Wisdom of the Desert Mothers  

Posted by Joe Rawls

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the sayings of the Desert Fathers, those bold spiritual pioneers who protested the increasing coziness of the Church with the Constantinian empire by seeking a more authentic Christianity in the wastes of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.  It is too easy to overlook the fact that this movement included many women, living as solitaries or in monastic communities.  A good antidote to this ignorance is Laura Swan's The Forgotten Desert Mothers (Paulist 2001).  Swan, the prioress of St Placid's Priory in Olympia, Washington, has combed through the patristic literature and has put together a pretty complete catalog of the holy women mentioned therein.  Sadly, the actual words of only a few are preserved, but we can look below for a small sample.  The sayings of Syncletica (pictured in the icon) and Macrina especially stand out; the latter was the sister of both Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, being the actual founder of the community where they received their monastic formation.


Amma Syncletica
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 (as it is said:  "Our God is a consuming fire" [Heb 12:24]):  so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.
It is good not to get angry, but if this should happen, St Paul does not allow you a whole day for this passion, for he says:  "Let not the sun go down" [Eph 4:25].  Will you wait till all your time is ended?  Why hate the one who has grieved you?  It is not this person who has done the wrong, but the evil one.  Hate sickness but not the sick person.
There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and 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 one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of personal thoughts.

Amma Theodora
Another of the old ascetics questioned Amma Theodora saying, "At the resurrection of the dead, how shall we rise?"  She said, "As pledge, example, and as prototype we have him who died for us and is risen, Christ our God".

It is you, O Lord, who have freed us from the fear of death.  You have made our life here the beginning  of our true life.  You grant our bodies to rest in sleep for a season and you rouse our bodies again at the last trumpet.
You have given in trust to the earth our earthly bodies, which you have formed with your own hands, and you have restored what you have given, by transforming  our mortality and ugliness by our immortality and your grace.
May you who have power on earth to forgive sins, forgive me, that I may draw breath and that I be found in your presence, "having shed my body and without spot or wrinkle" in the form of my soul, and that my soul may be innocent and spotless and may be received into your hands like incense in your presence.

This entry was posted on Friday, February 3, 2012 at Friday, February 03, 2012 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


It's a great book. Her book on Benedict is also quite fine.

February 4, 2012 at 9:55 AM

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