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 Susan?
Amma Susan lived in the 6th century. She was born in Persia, the modern day middle east. By the age of 8 she had discovered an aptitude for the spiritual life and told her family she desired to go Israel to worship Christ. Even though Amma Susan was known for her devotion and purity, her family could not take her desire seriously seeing as how she was so young. They rebuked her saying,
"You haven't even learned to understand the Scriptures, and yet you want to go to Jerusalem!"
Susan, burning with passion for Christ, prayed that God would lead her.
"Lord if you wish for the salvation of my miserable soul, 'Make straight your way for me.’”
She never railed against the rebuke of her parents, but waited for God to fulfill her desire.
Shortly after this, she left her home and found the opportunity to lose herself in a caravan. When she found that the caravan’s destination was Jerusalem, she exclaimed,
“Blessed am I that the Lord wishes for my salvation, and as I asked He answered me! God forbid that I should return to the world and family and parents, and so die; I go to Him who leads me and is my father, brother, and kinsman in both worlds."
Amma Susan was not running from an abusive family, but rather following her passion for Christ.
When she arrived, she found a large community of women near Gaza and attempted to join as a monastic. The old lady who oversaw the community took one look at Susan and said,
“My daughter, you can't live here because you are a child. You couldn't bear the hardship and labor. Besides, your genteel upbringing doesn't make you suited for a convent."
The mother of the convent had turned her away.
Susan was not to be deterred in her passion to serve the Lord. She sat at the gates of the convent weeping for seven days. Her commitment to serve Christ was unwavering. When the women of the convent approached her to reason with her, she cast her care up on Him.
"For our Lord's sake pray for me, since I trust in Him to whom I have committed my soul, that He did not desert me to be destroyed, and He does not desert me now."
Cautiously, she was admitted to the community of women. Within a short time, this child had distanced herself from the rest of the women in her commitment to the spiritual life. Her service, prayer, fasting, and discipline was greater than that of the other women. When she was told that she was merely a child, she would re-double her effort to grow in intimacy with Christ. The commitment of her life proved the grace of her call.
Ten years passed, and the monastery came under significant persecution. Amma Susan was forced to leave the Gaza community and she headed to the desert of Egypt beyond Alexandria. Five of the most prominent women in the community left with Susan to seek God in solitary places. They established themselves and Susan quickly rose to prominence in the surrounding region.
She was widely sought for her spiritual guidance and the gift of healing that the Lord had given her. Once, a well known monastic father in the area had been struggling with his own internal darkness and demonic temptation. When he came to Susan, he was on the verge of defeat.
She asked him, "Why are you worn out, father?"
When the spiritual father told her of his struggle with temptation, she responded in stunning fashion.
“Are you showing your own weakness that the mighty and invincible power of Him who has cast down and overthrown and annihilated all the power of Satan is actually weaker than that of demons? Does Christ thus now appear as one who flees and is conquered by devils? Do they turn out to be powerful and victorious over the power of God? How can you be a disciple of Him who said, 'You will trample all the power of the enemy’?”
She went on to say,
“I am aware that the strength of the Lord surrounds my weakness like a wall of bronze, and there is no other power that can rise against it."
The struggle was not Susan’s, it was Christ’s, and he was more than able to overcome demonic temptation. The struggle of the father proved his trust was in his own strength, rather than in the protection of Christ.
She refused to put herself in the place of temptation, or to be the source of temptation to those around. Her chronicler, John of Ephesus, recounted a conversation her had with her regarding never having seen her face.
John asked her, “Why do you conceal your face from us?”
Susan responded that she had not looked upon the face of a man for 25 years.
John then asked, “Tell me the truth. Are you afraid that you will suffer harm at the sight of a man, or that he would at the sight of you?”
To Amma Susan it was both. Her commitment to Christ was such that anything that would tempt her away from him had been cut away from her life. And her compassion towards others was such that she refused to be stumbling block to them. While the specific practice may not be realistic for most, the principle is essential for spiritual maturity.
One story has her being assailed by demonic apparitions, but she remains unmovable, even to the point that the demons cry out,
"This is a woman, but she is stone, and instead of flesh she is iron!"
Her refusal to bow in the face of intimidation and temptation ought to be a striking lesson to us in the face of our me-first society. We buckle under the slightest pressure of temptation, while this rock of a woman refused to be shaken and stood her ground firmly in Christ.
The Spiritual life
Amma Susan’s approach to the spiritual life included fasting, silence, solitude, and a deep devotional life. To fast was to spend time allowing God to sustain you. Fasting recognized God as the source of all life and nourishment. Fasting balanced the devotional life as it carries the potential to drive you to the arms of Christ.
In fasting, Amma Susan spent her time weeping before the Lord, preferring the spiritual nourishment of communion with Christ rather than the natural nourishment of a meal. Once, when approached by her disciples and encouraged to eat, she said,
“You want to take care of my food when I am lying flat on my face, and make me eat the sweat of your faces; God forbid! For the sustenance of my body it is enough if you bring me a pitcher of water on Sundays, and a small hunk of dried bread for each day."
To Susan, the spiritual life included intense devotion before God. When she was young, she would practice speaking very few words. She weighed the importance of words, and, rather than speaking, kept her heart and mind turned towards Christ. She had no problem doing the menial tasks required to keep the monastery in working order.
She spent time in silence and solitude before the Lord.
“Susan used to leave human habitation to go out wandering and praying in the desert.”
Coupled with her refusal to speak, the silence that surrounded her (and many others in the desert) led to profound moments of clarity in hearing Christ. External silence trained the heart in internal silence, and internal silence awakened the ears of the heart to hear the voice of God.
She taught those around her to consider the transitory nature of humanity,
"It is ridiculous that we hear about the chasm of fire, the flaming depths, the darkness, the rest of the tortures, but we do not take it to heart and beg for mercy while we have the opportunity, so that we might be delivered from these things."
If we spent some time considering our passing, we may find the things of importance to this present life would become quite clear. If we were to pass away tomorrow, would our present pain, anger, lust, or jealousy be all that important to us?
Additionally, she taught that we ought not to be mindful of the sin of others, but rather consider our own.
“…men see their companions rotting and corrupted and putrefying in their graves, while creepy things crawl and mingle in their putrefaction-yet those who see these things go astray through the empty vanities of this deceptive world.”
We are quick to judge another for their darkness, but walk away from the moment of judgement without considering what is within our own heart.
Lastly, Amma Susan recognized that her ability to resist temptation was a direct result of the grace of God, and that it was Christ that granted her protection, not anything great about herself.
“The blessed woman gained valiance against demons through the strength that comes from grace.”
Her strength was derived from the grace of God.
The recognition of the call on her life from a young age was validated by the life she lived. Her complete lack of desire for recognition brought people form the all over the known world to her for counsel. And her simple fondness for Christ amazed those who came to her.