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.
Throughout Christian history, story of saints and martyrs have often been subject to embellishment. I have always maintained that if the true stories are recorded and handed down, they will have far more impact than any fabricated tale, regardless of how incredible the story. Incredible stories do not make impact, the Spirit of Truth makes impact. One such legendary figure, where truth must be weighed through fiction, was Amma Theodora.
Who was Amma Theodora?
Amma Theodora was an incredibly well respected woman in the desert movement. She was sought after for her wisdom by men and women alike. The details of her early life are not clear. All that is known is that she was the wife of an important figure, fell into sin, and fled to the desert to seek God in solitude and repent for her fall. One of the only sources regarding her history states:
"Who (Amma Theodora), having transgressed through carelessness, was repentant therefore and persevered in the religious habit, unknown and with marvelous abstinence and patience, until her death."
She was a firm teacher on the virtue of humility.
"Amma Theodora used to say that neither asceticism nor hardship, nor any kind of toil, saves, except for genuine humility.” In a time when austere practice could be over emphasized, she spoke of deep humility.
She taught about intentionality in the spiritual life.
“It is good to live in peace, for the wise man practices perpetual prayer. It is truly a great thing for a virgin or a monk to live in peace, especially for the younger ones. However, you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through apathy, faintheartedness, and evil thoughts.”
The interior battle of the heart is waged over peace. Who of us has not, when sitting down to prayer, been overcome by “apathy, faintheartedness, and evil thoughts?” What was true then is true now.
A Legend in disguise
One of the legends surrounding her life was that when she committed herself to the monastic community, she disguised herself as a man in order gain admittance to the monastery. Though this is most likely an added embellishment derived from later examples of women joining monastic communities, there are a aspects of these stories that give us some insight into her character.
When she was interviewed by the abbot of the monastery for admittance, he asked her if she was running from debt, crime, or poverty. Her response was, ”Not for any of these reasons, Father, but only in order to have respite from the tumult of the world and to mourn deeply for my own sins.” The one seeking God in the desert did so in silence, to remove themselves from the “tumult of the world” in order to gain interior peace.
Her character was seen in her commitment to church life and her desire for repentance and holiness.
“She was never absent from the services celebrated in the Church, but even more in this respect did she manifest her love for God in her soul. Although she clung to this discipline and chose an exceedingly laborious way of life, the thought of her previous sins did not allow her to be entirely at peace. After nightfall, when she ought to have slept and rested a little from these daylong duties of hers, she would smite her breast and arouse her soul to tears, saying: ”Forgive me my sin, O Lord, which has destroyed the comeliness of my chastity."
The mark that sin left upon the soul was won by repentance. Repentance cleanses the conscience and releases peace.
As Theodora demonstrated and Evagrios echoes, the path to humility begins in recognizing your own faults. The truly humble person does not spend their time recognizing the faults of others, but earnestly seeks God to cleanse their own heart.
Another legend that grew around Theodora happened when she was on an errand for the father of her monastery. Still disguised as a man, she spent the night in the stable of a neighbouring city. A woman in the city attempted to seduce her (mistaking her for a man) and Theodora of course spurned her advances. A short time later, the same woman became pregnant. The woman accused Theodora of impregnating her, rather than indict who she had taken as a lover, and deposited the new born baby at the monastery. Most believed the woman’s story and thought Theodora to be guilty (thinking that she was a man). She took the baby and raised it as her own, never having the guise of guilt alleviated.
Nine years later she passed away. While Theodora was on her deathbed, the leader of her monastery had a dream. In the dream he saw Theodora as a woman and inquired about her to the angels that happened to be there.
This was their response:
”Those who were escorting that wondrous woman said that it was the soul of Abba Theodore, to whom the sin of fornication had been falsely imputed and who chose to be persecuted-for seven whole years, in exile from the monastery-and to be considered the father of a stranger’s child, nurturing and educating it, than to reveal what sex she really was, and thereby to free herself from such great shame and hardship.”
What can we learn from Theodora?
This story, while fanciful, highlights an important point in the tradition of the desert fathers and mothers: repentance for sin (which brought about the cleansing of the heart) was impossible if you spent all your time justifying yourself. Though this is an extreme example, to the desert fathers an accusation should not be dismissed lightly, but should be accepted as proof of one’s own sinful nature. The situation was to be used as an opportunity to repent and weep before God, thereby cleansing the heart of sin’s ill effects.
“Just as the union of water and fire is impossible, so self-justification and humilty are contrary to each other. If you wish to be saved, you should love sincere speech and never recklessly despise reproof.” Abba Mark
“We have put the light burden on one side, that is to say, self-accusation, and we have loaded ourselves with a heavy one, that is to say, self-justification.” Abba John
"It is said of one Elder that, when his thoughts whispered to him, 'Forget today and repent tomorrow,' he would snap back and say: 'No, I will repent today and leave tomorrow to the Will of God.'"
It has also been said that when you have a reputation you have to live up to that reputation. Theodora made herself of no reputation.
Though the legends surrounding her life can help to draw out important spiritual principles, they don’t necessarily convey the weight that was given to the words of this woman. The wisdom of Amma Theodora was greatly respected.
Concerning weathering difficult seasons, Amma Theodora said,
Just as a tree goes through the winter season before bearing fruit, so fruit comes on the other side of the storm for the spiritual person.
She taught on the character of a teacher.
"A Teacher must be a stranger to the passion of love of power and completely estranged from the passions of vainglory and pride, not being deluded by flattering words, blinded by gifts, or conquered by anger. On the contrary, he should be patient; gentle and humble as far as possible; and have been authorized by the Church to teach. He must be tested and without partisanship, full of concern, and a lover of souls.”
She was once asked how to live for God alone if you cannot remove yourself from worldly things. Her answer gives fantastic advice.
“Just as when you are sitting at table and there are many courses, you take some but without pleasure, so when secular conversations come your way, have your heart turned towards God, and thanks to this disposition, you will hear them without pleasure, and they will not do you any harm.” How do you live as a spiritual person in the midst of a decadent society? Have your heart always turned towards God, find pleasure in him, and not in all that is present before you. It is not exterior silence that makes a monk, but silence of the heart.