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.
Egypt, officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, is a country in the northeast corner of Africa, whose territory in the Sinai Peninsula extends beyond the continental boundary with Asia, as traditionally defined. Egypt is bordered by the Gaza Strip and Israel to the northeast, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea to the east, Sudan to the south, Libya to the west, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Across the Gulf of Aqaba lies Jordan, across the Red Sea lies Saudi Arabia, and across the Mediterranean lie Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, although none share a land border with Egypt.
Israel, also known as the State of Israel, is a country in Western Asia, located on the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and the northern shore of the Red Sea. It has land borders with Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan on the east, the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the east and west, respectively, and Egypt to the southwest. The country contains geographically diverse features within its relatively small area. Israel's economic and technological center is Tel Aviv, while its seat of government and proclaimed capital is Jerusalem, although the state's sovereignty over Jerusalem has only partial recognition.
Syria, officially the Syrian Arab Republic, is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon to the southwest, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest. A country of fertile plains, high mountains, and deserts, Syria is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Syrian Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Circassians, Mandeans and Turkemens. Religious groups include Sunnis, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Isma'ilis, Mandeans, Shiites, Salafis, Yazidis, and Jews. Sunnis make up the largest religious group in Syria.
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"—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. Other sources include the various stories told over the years about the lives of saints of that era, traditionally called vitae ("life"). The lives of twelve female desert saints are described in Book I of Vitae Patrum (Lives of the Fathers).
The Desert Fathers 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 Apophthegmata Patrum 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 Lausiac History is a seminal work archiving the Desert Fathers written in 419-420 by Palladius of Galatia, at the request of Lausus, chamberlain at the court of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II.
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.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.
Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, a Christian saint and Desert Mother of the 4th century, was of a wealthy background and is reputed to have been very beautiful. From childhood, however, Syncletica was drawn to dedicate her life to God.
Theodora of Alexandria was a saint and Desert Mother who was married to a prefect of Egypt. 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 discovered only after her death.
Amma (Mother) Sarah of the Desert 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.
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.
Evagrius Ponticus, also called Evagrius the Solitary, was a Christian monk and ascetic. One of the most influential theologians in the late fourth-century church, he was well known as a thinker, polished speaker, and gifted writer. He left a promising ecclesiastical career in Constantinople and traveled to Jerusalem, where in 383 he became a monk at the monastery of Rufinus and Melania the Elder. He then went to Egypt and spent the remaining years of his life in Nitria and Kellia, marked by years of asceticism and writing. He was a disciple of several influential contemporary church leaders, including Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Macarius of Egypt. He was a teacher of others, including John Cassian and Palladius.
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.
Theophilus was the 23rd Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark. He became Pope at a time of conflict between the newly dominant Christians and the pagan establishment in Alexandria, each of which was supported by a segment of the Alexandrian populace.
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.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."
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.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.
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.
Saint Anthony or Antony, was a Christian monk from Egypt, revered since his death as a saint. He is distinguished from other saints named Anthony such as Anthony of Padua, by various epithets of his own: Anthony the Great, Anthony of Egypt, Antony the Abbot,Anthony of the Desert,Anthony the Anchorite, and Anthony of Thebes. For his importance among the Desert Fathers and to all later Christian monasticism, he is also known as the Father of All Monks. His feast day is celebrated on 17 January among the Orthodox and Catholic churches and on Tobi 22 in the Coptic calendar used by the Coptic Church.
A hermit, or eremite, 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.
Saint Moses the Abyssinian (330–405), was reportedly an ascetic monk and priest in Egypt in the fourth century AD, and a notable Desert Father. According to stories about him, he converted from a life of crime to one of asceticism. He is mentioned in Sozomen's Ecclesiastical History, written about 70 years after Moses's reported death.
Saint Macarius of Alexandria was a monk in the Nitrian Desert. He was a slightly younger contemporary of Macarius of Egypt, and is thus also known as Macarius the Younger.
Christian monasticism is the devotional practice of individuals who live ascetic and typically cloistered lives that are dedicated to Christian worship. It began to develop early in the history of the Christian Church, modeled upon scriptural examples and ideals, including those in the Old Testament, but not mandated as an institution in the scriptures. It has come to be regulated by religious rules and, in modern times, the Canon law of the respective Christian denominations that have forms of monastic living. Those living the monastic life are known by the generic terms monks (men) and nuns (women). The word monk originated from the Greek μοναχός, itself from μόνος meaning 'alone'.
Cenobiticmonasticism is a monastic tradition that stresses community life. Often in the West the community belongs to a religious order, and the life of the cenobitic monk is regulated by a religious rule, a collection of precepts. The older style of monasticism, to live as a hermit, is called eremitic. A third form of monasticism, found primarily in Eastern Christianity, is the skete.
Saint Melania the Elder, Latin Sancta Melania Maior was a Desert Mother who was an influential figure in the Christian ascetic movement that sprang up in the generation after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion of the Roman Empire. She was a contemporary of, and well known to, Abba Macarius and other Desert Fathers in Egypt, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Paulinus of Nola, and Evagrius of Pontus, and she founded two religious communities on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. She stands out for the convent she founded for herself and the monastery she established in honour of Rufinus of Aquileia, which belong to the earliest Christian communities, and because she promoted the asceticism which she, as a follower of Origen, considered indispensable for salvation.
Saint Melania the Younger is a Christian saint and Desert Mother who lived during the reign of Emperor Honorius, son of Theodosius I. She is the paternal granddaughter of Melania the Elder.
A skete is a monastic community in Eastern Christianity that allows relative isolation for monks, but also allows for communal services and the safety of shared resources and protection. It is one of four types of early monastic orders, along with the eremitic, lavritic and coenobitic, that became popular during the early formation of the Christian Church.
Palladius of Antioch, Saint Palladius the Desert Dweller is an Orthodox and Catholic saint in the Roman Empire. Palladius was a hermit in the desert near Antioch. He was a friend of Saint Simeon. Palladius died in 390 of natural causes and was canonized in pre-Congregation times.
Palladius of Galatia was bishop of Helenopolis in Bithynia, and a devoted disciple of Saint John Chrysostom. He is best remembered for his work, the Lausiac History; he was also, in all probability, the author of the Dialogue on the Life of Chrysostom.
Saint Isidora or Isidore was a Christian nun and saint of the 4th century AD. She is considered among the earliest fools for Christ. While very little is known of Isidora's life, she is remembered for her exemplification of the writing of St. Paul that “Whosoever of you believes that he is wise by the measure of this world, may he become a fool, so as to become truly wise.”. The story of Isidora effectively highlights the Christian ideal that recognition or glory from man is second to one's actions being seen by God, even if that means one's actions or even one's self remains unknown or misunderstood. This ideal was extremely important to the early Desert Fathers and Mothers who recorded Isidora's story.
Eastern Christian monasticism developed for around a century and a half as a spontaneous religious movement, up to the time of the Council of Chalcedon, which took place in 451. At that Council, monasticism had become an acknowledged part of the life of the Christian Church, and it was specially legislated for.
The Vitae Patrum 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.
Saint Sylvia of Aquitaine was a fourth century pilgrim from Aquitaine. She was the sister of Rufinus, the prime minister of the Byzantine Empire under Theodosius and Arcadius. Palladius' Lausiac History tells she journeyed in the age of 60, and prided in her ascetic habits.