My friend Anna is an artist who lives in Berlin and publishes her own journal, simply called Letters to the Editor. Earlier in the summer I contributed a short piece that involves women, books, solo adventures, the desert mothers, and a minor critique of the selfie generation. There’s no motorcycles involved, but you can essentially think of the desert mothers as precursors to the senior citizen female biker gang who lived in the wastelands (I believe they were called the Vuvalini of Many Mothers) in the latest Mad Max film!
Here’s the content of the article, and if you would like to read more I’ve started up a booklist about female pilgrims, pioneers, and adventurers.
“Women in the wilderness: the legacy of the desert mothers”
Our western culture has been accused of being full of entitlement, greed and selfishness, with few tools to cope with any sort of trial, set back or suffering besides medication. Simultaneously, there is this on-going banter by those around me who want to “get away from it all,” to seek out nature, wilderness, silence and solace, and to be cut-off from technology. Granted this movement has already been packaged and merchandized, but at the root of this sentiment is a genuine and valid desire for peace and contentment through simplicity.
Further evidence of our restless, yet seeking culture can even be found in mainstream media, and I have even discovered a few inspiring female role models as a result. I’ve always been suspicious of Hollywood’s intent, but lately I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild and Robyn Davidson’s classic book Tracks. What I find most appealing about Strayed and Davidson’s writings is that they are memoirs featuring women who were not necessarily outdoor enthusiasts or experts, but individuals who needed to upheave their lives and find solace in nature and in the desert. They also took great risks in accomplishing their task.
The adaptations of the books into film were timely and inspiring. I think most people enjoy stories of transformation, where others overcome adversity and change their destiny, as well as films that showcase the beauty of the wilderness. The other unspoken reason for the films’ success is possibly because they reflect our generation’s desire to reclaim a sense of wonder, explore nature, and integrate spirituality into our lives. Spirituality and faith have been tainted by history, considering that those who have committed violence in the name of their religion get the most press. Meanwhile, those of actual integrity have a tendency to go about their acts of humility in quiet fashion, such as the desert mothers and fathers.
This pursuit of isolation and redemption in the wilderness is not remotely a modern occurrence, even for women. The earliest record I can find is the desert mothers or ammas from 235 C.E. to 600 C.E. living around Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine and Israel. I’m currently reading The Forgotten Desert Mothers by Laura Swan, as a kind of guide regarding the mysterious lives, stories and wisdom of women. Swan writes, “We are a generation of questioners… that yearns for wisdom figures, heroes and heroines, ammas and abbas who will show us the way. While maintaining fierce independence, we desire interdependence and community. We want our lives to have depth of meaning and purpose. We want to be connected. We secretly want someone to challenge us toward the transcendent” (151 – 152). Swan believes that the desert ammas can play this role of mentor, as they sought enlightenment away from the noisy mobs through simple clothes, foods, practises and routines.
The ammas were sometimes rich nobility who rejected arranged marriages or their social position, prostitutes, devout daughters, seekers, intellectuals, or simple peasants. Instead of being attached to relationships, material things, popularity, success, and even old hurts and jealousies, the ammas aimed to detach themselves from such burdens and slow down. The desert was the ideal setting to learn humility because of its vastness, silence and power. Swan explains that not only did the ammas face the natural desert, their greatest challenge was facing the inner desert. She writes, “Our inner desert is the place of encounter with our selves and God – not escape. It is in our own inner desert that our deepest self comes radically face to face with the Divine” (156 – 157). They believed that there is no long-term fulfilment in temporary pleasures and performances, and it’s only when the desert burns off our pride and removes our masks do we actually discover true compassion and empathy for the world.
Cheryl Strayed recognized that her path of marital deceit and drug addiction was doomed to self destruct, and in her quiet way, Robyn Davidson needed to disconnect from a society full of racism and sexism in Australia during the 1970s, and also to heal from the loss of her mother. From these positions of brokenness, these women turned to a different kind of suffering to gather strength. They actually chose the path less travelled – the path that brought them vulnerability, where they had nothing to hide behind. The ammas would call this “apatheia” – a kind of quality that results after undergoing a spiritual journey when the inner struggle towards attachments has ceased and all the clutter from our world is eliminated (Swan 25).
In the end, this stripping away of falseness and pretence brings the traveller freedom and joy, and a renewed sense of identity that the dominant culture can not offer. A wilderness journey has the ability to nourish and restore the hermit within. The path most travelled claims to offer the individual control and safety, but in truth, the exposure of being in the wilderness brings true contentment. There’s the saying that you can “find yourself” in the wilderness, and while it seems cliche, without external distractions and pressures, in nature we can actually become ourselves again.
Not everyone is called to undergo extensive physical ordeals through deserts and along mountain paths to find solace. Fortunately, Amma Syncletica of Egypt (circa 380 – 460 AD) states that, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is solitary to live in the crowd of personal thoughts” (Swan 58). Essentially, if you can find a way to clear your mind and find peace in the quiet of your thoughts, you can discover a wilderness of awe and wonder that will sustain you no matter where you are.
Humans are naturally curious beings who also want to explain and dissect their world, but I can really appreciate those who let go of control and choose a journey that may be full of hardship and full of mystery. More is not better, whether it is knowledge or possessions, and perfection will never be obtained. I have met individuals of great intellect and wordiness, but without love or humility, they find themselves alienated and bitter. The ammas were not seeking superiority and piety through isolation in the desert, they were searching for a better way to love each other. When we start to see the world and the people around us as sacred and unique, it will be more likely that we can cultivate compassion and leave behind the accusations that our generation is pure vanity and completely self-absorbed.