Lights of the World is TLC‘s occasional series of vignettes about saints who were newly added to Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2018.
By James Stambaugh
One notable feature of the Episcopal Church’s new sanctoral calendar is that saints of the desert monastic tradition are represented to a greater degree than in previous calendars. By my count there are 10 desert monastics of the fourth and fifth centuries represented in Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018. Of those, eight are women. This is appropriate given the instrumental role women had in the foundation of desert monasticism.
The prevalence of women in the desert hermitages and communities that sprung up in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the fourth century is sometimes obscured by the attention that male monastics received in subsequent devotional and historical inquiry. But the evidence for extraordinary women at the heart of desert monasticism shouldn’t be ignored. Many thousands of women in the fourth and fifth centuries left home and devoted themselves to prayer in the desert. Their wisdom, spiritual authority, and stature shines through in the early writings about desert monasticism despite more attention paid to their male counterparts.
Three excellent examples, worthily deemed Desert Mothers, are Sarah, Theodora, and Syncletica, commemorated on January 5. Of the thousand women monastics whose names were recorded, and the thousands more who remained anonymous, these three were included in the collections of monastic wisdom known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Forty-two sayings out of just over one thousand are attributed to these women. Yet, their contributions to monastic wisdom are both significant and in continuity with the tradition as a whole.
The Sayings preserve 27 examples of Syncletica’s wisdom, more than all but seven of the Fathers and Mothers who appear in the collection. Syncletica’s sayings are characterized by a pragmatism that tempered the most extreme displays of asceticism, and a realistic understanding of human nature. In line with much of desert monastic wisdom, Syncletica taught that humility is central to the monastic life, “Just as one cannot build a ship without nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility.”
As a scion of a wealthy family and widow of a Roman tribune, Theodora began her time in the desert disguised as a man, hiding from any deferment she may have received. Eventually she became the Amma of a community of women near Alexandria, where she was sought for spiritual counsel by many prominent monastics and clergy, including the Patriarch of Alexandria.
Sarah was a hermit who lived near Scetis in the northwest Nile Delta of Egypt. She was so devoted to prayer during her 60 years as a hermit that, it is said, she never once looked up from praying to take in the panorama of the Nile visible from her hermitage. Once, a group of male monastics visited Sarah with the purpose of humiliating and demeaning her. Their assumption of superiority over female monastics exposed their spiritual pride. When they confronted Sarah and ironically chided her for being a prideful woman, she said to them, “According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.” She is also recorded as saying to (presumably the same) monastic brethren, “It is I who am a man, you are the women.” Her sayings demonstrate that Sarah refused to allow the gender bias of others to interfere with her own piety and vocation as a spiritual guide and teacher.
It is long past time to understand and appreciate the pivotal role of women in monasticism, spirituality, and every other aspect of the Church’s life and faith. It is beneficial to learn from the examples of Sarah, Theodora, and Syncletica and heed their wisdom, which transcends their ancient monastic context and speaks to our own. It is fitting to venerate these saintly women for their holiness and their devotion to prayer. They do the one job of every true saint—they point us toward Jesus Christ.
The Rev. James Stambaugh is rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
Fix our hearts on You, O God, in pure devotion, that aided by the example of your servants Sarah, Theodora, and Syncletica, the vain pursuits of this world may have no hold upon us, and that by the consuming fire of your Spirit, we may be changed into the image and likeness of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord; to whom with you and the same Spirit be all honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.