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The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women

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In The Forgotten Desert Mothers, Laura Swan introduces readers to the sayings, lives, stories and spirituality of women in the early Christian desert and monastic movement, from the third century on. In doing so, she finally sets the record straight that women played an important and influential role in early Christianity, indeed a role that has been long overshadowed by m In The Forgotten Desert Mothers, Laura Swan introduces readers to the sayings, lives, stories and spirituality of women in the early Christian desert and monastic movement, from the third century on. In doing so, she finally sets the record straight that women played an important and influential role in early Christianity, indeed a role that has been long overshadowed by men. She begins with an exploration of the historical context and spirituality of the desert ascetics. Then she weaves together the sayings of the major desert ammas, or mothers, along with commentary that invites readers to reflect on their own spiritual journey as they share their wisdom. The book then journeys between desert, monastery and city to reveal the stories of ascetics and solitaries whose stories are rarely heard, organized in the author's own alphabetical collection. The Forgotten Desert Mothers demonstrates, like no other work, that women have long had a history of leadership in Christianity. This engaging, eye-opening and insightful work targets all faith seekers looking to reclaim the history and spirituality of the women who came before them, as well as to understand their own inner journey. It will be a welcome addition to courses on early church history, women's studies and religious studies.


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In The Forgotten Desert Mothers, Laura Swan introduces readers to the sayings, lives, stories and spirituality of women in the early Christian desert and monastic movement, from the third century on. In doing so, she finally sets the record straight that women played an important and influential role in early Christianity, indeed a role that has been long overshadowed by m In The Forgotten Desert Mothers, Laura Swan introduces readers to the sayings, lives, stories and spirituality of women in the early Christian desert and monastic movement, from the third century on. In doing so, she finally sets the record straight that women played an important and influential role in early Christianity, indeed a role that has been long overshadowed by men. She begins with an exploration of the historical context and spirituality of the desert ascetics. Then she weaves together the sayings of the major desert ammas, or mothers, along with commentary that invites readers to reflect on their own spiritual journey as they share their wisdom. The book then journeys between desert, monastery and city to reveal the stories of ascetics and solitaries whose stories are rarely heard, organized in the author's own alphabetical collection. The Forgotten Desert Mothers demonstrates, like no other work, that women have long had a history of leadership in Christianity. This engaging, eye-opening and insightful work targets all faith seekers looking to reclaim the history and spirituality of the women who came before them, as well as to understand their own inner journey. It will be a welcome addition to courses on early church history, women's studies and religious studies.

30 review for The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women

  1. 4 out of 5

    Russell Fox

    I loved this book. It's primarily a work of genuine devotion, though Swan's contextualizing of the sayings attributed to these Christian mystics, hermits, and solitaries (great term!) who went into the desert, either alone or as part of monastic communities, to draw closer to God in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries A.D., reflects solid scholarly scaffolding. As distant from our lives today as these women were, their words about simplicity, suffering, and silence as part of the quest to hear God's I loved this book. It's primarily a work of genuine devotion, though Swan's contextualizing of the sayings attributed to these Christian mystics, hermits, and solitaries (great term!) who went into the desert, either alone or as part of monastic communities, to draw closer to God in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries A.D., reflects solid scholarly scaffolding. As distant from our lives today as these women were, their words about simplicity, suffering, and silence as part of the quest to hear God's voice and truly internalize into one's being remain powerful, and probably in many ways true. I want to read more of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and other early Christians, to try to understand better what they might have to teach me about having (or seeking) a vocation--in the broadest sense; I mean a kind of confidence in one's place, one's relationships with God and others, and the course of one's life--in today's urbanized world. The words of Amma Syncletica struck me mostly deeply, and I love this one which Swan ended her very impassioned final chapter, in which she urged her readers to think deeply about how they unnecessarily weight down their lives, with: "Not all courses are suitable for all people. Each person should have confidence in their own disposition, because for many it is profitable to live in a community. And for others it is helpful to withdraw on their own. For just as some plants become more flourishing when they are in humid locations, while others are more stable in drier conditions, so also among humans, some flourish in the high places, while others achieve salvation in the lower places."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Aryeh

    Five stars easily, and if there were more I'd give more. Prioress Laura Swan brings again to public awareness the frequently lost or overlooked voices of women who were leaders in early Christian mysticism and spiritual direction. However, the voices of the desert mothers are so strong that anyone could have done that just by even quoting them. What this author does differently is categorizing and commenting on their teachings in ways that are immediately, timelessly relevant. I especially found Five stars easily, and if there were more I'd give more. Prioress Laura Swan brings again to public awareness the frequently lost or overlooked voices of women who were leaders in early Christian mysticism and spiritual direction. However, the voices of the desert mothers are so strong that anyone could have done that just by even quoting them. What this author does differently is categorizing and commenting on their teachings in ways that are immediately, timelessly relevant. I especially found helpful/beautiful the sections on urban monasticism, and the personal epilogue. This is the perfect blend of spiritual work and scholarship, something extremely rare to find. Worth reading, worth owning, worth returning to.

  3. 4 out of 5

    David

    I was excited to read this book because I think female saints don’t get enough press and I am interested in the desert mothers. I enjoyed the brief lives of the lesser known mothers, but was disappointed with the Sayings portion. The whole point of these sayings is to meditate on them and allow their meanings to arise organically in your own life. The author spoils this aspect by inserting her own tangentially related and overdone interpretations, focusing too much on the personalities of the mo I was excited to read this book because I think female saints don’t get enough press and I am interested in the desert mothers. I enjoyed the brief lives of the lesser known mothers, but was disappointed with the Sayings portion. The whole point of these sayings is to meditate on them and allow their meanings to arise organically in your own life. The author spoils this aspect by inserting her own tangentially related and overdone interpretations, focusing too much on the personalities of the mothers.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Juliette

    The sinews of an excellent book are here, and I hope Swan writes that book someday. However, the subtitle of the book is exactly what the book is: sayings, lives, and stories. This book is a collection of blurbs about the desert women, whose customs, Swan reminds us time and again, are not what our modern sensibilities would allow (e.g., an eight-year-old running away from her home to wander until she finds a monastery to adopt her (Blessed Hermit Susan)). Based on Swan’s other books, I expected The sinews of an excellent book are here, and I hope Swan writes that book someday. However, the subtitle of the book is exactly what the book is: sayings, lives, and stories. This book is a collection of blurbs about the desert women, whose customs, Swan reminds us time and again, are not what our modern sensibilities would allow (e.g., an eight-year-old running away from her home to wander until she finds a monastery to adopt her (Blessed Hermit Susan)). Based on Swan’s other books, I expected a more meditative guide than just a collection of stories. The fluidity of gender in the 400s and 500s interested me, and, many times, the ammas referred to themselves as “male-women” and/or lived as men. Swan also does not gloss the Church’s slamming of the door on women clergy in acquiesce to secular norms: Deaconesses were fairly common in the early church. The office evolved over time, mostly due to political and social pressures. Like all offices related to the liturgy, deaconesses had diverse functions and responsibilities. Some deaconesses served in significant positions within monastic communities; some seemed to have served — as they do today in many Christian traditions — along with the presider at Eucharist. Many were actively involved in outreach to the poor, training and baptizing female catechumens, and preparing women to receive the sacraments.... Deaconesses were recognized as ordained in the Eastern Orthodox Church until the eighth or ninth century. By the fourth century in the Western Church, deaconesses were not included in the official list of ordained offices. I would like to learn about this era in the Church, and Desert Mothers offered barely a taste.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Joel Wentz

    There is much to commend in this short book. The 'desert mothers' were an influential voice in the formative early centuries of the Christian church, and as the title rightly notes, they are largely forgotten in common memory. Swan has done great research, and provided a gift to the modern church by compiling biographical notes and sayings into one short, accessible volume like this. In particular, the summaries of the lives of these women are fascinating, at times heart-breaking, and always ins There is much to commend in this short book. The 'desert mothers' were an influential voice in the formative early centuries of the Christian church, and as the title rightly notes, they are largely forgotten in common memory. Swan has done great research, and provided a gift to the modern church by compiling biographical notes and sayings into one short, accessible volume like this. In particular, the summaries of the lives of these women are fascinating, at times heart-breaking, and always inspiring. Those chapters alone are worth the price of the book. The read should know, however, that this is more than a simple compilation of historical writings. Swan provides a significant amount of commentary, and ultimately puts forward an apologetic for a 'desert-monastic' approach to spirituality. This makes the book a little difficult to categorize (not that every book needs a clean category!) as it's presented as a straightforward historical text, but in reality is more of a psycho-spiritual meditation on what our modern culture needs to learn from the desert monastics in the early centuries. It's still worth reading, especially because we do need to recover the importance of these historical women - and I'm partial to much of Swan's commentary on their teachings - but it's unfortunate that the title and cover are a bit misleading.

  6. 5 out of 5

    MargCal

    Finished reading ... The Forgotten Desert Mothers : sayings, lives, and stories of early christian women / Laura Swan ... 13 September 2017 ISBN: 9780809140169 I was expecting more of a narrative history – which only goes to show I should have paid attention to the subtitle, because that's what this book is. In the introduction, the author says (pp.2-3): “... I grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of information on the women who had also dwelt in the desert. I began to pursue and collect traces Finished reading ... The Forgotten Desert Mothers : sayings, lives, and stories of early christian women / Laura Swan ... 13 September 2017 ISBN: 9780809140169 I was expecting more of a narrative history – which only goes to show I should have paid attention to the subtitle, because that's what this book is. In the introduction, the author says (pp.2-3): “... I grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of information on the women who had also dwelt in the desert. I began to pursue and collect traces of these women's stories. ...” And “traces” are pretty much what you get. With the stories of these women being told in one or two sentences or a small paragraph, with occasionally a page or two, this was more frustrating than enlightening. Some things did stand out for me however: a disproportionate number of women here were fleeing marriages that were in the process of being arranged or marriages they had unwillingly entered, and that some abandonned their children in their flight to the desert. And some seemed bonkers. For me, that somewhat negates the words of wisdom they espouse. So – interesting, after a fashion, but this book really didn't do a lot for me.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Corinne Wilson

    I'm down for any nonfiction where names like "Susanna Blessed Hermit" and "John the Dwarf" are bandied about like they're the family next door. The biographies, prayers/liturgy and timeline of these desert women were interesting, but the commentary was textbook-y and basic. Discussions of male-centric language of the day were noteworthy. Also interesting that the virtuous desert fathers were frequently tempted by harlots and overcame the lust of their bodies, whereas the virtuous desert mothers I'm down for any nonfiction where names like "Susanna Blessed Hermit" and "John the Dwarf" are bandied about like they're the family next door. The biographies, prayers/liturgy and timeline of these desert women were interesting, but the commentary was textbook-y and basic. Discussions of male-centric language of the day were noteworthy. Also interesting that the virtuous desert fathers were frequently tempted by harlots and overcame the lust of their bodies, whereas the virtuous desert mothers were frequently falsely accused of fathering children while disguised as men, which they mostly took the punishment for, falsely admitted to, and raised the resulting offspring.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Zach Hollifield

    I truly enjoyed this book. Many viewpoints and perspectives from so many of the earliest saints who are often forgotten or ignored, and for that I am grateful. I was left wanting more primary source material. Obviously there is only so much primary source material and you can't add what isn't there, but the primary sources felt overshadowed by Swan's own interpretation at times. All in all, a great read and an important addition to the study of the life and thought of the early church.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jenn

    Good historical information about early ascetic women in the Christian church. Couple of chapters are just lists of women with a little bit of information (think Lives of the Saints style) and finishes up with the author's personal thoughts on how the topic affects her own life and spirituality. I read it for the history, but the whole book was pretty good.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    Rare find with many scholarly references which is a plus. But when I picked up this book, I thought it was a thorough study of selected desert mothers and their lives, but instead was a glimpse of many unknown mothers, which the briefness of their stories made it uninspiring.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ed Oakes

    While the book had some intriguing parts, the generality of these women's stories became routine. I enjoyed the first and last but the middle lagged. I will say it has spurred my interest to other women's experiences.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Deborah Blair

    This is a book of stories of the Desert Mothers - - - Many people do not know that along with the Desert Fathers there were also women of the time who were devoted to the path of discovering their relationship with God through leaving behind civilization. With a good many decades of my life devoted to a chunk of every day in prayer, meditation and solitude - I have found good inspiration in this book. I keep it on a shelf and refer to it at least several times a year. Women on the serious spiritu This is a book of stories of the Desert Mothers - - - Many people do not know that along with the Desert Fathers there were also women of the time who were devoted to the path of discovering their relationship with God through leaving behind civilization. With a good many decades of my life devoted to a chunk of every day in prayer, meditation and solitude - I have found good inspiration in this book. I keep it on a shelf and refer to it at least several times a year. Women on the serious spiritual path will find the story of women before us inspirational. For students of women's history - especially of spiritual devotees - this is a valuable resource.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kr

    I am grateful that this book shines light on the intellectual and spiritual gifts and dedication of these early Christian women who gave their all for their ideals and the quest for authentic communion with the divine. A substantial weakness of the book is the lack of an index, a feature I often wished for when a story of one of these women referenced another.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kim Shively

    It was certainly interesting to read about all the various female ascetics of the early Church. This book was really written for people who want to pursue the contemplative life, and as attractive as such a pursuit seems at times, I'm not really one of those people.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    I really enjoyed this book, but when she does a mini-biography for each Amma she finds the book gets a bit redundant. If I could just rate the first three chapters and the epilogue, I would give it a 4 or 5 star rating.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Debbie

    nice little book that has a lot of info in one small volume.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ramonita Rodriguez

    good comments, histories, tidbits, dayings of early Christian women who decided to live ascetic lives and tend to the poor and needy.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jon Cooper

    Great read. Swan's commentary is as invaluable as the sayings she records.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jacob

    Five stars so far.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Grete

    Introductory text with interesting vignettes that serve mostly as springboards for further study of various desert mothers. Swan provides a pretty good list of sources to consult.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Michele

    An excellent place to start with the Desert Mothers or Fathers. A good framework for understanding these wonderful, but obscure and sometimes harsh asetical lives.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    An interesting book about these forgotten women. Thanks to Swan these desert mothers are no longer forgotten.But because they were forgotten, not many sayings are left and that is a pity.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jeannette

  24. 5 out of 5

    Noelle

    eh.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lacy

  26. 5 out of 5

    Valerie

  27. 5 out of 5

    Zenaida

  28. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

  29. 4 out of 5

    Connor Jay

  30. 4 out of 5

    Blake Chenoweth

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