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Amma Sarah of the Desert (5thC)

Amma (Mother) Sarah was one of the mothers of the desert, known only for few, but important recorded sayings in The Matericon and The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

She is known because

1) she sought the approval of God alone,

2) she never asked for temptations to be removed, only for God to strengthen her to resist them,

3) she encouraged acts of charity, even if they weren’t for the right reasons, because she believed that God would work through them to make them to change the heart, and

4) she refused to be denigrated because she was a woman.

Amma Sarah’s Life

Not much is known about Sarah’s life, although she is believed to have been well-educated and literate. She was attracted to the ascetic life, wanting to be pure at heart so that she could be united with God, but in this pursuit she struggled with the desires of the flesh, particularly lust. She became a hermit living near a river, which was probably the Nile, for sixty years, connected to a nearby monastic community.

Amma Sarah’s Teachings

Most of what we know of Sarah comes from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Sarah’s sayings show that she challenged the gender roles of her time. An example was when in her old age, she was treated rudely by two old male anchorites:

  • Another time, two old men, great anchorites, came to the district of Pelusia 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.’
  • Amma Sarah said, ‘If I prayed God that all men should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, but I shall rather pray that my heart may be pure towards all.’

Sarah also had things to say to women of her time, found in The Matericon:

  • They said of Blessed Sarah that she was attacked greatly by the demon of fornication for thirteen years, and she never prayed to see an easement in this war but only said: God strengthen me!
  • They also relate about her that once when the spirit of fornication especially attacked her with many vain worldly images she undertook even stricter asceticism: fasting, vigils, sleeping on the ground and prayer. In the midst of this battle, she went up onto the roof of her cell and the spirit of fornication appeared to her visibly and said: You have vanquished me, Sarah. And she said to him: It is not I who have vanquished you but Christ my Lord.
  • Blessed Matrona said about our holy Mother Sarah, that she showed such a wondrous and honourable patience that devils trembled before her and angels glorified her. The blessed one, living in stillness in a cell which was on the shore of the river, during the sixty years of her life therein never once looked down onto the river (so as not to see her own reflection upon the water).
  • She said again: The following chase away the remembrance of God from the soul: much speaking, delight in anything, laughter, wandering outside the cell, associations with men, anger, leaving off from reading and contemplation, care about worldly vanity, forgetfulness of death. All this chases away the remembrance of God. But a wise nun, when she notices any of these evils in herself, hurries to correct them as a zealous servant of God, and thereby she avoids all the nets of the evil one.
  • She said again: As long as you live in the body do not exalt yourself in your heart, as one who has accomplished something good. Then the enemy will not be able to find in you any access to throw you into dishonourable passion.

Prayer of the Sixth Hour of the Day (from An Anthology of Patristic Prayers)

A prayer that Amma Sarah wrote for the Sixth Hour, i.e., noon:

O Lord, You who have measured The heights and the earth In the hollow of your hand, And created the six-wing Seraphim To cry out to you with an unceasing voice Holy, Holy, Holy, Glory to your name. Deliver me From the mouth of the evil one, O Master. Forget my many evil deeds And through the multitude of your compassions Grant me daily forgiveness, For you are blessed unto the ages. Amen.

This page has been curated by Fleur using these sources: 

Hatzinikolaou, N. S. (1988). Voices in the wilderness: An anthology of patristic prayers. Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

Isaiah, A. (2001). Matericon: Instructions from Abba Isaiah to the Honourable Nun Theodora. St Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery.

Ward, B. (1984). The sayings of the Desert Fathers: The alphabetical collection. Cistercian Publications.