Rediscovering the Desert Mothers

Three decades ago, Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and a most spiritually active woman, remarked that there were no desert mothers:

“I was lonely, deadly lonely. And I was to find out then, as I found out so many times, over and over again, that women especially are social beings, who are not content with just husband and family, but must have a community, a group, an exchange with others. A child is not enough. A husband and children, no matter how busy one may be kept by them, are not enough. Young and old, even in the busiest years of our lives, we women especially are victims of the long loneliness. Men may go away and become desert fathers, but there were no desert mothers.”

Not only was Dorothy Day wrong with regard to the fourth-century Egyptian and Syrian deserts where Desert Mothers existed in their thousands, she was also wrong concerning the anchoretic vocation for twentieth-century women. In 1972, an Orthodox nun living in North Yorkshire, wrote:

“We are three desert mothers now, all three longing for silence and seclusion, but it must now be found inwardly, for the demands are coming, knocking at our gate, both inward and outward, and will not be denied.”
Desert Mothers
Margot H. King “The Desert Mothers Revisited: The Mothers of the Diocese of Liège”

This paper was originally presented at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley CA, February 18, 1988, co-sponsored by the Franciscan School of Theology and the Center for Women and Religion. It subsequently appeared in Vox Benedictina 5/4 (October 1988) 325-354 and was printed, along with The Desert Mothers: A Survey of the Feminine Anchoretic Tradition in Western Europe, as the first of the Peregrina Papers with the title, The Desert Mothers (Toronto: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1989).


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