ROME, MAY 8, 2002 (ZENIT.org–Avvenire).- Not only were there anchorites in fourth-century Egypt, but also anchoresses, such as St. Antony´s and St. Pachomius´ sisters. And St. Jerome also created an ascetic circle for women.
These facts are included in a book just published in Italy, “Meterikon: Sayings of the Desert Mothers” (“Meterikon. I detti delle madri del deserto”), coordinated by Luciano Coco of Mondadori publishers.
St. John Chrysostom wrote about this phenomenon. “All over this region, it is possible to see Christ´s army, the royal flock and the community of heavenly virtues. And this is true not only of men but also of women. Indeed, they, no less than men, give themselves to the ascetic life.”
Among these women, in fourth-century Egypt, was Antony´s sister. He organized solitary monastic life and entrusted his sister to a women´s community. And then there was Maria, sister of Pachomius, founder of communitarian monasticism, to whom her brother entrusted the direction of the monastery at Tabennisi.
In Cappadocia, it was Macrina, the sister of the great monks and theologians Basil of Caesaria and Gregory of Nyssa, who initiated monastic life for women. Shortly after, in the second half of the century, the phenomenon spread to the West.
St. Jerome´s role was critical to women´s monasticism. Ascetic circles of aristocratic, well-educated women gathered around him, first in Rome and then in Palestine. Well known among them were Marcela and Paola.
The new book includes some 600 texts attributed to these women or addressed to them. The author of the collection was Byzantine monk Isaiah, who worked on it around 1204, conscious that no one had compiled “such a feminine book.”
A Russian bishop found the “Meterikon” in Jerusalem in the mid-19th century, and had a translation made of this “absolute rarity,” which would later be published in Greek as well as Russian.
St. Melanie the younger, Roman aristocrat, lived a monastic life in a suburban villa, as her grandmother of the same name had done before her. She gave her inheritance to the poor, went to Nola, and later to Sicily and Africa, where she met St. Augustine.
She continued on to Egypt, where she visited the desert monks. Melanie lived in Jerusalem first as a hermit and then founded a monastery for women and another for men. She died in 440.
St. Pelagia was a famous Phoenician actress who, when she arrived in Antioch, repented of her dissolute life and lived the rest of her days in great austerity. She died in 290.
The book is not lacking in curious cases like that of Theodora who, in order to be accepted in a monastery, dressed up as a man. Only after her death was her secret discovered.
And then there is the story of Matrona, foundress of a monastery in Constantinople, who embraced the monastic life, to get away from her husband.