The Mothers of Egyptian monasticism: Sarah, Theodora and Syncletica
By Sr. Maria Luciana Tartaglia, OSB*
“How do we save ourselves?” This question was addressed to the spiritual Fathers and Mothers in the desert of ancient Egypt, so that they might point out “what should be done” in the concreteness of “practical life”, in order to attain Salvation. In other words, which path to take, which ascetic practices to perform, which virtues to attain, how to conquer the attacks of the devil and his temptations: in short, how to live in the here and now, in order to obtain eternal Life.
The words of exhortation and teaching expressed by these Abbas and Ammas of Egyptian monasticism in Late Antiquity, to help their own disciples — religious and lay people — were collected and transcribed in various collections of the Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Desert Fathers). The most important groupings are the Alphabetical Collection, sorted according to author and arranged in alphabetical order, and the Systematic Collection, which contains Apophthegmata grouped according to subject, as for example: humility, obedience, charity, not judging.
The Alphabetical Collection mentions 133 Fathers and three Mothers: Ammas Sarah, Theodora, and Syncletica. Although they are very few in relation to the number of Desert Fathers, they were no less important. Their sayings are an important testimony to the reputation they enjoyed, their teaching, and the roles they carried out.
Who were the Desert Mothers?
But who were these Mothers who had made following the Risen One their sole objective in life?
They were women who, ever since their youth, in their own homes or in the solitude of a tomb, like Syncletica, or in solitary dwellings, like Sarah, or in a monastery, like Theodora, had consecrated their lives to monasticism, in order to undertake a serious and arduous ascetic journey which, under the guidance of the Spirit, had led them to the most sublime heights of virtue.
This spiritual journey had also given them the gift of spiritual direction, that is, the ability to know how to guide those who came to them asking for words that would lead them towards Salvation, through the discernment of the enlightened Word.
They were ever ready to exhort, encourage, comfort, and accompany with firmness and tenderness, enveloping their sons and daughters with their prayers, so that after overcoming all the snares of the devil, they could be enlivened and transformed by the Spirit.
Their spiritual motherhood was not addressed only to consecrated virgins or married women, but also to monks, to Abbas, to priests, and even to bishops and lay faithful.
Indeed, spiritual direction was not linked to gender, but to the journey made in the Spirit, to them being “women of God”, and pneumatophores (bearers of the Spirit), which made them able to “calmly dock the boat in the port of salvation by clinging to faith in God as though to a safe anchor” (cf. The Life and Regimen of the Blessed and Holy Syncletica 19). These Ammas were thus a point of reference for the entire monastic and ecclesial community.
Sarah, Theodora, Syncletica
Various apophthegmas of Sarah, Theodora and Syncletica, outlining a simple but safe spiritual journey, have been preserved.
Sarah, for example, places special attention on the way to relate in a true and constructive way with our brothers and sisters, through liberty and purity of spirit, without being conditioned by the desire to be well received and judged:
“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” (Sarah 5).
Theodora, instead, insists on bearing suffering and all adversity to “profit” and redeem the time of life (Theodora 1). Indeed, suffering and temptation can make us grow and progress, leading us to eternal life:
“Just as the trees, if they have not stood before the winter’s storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven” (Theodora 2).
Syncletica delves deeper into the theme of the universal calling because it is the fruit of personal commitment and faith in God who works in us. Addressing those who had consecrated themselves to God, she warns them saying:
“We are like those who sail on a calm sea, and seculars are like those on a rough sea. We always set our course by the sun of justice, but it can often happen that the secular is saved in tempest and darkness, for he keeps watch as he ought, while we go to the bottom through negligence, although we are on a calm sea, because we have let go of the guidance of justice” (Syncletica 26).
For too long, figures like these Ammas have remained insufficiently known and appreciated by both academic and theological research.
Today, the value of the role of women in the history of the Church should be rediscovered.
*Pontifical Athenaeum of Saint Anselm