Published October 4, 2001
By Mae Lee Sun
Since ancient times, the world’s deserts have been the preferred environment into which have ventured many a mystic, ascetic, shaman and sage. These spiritual seekers come to the desert to confront the essential questions of human existence and the meaning of life. From Egypt to Arizona, Moses to Castañeda, the arid, austere nature of the desert has enabled a deeper, more pure connection with “God,” “spirit” or “The Great Mystery.” Void of material reference points and worldly distractions, the desert’s empty, vast expanse is conducive to silent contemplation. With tranquil mind, heaven and earth can meet and the devotee ultimately engages in a mystical experience of harmony and oneness with everything.
In Western Christian history, venturesome spiritual hermits, from about the third century onward, were known as the Abbas, or Desert Fathers. Characteristically, they were monastic males, wrestling with their inner demons and passions in the sanctity of solitude, later returning to the monastery with heart and mind cleansed and free of sin, sex, women and temptation.
While the revelations and accounts of the Desert Fathers are important confirmations of the spiritual path, many remarkable women through the ages also shared in the quest for divine union. Although pushed to the margins of written history, they, too, ventured into the desert and lived as recluses, or in community with other women. These Ammas, or Desert Mothers, faced the same pragmatic and soul-searching challenges as their male counterparts, augmented by the cultural overlay of being female in a predominantly male tradition.