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 Matrona?
Little is known of Amma Matrona’s history. Her teachings have been handed down to us from history, but none of her origin. More has been recorded of another Matrona, Matrona of Perge and her flight from an abusive husband and subsequent planting of a monastery for woman in the 5th-6th century. However, there is nothing to connect these historical figures.
Amma Matrona most likely lived during the 4th century and 5th century somewhere in Egypt as one of the many desert mothers who was sought for her wisdom, guidance, and teaching. Matrona was a contemporary of Amma Sarah, Amma Theodora, Amma Melania and Amma Syncletica, all incredibly influential teachers in their own right.
That she held some relationship to these women is evident from the stories preserved.
"Blessed Matrona said about our holy Mother Sarah, that she showed such a wondrous and honorable patience that devils trembled before her and angels glorified her.”
Another time, a woman approached Amma Matrona and confessed that she was disturbed by lustful thoughts and asked Matrona what to do.
Amma Matrona responded,
“Forgive me. I was never attacked by the demon of fornication.”
The woman was distraught, because she knew this was not possible. She went to Amma Theodora and asked her to explain Amma Matrona’s response.
Theodora counselled her to go back and ask for clarity,
“The servant of God did not say this to you lightly; go, bow to her and ask her to explain the meaning to you.”
The woman took Theodora upon her advice and returned to Amma Matrona.
Upon asking for clarification, Matrona responded,
“Forgive me! From the time that I became a nun, I never ate bread to satiety, nor used enough water; the same with sleep. And so, the care of these three desires oppressed me, not allowing me to think about the battle of fornication.”
Amma Matrona’s response is practical. Fasting suppressed lustful thoughts because she was preoccupied with thoughts of food, water, and sleep. In this way fasting can re-train desire. It exposes our wants, and then we can choose to set our desire on the heart of God.
The Spiritual Life
The work of the spiritual life begins in stillness. Stillness means that your heart would not be moved by external desire, temptation, or anxiety.
“Begin the good work of stillness and do not listen to the enemy who urges you to go out somewhere from your cell, except in great and extreme need. Through your patience you will conquer the devil.”
Stillness trains the heart to set itself on God. What is the first thing that happens when you sit down to practice stillness? Your mind wanders to a thousand distractions. Refuse to listen to the distractions, re-centre your focus upon God, and enter into the stillness of the moment.
To Amma Matrona, it was more important to overcome temptation than to run from it.
“We carry ourselves wherever we go and we cannot escape temptation by mere flight.”
Many have sought to emulate the fathers and mothers of the desert by escaping to the desert, only to realize that people were not the problem. The problem is the heart of man, it is wicked and untamed wherever it is found. Deal with the issues of the heart and you can practice solitude in the midst of a crowded bus.
Amma Matrona taught that the second movement of the spiritual life is silence. If stillness deals with external hindrances, silence deals with internal hindrances. Silence is the posture of the heart before God and it is aided by prayer, and specifically praying through the Psalms. Reading scripture and tears of remorse are both integral to spiritual progress. Keeping the memory of God in the heart and mind, as well as the transitory nature of human life would still the heart. The memory of God for his love, grace, and goodness, the memory of death would put into perspective all that your mind wandered to.
The culmination of the spiritual life is humility before God and man. Each of these, stillness, silence, prayer, reading, tears, remembrance of God and death, and humility, were the greatest virtues you could acquire. They were more important to the spiritual life than wonder working power.
“You cannot acquire these virtues unless you completely reject all earthly cares, even if you are able to resurrect the dead.”
Just because you lived in solitude did not mean you practiced the discipline.
“Many people living secluded lives on the mountain have perished by living like people in the world. It is better to live in a crowd and want to live a solitary life than to live a solitary life but all the time be longing for company.”
Solitude was about recognizing the need for companionship with God. Setting yourself aside without setting yourself aside with God was wasted opportunity. Long for the fellowship of heaven and you will establish deep fellowship with man.
Once, a sister asked Amma Matrona what she must do to be saved. Matrona lamented that finding salvation was difficult since we listen to the devil more than God by placating our desires rather than practicing holiness. She said,
“If you want to save your soul, listen to me. Go and sit in your cell in silence and prayer, with many tears, giving your soul and body to God; and He Who gives understanding to a man will teach you too how to be saved.”
The cell is the place of solitude, silence is quieting the mind and heart, prayer is playing yourself before God, tears recognizes your distance from God, and giving your soul and body to Him is the answer to all of life’s woes.
Matrona responded in amazement:
“I am amazed at your words: I want, and I cannot.”
If the desire is present the grace is available, as Psalms states,
Matrona went on to counsel Melania…
“Do you not know that for one who does not remain in stillness it is impossible to acquire even one virtue? How can we guard the heart when the door of the tongue is open, as well as of the ears and eyes? If you want to guard your heart and become perfected in virtues, sit, remain in silence in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
Practice stillness, silence, and prayer and you will be taught by the Holy Spirit.
She recognized that as long as she was following Christ, she would be taken care of.
“My Lord said to me: Do My work and I will feed you; but do not scrutinize from where it will come.”
He will feed you, do not worry about where it will come from.
Though we know little of her life, what has been preserved of her teaching is deep and profound. The date of her passing has been lost to time, but her legacy and impact can still be felt today. She carried a simple love for the Lord and taught others that without sitting before Him with nothing to distract you, the fullness of the spiritual life was unattainable. Today, this advice still bears deep fruit.