Posts Tagged ‘Desert Mothers’

Half of the “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is female. Male-authored church history books have often left women out because they believe that women’s stories are irrelevant. This is especially noticeable for early Christian women. The fact is that women helped to build the Church, especially in the early years before the Church became institutionalized. When the Church organized herself she established a male-only priesthood despite the fact that all believers, male and female are priests (I Peter 2:9).

Women have made important contributions to history. On this blog we have posted nearly 300 stories of women. For the last few weeks we have concentrated on women who served Christ during the Patristic era. Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Disciples, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great scholarly achievement, piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 with “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla was a disciple of Christ and Paul and her life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries.

We continued with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus – Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

We then recounted the stories of two famous Mothers – Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and Monica the mother of Augustine. Besides martyrs, and mothers, there were many female disciples of Christ, such as Marcella of Rome. Then we related the stories of two educated, brilliant female scholars during the Patristic Age – Paula and Macrina the Younger.

Last week we looked at Pilgrimageas a Christian activity as modeled in the life of Egeria.

This week we will focus on the stories of the Desert Mothers. While early Desert Mothers went on pilgrimages to escape the persecution in Rome (30 to 311 AD), later women including Melania the Elder and Amma Sarah followed in their footsteps voluntarily for a life of prayer, celibacy, and ascetism.

There were dangers involved in traveling and living in a harsh desert, but the hardships actually served to test the women’s determination and commitment to Christ. The solitude was essential for meditation. In small communities of like-minded ascetics, Christians could support each other and encourage each other in the faith. This was essential especially in the days of persecution.


Melania the Elder (c. 350 to either 410 or 417)

Melania the Elder was born in Spain around 350 AD. She was born into a wealthy, noble family. When she turned fourteen Melania married and she and her husband moved into the suburbs of Rome as members of the highest echelon of the Roman aristocracy. Melania excelled in scholarship, rivalling Paula (see post April 2, 2019), Jerome, and Marcella in her biblical and theological knowledge.

Melania remained in Spain until her husband died eight years after their marriage, ┬ábecoming a widow at the age of 22. Two of her children also died. Following this tragedy she converted to Christianity. When her remaining son turned ten she found a family to take care of him and she set off for Alexandria. She would eventually be reunited with her son in Jerusalem many years later after he had married. His daughter, her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, came to Christ and followed in her grandmother’s footsteps.

Melania and some other Christians traveled to visit the monks at Nitria. She gave much of her wealth to the needy Christians in Egypt who were being persecuted by the Arians following the death of the orthodox champion Athanasius in 373 AD. It is said that nearly 5000 people were fed with the blessing of her gift. Some of those persecuted Christians fled to Jerusalem. Melania traveled there and founded a convent for virgins on the Mount of Olives. Nearly fifty young women found salvation in Christ through her ministry.

Melania went on to found more monasteries. She was put in prison for a time by the governor, but he had to release her when he found out that she was in the aristocracy. Eventually she entered a convent.

The Visigoths invaded Rome in 410 AD. (Some believe that Melania might have died in a Visigoth raid in 410 AD). Others believe that Melania, her daughter-in-law Albina, and her granddaughter Melania fled to Sicily. From Sicily they traveled to North Africa where they stayed for seven years. Then they returned to Jerusalem where Melania died around 417 SD.

Melania was a source of inspiration for many Christians. Believers followed her example in founding monasteries and other Christian communities. She is remembered as a pious saint, following in Christ’s footsteps, identifying with His poverty and compassion for others.

Amma Sarah (4th Century)

Little is known about some Desert Mothers except through the few accounts that have been preserved. There are three – Amma (Mother) Sarah, Amma Theodora, and Amma Syncletica – who stand out as women who were humble, insightful, and wise. Syncletica and Theodora became known as wise teachers. Amma Sarah especially engaged her wit and wisdom in dealing with the everyday life of Christians.

One problem that the female ascetics had that the men didn’t have was the reaction of the monks towards the women. Men expected the women to do things for them that the men would never do for the women. This inequality bothered Sarah, but it was more important to her to be Christlike and that meant being humble and showing a servant’s heart, even if the men did not.

Sarah desired to move beyond the gender issues and make every effort to show that serving Christ is what mattered. She still had to deal with the imbalance in power in that patriarchal society and so she responded to their discrimination in wise ways. Here is a story attributed to her:

On Male Injustice– “Another time, two old men, great anchorites, came to the district of Pelusium to visit her. When they arrived one said to the other, ‘Let us humiliate this old woman.’

So they said to her, ‘Be careful not to become conceited thinking of yourself: “Look how anchorites are coming to see me, a mere woman.”‘

But Amma Sarah said to them, ‘According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.'”

Of course this last saying follows what the apostle Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). As children of God, every Christian, male and female, reads the Bible, studies, prays, and does works of charity. There is no gender in these inner characteristics of the heart and mind.

What few writings we have of Sarah are enough to show a woman of faith, devotion, and wisdom. She spoke on the Christian life:

On Charity– “It is good for us to do charity, even if to have the glory of men. For if, in the beginning, our charity rises from the desire to please men, there will afterwards come that moment when it will become true charity, since it will be pleasing to God.”

On the Spiritual Life– “I put out my foot to ascend the ladder, and I place death before my eyes before going up it.” Here Sarah recognizes that on the spiritual ladder of life, one needs to “consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). This requires a keen sense of one’s own sinfulness and the need to constantly pray, seek forgiveness, and present “your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Romans 6:13).

This is what the Desert Mothers sought to do. They believed that a life of celibacy, ascetism, contemplation, and charitable works was a way of pleasing God. They desired to be like Christ Who had “nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20). Christ did not marry and have children. Christ went about preaching and healing. Christ spent much time in prayer. All of these ways of emulating the Lord Jesus are open to women equally with men.

Women in the Patristic world left a great legacy. In our next post we will see that women were great leaders as well.






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