In terms of my life circumstances, I couldn’t possibly have less in common with the ammas who fled to the desert for spiritual growth and exploration. I have a marriage, a parish, and two kids. And a dog. And chickens (maybe they had chickens in the desert?). There are people around me almost all the time. No deserted tombs, and, to be frank, precious little asceticism. The one with whom I share a name, Sarah, apparently lived beside a beautiful river for sixty years but never looked at it, to avoid being distracted from her prayer. Let’s just say that would not have been in my skill set.
Still, I can’t shake the lure of desert spirituality, and it seems important that, while male dominated, women were still part of the movement. Of the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Fathers of the Desert, 47 of the teachings come from three women: Syncletica, Sarah, and Theodora. The “Sayings” were an oral tradition before they were written down in the fifth century.
Syncletica was probably born around the year 270. After her parents died, she cared for her blind sister and moved to the tombs outside Alexandria. Theodora, too, left her urban Roman life after her family obligations concluded. When her husband died, she dressed as a man to join a desert monastic community before founding her own community of women.
The consistent thread of desert spirituality is the ability to focus completely on God and the human soul, not to be distracted by storylines and competition. The death-defying and cinematic feats of denial and humility weren’t the point; the point was closeness to God. Syncletica said, “There are many who live in the desert yet behave as though they were in town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a monastic in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is also possible for a monastic to live in a crowd amidst her own thoughts.”
At my weak protest that I couldn’t possibly be held to the same standard as solitary hermits or the head of a monastic community, I imagine Syncletica giving me an appraising look and saying, “Ok, but what can you do to be close to God?
The important thing is what happens between the soul and its maker; it has nothing to do with others. Sarah said, “If I prayed God that all men should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, but I shall rather pray that my heart may be pure towards all.”
How often am I a “penitent at the door” asking for others’ praise and admiration? More often than I’d like to admit.
The brilliance of this theology is the reversal of egocentricity; the human ego can’t avoid putting itself at the center of everything. That’s its whole function! Desert spirituality refuses to get distracted there. There is plenty to be egotistical and proud about in spiritual practice. I use the app Insight Timer for my contemplative prayer practice. Every morning, I set my timer and try, with varying success, to let my thoughts go and let silence and love ground me for the day. After the bell rings at the end of my minutes, a little line pops up in the app to tell me how many consecutive days I’ve used it. As that number ticks up, I can’t help but feel a little thrill of accomplishment – 60, 70, 85 days! Yay for me!
Amma Theodora had a story like this. There was a hermit who was able to banish the demons. He asked them, “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?” They replied, “We do not eat or drink.” “Is it vigils?” They said, “We do not sleep.” “Then what power sends you away?” The demons replied, “Nothing can overcome us except humility alone.” Amma Theodora then asked, “Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons? Neither asceticism, nor vigils, nor any kind of suffering are able to save.”
Humility asks about how I am recognizing God’s faithfulness to me, not my faithfulness to God. Humility doesn’t get distracted by that number, day after day trying to prove my good behavior. That’s knocking on the door of my own ego, trying to get approval. It will never come, and I will never prove myself, because proving myself is exactly not the point.
So every day, the invitation comes. To sit with God, to open to silence, to allow my (digital) bell to bring me into focus. To look away from myself and toward God, with Theodora, Syncletica, and Sarah, see past the river of my own self-satisfaction and stick with the desert within.