Desert Mothers

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Desert Mothers Saint Paula and her daughter Eustochium with their spiritual advisor Saint Jerome--painting by Francisco de Zurbaran Francisco de Zurbaran 043.jpg
Desert Mothers Saint Paula and her daughter Eustochium with their spiritual advisor Saint Jerome—painting by Francisco de Zurbarán

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. [1]


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" [2] —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. [2] Other sources include the various stories told over the years about the lives of saints of that era, traditionally called vitae ("life"). [3] The lives of twelve female desert saints are described in Book I of Vitae Patrum (Lives of the Fathers). [4]

Notable examples

Melania the Younger, from the Menologion of Basil II Melania the Younger, nun of Rome (Menologion of Basil II).jpg
Melania the Younger, from the Menologion of Basil II
Syncletica of Alexandria from the Menologion of Basil II Righteous Syncletica of Alexandria (Menologion of Basil II).jpg
Syncletica of Alexandria from the Menologion of Basil 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. [5] 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. [6]

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. [7]

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. [8]

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. [6] 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." [9]

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. [10] 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. [10]

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. [11]


See also

Related Research Articles

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Anthony or Antony the Great, 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: Saint Anthony, 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.

Hermit person who lives in seclusion from society

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.

Moses the Black Monk, priest and martyr in Egypt

Moses the Black (330–405), also known as Abba Moses the Robber, and the Strong, 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.

Christian monasticism Christian devotional practice

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'.

Cenobitic monasticism monastic tradition that stresses community life

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.

Desert Fathers Early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD

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.

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.

Evagrius Ponticus Christian monk

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.

Melania the Younger Christian saint

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.

Skete Type of monastic settlement

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.

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.

Saint Isidora Eastern Orthodox saint

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.

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.

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.

Syncletica of Alexandria Roman saint

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.

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.

<i>Vitae Patrum</i>

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.

Longinus (abbot)

Longinus was the hegumenos of the Enaton, a monastic community outside Alexandria in Roman Egypt. He is the subject of a Sahidic Coptic hagiography, the Life of Saints Longinus and Lucius the Ascetics, and a Sahidic homily, In Honour of Longinus, by Bishop Basil of Oxyrhynchus.

The Pempton was a complex of Christian monasteries in late Roman Egypt. It was named for the fifth milestone west of Alexandria along the coastal road between Lake Mareotis and the Mediterranean Sea, probably near present-day al-Maks. It is attested from the early fourth century until the beginning of the seventh. It was one of a series of monastic sites along the coast west of Alexandria, others being the ninth (Enaton), eighteenth (Oktokaidekaton) and twentieth (Eikoston).



Works cited

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Cameron, Averil (1993). "Desert Mothers: Women Ascetics in Early Christian Egypt". In Puttick, Elizabeth; Clarke, Bernard (eds.). Women as Teachers and Disciples in Traditional and New Religions. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press. pp. 11–24. ISBN   978-0-7734-9346-9.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Cardman, Francine (2000). "Desert Mothers". In Johnston, William M. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Monasticism. 1. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. pp. 373–375. ISBN   978-1-57958-090-2.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Chryssavgis, John (2008). In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (rev. ed.). Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom. ISBN   978-1-933316-56-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Earle, Mary C. (2007). The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness. New York: Church Publishing. ISBN   978-0-8192-2156-8.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Forman, Mary (2005). Praying with the Desert Mothers. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press. ISBN   978-0-8146-1522-5.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
King, Margot (n.d.). The Desert Mothers: A Survey of the Feminine Anchoretic Tradition in Western Europe. Peregrina Publishing. Archived from the original on 24 August 2014. Retrieved 25 June 2018.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Palladius of Galatia (1918). The Lausiac History. Translated by Clarke, W. K. L. London: SPCK. Retrieved 25 June 2018 via Internet Medieval Source Book.
Swan, Laura (2001). The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women . New York: Paulist Press. ISBN   978-0-8091-4016-9.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Further reading

Ward, Benedicta (1985). "Apophthegmata Matrum". In Livingstone, E. A. (ed.). Studia Patristica . 16.2. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. pp. 63–66.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)