Amma Isidora The Simple
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Amma Isidora?
Amma Isidora the Simple is remembered for only one story in the desert movement. Although that story is recounted in various different sources, the same details are recounted in each one. Isidora’s story effectively highlights the heartbeat of the Desert Fathers and Mothers to not seek recognition or glory from man, but to only be seen by God (even if that meant for one to remain unknown). This may be the main reason her story was remembered. In one source she is referred to as an unknown nun, probably reflecting her desire never to have been renowned by men and women.
Isidora lived in the 4th century and was a nun at the convent of Tabenna, an island in the Nile River in northern Egypt. The convent was established by Abba Pachomios at the beginning of the fourth century and was thriving soon thereafter, having been home to around 400 nuns by the time Isidora’s story.
Amma Isidora is remembered for the culmination of her story, not the beginning. She was the one who cleaned the kitchens, ate the scraps, and was unknown to anyone. Isidora was said to have…
“feigned foolishness for Christ’s sake, humbling and abasing herself.”
As such, many of the women in the monastery treated her very poorly. Her heart was to fulfill the command in scripture.
“If any one seem to be wise among you in this world, let him become foolish that he may be wise.”
She never sat with the other sisters, being content to eat the scraps of bread from the table. Isidora became known as the “monastery sponge” as she cleaned everything, and did all the menial work. She delighted in wandering about the monastery grounds, cleaning in obscurity, fulfilling submission to her fellow sisters, and never receiving public recognition for her service. It was even said that she fastened rags to her head instead of the normal attire of a nun in order to further abase herself. Her desire was humility in the face of Christ.
The story of Isidora
As the monastery was secluded on an island, no man would cross to the island save for the priest and a deacon on Sunday. One time, a tailor, in ignorance, crossed the river looking for work. One of the women from the monastery happened across his path and told him that no work was available at the monastery. This woman was observed by another member of the convent, who later accused her of having an illicit affair with the tailor. Some of the other nuns also believed this story and the accusation began to spread and gain momentum.
The weight of the accusation weighed so heavily on the innocent woman, that the innocent women was said to have thrown herself into a river and taken her own life. The accusing woman, having realized her grave mistake, albeit to late to apologize, also took her own life. When the priest next came, he discovered the whole situation and reprimanded the whole convent for their role in the ordeal.
This is the situation in the convent when the story of Amma Isidora is told. A very holy man and disciple of Anthony the Great, Abba Piteroun, was praying when an angel of the Lord spoke to him:
”Why do you have such a high opinion of your accomplishments: that you are devout and that you remain in this place? Do you wish to see a woman more devout than yourself? Go to the convent in Tabenne, and there you will find a nun with a crown on her head; she is better than you. For, though she serves such a large number of nuns and attends to each one of them according to her different needs, nonetheless she never permits her mind to wander away from God, even though everyone abuses her. But you sit here, imagining in your mind what various cities are like, even though you have never seen the world."
Piteroun immediately set off to meet this virtuous woman. When Piteroun arrived at the convent, he was introduced to all of the women. As they were brought to him, he dismissed each as they came, looking only for the one who would demonstrate the depth of spirituality that he so desired. In what calls to mind the story of David, who was the last son of Jesse brought before Samuel, Isidora was the last nun brought before Piteroun:
“The great Saint said, ‘Bring all of the sisters before me.’ They answered, ‘We are all here.’ ‘Yes, but there is still one missing,’ the Saint insisted, ‘the one whom the Angel showed me.’”
The sisters ran to bring Isidora to Piteroun. She was, of course, hesitant to comply, but counting submission as one of the greatest virtues, she allowed herself to be brought before Piteroun. When Isidora stood before Piteroun, this scene played out:
And falling at her feet, he (Piteroun) said: ”Holy Mother, bless me." She then fell at his feet and said, “Bless me, Father, my master. ” As soon as the others saw all of this, they became upset and said, "Do not humiliate yourself, Abba, for she is a 'half-wit.’” And so the Saint said to all of them: ”You are ignorant. She is better than you and better than I; she is an Amma, that is, a spiritual Mother. And may God make me worthy to be with her on the Day of Judgment."
What follows is incredible. Each of the nuns began repenting for their mistreatment of Amma Isidora.
“No sooner did the nuns hear this, than they began to confess, each one, the various ways in which they had caused sorrow to befall that holy woman. One said that she had scoffed at her. Another had mocked her for her humble demeanour. Yet another admitted, "I used to dump the slop from plates on her.” Another, ”I injured her.” Another, ”I struck her”; another, ”I often whacked her in the nose.” And in general, all of them made reference to their various attacks on her. Hearing all of their confessions and having offered prayers for them, together with the holy Isidora, St. Piteroun departed, asking this esteemed servant of God to pray for him.”
Amma Isidora instantly became the most respected woman of the convent. The treatment of the sisters towards Isidora changed, and they begin honouring her. However, all Isidora ever wanted was to serve Christ in obscurity. Unable to cope with the praise now coming her way, Amma Isidora left the convent:
"After a few days, this precious holy woman, so esteemed by God, secretly fled the convent, since they had all come to regard her highly and to treat her kindly, and she could not accept such honours or the apologies of the sisterhood for their past actions. It was never learned where she went, where she hid away, or where she died."
Tradition says that she passed away around 365AD, but, true to the story, no one can be sure, as she spent the rest of her life unknown. She is one of the great women in the tradition of the men and women of the desert. Her humble life, and her desire to remain unknown and uncelebrated by all but Christ alone, effectively sums up the ethos of the desert movement. Recognition from God was to be sought above anything else. Amma Isidora is the shining example of this virtue.