Contemplative Motherhood Podcast

Christian Desert Ammas: Contemplative Midwives Part 2

May 16, 2022 Erin Thomas & Chelsea Whipple Season 2 Episode 8
Christian Desert Ammas: Contemplative Midwives Part 2
Contemplative Motherhood Podcast
More Info
Contemplative Motherhood Podcast
Christian Desert Ammas: Contemplative Midwives Part 2
May 16, 2022 Season 2 Episode 8
Erin Thomas & Chelsea Whipple

This is part 2 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

Check out for blog posts, bonus content, and to sign-up for our newsletter!

Show Notes Transcript

This is part 2 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

Check out for blog posts, bonus content, and to sign-up for our newsletter!

Chelsea Whipple  0:06  
You are listening to the contemplative motherhood podcast. My name is Chelsea. I'm a teacher, practitioner, spiritual director and pilgrim.

Erin Thomas  0:15  
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  0:27  
you'll hear our triumphs, failures, practices and mistakes as we journey together. You might even hear a kid or two in the background.

Unknown Speaker  0:36  
So grab some coffee, tea, curl up and take off your shoes.

Erin Thomas  0:40  
You are welcome here. And let's get started. 

Erin Thomas  0:44  
Hello, Hello friends. Welcome back to the contemplative motherhood podcast. I am Erin. I'm here with Chelsea. This is my tagline. At this point hi friend how are you?

Chelsea Whipple  0:56  
Heard? I just love being with you. I just have to say that.

Erin Thomas  0:59  
We were joking around before this and she's trying to pull it together and but you guys, it's just here we are. We're here today and we we want to share this with you all and we want to share this space with you. So if you were here with us in part one, we have dug into the stories of the Christian desert ammas and we started out with a super rich beginning and a great challenge from our resident historian. That's what I'm gonna keep calling but you know, due to the fact that we're covering more than one amma in particular, we've broken this up to help you guys to a bit on these tidbits on these things one by one so if you haven't heard part one of this episode, you'll definitely want to do that and this is your permission slip go and listen to part one. Before you listen to part two. But if you're here with us and you've already listened to part one, you are ahead of the game and there's just a lot more to cover. You heard us briefly introduce Melania and we introduced the concept of spiritual midwifery. Am I saying that word right? midwifery midwifery

Chelsea Whipple  2:09  
I would call it midwifery but I don't know. Okay, so

Erin Thomas  2:13  
in Virginia people say midwifery but you get the picture spiritual midwifery is so friend can you give us a little bit of a brief recap as much as possible for those who have been with us in part one, and we transition to Part Two? 

Chelsea Whipple  2:30  
Yeah, so I'm just kind of, let's just do the history part of it. So basically, the basic layout of the time and place of these women. So this is third to sixth century women and mainly in the eastern part of the world. And these are women that left zoar their lands, their roles, wherever they were before and to change decided to change their circumstances. And these are women that left a remarkable imprint on Christianity in its infancy, but they are just not well known as much as I think they should be. And I'm sure you'd agree, but I won't put that label on everyone else. So these are women that challenged the societal roles. They lended their voice and expertise to a growing movement of finding the divine outside of the Roman Empire. And we also just discussed one of these women Melania the elder, and we read a saying from Amma Syncletica. So we've just briefly touched on them, and we've labeled them with the terms of bearers of the spirit or spiritual midwives. And so now we're going to jump into other things that they are.

Erin Thomas  3:57  
Yeah. And so you gave us a little bit of a template. For these Christian desert ammas as spiritual guides. This is kind of our second component and this is the outline really from the author Mary Forman, who Chelsea has graciously graciously shared with us and you guys know that you will be linked in our show notes and the after the show blog. So make sure that you read that because Chelsea have always has so much more stored up in her brain. And I appreciate all of this legwork that you've done. So for the second component, spiritual guides, can you share a little bit more with us on what spiritual guides look like for these Christian desert ammas?

Chelsea Whipple  4:47  
Yeah, and just to paint another picture because I love painting pictures. And we have to remember that these women and a lot of the ammas that we profile, especially historical ammas are not common names are not stories that you've heard every day, even if you're of that particular religious tradition. So the fact of their influence the fact that we know who these women are, even though we've said before in part one of the episode that or the previous episode that we don't have many sayings from them, but we know that there's more. So the fact of what we have is just hugely important and to call them spiritual guides, right? Like, modern day you think like of course spiritual guides, spiritual guidance can be women and men, but at this time, it's just not something that you see from women. Right, so Okay, enough on my tangent.

Erin Thomas  5:53  
We have no opinions here.

Chelsea Whipple  5:58  
So I'm gonna get back to my script here. So the women that we're talking about, they influenced major theological writings of the time, and those came from men and these men whose influence you know, really still weighs heavy on the Christian tradition, actually quotes these women as influencers in their lives and gives credit that these women shaped how they saw God. And just to because we should always mention names of these women, so to mention their names and these are just a few Melania the elder Melania the younger Olympus, Paula, Ostocheum. So those are the ones that were named in these early church fathers. So as spiritual guides, these women could listen to how the Spirit is moving and others so really similar to modern day trained spiritual directors. In Amma Theodora says, There was a monk who because of the great number of temptation said, I will go away from here as he was putting on his sandals he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals. And this other monk said to him, is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going so Amma Theodora as the spiritual guide, is giving us a parable or a story to teach us as all good teachers do. So she's giving us another layer rather than just telling us what to do. And so she's focusing on that no matter where we go, we take ourselves that we cannot escape our actions or thoughts by simply leaving. So, her and the other ammas, they're very good at kind of this indirection with their sayings. And just to kind of expand on that just a little bit. You know, they talk about the hard stuff in a way that you can't run away from, you know, sometimes there can be times where friends or you know, even family that just want to make us feel better. And so they just kind of fluff over stuff. But the ammas don't do that. They kind of do what a spiritual director or a therapist will do is they will make you face things that they know is good for you. So you know, I love this scene from Amma Theodora and I didn't introduce it and I apologize for that. But just her way of teaching that she's saying you can't get away from your temptations by walking away because your temptations will follow you wherever you go. And so her leaning into you know, what is it that you're struggling with? You know, it's time to face the struggle than running away from it.

Erin Thomas  9:45  
Mic drop for that mess. Yeah, I think this is the text in general like we've moved through other religious texts, right. And we've discussed this concept of spiritual motherhood and you have you put this one phrase in there and you know, I really love this that the 

Erin Thomas  10:03  
ammas are good at indirection with our sayings. I feel like we've heard we've sort of touched on this and seen it a lot in the stories that there seems to be a lot of applicable teaching in some of these more like metaphorical texts. But as a good spiritual director, and counselor, we have this way and they have this way of kind of texts that have further meanings behind them. And we haven't used the word mystic yet. To drop that into your vocabulary. And we're going to cover that soon in an episode. Because this there's a lot of taboo with that as well. But what I really mean is that there's something deeper behind these often simple parables or stories that they tell us and you said indirect, I think that's a really great adjective to describe it because in reality, these ammas provide us so much more depth beyond that, like initial wording, their initial writing, so I'm wonder if you could I don't feel any pressure here. But a lot of us might not be familiar with spiritual direction. We've talked about this. Chelsea identifies herself as a spiritual director in our intro, like, could you explain that a little bit for us?

Chelsea Whipple  11:19  
Yeah. And I will do my best because it's defined kind of up to the person and how they define it. But really, like spiritual direction is just a companioning relationship. So you're walking with someone as they discover the divine within themselves. And, you know, a great spiritual director is a great listener. And they're there to listen to, how the Divine is working in a person. You know, however they connect to God or the beloved and, you know, we like to say that it's someone who is deeply listening, not to your words, but to your spirit. Hmm.

Erin Thomas  12:10  
I love that. I just think that's really helpful. And it's amazing to kind of know that this resource is available. To us in the present day, right like, you may not have seen this Chelsea herself as a spiritual director, and will be graduating with this in your bag. She's got it in the bag. But quite frankly, I think a lot of us could benefit from this listening partnership. And that level of accountability. So I really appreciate you know that we share more about spiritual directors and what that looks like for us in modern day because this isn't maybe this isn't a term that a lot of us are familiar with, but you know, moving along with that sort of listening to the spirit, sort of connotation. It's amazing to know, not just that this is available to us now, but that there are practical aspects to this right. And we call them or we talk about what we call spiritual practices. And there's a lot of verbiage that other other faith traditions may use for this term, but we're using the term spiritual practices. Because what this look like for the Christian never desert ammas is I think it's just really profound. So if you've been with us on the podcast for a while, you know that Chelsea and I have shared much about our own practices, right, because it's very different for each individual, and this what this looks like for us practically, but these Christian desert ammas I'm interested in how the spiritual practices influenced them. Can you give us a little bit more of a context about how spiritual practices worked in their life and what that looked like?

Chelsea Whipple  13:58  
So spiritual practices from the ammas are kind of rich and steeped in the tradition of their time. So the idea and I think this is very interesting and gives us a lot of freedom is to not find all the spiritual practices that interest you. That is speaking to me.

Erin Thomas  14:24  
But we didn't talk about this right.

Chelsea Whipple  14:25  
I took just find a few and practice them over and over so they become part of your being, you know, and not something you do for a few minutes a day, but they actually become you. They become engulfed in you. So for example, if your spiritual practice is prayer, then let prayer breathe out of you with every breath you take. You know, if you pick your spiritual practice, as study, then let everything you see and touch become a place to know where the beloved is and that you know if you pick silence, the then practice silence. You know, as I believe it was Gandhi who said, Speak only when words can improve the silence. You know, listen to others without advice giving. And to give an example, so 

Chelsea Whipple  15:31  
amma syncletica you know, talks about not abandoning spiritual practices because they are not giving you the over the top experiences that you desire. She says if you find yourself in a monastery, do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching. So the monk or nun grows cold and their faith dies when they go from one place to another.

Erin Thomas  16:09  
Again, this is this is so wonderful. I love that saying, and first of all, I mean, we talked about this level of not abandoning that spiritual practice, right. That's really important. It is an incredibly difficult, difficult thing to do practically like the contemplative lifestyle in general. I feel like involves a fair amount of trial and error. And so what this looks like and in your life and to our audience like this in for these ammas, even within a cultural context, it was very much the core of their being so core to their life and so if you are seeking spiritually and this is something to look into further. I know you have a bit more writing to share this Chels. I really want to hear more and here's here's why. Because if you've been following us from the beginning of the season, you know that we learn a lot through writings of these ammas and those who knew their teachings. Oral tradition turned into a written tradition and without that, we wouldn't necessarily have all that we have. And so I think it's really important to point out that they're often major components in the stories and in the character of these ammas that we have shared with you all that really influence how we practically live this out because we, you know, can have theological conversation or spiritual conversation or whatever you call it, this dialectical sort of thing. But listening is really a challenge. So can you tell us a bit more about some of these writers, some of these voices that have given us the materials that we reference for these Christian desert ammas? Who are these people and what can we sort of glean from them?

Chelsea Whipple  18:06  
Yeah. And yeah, these writers, I have to give them so much credit. One, they just bring these ammas to life. So they have spent years and really dedicated their professional life to bringing them to the modern day reader. So one of them is Mary Earle. And she wrote the book called The desert mothers, and she really has this summary of them that I think is helpful for us. You know, she claims that they can seem you know, out of reach, and I completely agree sometimes. And at first when you read the saints, they don't make much sense to a modern day reader. But if you take the time and you allow yourself to really mine what's been presented to you and you look further and reflect on them, they and I'm quoting here, lead us to see that God is encountered in the details of our lives and relationships. The desert teaches us to begin to notice how the details of our lives reveal our moments of unfaithfulness and fidelity to the love of God. love of neighbor, love of self. So for us here, listening, each Waking Moment offers an opportunity to fall more deeply in love with God to fall more deeply in love with our neighbors as an extension of ourselves, and an opportunity to fall more deeply in love with ourselves. So Earle Mary Earle really connects with me and shapes you know how to understand the Christian desert ammas. So, we also have to remember and she points out that the desert ammas way of life is radically different than ours today. So their way of life is freedom. They physically chose to live with God against a typical cultural study. They left everything behind. I mean, physically left everything behind. You know, they chose life against the example of the story of Eve So Eve, is found in the very first book of the Christian Bible Genesis. And Eve has been a sticking point with Christian women, Jewish women, Muslim women for a long time, and what exactly is her role in history? So Eve tradition tells is believed to be the first woman created. And so the reason why I'm talking about her is because Earle writes about Eve that foremother, she's mentioning Eve, whose taste of the Apple has been interpreted again and again to prove that women's wills are maliciously inclined, and that any choice women make cannot be well made. So for us, the Christian desert ammas choose a daily life of wisdom, humility, obedience, stillness, and silence, and show us the way to this life of freedom and God. So the reason why we say that does or almost go against that narrative of Eve is saying that because you've ate of this apple and kind of damned history is that the desert ammas birthed into this new way of looking at Eve. And through the harshness of their reality, and their situation in life, and the way that they choose to live out their life and the writings that they left behind. Show us that complete union with God that Christians can think has been lost. So to quote directly from Earle, Another mistake that we can make in the spiritual life is assuming that what is spiritual is somehow separate from what we do in the course of a normal day. So that's spiritual is something you do in your quiet times or when you go to your worship services, that it's confined to a period of your day. So she's saying that that is the mistake.

Chelsea Whipple  23:05  
In this view, care of family, daily work, and the round of errands and carpools are outside the realm of spiritual practice and care. The ammas would disagree strongly with this. It is not the case that there's a spiritual life that is somehow distinct from the daily routine. Nor is there a spiritual life that in and of itself is somehow more worthy than life. In its minutia, and dailiness so all of life is a spiritual practice. And you know, what do I mean by that? Very simply, I mean that the entire fabric of our lives is woven together with the divine life. There is no moment no our no day when the Divine is not present with us. And the spiritual practice for those of us who are not monastics is going to be different and expression. Who are not these desert Ammas will be different in how it's lived out in daily life. So we are called upon to practice love in the lives that we already live in the life that we live at this very moment. And we are invited at every moment of the day to be alerted for the opportunities to notice the presence that is with us every moment in every place. And we are invited to bring a different intention to our relationships to our work to our leisure and you know, erin, I think it is a good point right now to talk about these women who left their societal lives who left the comfort of their home and who left being a mother in the physical sense. You know, so what can we or can you help us find a way to take from what these women taught us and insert it into our very life right now?

Erin Thomas  25:25  
Yeah, I mean, I think this is the core reason that we've really chosen these stories and biographical information, right. It's more than just the text that we're presenting from these women we truly believe that we can learn so much from in in reality, it can be really intimidating to read certain texts and feel like there's this large concept, right and contemplative life that we literally don't know how to apply as a modern day female, like what do I have in common? You know, this is not I haven't been immersed in monastic culture, you know, I mean, and whatever. Since this is a I feel like this is a live application in more ways than one. We, you know, there's more just to be gleaned simply through the attitude and the spirit that these women bring to the table. And we share that, you know, we feel like we're just coming to a table and having a conversation about these women and what that looks like and we hear, I feel like we hear these words sacred and secular in a lot of circles. And it's not just the Christian faith circle. We've, we we hear a lot of these lines that are being driven between where the divine meets us in our lives and and how we can live with it. But realistically, you know, as we talk about these beautiful women who have displayed this and in various different ways, what it means to be contemplative. Really, you're going to interpret what that looks like in your home. We are simply sharing that we think this is the heart of the Divine, and that this can be part of our everyday lives, both in practice and in process. And so what that really looks like again, in your home, within your family within your household, you know, that's up to you. If you're interested in hearing more about spiritual practices. I do want to put a plug here and suggest listening to our first season, because we do kind of address some of these core basics. And we do reference dualistic and non dualistic thinking. This is again part of the vocabulary that we're trying to kind of share with you guys. So specifically, I want to give you just a personal experience and my own journey. I've had a great deal of challenge with the desire to intellectually understand all concepts of the divine in a very tangible way. But i i And I think a lot of maybe academics, you know, we're, we struggle with it, right? Like we want to understand more about where the divine ends and begins and what that looks like. For us. But I think we've journeyed forward throughout this this season in this series, and what has really changed my life is that there's a realization that being a contemplative and specifically being a contemplative mother, sometimes means not having all the answers to my questions. And often this looks like being more focused internally on this transformational process. And really the relationship component. You know that something in reality we just, we can struggle with what that looks like. We can sit and talk about and share points on what contemplative life is supposed to quote, look like for the modern day woman, you know, but really, the focus in the lens is on the process and not the product. So once we kind of move away from that idea of finality and spiritual motherhood, we can really find that we can be more present to God and to others, especially with those in our home. Right like this is the hardest part to do this in our homes guys. But those whose lives have been who are really influenced daily by our actions, more than a lot of other people and Chels I don't know if you want to add to that, and I hope you hear what I'm saying really having the focus on the process and not the product. In this concept of spiritual motherhood, really transformed our idea with not focusing so much on this black and white thinking, but more on seeing the divine in every aspect of what we do every day in our lives. 

So I'm curious, you know, we talk a little bit about spiritual. We've talked about that spiritual guidance component. Can you share a little bit more about what that looks like and share a little bit more of what Earle says about what this spiritual guide concept looks like.

Chelsea Whipple  0:27  
Yeah, so you know something I want to point out and I love your you know the process, not the product. And I don't know if it's something that it's a relatable way you said that because I'm a woman or just because me in particular, are all people, you know, kind of get stuck down by looking at, you know, what's the end result? Right, and to know that this is actually the processes, the result, whatever in whatever way, that means. That means it continuously changes.

Erin Thomas  1:00  
Right, like measurements. Yeah, yeah. And I

Chelsea Whipple  1:03  
think the ammas does or aamas would really like applaud you on that one. I can almost feel them applauding you so and so I want to point out that with all of the ammas we speak about in each of these episodes, so once we've already covered and the future ones, they kind of can become part of that process. You know, they can become our spiritual guides. And as women you know, we we to, even here in modern day kind of often weighed in the desert to find our voice, to name our feelings, you know, or express our spiritual gifts from the beloved. And listening to these almost spiritual experiences of God can help us identify our own experiences. And to quote again from Earle because I can't get enough I could probably pretty much just sit here and read her. Just read the book. And there's many others too, that I could just sit here and read to because they say it so much better than I will. But to quote from Earle those women who went to the desert chose to take radical steps as they decided to live in a landscape where reputation and success and even holiness did not matter. They began to be delivered from the distress of putting themselves before God and neighbor. As the desert allow them to recognize their own littleness in the shortness of human life. The ammas were able to allow the love of God to heal the dullness of their blinded sight. So another author on the Christian desert mothers and fathers has a great quote as well. John crucifix Chris esophagus, right?

Erin Thomas  2:58  
Nailed it.

Chelsea Whipple  2:59  
I know. The desert is a place of spiritual revolution. I feel like I have to shout that the desert is a place of spiritual revolution, not a personal retreat. It is a place of inner protest, not outward peace. It is a place of deep encounter, not of superficial escape. It is a place of repentance, not recuperation. Oh my gosh, like just huh. I can't even like speak after that. It's just such a way of looking at things and denouncing our idea of like competition between sometimes we can have with each other, you know, humans have natural competition with each other. And it's kind of like why and you go to a place like the desert. And you think of it as a running away and it's like you can't run away from the harshness of reality, like the desert will make you face everything, even when you're alone. So for me, the desert is a place to scream, to demand change, to formulate myself into my beloved and to take action. The desert is a place to grieve, suffer and become full again, to see things in all colors of the rainbow, to understand that the sacred heartbeat of the world beats in all of us

Erin Thomas  4:47  
I love that, you know, sacred heartbeat of the world. First of all, Earle is writer goals. hashtag thank you for sharing that with us and generally just sharing your knowledge. And guys, Chelsea has been doing this study for years. And, you know, to allow us into this space and to add to our journeys. That's what we really want here. We always like to give you a practical application, because what good is deep spiritual conversation if it doesn't have an application, right? So I'm going to share that with you all and we're going to continue in our series of the Christian desert ammas I you know, we spoke with Amma Rabi'a and the Christian desert ammas about their life and their culture, place and time. We are in a completely different culture, place and time. But I want you to reflect on this space is to ask ourselves, what is your desert and how can you take their harsh reality and environment and simplicity and make it your own? What holds you back from screaming your desires from grieving your pain? The desert is not an oasis. It is where we find our voice. And as Chelsea has so eloquently put, I hope that we can challenge you today. Go out and scream out and name what is so deep, deeply on your heart that it can no longer be contained. So we longed to connect with others who share that same longing and we encourage you to do the same. Express yourself to your amma spiritual guide or midwife, a name your experience and listen to other experiences as well. There is so much that we could go on and I misspoke and saying that we're going to do a part three but there are several reasons. Guys, we won't. And I want to thanks Chelsea for doing this sort of historical context for us. We hope that this is just a drop in your bucket to move and forward and your spiritual journey, whatever that looks like. And so thank you for joining us on this episode. And we will see you soon. 

Erin Thomas  7:16  
Thank you again for joining us today on the contemplative motherhood podcast. With us your host Erin Thomas and Chelsea Whipple

Chelsea Whipple  7:24  
to get regular updates on our podcast hear new episode drops interact with us and find our show notes. Go to our website, www dot contemplative There you can also sign up for our newsletter.

Erin Thomas  7:38  
As always, we appreciate your support of this podcast and in helping us share our journey with others. We invite you to regularly check our blog our after show blog this will allow you to dive deeper on the content shared on it. So if you enjoy today's podcast, make sure to subscribe rate and leave us a review. This helps us to cross paths with other pilgrim mamas across the board. Until next time.

Transcribed by