Theirs Was an Austere Grace

Violence. Excess. Crisis.

These words describe an era that would call forth in the Church a spiritual response that we today might label as extreme. Not only men, but women as well, embraced an austere lifestyle that arose and flowered from the third to the early fifth century in such places as Egypt and Palestine. Oddly enough, one of the reasons those individuals chose such a lifestyle was they believed Christianity had become too accommodating to the Roman Empire after its acceptance as the state’s official religion. However, rather than condemning Christianity, they blessed it with lives of austerity and, in doing so, these men and women became truly free.

Their Era

St. Mary of Egypt. The Crosiers

With Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, the age of martyrdom ended as the practice of Christianity became legal within the Roman Empire. Even though governmental recognition elevated the status of Christianity, this change did not dispel the violence and political chaos the empire would experience for the next 100 years.

The world as the Roman society knew it was coming to an end, much of it the result of the attacks of the Visigoths in 410 and the Vandals in 455. It was also during this time that the Church was struggling with her own spiritual chaos with the heresies of Arianism and Donatism.

An intense time called for an intense response. This intensity took the form of thousands of women who heeded God’s call to renounce everything to live in the desert. Thus they reshaped the idea of physical martyrdom to a “white” one — that is, a lifelong dying to self. Unfortunately, very few of their stories have survived. But we do know these women came from all walks of life: royalty and the wealthy, the highly educated, as well as the poor. Even prostitutes embraced this life of solitude, which included long hours of prayer, fasting and manual work. Some of the more famous names and stories were preserved, of which the best known may be Syncletica, Theodora and Mary of Egypt.

Desert spirituality was not a one-size-fits-all lifestyle. While all the women lived lives of profound simplicity, some who had been highly educated continued to own their own library of books while other women kept only a book or two. Some women fled to the desert, and others lived in a small hut on their family’s property. What was usually standard was a mat, an oil lamp and a pitcher for water. Food consisted of the bare essentials, mainly bread and perhaps a few vegetables that the women often shared with the poor.

However, one source describes the term “desert” as “in and around prosperous and populous towns up and down the Nile River, where Christian women gathered to create small ascetic households.” This is quite a different picture than the usual one of sand, heat and rocky terrain.

Running Toward

Many women who ran to the desert often did so in order to escape an arranged marriage. The noted historian Palladius (c. 363-c. 420-430) recorded in his Lausiac History that the number of women who ran to the desert seeking holiness outnumbered the men two to one. Thus running away either from a violent society or marriage became a running toward, and in so doing, these women became the early Church’s spiritual athletes.

Whatever reason compelled them to seek the solitude of the desert, these women all found their anchor for staying through their personal relationship with God. Prayer vigils, long-term fasting and radical simplicity were not ends in themselves but were the means that would help lead them to hesychia (stillness). Such stillness could only come at the price of facing the inner demons of pride, ego and the need for control. Also, this self-discipline would open the individual to the whispers of God as well as compassion toward all, especially to those who sought them for spiritual counsel.

Some of the Desert Mothers either mentored a disciple or a group of disciples in the ways of seeking God. The student learned as she watched her mentor live out her spirituality and by practicing “the manifestation of the heart” — the sharing of the deep places of her heart.

Three Important Ammas (Mothers)

For example, Syncletica, who mentored a group of women disciples, did so reluctantly. She was born in the city Alexandria during the early part of the fourth century. At the death of her parents, she gave away her wealth, then went to live outside the city in a crypt with her blind sister. Syncletica attracted followers and would live into her 80s, dying around the year 400. Her life was later recorded in the fifth century by Pseudo-Athanasius in a work entitled “The Life and Regimen of the Blessed and Holy Teacher Syncletica.”

Theodora was another famous amma (mother) who lived in Egypt during the fourth century. Monastics often consulted her about the spiritual life, and she was a colleague of Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria. Theodora was one of the first persons to refer to the concept of accidie (spiritual sloth, boredom, apathy, indifference) in the spiritual life. If Theodora were alive today, what might she say to our society concerning our obsessive need to be entertained?

These two Desert Mothers were famous for their wisdom sayings, which were intended to help those who sought those sayings out to strip himself or herself of illusions and “to deepen their experience of true freedom” (see Laura Swan’s book “The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives and Stories of Early Christian Women,” Paulist Press, 2001, Page 33.)

One of Syncletica’s sayings reveals her understanding of being a spiritual athlete: “Those who are great athletes must contend against stronger enemies” (Swan, Page 54). She was keenly aware that one only grows when one struggles with a stronger adversary.

Amma Theodora echoed one of Jesus’ sayings when she remarked: “Let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as the trees, if they have not stood before the winter’s storms, cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven” (Swan, Pages 64-65). Even though Theodora lived more than 1,600 years ago, her insight speaks as much to us today as it did to her own era.

St. Mary of Egypt was one Desert Mother whose story entered popular piety during the Middle Ages. She was born around 344 in Alexandria and died about 421. Mary began her life of prostitution at the age of 12. Some 17 years later, she traveled with a pilgrimage to Palestine to seek greater “adventure.” While in Jerusalem she had a profound spiritual experience on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Her conversion led her to seek out a place of solitude beyond the Jordan, and for almost 50 years she lived a life of great penance for her sins.

Relevance for Today

Violence, excess, crisis aptly describe our own world. Hidden under these words is another reality — for ours is also an age of great burdens, a profound crisis of personal meaning and an ever increasing sense of cynicism. Perhaps these words signal a call for greater numbers of women to discover their own vocation as a hermit or cloistered religious in the “desert” of present-day society.

There are other words as well for such an age as ours: freedom, meaning, balance, compassion. These words aptly describe the message of the ammas and it is indeed timeless and timely, and simple; go within yourself and you will find Him who gives meaning and true freedom to all of creation. This challenge is not merely for an elite few, but is one that is intended for all of society.

If you desire freedom, choose inner transformation. If you desire meaning, seek God above all.

Sister Lou Ella Hickman, I.W.B.S., has served as a teacher, librarian and parish adult education director. She has a master’s degree in theology and is a certified spiritual director.