Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
The desert mothers and spiritual maternity

The desert mothers and spiritual maternity

by Josep M.Soler

in Theology Digest no. 36:1 (Spring 1989), pp 31-35.

A consideration of spiritual maternity as practiced in the Egyptian desert in the 4th and 5th centuries reveals that women have not always been "those who keep quiet and learn.'' Wlile early non-Christian philosophers rarely admitted that women could philosophize, Christian theologians clearly stated equality of the sexes in regard to virtue, and sometimes recognized the superiority of women in this regard.

Les Mères du désert et la maternité spirituelle'' Collectanea Cisterciensia 48:3 (1986) 235-50. Originally published in Studia Silensia 12 (1986) 45-62.

Pauline military language about Christian life was not addressed only to men, said Basil of Caesarea. Women too, were part of Jesus Christ's militia by strength of soul. John Chrysostom recognized that monastic life flourished among women and that they often fought better and were more victorious.

Though not as frequently, the desert fathers also pointed out women's capability for ascetic life. Abba Bessarion tells how he and a disciple came upon a hermit who declined to answer their greeting even by nodding. They were not surprised since a desert father often remained silent if not inspired to say something edifying. Several days later they passed that way again and found the anchorite had died. Preparing for the burial, they discovered the anchorite was an anchoress. "See how the women triumph over Satan!" they exclaimed, "and we go on wasting ourselves in the towns!" Whether historical or legendary, this story and others like it react against the superiority complex of certain representatives of male momasticism. The driving force of the ascetic and spiritual life was not physical—masculine courage was not enough— but was in the order of charity. The fathers knew women were as capable as men of this love. The monastic tradition of spiritual direction was not essentially different for men and women, though for women the love of Christ as spouse was stressed and Mary was more often held up as a model.

The desert ammas

Because she could be "spiritual" (a bearer of the Spirit) a female ascetic could guide others, and as such could be called ''mother'' or "amma." This corresponded to the title "father" or "abbe" and indicated aptitude to be a spiritual mother.

At the beginnings of monasticism we find no great difference between ascetics of the two sexes. There were no special spiritual books for either; both used scripture and the Lives and sayings of the Fathers. Any adaptation of monastic norms to feminine nature was considered better made by a woman, not by a monk.

In the thinking of the fathers, the prohibition against women teaching in church (1Cor 14:34; 1Tm 2:12) did not prevent them from spreading correct doctrine and spiritual teaching. It is significant that the sayings of the mothers are included in regular alphabetical order on an equal level—with those of the fathers, not as an appendix. The three ammas or spiritual mothers whose sayings we know in the alphabetical series are Sara, Syncletica, and Theodora, all venerated as saints. Probably for historical and social reasons they are few in number, but their presence means the desert fathers and those who compiled their sayings not only considered equality of the sexes in spiritual matters to be well established, but even concluded women were able to exercise spiritual maternity similar to the spiritual paternity of the monks, and could give spiritual teaching with the same right as any father. The only thing a spiritual mother could not do was to sacramentally absolve sin. For that a priest was necessary.

Sara lived at the time of Paphnutius and spent 60 years along the edge of the Nile. Through her 13-year struggle to preserve chastity she matured and became qualified to be a spiritual mother, and was consulted much in this capacity. She had remarkable trust in God. Through her trial "she never prayed the struggle would cease, but rather prayed, 'O God, give me strength.'" She knew victory was not hers, but Christ's victory in her.

Her sayings show discretion and humility, but also firmness; the realization that a pure heart is more important than pleasing others; and the value of keeping death in mind as an aid to perseverance.

The most famous desert mother, Syncletica, was from a noble Christian family. Her life was for women ascetics what Athanasius' Life of Antony was for the monks, and her relationship with virgins and ascetics was like that of Antony and his disciples. She understood the relative value of corporal and material rules. We ought not neglect the body, she taught, since we need it for ascetic struggle. She proves to be balanced, sensible, and attached to Christ.

Some have denied Syncletica is historical. Probably, as in the Life of Antony, a biography and teaching were elaborated on a historical base to present a model of feminine monasticism. Historical or not, her sayings show the spiritual authority exercised by a 4th/5th century woman living the monastic life. A sampling of her sayings demonstrates her spiritual maternity.

She held to fundamentals and relativized exterior practices such as material solitude:

It is possible while living in a crowd to be a solitary in one's thought and while living alone to live with the crowd in thought.

She shows psychological and Christian depth when she notes the many wiles of the devil:

If he could not disturb the soul with poverty, he proposed wealth as an enticement. If not victorious by insults ... he suggests praise and glory.... Not having been able to seduce by pleasures, he tries . . . involuntary sufferings ....

She knows how to discern spirits, for she says there is a useful sorrow (over one's neighbor's faults) and a destructive sorrow, accidie [despondency, lack of interest in life], which comes from the enemy.

Finally, she thinks balance is what distinguishes divine asceticism from asceticism determined by the enemy. Follow a regular rule of fasting, she says, rather than several days of fasting followed by a great deal of food, for "lack of moderation always corrupts."

Theodora's sayings show she was in touch with Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria. She was something of a theologian, for she discusses Manichaean teaching on the body, and the resurrection of the dead.

Her experience and knowledge of the human heart led her to call humility the most important of ascetic practices. She tells of an anchorite who asked the demons if it was fasting that made them go away.

"We neither eat nor drink," they answered. "Is it vigils?" They answered, "We don't sleep." "Is it being apart from the world?" "We live in the desert." "By what power do you leave, then?" And they said, "Nothing can overcome us except humility."

Another example of her insight appears when she notes that difficulties are often within ourselves and so cannot be blamed on environment or on anything else. And because they are within they go wherever we go:

Amma Theodora said, . . . "There was a monk who because of the great number of his temptations said, 'I am going away from here.' As he was putting on his sandals he saw another man who was also putting on his shoes who said to him, 'Is it because of me you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you go.'"

Of special interest here is what she says about being a spiritual teacher:

The teacher must be a stranger to love of domination, to vain-glory, to pride and be such that he cannot be moved by flattery, nor blinded by gifts, nor conquered by the stomach, nor dominated by anger; but he must be patient, gentle, humble .... he must be tested and without sectarianism, full of solicitude, and must love souls.

Qualities of spiritual maternity

What indicated one had reached the level of maturity that qualified one to help others follow Christ? Theodora's list basically corresponds with the elements required by all early monasticism, especially in Egypt and Palestine.

1) The director must not be proud, vain, or domineering. When others put themselves under one's direction it is easy to fall into this temptation—just as it is easy to exercise tyranny over those being directed. Authentic spiritual paternity/ maternity will not allow this.

2) One must not be seduced by adulation or gifts. One will not yield to inclinations of the directee, but will say what is needed and will lead the directee where he or she is to go whether or not this fits in with the directee's fancies.

3) One must retain self mastery and be neither quick-tempered nor a gourmand. Anger will distance disciples; and a gourmand will not be a good guide in the ways of moderation.

4) One must be patient and gentle, must respect the pace of the disciple's spiritual growth, so the disciple will not despair by being required to do more than is possible at a given moment. This does not exclude pedagogical strictness when the good of the disciple requires it. But sternness must never be due to lack of self-control of the spiritual father or mother.

5) Humility is the positive side of what is expressed in the first point. One can be spiritual guide while considering oneself unworthy, and one will trust more in God than in oneself.

6) One must be experienced, be both humanly and spiritually mature, must have met and overcome difficulties; and because of Christian and human experience, must be understanding of the sufferings or joys of the disciple without expecting emotional return.

7) Perseverance is needed so one will not give in to fatigue or discouragement. There must be faithfulness to God, to people, and especially to the disciple.

8) Further, one must be attentive and friendly—not an egotistical or "syrupy" friendliness that seeks to satisfy one's needs, but the authentic friendliness of disinterested love. There must be charity that accepts the weariness and difficulties that come along with spiritual maternity/paternity.

Besides these qualities mentioned by Theodora, early monasticism adds three others.

9) Diacrisis is a gift of the Spirit but also requires prayers and asceticism on the part of the spiritual mother or father. It includes discretion (not making public personal affairs of the disciple) and discernment of spirits. This gift goes hand in hand with human qualities, including psychological perception of realities of which the disciple is not aware—realities described in the language of the day as demons, thoughts, dreams. This perception can help the disciple recognize motives and to progress.

10) One must have the gift of saying or doing the exact thing that will stir the disciple to action at the right moment.

II) Finally, one must pray for those confided to one's care. This is the most important quality without which all the rest would lose meaning. All the monastic texts teach the need for a spiritual mother or father, especially for beginners, since it is easy to be deceived by one's own feelings. Once a director is found, the disciple is to pray for the guide and owes obedience, love, respect and faithfulness without being scandalized even if the guide errs or sins. Seeking spiritual direction implies making an admission of faults, though this is not necessarily sacramental confession. Besides being an act of humility this admission has a therapeutic and pedagogical purpose. Spiritual direction also assumes the revealing of one's thoughts so the spiritual guide can exercise diacrisis, fitting discernment.

Spiritual mothers

For a more complete view of spiritual maternity we would have to look at Gregory of Nyssa's Life of St. Macrina, at what is said of Pachomius' sister in the Coptic Lives and of spiritual mothers in Palladius' Lausaic History, and at Theodoret of Cyrrus' accounts of women ascetics in his Religious History. This would give more information on spiritual maternity among cenobites as well as among the hermits at the beginning of monasticism. I.Hausherr has studied these sources, but without special treatment of the sayings. Our study of the sayings leads to conclusions in keeping with his.

In the first centuries of monasticism, then, ascetic and monastic life for men and women did not differ greatly, and norms for spiritual direction of both were the same. The spiritual mother had the same prerogatives as the spiritual father except when an ordained minister was needed (e.g., for absolution). This exception applied also to many abbas, since most of them in the 4th and 5th centuries were not priests. The sacrament of penance was distinct from spiritual direction which might include a certain "confession" of faults but did not necessarily need priestly ministry.

The same documents show women did not want monastic rules toned down for them. Adapting monastic life to their condition did not mean lowering the ideal of Christian perfection. No one could give a better practical interpretation of rules for women than a woman herself. That was the role of the spiritual mothers. All that was asked of them was that they be truly "mothers," truly "spiritual."

Inclusion of women in the alphabetical sayings shows early monasticism already believed women could exercise spiritual maternity—not only of women but also of men.

The sayings of ammas are characterized by discretion, psychological insight, delicacy, and absence of the extremes sometimes found in the desert fathers. Their words are a mature fruit of a gift from God but also result from faithfulness in prayer and struggle against temptation. Significantly, their focus was always God, Jesus Christ, the words of scripture.

I am convinced there are spiritual ammas today with the qualities listed by Theodora, ammas who can awaken and transmit life according to the Spirit. But we don't give them much room on the ecclesial level. Rediscovery of spiritual maternity and its possibilities will be a service to monasticism, to the church, and to woman herself.

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.