This is part 1 of 2 episodes profiling the Christian Desert Ammas. These women lived in the 3rd-6th century and helped shape Christianity. Often ignored and undervalued, they had a tremendous impact on the culture and people around them. They were sought after for their advice and connection with the Divine. They worked alongside the Abbas of the desert and many influenced the early Church fathers.
This is a labor of love for Chelsea, who has spent the past 3 years studying these amazing and life-giving women. To all they met, they were spiritual midwives helping to transition each person in unity with God. This episode will talk about the desert ammas as spiritual midwives, spiritual guides and unveil their spiritual practices.
The two books mentioned (although there are too many to put here - we will list our favorites in our after the show blog next week):
Praying with the Desert Mothers by Mary Forman
The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness by Mary Earle
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Chelsea Whipple 0:04
You are listening to the contemplative motherhood podcast. My name is Chelsea. I'm a teacher, practitioner, spiritual director and pilgrim.
Erin Thomas 0:13
And I'm Erin, a creative homeschool educator, counselor and spiritual seeker. listen in as we dive deeper into the contemplative lifestyle through hearing about each of our lives,
Chelsea Whipple 0:26
you'll hear our triumphs, failures, practices and mistakes as we journey together. You might even hear a kid or two in the background.
Erin Thomas 0:34
So grab some coffee, tea, curl up and take off your shoes. You are welcome here. Now let's get started.
Erin Thomas 0:45
Well, hello, hello friends. Welcome back to the contemplative motherhood podcast. I feel like I say that all the time. I'm Erin Thomas, and I'm here with Chelsea, my lovely co host and friend extraordinaire. Hi friend. How are you? Like what's going on in your life?
Chelsea Whipple 1:03
Um, I don't have as many exciting things in my life as you do if you would like to just quickly share with our lovely friends that are listening. What is going up with you, Erin?
Erin Thomas 1:18
Yeah, so if you're watching the YouTube version of this, you might be like, what is that background? It's actually my bed. So I'm coming at you from my bed because I broke my ankle on our vacation. So I'm excited to get back a normal looking ankle. So hopefully we will not be podcasting from the bed for very long.
Chelsea Whipple 1:40
These women will just pick you right up Erin.
Erin Thomas 1:43
This is this is really good material and you know I always say this, I say that. We're happy to be here. But we really are. We're happy to be here with our listeners. And we feel like this is just such a special place and so much more because of the beauty of the connection that you guys have provided for us in this community. So thank you for listening in even if it's your first time welcome. We always want to make sure that we are coming with you to thankful spirit and thanking you all for your time. Today we're going to continue season two. And it's our series of stories of the ammas. So if you haven't listened to any of the prior stories, here is your permission ticket to do so. So you will find that most of our episodes up to this point and this episode. Chels has done an amazing job of giving us a bit of a historical timeline and also some insight into the spiritual mothers that have really influenced a lot of roles of women today in the past and in the future. They were the original influencers. So Chels, can you lead us off today? I feel like we have a lot of subject matter to cover. And I know, this one is very special to you. So hit me with it. Let's hear it.
Chelsea Whipple 3:07
Yeah, yeah. And I have to say, Erin, for everybody that listens. If you hear our kiddos and our spouses today, I guess it's because we are really recording in our natural habitat.
Erin Thomas 3:23
Chelsea Whipple 3:25
I can hear my kids pounding this the roof over my head right now and I'm wondering what is going on up there and I know Erin, you're in the same situation.
Erin Thomas 3:35
is opening the door, please forgive us. It's just real life. Right?
Chelsea Whipple 3:39
Yes, background noise. Again, I just want to say this is so much our natural habitat but and this is not why this is going to be a tough episode for me.
Erin Thomas 3:50
Let's clarify that.
Chelsea Whipple 3:51
Yes, it is going to be a tough episode for me because I have almost too much to say. And in this episode just to do the unveiling. We're going to talk about the Christian desert ammas and I will explain a bit more what I mean by calling them desert ammas. But first, I have to say I adore these women and at the same time can find myself frustrated with them. And you know why is because I see so much of myself in them. The good and the bad. And I feel like this episode might reveal a lot of myself to all of you who are listening. So just to come out and say it to be brutally honest. If you've been reading the after show blogs, you can kind of hear a little bit about my past too and I grew up in a way of thinking that women were less than and now not so much my family teaching me that but really what I was getting from what my religion was teaching me that women were only good when we're fulfilling the subservient roles. And the it took me years to find my voice, to find myself in a spiritual setting where I felt good enough, you know where I felt equal and I had to also throw out the idea that God had a gender and you'll hear a lot of the word deconstruction and that was part of myself deconstructing what religion and how I identified myself, just to kind of reconstruct that so part of that deconstruction was realizing, you know, I am so used to using male terms for God. But coming to the realization you know, God doesn't have that gender. And you'll see that throughout these episodes. I don't refer to God as He, I always replace he with another word. And I'm not trying to discount the religious writings that do refer to God as he your father, and that's just fine for everybody. But my season right now, for me, is best suited to seeing the beloved as genderless. So something beyond gender and that is what helps me be closer to the divine. So, you know, when I read about these Christian desert ammas, you know, sometimes I feel like I am thrust back into the land of less than, you know, some of their writings and how they because they really write with a reference to the male more than the female. And so, you know, and they get kind of perceived by some male disciples can take me right back to that land I left long ago. But as a contemplative, I appreciate so much how amazing it is to name and notice things and to learn to let go. So as a contemplative I don't like to think in the and or the black white the he she that dual thinking, and there's so much for the word more. So in this episode, I'm going to do my best to stick to what the desert ammas teach, and that is more of the Beloved. And we talked about this with Amma Rab'ia, the beloved, the more of life, the more of reality and that is what we see is so much more. So I'm going to try to embrace that paradox for us.
Erin Thomas 7:55
I'm so glad there's just the paradox is very prominent and I'm the reason I'm laughing is because that was such a profound statement that you are sharing with us. And right at this moment, friends. My light went out like completely this really the lights in my house, so, but I really love that you're sharing this, and I don't mean to distract, but if you heard us giggling a little bit that is why because I was in the dark for a bit while we're still here, um, but I really want to thank you for your vulnerability there friend and because I know this is really a challenging part for a lot of us and we're obviously sharing from and we've shared this from a Christian faith tradition. But you know, I think this is true for a lot of us across the board. And this is really important so many of us have experience with these societal religious constructs, you know, and social construct, really, that have not always been supportive in nature of our lives. Specifically, if we are female, and even perhaps condemning, at times some of these beautifully inherent characteristics of our individuality and that carries a lot of weight with it. So I just want to, you know, share with our listeners, I'm with you, friend, and I think this is just a really good conversation to have.
Erin Thomas 9:28
Another thing that's beautiful about having this conversation, is that I really don't think that there's many of us who can't identify right with having the divine meet us where we are in our seeking, and allow us to move forward in this journey and what our past has to teach us. So yeah, this is really really good stuff. And we're gonna get into a little bit more about that dual thinking concept that you dropped right in there. But so you will find and this historical context, these women are significant in the Christian tradition. So friend, let's talk a little bit about who they were and sort of their role in history and culture. What can you share with us about them?
Chelsea Whipple 10:15
Yeah, so it's interesting is they have and you'll you know, as we talk more about them have had such a huge influence was really Christianity in its infancy, but not a lot of people know about them. Like, yeah, it's amazing how few people know about him. You know, in the Christian tradition, the Orthodox Church has done a remarkable job at really highlighting these women. You know, so they've done a great job highlighting them, but a lot of them they've just kind of gotten lost to history. So let's bring them back to the surface.
Erin Thomas 10:53
Yeah, absolutely. Let's hear it.
Chelsea Whipple 10:55
So most of these women, I love this. They defy their societal roles. They decided that they're only going to live for the divine and not for others, not for whatever category they have been placed in based on their birth place based on their gender, their economic class, and their defiance is a unique perspective that often gets overlooked. And I'm especially intrigued about the desert ammas because they lived in a significant time of the formation of Christian spirituality. So tradition mainly shows that it was the men that shaped Christianity, but it was the women that really influenced it, you know, they both had such a prominent role, both genders and these are the stories that I decided to tell are the women that influenced it. So first, what we need to do though, is to get a glimpse of the timeframe we are traveling back to, and the reason why this episode is back to back of Amma Rab'ias is because of the similarity and time and culture. Now, Amma Rab'ia was eighth ninth century, but we are going to pull us back even more and we're going to travel about a few 100 years back.
Erin Thomas 12:10
Okay, well, we're gonna get right into the travel machine. And here we go. Way back to the timeline in history to what we call that Christian desert ammas. Um, and so when we say Christian Dev, desert ammas friend, what are we saying who are the Christian desert ammas? Can you define that term for us a little bit?
Chelsea Whipple 12:30
Yeah. So we're talking about two different types of women and the reason why we group them is it's hard to pull and just highlight one women, one woman of this time period, they really should be a group. And it's not because their writings are the same. They can be very vastly different, but their importance really shaped this early period of Christianity. So that's kind of why I thought, let's go ahead and group them together. So I'm mainly talking about really two different types of women. So it's either women who left their homelands and they lived in the harsh deserts of Palestine, Syria and Egypt between the third and the sixth centuries. So these women, there's also Desert Fathers to desert abbas, and they lived around the same area as the men and women and then some were hermits. Some created their own monasteries. But they're all in these deserts of just nothingness living in caves, feeding off whatever the land provided. And then the other group of women we're talking about are women who left established roles, or redefined their roles to become spiritual mothers to the early church Fathers. So when we talked about the third and sixth centuries, you know, we're really talking about Christianity is maybe like 100 200 years old, even by the third sixth centuries. You know, obviously, it's not, you know, we don't have Twitter or anything like that. So the way that Christianity is being shaped is really early in its infancy. Now, and what we understand about these women is they desire to live out the teachings of Jesus, unencumbered by age, gender, social status, and to understand some context here at this point, Christianity is part of the Roman Empire, really recently part of the Roman Empire, and it's becoming ingrained in the culture. So it used to be before as part of the Roman Empire. You really couldn't practice Christianity out loud. And so it's more of kind of this underground religion. When the Roman Empire accepts Christianity, it now becomes an imperial religion. And that's why they a lot of people pulled away from that because they didn't want Christianity to become an imperial religion. So some males and females thought Christianity as the dominant religion of the Empire prohibited them from living out what were the teachings of Jesus. So you know, we aren't talking about power or superior superiority here. And so some of these women were referred to as ammas. But that does not refer to any type of superiority or rank within a community. So there'll be being called ammas at this point. But really, it was just a gracious term. It wasn't necessarily because you were in charge of anybody.
Erin Thomas 15:38
Chelsea Whipple 15:38
Because they didn't want that type of hierarchy.
Erin Thomas 15:41
Chelsea Whipple 15:42
So for the desert ammas, the desert became a place to listen to only the divine to grow and awareness of self and to learn true love of the Divine and neighbor and become transformed into the likeness of Christ.
Erin Thomas 16:03
So this is really a this is a beautiful concept and a lot of us I think, don't have this sort of historical background. And so sharing some of that historical background and defining what the Desert means is incredibly important. And I think also I just want to contribute a little bit and saying that I think that it's important for us to really understood stand where the Roman Empire was at the time because this can also assist us in putting their writings into context, right? So not just the concepts of how we talk about them, but also what what has been written from them or about them, and this really gives us a lot a lot of understanding about society and culture at this time, which is really influential and I think you bring up a good point. I think, you know, we are hesitant and we always, often refer to this concept in sort of a structural positioning. But this isn't prescriptive in nature. Like this wasn't a food chain, per se, right. And so the terms that we use to share about them. I wonder what they would have called themselves right now, what would that have been? Look? What would that have been like? And so you see, in prior episodes that some of these other ammas we've profiled, we look at their life's mission and their work and their writings. And that's sort of what gives us this lens to find out more about them. Will you share with us a little bit more on their, their mission, their work and their writings?
Chelsea Whipple 17:53
Yeah, so from their writings, you know, they just lay a desire to learn how to love the divine fully. And I mean, with every fiber of your being, and to truly understand what it was that commandment to love their neighbor as ourselves, you know, and Cynthia Bourgeault has this book called The Wisdom of Jesus. And she really breaks this down What does loving your neighbor meant? And it means to love someone as an extension of yourself. And not loving someone as another being but they are the very essence of you. The very essence of us. I mean, those are some very powerful words.
Erin Thomas 18:41
I think that really transforms this concept as we dig deeper. We've talked about this a little bit and pretty much every other ammas story that we've shared, you know, like that these are spiritual mothers are representations and profiles of how we can see what being a contemplative within whatever concept fleshed out for those who went before us and that's where we find our connection. So, share with us a little bit friend, like why do you think this is relevant for us?
Chelsea Whipple 19:14
I would say, you know, based on the work of other women writers, who have put together many books on these different women, highlight common themes, and I think that's what's relevant. So one book that we're going to talk about is by Mary Forman, and she wrote Praying with the Desert Mothers and this will be linked in in our show notes and after show blog, so she breaks up the Christian desert ammas into some categories. So spiritual midwives, Scripture scholars, and she talks about the spiritual practices of the ammas. And you know, she has more but those are the three that we're really going to talk about here in these episodes. So just to put this in context, so scholars have uncovered Sayings from 151, Desert Fathers and mothers. So out of the 151 There's only four women. So Syncletica, Sarah and Theodora, they have multiple sayings still not very much, but you know, some, and then there's Amma Matrona, who's mentioned, but you don't really see any of her writings. But we know there are so many more women that lived and taught. And it's really in that spirit. We will remember all those women who lived a life of more and encompass their spirit as we do these episodes and listen to them.
Erin Thomas 20:46
So this I mean, this is a really great way to break this down for us tangibly. You know, we talk about, you know, understanding the historical element to sharing these stories. And to because we, we can also glean that as far as written material on a desert Christian ammas. Like, we don't have a ton to reference, right like, and so this segues a lot to the fact that it's important to know that representation also gives us insight and this insight into the fact that these are writings, we have reference and these are documents available for us historically, but clearly, we know that there were more or may have been more and that's important not to let us slip by and we're going to talk a little bit about that more. In part two, but so it's with that understanding that we move into this little fun formula that Chelsea unknowingly shared with us. But you know, primarily from Mary Foreman's writings, and so these three categories the spiritual midwives, the Scripture scholars and the spiritual practices, some of the more dominant themes. I'm assuming we should start at the beginning, right? Friend What, what do you think about that?
Chelsea Whipple 22:02
Yes, always at the beginning, so let's do it. Okay, so let's dive into we're going to dive into the women right now. As spiritual midwives. And I've loved this imagery, because when you hear the term midwife, you know, you think of one who's, you know, who assists bringing life into this world. You know, they're not responsible for creating the life per se, but responsible for the transition of life into these new world. So for these ammas, they were called bearers of the Spirit. And these spiritual midwives were and I quote, capable of listening to the hearts of those around them in such a way that the spirit birthed Christ in their hearts and in their lives. And so they stood as midwives to the unfolding experience of an ever fuller dimension of Christ living in the hearts of the women and the men whom they served into whom they listened. So they use this patience by listening to those around them. They use patience to themselves is they birth new connections with the divine they new gentleness to be a key role as others found union with the beloved and most of all humility. So as a way to truly understand to be human means finding humility daily. And this is the compet concept that seeks to elaborate on the fact that being human and understand that humanity does not equal perfection, and that was a big one for me to learn.
Erin Thomas 23:49
say it again, right?
Chelsea Whipple 23:51
Be a perfectionist, so imperfection should never be a goal and humility isn't hierarchical in nature. It's just simply the concept of loving others and loving ourselves and loving God. That is true humility. And in so many words is a way to express it on others on ourselves and even on God. So, our first saying from Amma Syncletica, she says neither assists
Erin Thomas 24:32
let's have a redo.
Chelsea Whipple 24:33
Wow, okay. Amma Syncletica
Erin Thomas 24:37
Chelsea Whipple 24:38
says neither asceticism, nor vigils, nor any kind of suffering are able to save. Only true humility can do that.
Erin Thomas 24:53
I love that. That's first of all, Mic drop. That's our first saying that we're going to share Chelsea's done an amazing job of sharing sayings and selecting them. They're just beautiful. But I want to point out to one of the most important parts that you reference is like this concept of true humility, right? Because I'll be frank with you. I'm also a perfectionist. But I want to say that you know, this, this is sort of a taboo subject, right? Like this word gets thrown around a lot and there are so many working societal definitions and constructs that we have really built around this concept, right, like we will find this in not just in religious settings, like in a lot of other settings. And so, you know, we kind of mentioned this earlier in the episode and to delve into the stories of these ammas. It's also to place in a context that even their roles and social constructs were influenced in a window of hierarchy. And this is just frankly, a historical and cultural understanding. This is not like this is just a fact. Right? So but to get to the heart of the message right of these ammas. It helps us remove this hierarchy, even metaphorically, so we can understand their hearts and their mission and their connection with the Divine on a deeper level within their humanity. And Chels, you have selected like so many great, wonderful historic quotes, but this is another one of them. And I love for you to share with us this next saying because I I always say it's my favorite, but this might be my favorite.
Chelsea Whipple 26:37
So this story is from Melania the elder so she's not a desert amma. But she's a woman who was part of the group that influenced you know, what are considered the church fathers. And she is that spiritual midwife. So some background here so we can get to know her big a bit better. Melania was friends with Evagrius Ponticus.
Erin Thomas 27:04
Chelsea Whipple 27:05
I know I'm going to I have to say his name so much and he's going to trip me up. Evagrius was a young man who was well educated and he kind of had this way with words. And he enjoyed his life with women did not want to give that up. He was very, you know, had this way of talking theology. And so everyone kind of naturally thought of, he'll be a priest and a bishop and kind of really rise up in the ranks. But he didn't want to be celibate. And Evagrius had gotten into trouble with with a particular woman, and he was sent to live with malana, the older Melania the elder, excuse me, who had established a monastery at this point in her life. And she immediately took to him and she talks about how she really felt guided by her higher power to help them so I'm going to quote from Forman's book to kind of give a bit of insight into the story and why it's important and it helps us to understand how Melania form the spiritual midwife relationship with Evagrius in this transition to a life of spiritual devotion to the Divine that he slowly developed. If you're interested the references found on page 14, she This is Melania we're talking about she undertook to be responsible with respect to a Evagrius's salvation. And when I say salvation in those days it just meant they just defined it as spiritual health. Okay, like we have physical health. This is his spiritual health. She was going to be responsible for spiritual health, as well as his physical well being in her care for Evagrius represents this ancient practice of what was called Custos animi. I'm sure I pronounced that wrong, that is custody of the heart and soul. So this implies there were three different elements of this relationship. So the responsibility for another person's well being and ultimate salvation. So at this time, spiritual health and knowledge of his or her inner life, which could encompass a great deal of things. And finally, the relationship was a spiritual dimension which we don't really know all the details of what that meant. So if you are going to be a custodian of someone else's heart and soul, these were the three kinds of requirements so she was really a spiritual doctor, a spiritual midwife. And so she would listen intently to Evagrius's vision, you know, and you know, kind of his inner chaos, his inner turmoil of trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. And she really kind of became the medicine he needed to become well. And the interesting thing is he was actually physically sick at this time as well. So she really was taking care of him spiritually and physically, she saw that they had to be linked together. So other accounts of her kind of
Chelsea Whipple 0:15
reveal her profound knowledge of the scriptures. She had to have deep knowledge of, you know, her practice of Christianity and how this could help his spiritual health. And, you know, she used that to kind of draw this spiritual nourishment, nourishment, you know, not only for herself but for him as well.
Erin Thomas 0:39
So, I, this is, you've done an amazing job on this and I know I say this a lot, but part of this is having not grown up in this level of historical background, and kind of from a different background, then you Chels, like these desert Christian ammas are really interesting to me, and for more reasons than one, but this in particular, as you said, it's just such a beautiful imagery that we're given here. And I feel like we see this a lot in the sharing of stories of these women like these beautiful pictures, even in the small amount of writings that were given. And so you're highlighting this ancient tradition and you shared it and Custos animi, you know, if if you know, we've pronounced that correctly, to do a Google but there seems to be really like a great emphasis on the character attributes of these women, right? And that sort of surrounds this responsibility that she had and we can make a lot of assumptions and you know, we can really interpret this many different ways and sometimes we're gonna be wrong, right? Like, often, you know, in these writings were left to infer and interpret some of the aspects of the character of these women. And it's primarily because their character wasn't necessarily being assessed at the time, right? Like there wasn't a reporter. There was no one really writing all this down from a third party perspective, and it simply didn't exist to the extent that we could really dig deeply. But you know, if we look at this in an overview perspective, we see that there's so much to be gleaned from this responsibility that Melania showed that really supports the midwifery concept. attributes like the amount of compassionate listening that she clearly had to have and the situation listening to the animal world. Of those who struggle with certain aspects of their life, her gentleness that it would take to be and Shepherd this level of commitment. So this nurturing spirit is just really beautiful. And I think we could carry on this conversation for days like quite honestly one saying right from this beautiful woman could go on for days, but we like always sort of want to pause and come back to the conversation where we address the Christian desert ammas from a spiritual guide lens and then finally, through the practices that they lift out deeply and beautifully. So that's kind of the format that we've been given. And while we're doing that, Chels, can you give us a bit to chew on this week? We've introduced this concept of spiritual midwifery and in our story of the Christian desert ammas. You know, we could go on and on and on. Is there a challenge with this beautiful imagery that we can lean into as a part of our bridge to next week, so next week's episode excuze me where we will continue this conversation, because, quite frankly, spiritual midwifery could be a four day conversation. So how do we apply this?
Chelsea Whipple 4:05
Yeah, and I would say so I'm gonna give us a challenge. It's inspired from another book that we'll actually talk about in the next episode. And that, you know, gives us time to take the concept of a spiritual midwife, a bearer of the Spirit and really give that space for yourself. So becoming a midwife is not a born trait. It is a lived trait. This is someone who has lived through experience and struggle, who allows sorrows and joy to deepen compassion. This is a person who has an ability to love honestly, and wisely. So for this week, give yourself intentional time. To those who are your spiritual midwives, who bear your spirit and reflect on their qualities. And then take the time to recognize and name these qualities in yourself. We all can be bearers of the Spirit. And for some of you, you are ready are. So stay present with those qualities and let them inhibit and take over your soul.
Erin Thomas 5:42
And so that is our challenge for the week. Not a very, obviously very profound challenge. But we want to give you guys time to do this intentionally. And we know that as moms, we may not do this. If we're not given directions. So with that beautiful challenge. This week, we are going to wrap up part one of the desert Christian ammas and we hope that you guys will tune in for part two, because there's a lot more from about this woman. There's a lot more to where this came from. So we hope that you'll join us again.
Erin Thomas 6:21
Thank you again for joining us today on the contemplative motherhood podcast. With us your host, Erin Thomas and Chelsea Whipple
Chelsea Whipple 6:30
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Erin Thomas 6:44
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai