One of my goals in life is to do my part in making the Desert Mothers well-known among the church. I love studying early Christianity, but it is incredibly frustrating that there is so little written or said about women in the early church. I didn’t know about these women, also known as ammas (spiritual mothers who lived the life of an ascetic), until a few semesters ago when my Greek class was working through Whitacre’s A Patristic Greek Reader. There are seven lines of Greek attributed to Theodora… only seven… the rest of the reader contains texts written by (or attributed to) men. I have found it difficult to find more than a handful of articles or books on the Desert Mothers–maybe I’m just not looking in the right places? Whitacre’s Greek reader is a great text and serves as a good introduction to some of the writings of the early church, I only wish he had included more writings/sayings ascribed to (or about) women. My hope is that we will find more texts authored by women, but for now at least we do have the Desert Mothers and the sayings ascribed to them.
There are three ammas with contributions in the Apophthegemata Patrum (Sayings of the Fathers): Sarah, Syncletia, and (my personal favorite) Theodora. Though you can count all her recorded sayings on two hands, Amma Theodora had a knack for saying a lot in only a few words and there are two sayings that are particular favorites of mine. The first is on the Resurrection (from Laura Swan’s The Forgotten Desert Mothers, page 70):
Another of the old ascetics questioned Amma Theodora saying, “At the resurrection of the dead, how shall we rise?” She said, “As pledge, example, and as prototype we have him who died for us and is risen, Christ our God.”
The second saying is on a teacher’s character (Swan, page 67):
The same Amma said that a teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vainglory, and pride. A teacher should not be fooled by flattery, nor be blinded by gifts, conquered by the stomach, nor dominated by anger. A teacher should be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible; successfully tested and without partisanship, full of concern, and a lover of souls.
In the age of celebrity preachers–and celebrity scholars!–Theodora offers a wise warning to those of us seeking to be teachers in a world which so often tempts us to seek flattery and power.
I’d like to introduce you to some of the other Desert Mothers in the future so stay tuned. Also, I would be most happy if anyone would pass along any books and articles about the Desert Mothers or other early Christian women of which you are aware.