Lessons from The Desert Mothers

desert mother 5
What do these desert mothers have to offer to us today?

I tell students that when we study the desert mothers and fathers, we have to remember that we are looking at a galaxy far, far away. I think it may be beyond the capacity of our imaginations to conceive of their time and culture. That said, it is also true that their sayings speak to deep human yearnings and to perennial human difficulties. We still judge one another constantly, thereby anointing ourselves as if we were God. We still stumble in the practice of living faithfully, and we need support. We still have difficulty being honest with ourselves and with God. The ammas know intimately these movements of the heart and soul, and they encourage us, they confront us and they guide us.
desert mother 1
I also find their insistence on practicing silence, solitude and stillness a kind of medicine for our over-heated, frenetic culture. Many women today are trying to balance work, family, volunteering, and participation in a faith community. Our lives are harried, and we have no sense of being able to rest in the divine silence, the Source from which we come and to which we will return. When I am teaching this material, I always begin and end the class with simply sitting in silence. Inevitably, participants remark that it is like getting a drink when you are really thirsty, so thirsty you had forgotten what water tasted like.

The practices that the desert offers us are down to earth, simple ways of allowing ourselves to be reminded that we are always living in the Love which creates, redeems and sustains us. The ammas draw us away from the assumption that technique is what matters. They remind us that this is a way of life.
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Do you mean we should all go to the desert and become solitaries?

Certainly not. I mean that the human dimension of life in the desert is common to all of us. We are made for relationship with God and one another — one of the gifts of the Great Commandment is that it calls us to remember that basic truth. Knowing that in the abstract is one thing. Living it out in the nitty gritty of daily rounds is another. The ammas help us to find ways to gently pay attention to God’s presence with us in all places and through all things. And they teach us to grow in the awareness that we are each unique, remarkable parts of a vast, vital, interconnected cosmos. We are reminded that we ARE one — that is reality from God’s perspective. Our task is to align our lives and our loves in such a way that we participate in that reality. Most of us think we have to make the oneness. The desert knows the fallacy of that perception.

What have you personally learned from the ammas?

First, I have learned to experiment. When these women decided to leave their lives — some of them were learned, some were fairly wealthy, some were prostitutes — they made a choice to try to create something new with one another and with God. There were a variety of models. Some were solitaries. Some were living in community. Some were solitaries who lived in huts, yet came together regularly for worship and meals. Initially, there was no single monolithic pattern. At midlife, I know that many women are trying to find patterns for living that are congruent with their experience and their faith. And sometimes we need examples from women’s history to help us find what fits.
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Second, the ammas have taught me to set aside time for quiet. There are so many pressures that lead us to be fragmented. The tradition does not deny the pressures. The ammas tells us that God is present even in those daily struggles. I can remember that more readily if I have taken time for quiet.
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Third, the ammas take me back to basics. We live in a time in which so much polarization has happened in both the national political arena, and within the church. The ammas invite us to look beyond all the divisive fussing — not to deny it, but to see it as surface reality. They invite us to gaze more deeply, especially in the most tensive of circumstances.
And lastly, the ammas tell me that from the beginnings of the life of the Church, women have been initiators of new patterns and teachings, opening the way for knowing the wholeness that God offers in Christ. When I am reading the stories and sayings of the desert ammas, I am struck by their utter confidence that no matter what, this world belongs to God, is loved by God, and that each person, each creature, each aspect of the created order, is an expression (some would say a theophany, a showing) of God’s love.

Extracts from an interview wity Mary C. Earle

“The Desert Mothers. Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness”
Mary C. Earle
Morehouse Publishing 02/07 Paperback $13.95
ISBN: 0819221562
desert mothers earle
“The term “desert mothers” refers to a bold group of Christian women in the fourth century who lived in the wilderness areas of Egypt and the Holy Land where they gave themselves over to a life of prayer and service. The mothers, or ammas as they were called, carefully nourished the love of God through the regular practice of silence, solitude, and stillness. At the same time, they shared their spiritual journey with others. Episcopal writer, spiritual director, and retreat leader Mary C. Earle presents a rounded and revealing portrait of these women and the relevance of their practices and wisdom to our present times.
The author begins by noting that the desert mothers saw the sin of forgetting as the source of all our troubles. When we forget that God is the creator of all life and everything that happens to us, we lose a sense of our own sacredness and that of creation as well. Earle looks at the most important spiritual practices of the ammas including not judging, seeing the daily world as a spiritual teacher, learning the art of discernment, making the most of spiritual guidance, being humble, showing up daily, and living a dedicated life.
The desert mothers model a rich spiritual life for us with their appreciation of quiet and solitude, their call to balance and moderation, and their emphasis on the importance of virtues in everyday life. Earle concludes: “In short, praying with the desert mothers calls us to be open to conversion, so that deep transformation that can only be accomplished by the activity of the living God moving and dwelling within us, working silently, surely, secretly to make us new. They remind us to trust in a Presence that was there long before we were born and will continue long after we are dead and gone. They pull us out of our illusory concerns and teach us to shift our gaze, to deepen our breath, to stop our moving.””

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