I’m reading this book by Laura Swan called “The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women.” In the first few centuries of the church, Christianity was still a fringe sect. As such, it could indulge in such scandalous activities as having women be in positions of honor and spiritual authority. Swan outlines the stories of several women who were highly regarded in their time, who lived lives of faith and often solitude, and whose devotion seemed beyond compare.
Much is lost about the lives of these women; Swan put together what she could. I’ll admit it’s not much of a page turner. You’re unlikely to stay up late wondering what Amma Syncletica is going to say next, or how long Asella will fast this time. But I find their stories to be a calm comfort. In a chaotic world they are a reminder that the chaos is always our choice. Here are a few of my favorite stories.
Alexandra of the forth century was a beautiful young woman from Alexandria, Egypt. She shut herself up in a mausoleum, receiving food and water from a friend who delivered them through a window. Alexandra put up a curtain so that no one would ever she her face again. When asked how she handled this life, she said:
“From early dawn to the ninth hour I weave linen and recite the Psalms and pray; and during the rest of the day I commemorate in my heart the holy fathers, and I revolve in my thoughts the histories of all the Prophets and Apostles, and Martyrs; and during the remaining hours I work with my hands and eat my bread, and by means of these things I am comforted whilst I await the end of my life in good hope.”
Despite clearly wishing to be left alone, Alexandra developed a reputation for giving good spiritual advice, and was thought highly of for the 10 or 12 years she lived in the mausoleum until her death.
Athanasia and her husband Andronicus were prosperous silver merchants in what is now Syria. They were generous people who gave a third of their wealth away to the poor. They had two children, and Athanasia was devastated when both died at age twelve. While in mourning Athanasia had a vision of Saint Julian that prompted her and her husband to sell everything they had, give the money to local hospitals, and take on monastic lives. Andronicus stayed with Abba Daniel while Athanasia joined her own monastic community in the desert.
The couple finally met again 12 years later when Athanasia was on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He didn’t even recognize her at first. They agreed to journey together, but did so in total silence, as if they were alone. On the way back they decided to share a cave dwelling together, still in monastic silence for another 12 years until Athanasia’s death. Many desert dwellers and monastics attended her funeral.
Anastasia was a member of the Byzantine aristocracy in the 6th century until she left the privileged life to build a monastery. She fled the advances of Emperor Justinian by dressing in men’s clothing and retreating to the desert. With the help of Abba Daniel, she established herself in a cave, intending to remain there the rest of her life. Swan tells the end of the story so beautifully, I’ll leave it to her:
“Anastasia lived in solitude for twenty-eight years. As her death approached, she sent word to Abba Daniel to come and bury her. Abba Daniel and his disciple arrived swiftly in order to share some final words and receive her blessing. She requested and received the Holy Eucharist and a final prayer of blessing from Abba Daniel, turned towards the southeast, stretched out her hands, and said, ‘O God, into your hands do I commend my soul.’ Anastasia then made the sign of the cross and died.”
It seems right that if God truly destroyed death with the resurrection, then those who devote themselves so completely to God often have the luxury of dying on their own terms.