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 Sarah?
Amma Sarah is one of the many elusive mothers and fathers of which little is written, but what is recorded is tantalizing. The few quotes that have been preserved show a woman that is humble, insightful, and quick-witted.
The details of her life are scarce. Nothing is known about her history, where or when she was born, when she died, or what brought her to the desert. What has been handed down is that she was a hermit, she spent 60 years in solitude in the desert, she was a contemporary of Abba Paphnutius (this puts her life somewhere in the 4th century, though this has been contested), and she lived near a river.
Presently in Christianity, there is a movement to legitimize women and their leadership qualities. This is a good thing and needed in our current cultural climate. But what is mainly emphasized has been the marginalization of women throughout Christian history. This is generally true, if your Christian history is only about 50-100 years old.
Christianity need look no further than its own history, at different ages in the church, to find strong and Godly women respected for their leadership. We should consider Madame Guyon whose influence was felt in her insightful writings on prayer and in her incredible influence over men such as Francis Fenelon and Michael Molinos. Teresa of Avila and her books on the interior life and her autobiography commissioned by her superior were the outgrowth of years spent mentoring men and women in the deeper things of God. Julian of Norwich and her series of encounters with Christ or Hildegard Von Bingen and the prophetic visions she was sought for provide ample evidence of strong Christian leadership. There are countless others, such as Dame Gertrude More, Amma Synkletika, or contemporaries like Agnes Sandford and Ruth Carter Stapleton.
Any critique of the approach of the church towards women does a disservice to itself if it does not recognize the likes of these women who influenced Christianity and church life so deeply.
These women ought to be our inspiration to stand up and say today,
“Hold on a second! Women have held significant leadership in our churches before, what can we do to restore that place today?”
Though little is written of Amma Sarah, the reverence shown for preserving the few words attributed to her betray the respect held for the women of the desert and their place in the Desert movement.
She sought the approval of God alone.
If she tried to find acceptance in the eyes of everyone, she would spend all of her time placating people. If she sought the acceptance of God, she would find purity of heart.
It was said of Amma Sarah that for thirteen years in the desert she struggled with lustful thoughts. She never asked for reprieve from the attack, but her continual prayer was, “O my God, strengthen me.” We could take a lesson in perseverance from this saintly woman.
At end of her thirteen year resistance to the temptation of the Devil, a demonic figure appeared to her in her room and said,
“So you think you have conquered me, Sarah?” To which she replied, “I have not conquered you, but the Master Christ.”
She encouraged acts of charity, even if they were done with the wrong motive.
"It is good for us to do charity, even if to have the glory of men. For if, in the beginning, our charity rises from the desire to please men, there will afterwards come that moment when it will become true charity, since it will be pleasing to God.”
She refused to be denigrated because she was a woman.
Another time, two old men, great anchorites (monks practicing solitude), came to the district of Pelusia to visit her. When they arrived one said to the other, ‘Let us humiliate this old woman.’ (Humility was the most coveted virtue, in doing this they thought they were doing her a service.) So they said to her, ‘Be careful not to become conceited thinking to yourself: “Look how anchorites are coming to see me, a mere woman.” ’ But Amma Sarah said to them, ‘According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.’
What more orthodox doctrinal approach could there be?
This merely echoes the words of Paul:
Her rebuttal shows her confidence. They may have looked down on her for her gender, but that showed their lack of true depth. The deeply spiritual Christian would see all as one in Christ. These great men, thinking they were going to chastise Sarah, were corrected by her instead.
The ladder of growth in Christ required continual death to self.
‘I put out my foot to ascend the ladder, and I place death before my eyes before going up it.’
Considering climbing the rungs of a ladder as a metaphor for the ascent of the prayer life to God is a common image in Christian spirituality. To Sarah, the only ascent was through the death of what would hinder each step of advancement. In considering death before each step, she highlights the need to allow that which would hinder spiritual progress towards God to die.
The few sayings attributed to Amma Sarah reveal the depth of spirit and profound relationship with Christ she carried. It should comes as no surprise that the words of this saint were treasured and preserved.