Forgotten rebel virgins of the desert

paula and eustochium1When St. Jerome arrived in Jerusalem, the rebel virgins were already there, wealthy women who had become church leaders, ascetics, and hermits, and who started the monastic movement: the “desert mothers” of early Christianity. But today they are largely lost to history, except for the records left by a few men.

“…laws passed by Augustus just before the start of the Common Era still required all upper-class men to marry and all women to procreate, in a return to Roman family values that were largely political myth. Women could only become financially independent—or, simply, independent—if they’d been divorced or widowed or given birth to a minimum of three children. To escape this system, some upper-class women went so far as to register as prostitutes in order to have free rein with their own money.

map--the pilgrimage of Paula“It is in this environment that Christian women began to use the vow of chastity as both an act of devotion and an excellent legal loophole. Virginity became a movement, the ultimate hack. As a consecrated virgin, a woman suddenly became free of many of the empire’s gender laws, free to preach and to lead in their community, free to model themselves after the apostles. The majority of the virgins were women in the cities who formed their own network of house churches.”

  • Melania, the wealthiest woman in Rome. When her husband died, she turned her son over to a  guardian, then loaded her fortune into a ship and sailed for Egypt. She is known through Jerome, who didn’t approve of her, and Evagrius of Pontus, who did (“Letters from the desert”).
  • syncleticaThe Blessed Hermit Susan (no Wikipedia article), drew apart from her desert convent for fasting and praying in a cave, warned about the apocalypse, and attracted visitors from Alexandria and from Libyan villages.  Eventually a holy man arrived with ten disciples and formed a monastery around her, with separate sections for men and women. Chronicled by the Monophysite bishop, John of Ephesus in “Life of Susan” (Lives of the Eastern Saints).
  • Paula was a member of Marcella’s circle in Rome. She used her wealth to build monasteries in Bethlehem, and to support Jerome in his translation of the Vulgate Bible, as she was also fluent in Hebrew and Greek. She is known to us today because Jerome addressed two of his letters to Paula, and wrote “The pilgrimage of the holy Paula“.

jerome with paula and eustochium2

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