BOOK REVIEWS: HOUSE OF HERMITS

Swan, Laura. The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000.

Here is a popular treatment of early Christian women (to about the sixth century) that includes hermits, deaconesses, and monastic founders. The title is misleading. Only the women hermits of Egypt and Asia Minor were desert mothers properly speaking, but extrapolation of the phrase has become accepted, though the women hermits of later Eastern or Western European tradition are often exceptions to the dominant church culture, either as pro-active women or as social eremites. The second half of the book follows named deaconesses and historical founders of monastic communities, satisfying the subtitle of the book.

Of the chapters of the book, the first two attempt to provide insight into desert spirituality, commenting on asceticism, solitude, prayer, and silence. The last chapters apply asceticism to modern life and the author's personal practice. Chapter 3 presents sayings of four famous desert mothers, or ammas: Matrona, Sarah, Syncletica, and Theodora. The sayings of Syncletica are from Bongie.1 The sayings of the other three desert mothers are from the indispensible sayings collection of Benedicta Ward.2 The author adds that the sayings are "adjusted for American sensibilities and inclusive language."

The lesser known desert mothers have no surviving sayings and range from Egypt to Rome, Constantinople to Gaul.  They are: Alexandra, Anastasia, Asella, Athanasia of Egypt, Athanasia of Constantinople, Caesaria, Candida, Cerona, Domnina, Elisabeth, Ermelinda, Eugenia, Euphrasia (Elder and Younger), Euphrosyne, Florence, Fracla, Posenna and Prompta, Gelasia, Hilaria, Juliana, Manna, Marana and Cyra, Maria the Harpist, Marina, Nymphodora, Menodora and Metrodora, Paesia, Photina, Piamon, Pusinna, Romana, Chirin, Sosiana, Susan, Syncletica of Palestine, Tachom, Talida, Taor, Theodora, Triaise, Verene, and Vitalina.

Naturally, this litany of names has been much downplayed or ignored in modern times, many disappearing altogether from the ecclesiastical calendar, others reduced to hagiographical accounts. The author does a service in bringing them to light as paradigms of behavior rather than literal historical biography.

The second half of the book presents traditional information about deaconesses and monastic founders of this period. This section may not be as interesting to one seeking genuine eremiticism. Here, too, no direct sayings are available, and the historical record is largely hagiographical.

The author clearly wants to use the hagiographical material in both these sections to demonstrate the continuation and widespread nature of a desert spirituality. This defines desert spirituality far more broadly than standard critical sources, of course. However, this tendency to extrapolate is evident even in interpreting the sayings. For example, the author minimizes the desert fathers' vocabulary: the "demon of fornication" is reduced to a complex of "human biology, normal sexual drive, and psychology." But this contradicts the ethos discovered by Benedicta Ward's Harlots of the Desert book3, where the experience of prostitution and repentance in the lives of selected women (whose accounts were tremendously popular and influential in the Middle Ages) presents desert spirituality with a powerful motif affecting everything from scriptural metaphor to a feminine spirituality. It may be argued that men were the receptive audience to these accounts, but they must be read and studied in order to see their transcendent value vis-?vis the hagiographical lists of names in Swan's book.

The lives of the the harlots and the true desert mothers reveal a spirituality independent of institutions, even of men, and hence more radical while at the same time apparently traditional in psychology, whether hagiographical in basis or not. The record for the more potential implications of this female spirituality is more heartfelt in its original sense than the author's more reform-minded ecclesiology. The author is correct, however, in concluding that

Often the stories would be embellished in a fashion we may find unpalatable today. Writers were more concerned with convincing the reader to take a moral stance and promulgate the value of self-denial, the importance of the inner journey, and the power and efficacious nature of prayer. The kernel of the teaching was important, not historical accuracy as we understand it today.

The very attempt to make the stories palatable to a modern audience is the dilemma of applying desert or eremitic spirituality to modern people. Inevitably, this tension affects Swan's book, and it can become a chronicle of names and anachronistic commentary.

The book lacks an index for finding names quickly. It includes a traditional calendar of feast days and a timeline, though I could not find Fabiola in the body of the book, only in the calendar and timeline. (One is reminded of Cardinal Wiseman's famous historical romance of the same name.) The bibliography is very useful and contains the critical titles that could refine this popularization into a powerful presentation of desert spirituality and women.

The portrait on the cover is from an icon at Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, Massachusetts. It portrays (back row, left to right): Photina, Metania the Elder, Eudoxia Samaritan and Pelagia; front row (left to right): Macrina, Mary of Egypt, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Mesopotamia.


BIBLIOGRAOHIFOOTNOTES

  1. Bongie, Elizabeth Bryson. The Life of Blessed Syncletica by Pseudo-Athanasius. Toronto: Peregrina Publishing, 1995.
  2. Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1975.
  3. Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987.