Desert Day 09: A Way In The Wilderness …

In the early centuries of the church, as Christianity continued to find its form, women and men who sought to follow Christ began to move into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Leaving behind the familiar landscapes they had known, they went into the wilderness to divest themselves of all that separated them from God.

These women and men, who became known as ammas (mothers) and abbas (fathers), undertook a way of life that we describe as ascetic—from the Greek askein, meaning “exercise” or “work,” as an athlete does. The ammas and abbas sought the desert as a place to do this practicing, this exercising, this stretching of themselves toward God. They established a rhythm of life around practices that included prayer, reflection on the scriptures, silence, and fasting. For women in particular, life in the desert enabled them to leave behind their prescribed roles in the city …

The lives of the desert mothers took many forms. As with the men, some of the desert women lived as solitaries, others in community; many found a rhythm that incorporated the two. In time, as both the church and the monastic movement continued to evolve, the term desert mother came to refer not only to those who lived in the literal wilderness but also to those who undertook a monastic way of life in the city, either in community or as solitaries within a home or attached to a church. Some of these desert mothers were married and ministered alongside their husbands. Other women resisted marriage, sometimes at great risk to their lives, given the strong cultural expectation to marry. Many stories tell of women who took on the appearance of men in order to live a monastic way of life.
We know about these women because some of their teachings were preserved and included in the collection of sayings of the desert fathers. We have stories too, particularly of the later desert mothers, Lives that tell of their seeking after God. Probably the vast majority of the desert mothers accomplished their aim: to disappear entirely, known only to God.

In each setting, whether in the desert or the city, women grappled with core questions about what it meant to follow Christ and what rhythms of solitude and community would foster their discipleship. The desert mothers invite us to reflect on our practices—the means by which we seek after God and the attitudes of heart that dispose us to deeper relationship with God. In the coming days, as we reflect on these women of the desert, we will explore such practices as prayer, humility, lectio divina, and discernment, asking along the way, How do we practice? By what particular path will we follow Christ? What habits enable us to unhide ourselves from God?

In the company of these ammas, may we meet again the God who provides manna in the desert and wellsprings in every wilderness.

Prayer for the Morning

We are waking, God.
We are waking,
and we pray
that we may know you
as manna in the desert,
wellsprings in the wilderness,
honey from the rock,
O God our habitation
and our way.

Prayer for the Evening

God of the daylight,
you come also in darkness,
and even in shadows
you make a home.
Be rest to the weary
and solace to the brokenhearted;
be healing to the sick,
and to the troubled, be peace.
Be our comfort, our dreaming,
our sleep, our delight;
breathe through these hours,
O great God of night.

— Jan L. Richardson from In the Sanctuary of Women: A Companion for Reflection and Prayer 

 

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