Desert Fathers: On Women

  • The text: The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks
  • The translator: Benedicta Ward
  • Notes: Because this book records an oral tradition, it doesn’t have an ‘author’ per se. It’s a collection of sayings that were handed down within these communities, starting around the fourth century.
  • Read it yourself: I’m using a Penguin Classics version, but if you google around you’ll be able to find some of the sayings online.

Here’s a story – see what you make of this. An old hermit asks his disciple to go and find his servant, who normally brings him food. The disciple is worried about falling into sin if he leaves, but there’s no food, and he wants to be obedient, so off he goes. He finds the servant’s house – and his daughter is the only one home, and she pulls him inside and tries to fuck him, but he prays and groans and God magically teleports him out and away. He returns to his master, untainted by the world. There isn’t a resolution about the food in this story – that’s just a McGuffin. The storytellers needed a good reason to send the disciple away from safety, away from the desert – and the need for food is legitimate. What’s really important here is the risk taken by leaving the desert, represented by the wanton daughter. But how do we understand the daughter? She isn’t meant to be understood as an individual – she doesn’t have any unique or defining characteristics. She’s more a type or symbol than an actual character. I mean:

“When the monk asked, the daughter opened the door. When he asked her where her father was, she urged him to come into the house, and indeed tried to pull him inside. At first he refused to go in, but in the end she succeeded in persuading him. Then she flung herself at him and tried to tempt him to lie with her. He felt lust rising in him, and his mind was in a turmoil; and he groaned and called out to God, ‘Lord, by the prayers of my abba, set me free now.'”

What is this woman meant to symbolise, then? Is the suggestion that women are all dangerous sluts trying to ruin the lives of holy monks everywhere? I think, more compellingly, we can understand her as a prompt of certain reactions. It’s not her in herself that’s the problem, it’s her effect on the monk. None of her actions precipitate the monk crying out to God – she urges him, pulls at him, tempts him, flings herself at him – none of those actions prompt anything. It’s only once the monk has a certain response that he feels the need to call on God – he feels lust rising within him, and only then does he pray. The actions of the girl are almost incidental to the whole affair. If the monk had been consumed with lust at the sight of some girl walking down the street, he would have cried out to God in the same way.

So the point of these sayings is not that women are all evil sexy temptresses. There isn’t really any comment on the mindset or morality of the daughter in this story – notice, for instance, that we never get any direct claims about her motivation or psychology, even though we do see that sort of editorialising in other scenarios. Even at the start of this saying, for instance, we’re told that the hermit was anxious about his missing servant, and that the disciple who was sent out was afraid of scandal. The interior life of this woman is irrelevant to the narrator – he isn’t making a judgement on her as a person. He treats her solely as a trigger for certain reactions and emotions in the disciple – and his focus, and the focus of his moralising, is specifically on the monk and his reactions. I think there are some points of connection that we can make there. For instance, if someone causes me stress, it’s not necessarily their fault, right. I need to figure out what created a stress response in my brain, and try and manage it in future, but the person who caused the stress isn’t necessarily at fault, and isn’t even necessarily relevant outside of the reaction that they prompted. So I can understand how the monks, who are very big on introspection, would apply that thinking to sexual desire. It’s not that women are bad, it’s that they prompt certain reactions that are considered problematic or unwelcome. I don’t agree with it, but I understand how they got there.

Part of the problem with this type of thinking is really just a question of who’s telling the story. If the only thing you ever talk about is this sexual reaction that straight men have to women, you create an environment where women start to think of themselves in terms of their relationship to men, rather than as agents in their own right. ‘Who am I’ becomes ‘who am I to him’. There’s an implicit second-ness attached to that idea. Women stop being the protagonists of their own stories, and become supporting cast in male stories. We especially see this logic today in how we talk about sexual harassment or assault. If a woman speaks up about something, you’ll get people asking – well, what were you wearing? What did you do to encourage him, to lead him on? What might you have done to prompt that reaction in him? There are a few different issues in there, and not all of them relate to the desert fathers – for instance, there’s the assumption that men aren’t responsible for their behavior, which absolutely wouldn’t have flown with the monks. But there’s also this underlying logic where in order to keep themselves safe, women are expected to think about themselves in terms of the reactions that they are prompting in men. Feminist theory would call it internalizing the male gaze – where women start to think of themselves not from their own point of view, but from the perspective of a man. Who am I to him?

Ultimately, one of the responses to this kind of problem has women try to liberate themselves by positioning themselves as men – essentially as a way to lay claim to the agency and validation of perspective that comes with being part of that sex. For example:

“Two monks came from Pelusium to see Sarah. On the way they said to each other, ‘Let us humiliate this amma.’ So they said to her, ‘Take care that your soul be not puffed up, and that you do not say, “Look, some hermits have come to consult me, a woman!”‘ Sarah said to them, ‘I am a woman in sex, but not in spirit.'”

It’s phrased like Sarah totally owned these chumps – but she’s giving a lot of ground to the idea that she’s second-class just because she’s a woman. She accepts the premise that her women’s body is a second-class body, but argues that she still deserves respect on account of her mannish spirit – which, again, is implicitly accepting that if she had a woman’s spirit, these monks would be right, and she would be fucking useless. It’s not that she’s doing something wrong, per se – she’s trying to get by as best she can without being treated like a fucking idiot. But in terms of the frameworks that need to shift to reach equality – what she’s saying here just isn’t the end of the road. It’s a make-shift response that developed out of the conditions she was facing. What’s interesting, actually, is the fact that it’s included at all. Clearly this saying resonated within the community – it’s been recorded for posterity and has survived sixteen hundred years down to us today. That suggests a level of community support for the idea. Often when we look back it’s easy to write off historical periods as irredeemable, in terms of their gender politics or whatever else. And it’s not that I think the situation was good back then – I just think we can recognise that these communities had conflict and struggle on these issues just as we do today. Clearly there were women who weren’t happy with how things were, and clearly those women had some degree of support. Their solutions weren’t always perfect, but they were there, and they were fighting. And that work continues today.

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