The Desert Ammas

Paul writes in Romans 8:15 that we have “received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” Abba is the affectionate term for one’s father. Likewise, Amma is used to lovingly refer to one’s mother. In the very early church, Amma referred to one’s spiritual mother.

What follows are a few lengthy quotes from Chapter 4, “Pilgrimage of the Heart: The Desert Mothers,” of Sacred Friendships by Dr. Bob Kellemen and Susan Ellis:

The desert mothers believed that the greatest enemies of the inner journey were hurry, crowds, and noise.

Escaping the sinfulness of daily city life might make us think the Ammas focused on external manifestations of evil.  Actually, the opposite was true.  They were concerned with the source of sin in the human heart.  Moreover, they were careful to note that external spiritual disciplines (such as fasting, silence, solitude, prayer without ceasing, meditation, giving to the poor, etc.) might lead to the worst sin of all — pride.  The desert mothers sought the Spirit’s discernment to perceive and repent of secret idols of the heart, and to live constantly aware of the presence of Christ’s grace and in anxious anticipation of Christ’s soon return.  In the desert waiting, they were loyal sons and loving daughters watching for their Father’s return.

While trying to live humbly in extended family communities, their relentless pursuit of spirituality produced stories that spread their fame.  Spiritually committed believers came to these Ammas as someone seasoned in the spiritual life “who was known to have reached a level of maturity and wisdom and had experience in teaching by example, exhortation, story, and instruction.”  Often the disciple, if not already a member of the family, moved into the elder’s home.  “A deep spiritual bond formed as the Amma taught — more often by example than by words.”

The Amma normally took less the role of a spiritual friend — which would be mutual in nature — and more of a spiritual director with a one-sided, sacrificial, unselfish focus on the spiritual growth of the disciple.  Ammas were “practiced in peeling back the layers of silence, pierced to the core the hearts of fellow seekers and laid bare for them the voice of the living God.”  People viewed these ancient soul physicians as the true psychologists of the day.

The Amma “journeyed and struggled alongside her disciple but maintained the detachment necessary for discernment.”  Their communication was candid.  “The disciple shared her heart’s struggles, and the Amma didn ot hide her own humanity.”  The Ammas gained the insight and discernment to deal with unruly or false passions by long, hard living.  They were aware of the necessity of self-understanding and they emphasized the importance of taking personal repsonsibility for one’s actions.

The Ammas’ pilgrimage into the desert was a pilgrimage of the heart.  They culitvated solitude in order to intensify their inner journey toward their goal of intimacy with Christ so they would be empowered to disciple others toward that same intimacy.  Their practice should speak volumes to soul care-givers and spiritual directors today who are often too busy, too exhausted, and too much like Martha to be of any good…

While few of us can take a literal pilgrimage to the desert, none of us can afford to live a Martha lifestyle.  The desert Ammas modeled how to live like Mary in a Martha world.

The Ammas featured in this chapter are:
Amma Theodora (350-395) (sayings)
Amma Syncletica (380-460) (sayings)
Marcella (325-410)
Paula (347-404)

I am fascinated by the lives of these women because, in this season of my life, I am finding it more and more difficult to find solitude and quiet.  When my children were younger it was much easier: they took long afternoon naps that afforded me ample time for prayer and meditating on scripture.  I miss those days.  Nowadays, my quiet hours have to come either early in the morning while it’s still dark (like the Ammas) or late at night.  Neither time is working too good for me right now.  But I’m encouraged by the discipline of the Desert Ammas.  Thanks to the internet, I was able to find a few more resources and books about the desert mothers:

Sayings attributed to desert mothers

A paper, “Desert Mothers: A Survey of the Feminine Anchoretic Tradition in Western Europe by Margot H. King

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