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Desert Mothers: Hidden Heroines of the Early Church

Bests bets for the general reader:

Earle, Mary C. The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness. Harrisburg, Pa:
Morehouse Pub, 2007. Print.
Gracefully written work, helpful and accessible. Very informative introduction. Each chapter opens with
a quote from an “amma” and ends with an original prayer by the author.

Swan, Laura. The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives and Stories of Early Christian Women. New York:
Paulist Press, 2001. Print.
Outstanding book, clearly written, from a solid Catholic publisher. Author (a Benedictine nun) gives
background information and focuses on desert mothers exclusively. Compiles and comments on the
mothers’ sayings, includes a glossary, an historical timeline, a calendar of feast days, and a

Also recommended:

Keller, David G. R. Oasis of Wisdom: The Worlds of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Collegeville, Minn:
Liturgical Press, 2005. Print.
Excellent book from a Catholic publisher. A happy marriage of reliable scholarship and spiritual
wisdom. The author offers a full-fledged study of the elders (both men and women) and arranges
material thematically in order to help the reader benefit spiritually from their wisdom. This work
includes full background information, footnotes, a helpful bibliography, maps, and a good general index
as well as a name index.

Paintner, Christine V. Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings, Annotated & Explained.
Woodstock, Vt: SkyLight Paths Pub, 2012. Print.
Servicable book for the general reader. Material grouped thematically. Somewhat confusing layout
since the author’s comments are juxtaposed with direct quotes. Concentrates on a sampling of quotes
from eight major figures, only three of whom were women. Helpful introduction. A short bibliography.
Author is familiar with the known writers in this field, and quotes them.

For personal use/ meditation:

Forman, Mary. Praying with the Desert Mothers. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005. Print.
Forman is a Benedictine nun. This slim volume has an informative Introduction and good bibliography.
Each thematic chapter includes stories from the desert mothers, Scripture citations that tie in with the
theme, and a reflection exercise.
Keller, David G. R. Desert Banquet: A Year of Wisdom from the Desert Mothers and Fathers. Collegeville,
MN: Liturgical Press, 2011. Print.
Well-known author gives each month a theme. Daily entries weave quotes from
elders in with his own meditations. Reliable Catholic publisher.

Vivian, Tim, and Apostolos N. Athanassakis. Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and
Mothers. Trappist, Ky: Cistercian Publications, 2008. Print.
Excerpts arranged to read throughout the year. Glossary and Scripture index are
helpful. Sources thoroughly noted. Publisher known for covering this field.

Other media:

Bochanski, Philip G. Heroes of the Desert: The Lives and Teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
Rockville, MD: Now You Know Media, Inc, 2012. Sound recording. Available on CD, as MP3 or on
Clear lectures, with some focusing on female elders. Part I is a good general
introduction. Part IV is on Saint Synlectica and Desert Mothers. Beginning of Part V is on Saint Mary of
Egypt. (This company also sells a set of lectures by Thomas Merton on desert spirituality.)

Podcast – “ Desert Mothers” interview with professor from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox
Seminary, Fr. David Mezynski. Ancient Faith Radio, July 2015. 19 minutes.
Excellent quick overview from knowledgeable professor.

Books on desert spirituality by well-known spiritual writers (a sampling):

Chittister, Joan. In God's Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics. , 2015. Print.

Merton, Thomas. The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century. Boston:
Shambhala, 2004. Print.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. New York:
HarperOne, 2009. Print.

Williams, Rowan. Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert. Oxford: Lion, 2007. Print.


Carrigan, Henry L, Athanasius, and Jerome. The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: Contemporary
English Version. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010. Print.
Language is very modern. Contains lives of famous fathers Antony and Paul,
along with very selective quotes from other ascetics. Only one female mentioned.

Palladius, and Robert T. Meyer. Palladius: The Lausiac History. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1965. Print.
Important early source of information on early desert elders. Mentions a few females in passing.

Ward, Benedicta. The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers: Systematic Sayings from the Anonymous Series of the
Apophthegmata Patrum. Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publications by arrangement with SLG Press,
Fairacres, Oxford, 1997. Print.
Standard translation and compilation. Many different editions available, including a Penguin Classics
one. Three women are included among the “fathers.”
Holy lives:

Gingras, George E, and Aetheria. Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage. New York, N.Y: Paulist Press, 1978. Print.

Gregory, and Kevin Corrigan. The Life of Saint Macrina. Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 2005. Print.
Work by famous Cappadocian Gregory of Nyssa about his older sister. She
and their grandmother, Macrina the Elder, were the great women behind the great men, brothers
Gregory and Basil.

Pseudo-Athanasius, , Elizabeth B. Bongie, and Mary Schaffer. The Life & Regimen of the Blessed & Holy
Syncletica. Eugene, Or: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005. Print.
Early account of the life of the most famous desert mother, Syncletica.

Vivian, Tim. Journeying into God: Seven Early Monastic Lives. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996. Print.
One out of the seven “lives” is of a woman, Syncletica.

Related Academic studies:

Aquilina, Mike. The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers. Huntington, Ind:
Our Sunday Visitor, 2013. Print.
In this, his third edition, popular writer Aquilina finally includes eight pages
on early “mothers” of the Church. For a separate book on early church mothers (but not “desert”
mothers per se), see his book The Witness of Early Christian Women

Chryssavgis, John, and Zosimas. In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and
Mothers : with a Translation of Abba Zosimas' Reflections. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, Inc, 2008.
In-depth and insightful yet accessible study by respected Orthodox cleric Chryssavgis. Includes text of a
primary source (by Zosimas), offers a timeline, a subject index, and bibliography.

Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Oxford: New
York, 2007. Print.

King, Margot H. The Desert Mothers. Toronto: Peregrina Pub, 1989. Print.
Small monograph containing two short works that look at “the feminine anchoretic tradition in Western
Europe.” Both are papers that were presented at abbeys and schools of theology.

Petersen, Joan M. Handmaids of the Lord: Contemporary Descriptions of Feminine Asceticism in the First Six
Christian Centuries. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010. Print.

Waddell, Helen, and Heribert Rosweyde. The Desert Fathers. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan
Press, 2001. Print.

Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. London: Mowbray,
1987. Print.

and last but not least:

Cairns, Scott. Endless Life: Poems of the Mystics. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2014. Print.
Poet scholar set memorable sayings of early church “fathers” and “mothers” into verse, including the
ammas Syncletica and Theodora
Search terms when researching Desert Mothers

This is not easy.

There is a Library of Congress subject heading for Desert Fathers, but not one for Desert Mothers
Material on the so-called Desert Mothers or Church Mothers is buried in material on the Church Fathers,
or Patristics. Try some of these Library of Congress subject headings:

• Christian saints -- Egypt.

• Monastic and religious life -- Middle East -- Early works to 1800.
• Christian biography -- Egypt.

• Desert Fathers -- Biography.

• Christian biography -- Egypt.
• Monks -- Egypt -- Biography.

• Women in Christianity -- History -- Early church, ca. 30-600 -- Sources.

• Asceticism -- History -- Early church, ca. 30-600.
• Ascetics -- Early works to 1800.

• Desert Fathers.
• Desert Fathers -- Quotations.
• Church year meditations.

• Spiritual life -- Christianity -- History of doctrines -- Early church, ca. 30-600.

“I will lead her into the desert and

speak to her heart.”
Ho sea 2:16

Handout prepared by Elyse Hayes, Library Director at the Seminary

of the Immaculate Conception, in Huntington, NY for a presentation
at the 2017 Catholic Library Association conference in St. Louis, MO.
Questions? contact Elyse at