even in the face of a hostile government and the cult of the Roman emperor, women offered their lives as martyrs and refused to recant in the face of torture and death. Their stories form essential threads in the early Christian narratives—women were the equals of men when it came to standing firm and refusing to bow down to the image of the emperor. Blandina, a slave, was martyred in 177 during a persecution of Christians in Lyon and Vienne in Gaul (now France). Perpetua was executed with Felicity and four men in Carthage in 203. They were equals and yet also different, because women had different roles and spheres of influence. Consequently, their choices were shaped and honed by different pressures and assumptions within the social context of their times.

After this period of martyrdom, when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire, the era of the desert mothers and fathers began. During the fourth century, many faithful Christians began to be distressed by the church's growing alliance with the state. A kind of restlessness began to grow, a desire to live out the faith in a way that somehow would imitate the faithfulness of the martyrs. Yet how was one to be a martyr when there was no more reason for martyrdom? How was a woman to give up her life for Christ when death was no longer the primary way to witness to Christ? What might a dedicated life look like within the new circumstances of Christianity becoming the state religion? Why would a woman go to the desert? Why would she leave behind everything she had known and go to a place full of silence and scarcity? What would motivate a person to shed a life—perhaps a good life—and move to a completely different setting?

As we will see in the following pages, many women began to create and shape lives in the deserts of Egypt and the Holy Land. As ammas (literally, "mothers," but also implying wise guidance and care of souls), women left the urban environments of Alexandria and other cities. These ammas actively chose to leave the known and established. Some became hermits. Some founded communities of women. Their focus was the love of G

Excerpted from The Desert Mothers by Mary C. Earle. Copyright © 2007 by Mary C. Earle. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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