Amma Sarah of the Desert (5th century) is known to us today solely through the collected sayings of the Desert Fathers. Amma Sarah was a hermit and lived a life dedicated to strict asceticism for some sixty years. She is said to have dwelt in a monastic cell, likely near the river Nile; a river at which she would never look. Sarah’s sayings attest that the saint spent her life battling a demon that tempted her to fornication. Records indicate that Amma Sarah lived near Sketis in the early to mid-5th century. Feast celebrated 13th July.
THE SAYINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS
St. Sarah is best known for her comments as recorded in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
It was related of Amma Sarah [i.e. Mother Sarah] that for thirteen years she waged warfare against the demon of fornication. She never prayed that the warfare should cease but she said, ‘O God, give me strength.’
Once the same spirit of fornication attacked her more insistently, reminding her of the vanities of the world. But she gave herself up to the fear of God and to asceticism and went up onto her little terrace to pray. Then the spirit of fornication appeared corporally to her and said, ‘Sarah, you have overcome me.’ But she said, ‘It is not I who have overcome you, but my master, Christ.’
It was said concerning her that for sixty years she lived beside a river and never lifted her eyes to look at it.
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.’
She also said, ‘I put out my foot to ascend the ladder, and I place death before my eyes before going up it.’
She also said, ‘It is good to give alms for men’s sake. Even if it is only done to please men, through it one can begin to seek to please God.’
Some monks of Scetis came one day to visit Amma Sarah. She offered them a small basket of fruit. They left the good fruit and ate the bad. So she said to them, ‘You are true monks of Scetis.’
She also said to the brothers, ‘It is I who am a man, you who are women.’
Amma Sarah sent someone to say to Abba Paphnutius, ‘Have you really done the work of God by letting your brother be despised?’ and Abba Paphnutius said, ‘Paphnutius is here with the intention of doing the work of God, and he has nothing to do with anyone else.’
These quotations are used with permission from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum: The Alphabetical Collection) translated by Benedicta Ward and published by Cistercian Publications (Kalamazoo: 1984). This book is available here.
There are striking contrasts between the sayings recorded for men to read in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and those recorded for women in the lesser known Matericon. It is important to read both in order to understand St. Sarah:
Blessed Sarah said: I fear three things: when the soul must depart from the body, when I must be presented to God, and when the last decree will be made about me on the day of Judgment. Thinking about this I am terrified and tremble. (page 2)
Once Blessed Sarah saw a young nun laughing, and said to her: Do not laugh, sister, because by this you chase away from yourself the fear of God, and are subjected to the mockery of the devil. (9)
Blessed Sarah said: I know that a scant amount of bread, and fasting, slim down the body, but vigils exhaust the flesh even more than fasting. (17)
Blessed Sarah said: Nothing humbles the soul more than the scarcity of bread and water. When the enemy wants to take a city, he first stops the food and water supplies, and they thus give themselves up even against their will. So is it for a monastic—unless he restrains his stomach with hunger and thirst, he cannot rid himself of evil thoughts. (18)
She also said: If a person remembers the words of Scripture: By your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned (Mt. 12:37), then he will choose to remain silent. (19)
She also said: As smoke chases away bees and makes it possible to remove from them the sweetness of their labor, so also bodily rest chases away the fear of God from the soul and destroys all her good work. (20)
Blessed Sarah said: One who is satiated and who speaks to a youth has already committed fornication in his mind. If this is so, then how do we nuns dare to speak, eat and sit next to men? Christ said: If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloak for their sin (Jn. 15:22). So too for us—having seen and suffered this, and been tempted by this in much—we command you, the young nuns, to preserve yourselves by all means from men’s faces, even if they are brothers. Those who do not listen to us will understand their fornication when it is revealed to them at the time of their departure; and on the day of Judgment they will have us as their accusers. (36)
Again she said: One must not accept the following two thoughts: fornication and judgment of one’s neighbor. When the enemy presents one of these we must rise up and pray; and pray again, with tears to God, and God will deliver us. (37)
They said of Blessed Sarah that she was attacked greatly by the demon of fornication for fifteen years, and she never prayed to see an easement in this war but only said: God strengthen me! (38)
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. (39)
Blessed Matrona said about our holy Mother Sarah, that she showed such a wondrous and honorable 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). (48)
One nun came to Blessed Sarah and said to her: Pray for me, my lady. – The blessed one said to her: Neither will I have mercy on you nor will God unless you have mercy on yourself, fulfilling the virtues as the Fathers have commanded us. (57)
A nun asked Blessed Sarah: Tell me, my lady, how can I be saved? – The saint said to her: Be as though you were dead: do not care about human dishonor; nor about worldly glory; in stillness, retreat into your cell; continually remember only God and death, and you will be saved. (58)
Once a sister came to Blessed Sarah and brought along with her food and wine from the world. Bowing, she offered her the food, and also the wine. The blessed one took everything except the wine, saying: Take this death away from me. – Then, looking at her, she added: How dare you touch wine, being as young as you are, or dare even to smell it? Do you not know that Noah and Lot suffered much from wine? – The nun said to her: My lady, if I do not use wine, my stomach does not work. – The blessed one said to her: Unless your stomach hurts, and unless you slim down your body and become like a dried up tree, how will the grace of the Spirit reside in you? Fear God—as young as you are, how dare you drink wine? It is already fifty-nine years that I have lived in this cell, and by the grace of Christ I have never tasted wine. In the beginning, the devil oppressed me very much, tempting me to drink wine and break my good intention—to such a degree that I cannot even express, because he brought me a three-year long illness and used innumerable snares in order to bend me from my good intention—but disregarding the difficulty and pain, I vanquished the thought with the help of my Lord. Know this, that one who does not suffer for God here, how will the good Lord have mercy on him on the day of Judgment? – Then the nun bowed to her and said: So from now on, my lady, I will not drink wine. I promise this before God and before you, even if I die because of this; only remember me in your prayers. – The blessed one got up, and after a prayer she let her go. (59)
A nun once came to Blessed Sarah and said to her: My lady! Why do thoughts and passions not leave me? – The blessed one answered: Their vessels are inside of you—give back the mortgage and they will leave. (60)
Once, two great and holy Elders—hermits from the Pelousian area—came to Blessed Sarah. When they were leaving her they said to each other: Watch out, Mother, that you not exalt yourself in your mind, saying: Now hermits come to me, a woman. – To this, the blessed one said with humility and tears: I am a woman by nature, my Fathers, but in mind I am a man. (61)
They asked Blessed Sarah: What is the narrow and sorrowful path? – And she answered: The narrow and sorrowful path is this: to sit in stillness, fast, be silent, stay up in vigils, read, make a multitude of prostrations if there is strength, not go out from the cell at all except to the church, and to cut off one’s own will for the sake of God. This last is what is meant by the words of the Apostle to the Lord: Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed You (Mt. 19:27). (63)
Blessed Theodora asked Blessed Sarah: What am I to do? Many thoughts attack me. – The holy one answered: Do not battle with all of them, but just one; because all bad thoughts have only one as their head. Fight against this chief one and all other thoughts will surrender. The battle against this main thought consists of: stillness, fasting, sleeping on the ground, tears from the heart, a multitude of prostrations, the beating of one’s breast and humility. This is the battle, and these are the weapons that we must use against the head of evil thoughts. With this you will vanquish the thought by the grace of Chirst. There is no other way to conquer them! (66)
Again she said: As long as the soul loves its body it cannot love God, because the Lord said: He that loves his life shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal (Jn. 12:25). (67)
Blessed Sarah said: Even though the saints toiled here (in this world), they still received, even here, a portion of rest. – This she said because they were free from earthly cares. (69)
She said also: If we search out the Lord with effort, through the virtues, He will appear to us; and if we remain in stillness, He will remain with us. (70)
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. (71)
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 dishonorable passion. (72)
She said again: Let us honor the One, and everyone will honor us. If we disdain the One—that is, God—then all will disdain us and we will go into the dark fire. (73)
Again she said: The words of the Lord: I was in prison, and you came unto Me (Mt. 25:36) mean to sit in the cell and, with temperance, to remember God until one’s last breath. (74)
The sayings from The Matericon: Instructions of Abba Isaiah to the Honorable Nun Theodora are used with permission from the English translation published by the St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery. This very rare book, which includes much more than the sayings, is available here.
PRAYER OF THE SIXTH HOUR OF THE DAY
We also have a prayer that Amma Sarah wrote for the Sixth Hour, i.e. noon:
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.
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.
The prayer is used with permission from An Anthology of Patristic Prayers, translated by Nikolaos S. Hatzinikolaou, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press, and available at the Holy Cross Bookstore. An earlier edition of the work was titled Voices in the Wilderness: An Anthology of Patristic Prayers.