Monasticism began in the desert. In the 3rd century Christianity was changing. In its first two centuries, Christianity was a small, underground and persecuted movement. But, in the 3rd century that changed dramatically, as the Emperor Constantine first decreed that Christianity would be officially tolerated in the Roman Empire, and then elevated Christianity to a preferential place in the Empire. Suddenly, being a Christian was cool. It quickly became the religion of the elite and those who had or wanted to have status in Roman society. In the first two centuries, martyrdom at the hands of the empire was an important part of the identity of the church. When that changed, the authentic spirituality of the Church (apart from those who were just looking for power or status) found that it needed to refocus. The new focal point became the desert. Starting in the 300s, many people from every social class heard the call of the Gospel in a radical way. They sold all their possessions, and they took off for the desert. At first it was just solitary hermits—ultimate experts in social distancing—but as the movement took off communities of people who shared a common life of prayer and service began to form. The epicenter of this movement was the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. Some of these early monastic communities are still around, for instance, St. Catherine’s Monastery near Mt. Sinai. Over time, the wisdom and teaching of these desert monastics was collected and distributed in collections of sayings. This material makes for excellent Lenten reading. Notably, this was a movement in which thousands of women participated and had leadership roles. While, male monastics have often been the focus of subsequent study and devotion, there is much evidence that women played a very prominent role in the early desert monastic movement.
Three excellent examples, worthily deemed Desert Mothers, are Sarah, Theodora, and Syncletica, They are commemorated in the Episcopal Church’s calendar on January 5th. Of the thousand women monastics whose names were recorded, and the thousands more who remained anonymous, these three were included in the collections of monastic wisdom known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Forty-two sayings out of just over one thousand are attributed to these women. Yet, their contributions to monastic wisdom are both significant and in continuity with the tradition as a whole.
The Sayings preserve twenty-seven examples of Syncletica’s wisdom, more than all but seven of the Fathers and Mothers who appear in the collection. Syncletica’s sayings are characterized by a pragmatism that tempered the most extreme displays of asceticism, and a realistic understanding of human nature. In line with much of desert monastic wisdom, Syncletica taught that humility is central to the monastic life, “Just as one cannot build a ship without nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility.”
As a scion of a wealthy family and widow of a Roman tribune, Theodora began her time in the desert disguised as a man, hiding from any deferment she may have received. Eventually she became the Amma (literally “mother,” i.e. spiritual leader) of a community of women near Alexandria, where she was sought for spiritual council by many prominent monastics and clergy, including the Patriarch of Alexandria (the most prominent bishop in the area).
Sarah was a hermit who lived near Scetis in the northwest Nile Delta of Egypt. She was so devoted to prayer during her 60 years as a hermit that, it is said, she never once looked up from praying to take in the view of the Nile visible from her hermitage. Once, a group of male monastics visited Sarah with the purpose of humiliating and demeaning her. Their assumption of superiority over female monastics exposes their spiritual pride for what it is. When they confronted Sarah and ironically chided her for being a prideful woman, she said to them, “According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.” She is also recorded as saying to (presumably the same) monastic brethren, “It is I who am a man, you are the women.” Whatever we moderns might make of her gender politics, Sarah’s sayings demonstrate that she refused to allow the gender bias of others to interfere with her own piety and vocation as a spiritual guide and teacher.
It is long past time to understand and appreciate the pivotal role of women in monasticism, spirituality, and every other aspect of the Church’s life and faith. It is beneficial to learn from the examples of Sarah, Theodora, and Syncletica and heed their wisdom, which transcends their ancient monastic context and speaks to our own. It is fitting to venerate these saintly women for their holiness and their devotion to prayer. They do the one job of every true saint—they point us toward Jesus Christ.
This Note has been adapted from an article that I wrote for the Living Church.