‘Nothing but blood mixed with phlegm’: Desert Mothers’ teachings on the object of desire

by Annabelle Parker(1)

Three years ago I introduced the audience of this symposium to Synkletike, ascetical teacher and Desert Mother. This time the theme of the symposium seemed appropriate to look at the Vita again from the angle of ‘desire and denial’…

In this paper I will discuss desire and temptations of women who lived ascetically in Late Antique christianity, with emphasis on Synkletike. It is not an attempt to prove that women had different temptations than men when in the desert.

Most women who wanted to become a ‘Bride of Christ’ went to live in a church, to become ‘virgins of the church’. These communities already existed in fourth-century Egypt, because for instance the well known Anthony sent his sister to a community of virgins, when he started his ascetical lifestyle.2

The culmination of desert asceticism can be found in fourth-century Egypt. According to Athanasius, Anthony did a most unusual thing: he retreated into the desert, not just at the edge of his village, but deep into the desert.3 He closed himself in a tomb, and later on in a fortress, to emerge some twenty years later as if transfigurated, for he had gained the state of ‘apatheia’, passionlessness. Many men followed in his footsteps, and the retreat into the desert as an ascetic became an important ‘movement’.

But, as this paper suggests, not only men retreated, we have accounts of women who also lived a life of asceticism in or on the edge of the desert.

Synkletike was a virgin who lived on the outskirts of Alexandria in the 4th or 5th century. The Vita of this ‘didaskalos’4, written by someone who has been called ‘Pseudo-Athanasius’,5 can be taken as an example for women in that age, who chose an ascetical lifestyle, and for whom it was meant to be an example. As the name of Pseudo-Athanasius suggests, Synkletike has often been referred to as the female St. Anthony. This could mean that her Vita was a literary construction.

In Palladius’ Lausiac History6 not only stories about holy men, but also of women are mentioned.7

But, to quote Peter Brown: “No Life of Anthony heralded a new departure in the piety of Christian women”.8 The Life of Synkletike can be seen as an example of a female St. Anthony, because of her monologue on the Devil’s works (also called logismoi, or ‘thoughts’), and her retreat in a family tomb, and her giving away everything after the death of her parents; but the big movement of men going into the desert and building communities has not such a ‘heroic’ female counterpart. Not many women who became consecrated virgins, or Brides of Christ, had made this choice for themselves. It was mostly their parents who decided for them that they should live in a church, and dedicate themselves to being a gift to the church, a sacred vessel, although they kept their own free will.9 A virgin meant a lot to the household or small community: her prayers and fasting were a protection for the house from evils and disasters.10

But the women who became ‘famous’ were those who had chosen the ascetical life for themselves, wether it was through their sins or as widows, or even like Anthony, and who were not pushed by their parents. In the Apophthegmata Patrum 11 there are stories about the brave or seductive conduct of women, but we find only three headings of women whose sayings have been collected: Sarra, Theodora and Synkletike. Of these three, Synkletike’s life has been written down and transmitted separately, and both her sayings and Life may have a common source. Sarra and Theodore have left us just some of their sayings.

Before I start talking more about the Desert mothers, I would like to consider these stories about individual women living ascetically more in general. These are, amongst others: Mary of Egypt, Alexandra, Pelagia the Harlot, Thaïs, and in other places than Egypt: the female companions Jerome corresponded with (Eustochium, Melania the Younger, Paula), Egeria, Olympia, Febronia, Thecla, etc.

Some of these women are known through churchfathers. Sometimes a Vita has been written by a bishop, or it was mentioned in compilations of desert stories. Synkletike’s life was made famous through Athanasius (or rather: Pseudo-Athanasius), Thecla’s acts through Paul, Olympia through her friendship with Chrysostomos, Eustochium, Melania (the Elder: 340-410), Paula and Melania (the Younger: (+439) through their teacher Jerome, and Macrina, who was Gregory of Nyssa’s sister.

Others gained merit on their own: Egeria, who wrote her pilgrim’s travel journal, Mary of Egypt, and Sarra and Theodora, the desert mothers.

So even though some of these stories and lives of women have come to us introduced by a churchfather, it was also possible for a female ascetic to become well-known on her own accord.

The reasons for women to become an ascetic varied of course, but sometimes it seems to us that there is a cliché or pattern to be found, for instance, some females lived ascetically because they wanted to do penance for a sin, usually a sexual sin, for example: Mary of Egypt (harlot), Pelagia (harlot), and Alexandra, who felt guilty, because she had seduced a man. Others became ‘didaskalos’, teachers for other women or even men: for example Thekla12, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa’s sister, who is depicted as a ‘virgin-philosopher’ and Synkletike, who teaches a crowd of women about ascetical practice.

Concerning teaching, Peter Brown13 states, that it was not at all unusual to have females as ‘spiritual guides’. Theodora is such a spiritual guide for men and women alike,14 and in the Vitae of Macrina15 and of Synkletike16, Thekla is mentioned as an example for their lives. In Synkletike’s Vita, the Saint addresses women in particular, but in the quotes of her Vita taken over in the Apophthegmata and in Paul of Evergetis’ Synagoge17, her words are for monks as well, shown in the male participiats.

There are also those women who, in order to survive in the desert, dressed themselves successfully as men, for example: Pelagia was a harlot in Antioch; on hearing a sermon spoken by bishop Nonnus in church, she decided to live ascetically, and was baptized by this same bishop. She disappeared and when she died in her cell in Jerusalem many years later, everyone, including bishop Nonnus, who came to visit her, or rather, him, thought she was the monk Pelagius, a man. But when they ‘set about anointing the body with myrrh, they found that it was a woman.’18

A lot of these women come from a rich background. That leaves them a lot to give up, which in some cases makes them very virtuous. Jerome helps a group of aristocratic women in Rome educate themselves, and Synkletike seems to have a lot to give away when her parents die. The name ‘Synkletike’ could mean female senator, senatrix, or wife of a senator. In the Vita, the author explains her name as being derived from ‘assembly of saints’ (from Synkletos, assembly)19 can also be a literary construction to take a wealthy woman as an example for other women, just because she can stand out as very generous. What news is there in the story of a poor girl living ascetically?

Finally we can categorize the women who were on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and some of them also wanted to visit the famous Desert fathers: Egeria20, who travelled supposedly from Galicia to the east, Melania the Younger21 and Severa the deaconness.22

As mentioned above, women who wanted to live ascetically, were able to do this in churches, where they were taken up with other virgins. Usually, these groups in churches or convents were gathered together by rich widows or unmarried women. Some virgins lived together in rooms or with their family.

But there were also women who lived alone, in a cell, not in a group. One of the three women mentioned in the Apophthegmata Patrum 23, Sarra, spent sixty years on the banks of the Nile, where the passage was very narrow, and thus the place where she lived was very difficult to approach. In a saying, we read: “It was said concerning her that for sixty years she lived beside a river and never lifted her eyes to look at it.”24 So looking at water while being in the desert was a temptation she resisted.

What were the desires or temptations to be on the look out for? Clearly, gluttony, and other ‘luxuries’, because they make us weak (c. 32); possessions of all kinds are also vices, because “the majority of our griefs and trials originate in the removal of possessions”, as Synkletike tells the reader (c. 35), “What course of action does he (the Enemy) have against those without possesions? None! Can he burn their estates? Impossible! Destroy their livestock? They do not have any! Lay hands on their dear ones? To these too they long ago said good-bye.”(c. 35)25 So the devil cannot touch those who have let go of their earthly possessions, according to Synkletike.

What about the other desire, the desire for another person?

For men, to be far away from women, preferably in the desert, was an effective way to live ascetically. Ascetical women lived more often in houses in cities, and could separate themselves from the ‘world’ by following a strict diet. Is this so?

According to Synkletike, fasting was not the only option for women, they also had to keep themselves from making public excursions in order to stop images arising in their thoughts (c. 25). Synkletike also gives the following warning for ‘sisterly love’: (c. 27) “…the Malevolent One has transformed even sisterly love into his own brand of evil. He has actually tripped up, through their attachment to their sisters, virgins who have fled from marriage and all worldly illusion”.

The true ascetic must really be the person who stands above the male or female body of the other, as Susanna Elm in her book ‘Virgins of God’ shows by quoting an anonymous saying about a monk who takes a detour to avoid a group of virgins. The leader of the group says: “If you were a perfect monk, you would not have seen us as women.”26


The Life of Synkletike contains a large monologue on the logismoi, or: ‘thoughts’. According to the author of the work, not a lot is known about her ascetical practice, because Synkletike did not allow anyone to “be an observer of this” (c. 15). But the monologue explaining the ways in which every person’s logismoi work shows that the Vita is a work of great psychological insight (for instance: caput 41, see below).

The theory of the logismoi has been developed by Evagrius of Pontus (+399). Every person has ‘thoughts’. One of the thoughts that Synkletike uses in her teachings is for example: fornication (c. 26). The Devil uses the thoughts to “promote his own plans” (c. 27): he sets the thoughts to work through memories or visions of objects. It is how we react to these memories or visions that we know which thought the Devil is using.27 The ascetic has to learn to master his or her thoughts. The impure and material thoughts are the first ones to be mastered by ascetics. After these follow the more interior ones like arrogance. The Devil uses more subtle means for those ‘internal’ thoughts, so one has to be more advanced in the ascetical lifestyle to handle those internal thoughts.

What does Synkletike say about the logismos of fornication, of sexual ‘impure’ thoughts? of physical attraction? The devil works through the senses, or he works through remembrance, images of the past that go through one’s mind. Even “to give assent to these fantasies, is equivalent to sexual impurity in the world” (c. 26). One of the most interesting chapters of the Vita Syncleticae, concerning thoughts of desire is the next: (c. 29)

“For example, if in the crannies of the mind there should appear a vision of a beautiful apparition, it should be opposed instantly by one’s rational faculty. One should mentally gouge out the eyes of the image, and tear the flesh from its cheeks, and slash off the lips too – then one should look at the ugly framework of the bare bones! then one should view with scorn what was the object of desire! For thus the mind would have the strength to retreat from a foolish deception. The love object was nothing but blood mixed with phlegm, a mixture that for living creatures requires a covering. In this way, then, also through such mental processes it is possible to frighten off the foul evil… And still further, one should imagine over the entire body of the object of lust foul-smelling and festering sores and to see it with the inner eye, to put it briefly, as something like a corpse or even to see oneself as a corpse. And most important of all is control over the belly, for thus is possible also control over pleasures beneath the belly.”

This is a cruel but effective citation, and there are more stories like this one.

In his article ‘Mères du désert et Maternité spirituelle’, p. 236-237,28 Joseph Soler writes that the fathers did not underestimate the spiritual and ascetical life of females, and that the spiritual direction that women were taught did not vary much from that of men. The emphasis on Christ as the husband of virgins, and taking Mary more as a model for them, were the only differences. But Sarra, the desert mother, had to prove herself still in front of men, according to this tale:

“Another time, two old men, great anchorites, came to the district of Pelusium to visit her. When they arrived one said to the other, ‘Let us humiliate this old woman.’ 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.'”29.

So did women de-womanize themselves or their thoughts? As I have mentioned, some women dressed as men, because it was safer, and in some cases, to gain acceptance among a community of monks. Maybe some women did not want to live with hundreds of other women, who often had fights, or to avoid what Synkletike had called ‘sisterly love’. In order to live alone, a woman had the choice between making herself inapproachable (like in a cell that was sealed off, or up a steep mountain), or pretending to be a man. And anyway: if a woman went to live in the desert, her appearance would adapt itself to the climate there, like Mary of Egypt, whose clothes were torn and lost long ago.30

Synkletike went to live in a family tomb on the outskirts of Alexandria. Many women found their way to her place, and it was only after many pleas that she talked about the way to leave the whole world behind in order to “advance towards God” (c. 60). But Synkletike’s sayings were taken up in the Apophthegmata Patrum, just as Sarra’s. And moreover, Synkletike’s Vita is cited in the tenth-century monastic florilegium, Paul of Evergetis’ Synagoge, that was being read in monasteries, and the verbs in female form were written in the male form, in order to appeal to ‘everyone’, not only to women… And as Benedicta Ward told me, when discussing the Desert fathers and mothers: “some Desert fathers were spiritual mothers too, so it is not a matter of gender, but more a matter of approach.”31

So if the difference between men and women in the desert was not mentionable, what about the difference between women who lived in the ‘world’ and ascetical women: Synkletike tells this to those who have come to hear her (c. 42):

“Let us women not be misled by the thought that those in the world are without cares. For perhaps in comparison they struggle more than we do. For towards women generally there is great hostility in the world. They bear children with difficulty and risk, and they suffer patiently through nursing, and they share illnesses with their sick children — and these things they endure without having any limit to their travail. For either the children they bear are maimed in body, or, brought up in perversity, they treacherously murder their parents. Since we women know these facts, therefore, let us not be deluded by the Enemy that their life is easy and carefree. For in giving birth women die in labour; and yet, in failing to give birth, they waste away under reproaches that they are barren and unfruitful.”

Conclusion, a general one

This paper has been about ascetics, about women, about the temptations of sexual attraction, how to act against it. The fascinating world of desert fathers and mothers still captures our imagination, even though the monastic environment is not desired by most. The teachings that were written down, even if the persons may not be historical, are still read today. Does this prove they have a universal message? To train body and soul for salvation, to be free of desires, it must be as old as man himself. And I admit, when I am stuck in my thoughts like possessiveness, or fornicative ones, then it helps to read about the struggles of others before me, and to realize that it makes sense to be able to discern between the different ‘thoughts’ and what stirs me, and how I get addicted, and how I can project my bad feelings on a devil, rather than on a human being. The stories of these women and men make our own bad thoughts more human, and they prove that nothing that one wants is reached by not putting in an effort. And that temptations are a basic force in everyone’s life.

I hope you have enjoyed hearing something about the temptations in the desert.


1 This paper was given as a communication at the 31st Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Brighton, 21-24 March 1997, which carried the theme ‘desire and denial’.

2 Vita Antonii, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca 26, col. 835-976, 841 b.

3 Idem, 860 B- and further.

4 Some mss. refer to Synkletike as didáskalos, see Migne’s ed. in P.G. 28, col. 1487-1558; Colbert’s ed. has metros, see Ecclesiae Graecae Monumenta, T. 1, Parisiorum 1677, ff. 201-277, so have Vat. gr. 825, Paris grec 1449, and Gotob. 4, and Athena 2104; Coislin 124 has aeí parthénou; Paris grec 1598 has parthénou; Uppsala gr. 5 has a strange reference to kallipárthenou Théklis.

5 Ed.: Migne, J.-P.: Patrologia Graeca 28, col. 1487-1558.

6 Palladius: Historia Lausiaca, ed. C. Butler, Cambridge 1898-1904 (2 vols).

7 Margot King: The desert mothers, Toronto, 1989, p. 10, has apparently counted 2975 women mentioned in the Historia Lausiaca.

8 Peter Brown, The body and society, 262.

9 Idem, 260.

10 Ibid., 264.

11 Ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia graeca, T. 65, col. 72-440, Paris, 1868. Transl.: Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo, 1975. Dutch: Chr. Wagenaar, Vaderspreuken: gerontikon, Bonheiden, 1987 (3de herz. uitg.).

12 Who taught or preached even though Paul had written: (1 Tm 2, 12): ‘But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.’

13 The body and society, p. 269.

14 The sayings of the Desert Fathers: the alphabetical collection, transl. forew. by Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo, Mich., rev. ed. 1984 (1975), p. 82.

15 Vita Macrinae: Migne, J.-P.: P.G., T. 46, cols 96-1000. Translat.: Kevin Corrigan, The Life of Saint Macrina, by Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, Toronto, 1989 (Peregrina transl. series no. 10), p. 28/Dutch transl. F. van der Meer en G. Bartelink, Utrecht, 1971, p. 35.

16 P.G. 28, see caput 10 for mention of Thekla.

17 Euergetinòs etoi Sunagooge toon theofthóngoon remátoon kaì didaskalíoon toon theofóroon kaì hagíoon patéroon, ed. Makarios Korinthos, Nikodemos Hagiorites, Venetië, 1783; 7de ed. in 4 vols: Athena, 1983.

18 Helen Waddell: The desert fathers, translations from the Latin with an introduction, London, 1987 (1936), p. 281.

19 PG 28, caput 4.

20 Peregrinatio ad loca sancta, éd. P. Maraval (Journal de voyage), Paris, 1982 (Sources chrétiennes, 296).

21 There is no edition known to me of this Saint’s Life, see Joyce E. Salisbury: Church Fathers, independent virgins, London, 1992 (1991), for a chapter about her deeds, p. 89-96.

22 See for Severa: Susanna Elm: ‘Virgins of God’: the making of asceticism in Late Antiquity, Oxford, 1994: Severa wanted to cross the desert on her pilgrimage to the Desert fathers, pp. 277-279.

23 Ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia graeca, T. 65, col. 72-440, Paris, 1868. Transl.: Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo, 1975. Dutch: Chr. Wagenaar, Vaderspreuken: gerontikon, Bonheiden, 1987 (3de herz. uitg.).

24 Sarah 3, Ward: p. 230. Wagenaar, p. 250.

25 Vita Syncleticae, transl. E. Bryson-Bongie.

26 Susanna Elm, p. 267 and n. 45: N 23 and also Abraham 1.

27 See for this specific psychological explaining of the thoughts: Anselm Grun: Het omgaan met de boze, Bonheiden, 1984, transl. from Der Umgang mit dem Bösen, der Dämonenkampf im alten Mönchtum, Münsterschwarzach [s.d.], p. 26.

28 Joseph M. Soler: “Mères du désert et maternité spirituelle”, in Collectanea Cisterciensia 48 (1986) 235-250.

29 Sarah 4, transl. Ward, 193, Wagenaar, 250.

30 See for Mary of Egypt: J.-P. Migne (ed.): Patrologia Graeca 87, col. 3697-3726, and the translation of Benedicta Ward: Harlots of the desert, Kalamazoo, 1987, p. 26-56, for this citation: p. 41.

31 On my visit to the Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Oxford, Sept. 1996.