With the pandemic and social distancing so much on our minds these days, we thought we’d take a week to visit with some people who isolated themselves in an extreme way: our Desert Mothers. Their focus on outward isolation and inner stillness can help us in such anxious times.
The Desert Mothers were ascetics who lived either as hermits or in isolated monastic communities in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries in Egypt, Israel, and Syria. They influenced our acetic and monastic traditions. You can learn more about them in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG) and Palladius’ Lausiac History.
Their sayings were collected for a monastic audience and reflect their desire for extreme asceticism, which is why they went to live in the desert to be near God. To the desert ascetics, our days of social distancing would look rich and full of incident. But their understanding of hesychia (stillness, quiet, tranquility), can teach of us some of the blessings of a more restricted life. As the translator of the Sayings writes, hesychia is the central consideration in the prayer of the desert [mothers]. On the external level it signifies an individual living as a solitary; on a deeper level it is not merely separation from noise and speaking with other people, but the possession of interior quiet and peace…. It means more specifically guarding the mind, constant remembrance of God, and the possession of inner prayer.
So hesychia is at its core an inner reality. Let’s hear Amma Syncletica on this theme. She lived as a hermit outside of Alexandria, at first alone with her blind sister and later with the community of women ascetics that formed around her. Among her sayings:
• “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town; they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one's mind while living in a crowd; and it is possible for those who are solitaries to live in the crowd of their own thoughts.”
• “We must arm ourselves in every way against the demons. For they attack us from outside, and they also stir us up from within; and the soul is then like a ship when great waves break over it, and at the same time it sinks because the hold is too full. We are just like that: we lose as much by the exterior faults we commit as by the thoughts inside us. So we must watch for the human attacks that come from outside us, and also repel the interior onslaughts of our thoughts.”
• “In the beginning there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: at first it is smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. Thus we must kindle the divine fire within ourselves with tears and effort.”
Sister Benedicta Ward wrote about all of the Desert Mothers (and Fathers), “They hid themselves away, and by their supreme humility in keeping most of their good works hidden, they made progress on the way that leads to God.” Theodora of Alexandria was a shining example. She fled to the desert disguised as a man and joined a community of monks. Later, she became the amma of a monastic community of women near Alexandria. She was sought out by many of the Desert Fathers for advice. Her sayings that come down to us show us a woman of deep spirituality and great practicality about the turmoil that strikes people living in the world as well as within themselves in isolation:
· "Let us strive to enter 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."
· She also said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that.
· She was asked, “If one is habitually listening to secular speech, how can one yet live for God alone, as you suggest?” She said, “Just as when you are sitting at table and there are many courses, you take some but without pleasure—so when secular conversations come your way, have your heart turned towards God. And thanks to this disposition, you will hear them without pleasure, and they will not do you any harm.”
Our final visit to the Desert Mothers finds us visiting Amma Sarah, who lived in isolation near the renowned Skete monastery. The little we know of Sarah of the Desert indicates that she was a hermit living by a river for sixty years. She struggled for much of that time with sinful thoughts despite—or was it because of?—her isolation from the world. Nonetheless, she didn’t take any nonsense from the monks who came to her either for advice or to give her a hard time.
- “I pray that my heart might remain pure towards all, having neither ill thoughts nor judgment regarding anyone.”
- When she struggled with sinful thoughts, she never asked for reprieve from the attack, but her continual prayer was, “O my God, strengthen me.”
- She said: “The words of the Lord, ‘I was in prison, and you came unto Me’ (Mt. 25:36) mean to sit in your cell and, with temperance, to remember God until your last breath.”