Thursday, March 24, 2005

The desert mothers

March being Women’s month and today being Holy Thursday, it is a good time to reflect on the contribution of little known Christian women of ancient times.

During my recent visit to the Benedictine Resource Center at the St. Scholastica’s Center of Spirituality in Tagaytay, Sr. Bellarmine Bernas OSB showed me around the new building and library. If you’ve had a Benedictine education as I had (and so Germanic at that), you’d know you’re home amidst this treasure trove that is both ancient and new.

I saw a stack of books titled ``The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives and Stories of Early Christian Women’’ (2001) by Laura Swan, prioress of a Benedictine monastery in the Pacific Northwest. Sr. Bellarmine bought many copies at sale price so that more women and men would know about these trail-blazing women. I went home with a copy.

Swan’s book was the fruit of graduate research in theology and spirituality. ``(When) I began to pursue and collect traces of these women’s stories, it often felt like the sleuthing work of Sister Frevisse or Brother Cadfael in the medieval whodunits I enjoy. I found myself tracking down clues, following strands of evidence, and reading the shadow of texts to find these women. Clues often took the form of rare scholarly material, frequently in footnotes and asides.’’

Women’s history, Swan complains, has often been relegated to the shadow world: felt but not seen. ``Many of our church fathers became prominent because of women. Many of these fathers were educated and supported by strong women, and some are even credited with founding movements that were actually begun by the women in their lives.’’

Ancient Christian hagiography can be difficult reading, Swan says, so ``to assist our 21st-century hearts and sensibilities’’ she retells many of the stories, cuts out the heavy and highlights the helpful and interesting.

Christianity, Swan says, was initially a home-centered faith, with domestic dwellings used for community meetings. Both women and men were involved in spreading the faith and in works of mercy. Ancient tombstones revealed that women held leadership positions: ruler of the synagogue, deacon, presbyter, honorable woman bishop.

Even at that time when Christianity was under persecution by the Roman Empire, women were deeply attracted to the Christian movement. They embraced persecution and martyrdom and embarked on spiritual journeys. Some did experimentation in community living, others lived in solitude or in small groups.

As Christianity moved into the mainstream when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, many were also drawn to the desert and monasteries. As leadership opportunities within mainstream Christianity decreased, the desert and the monastery offered women a greater sense of physical and spiritual autonomy.

Those who wanted to dedicate themselves to the ascetic life had to seek a spiritual leader. Writes Swan: ``An amma or abba was someone seasoned in the ascetic life, who was known to have reached a level of maturity and wisdom and had experience in teaching by example, exhortation, story and instruction.''

The goal of the desert, says Swan, was apatheia. ``Apatheia is a mature mindfulness, a grounded sensitivity, and a keen attention to one’s inner world as well as to the world in which one has journeyed…The ammas teach us to intentionally let go of all that keeps us from the singleminded pursuit of God: feelings and thoughts that bind us, cravings and addictions that diminish our sense of worth and attachments to self-imposed perfectionism. Apatheia is nourished by simplicity grounded in abundance of the soul.’’

Amma Syncletica of Egypt could have meant this for those with star complex: ``For just as those who wish to gaze at the sun damage their vision, so also (she) who (tries) to mirror the radiance of her life fall victim to confusion of mind, dazzled, overcome, and unstrung by the magnitude of her achievements.’’

Melania the Elder of Jerusalem influenced a circle of men whose writings would highly influence Christian theology. Of her was written: ``A woman of more elevated rank, she loftily cast herself down to a humble way of life, so that as a strong member of the weak sex she might censure indolent men, so that as a rich person appropriating poverty, and as a noble person adopting humility, she might confound people of both sexes.'’

Radegunde (born 525) was the reluctant wife of Clothar I and a queen of the Franks. She used her wealth to build hospitals and minister to the poor. She left her husband upon learning that he had ordered the murder of her brother. She established a monastery at Poitiers, preached daily and devoted much time to prayer. She had a talent for pastoral care and spiritual direction.

The list is long: Euphrasia the Elder and the Younger, Euphrosyn of Alexandria, Alexandra, Florence, sisters Fracla, Posenna and Prompta, Blessed Woman Gelasia, Hilaria, Juliana, Manna of Fontenet, Mary the Anchorite, Mastridia of Jerusalem, Monegund, Matrona of Perge, sisters Nymphodora, Menodora and Metrodora, Photina, Sosiana, Amma Tachom, Theodora and so many more.

In 1990, while on a difficult mountain coverage, I chanced upon a spiritual community composed of indigenous folk. They spoke in chants. They lived on top of a mountain and were led by a colorfully ornamented, betel nut-chewing B’laan woman with fair skin and light brown eyes. Her name was Mokayo. She was revered. Outsiders referred to her as diwata (muse or nymph). She was an amma.