Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This week I’m featuring of Amma Marcella of Rome.
“Her delight in the divine scriptures was incredible. She was forever singing, “Thy words have I hid in mine heart that I might not sin against thee…”
This woman was one of the shining glories of the monastic movement in the 4th century. She refuted heresy, taught theology, debated with eminent theologians, mentored others in the spiritual life, and had a hand to play in planting monastic communities around the known world. Nearly every woman mentored by Marcella went on to become a notable figure in ascetic movement of early Christianity.
Amma Marcella was born around 325 to a wealthy family in Rome. She caught a taste for the monastic life when, at a young age, Athanasius visited her family. Athanasius was the biographer of Abba Anthony and one of the most influential theologians of his time. He spent time mentored by Anthony the Great and wrote the Life of Anthony that became one of the greatest sources of information regarding the first influential figure of the desert. Athanasius left a copy of the Life of Anthony with Amma Marcella and she devoured the inspirational work, determining to serve God at a young age.
Her father passed away when she was young, and her husband passed away after 7 months of marriage. Upon being proposed to by an older, wealthy gentleman, Amma Marcella said, “…had I a wish to marry and not rather to dedicate myself to perpetual chastity, I should look for a husband and not for an inheritance…” Marcella rebuffed his advances and dedicated her life to following God in the way of the Egyptian desert while living in the city of Rome.
She retired to the monastic life in a house in the Roman countryside. Roman noblewomen shortly began flocking to her community and dedicating their life to following God. Influential women such as Macrina, Melania the Elder, and Paula are a few of the notable women leaders in monastic communities that were mentored by Amma Marcella.
Before long, the extent of her influence began to be seen in all the monastic communities run by women cropping up in and around Rome. Anthony was her guide, and Christ was her desire. Before long, Amma Marcella had developed a fast friendship with another notable figure of that day, Saint Jerome.
Saint Jerome was a prolific author, theologian, and spiritual father. Jerome led a charge in the early church to begin looking to the Hebrew of the Old Testament to better understand the Bible (the Greek Old Testament was the more common reference). He and Marcella had numerous correspondences over the use of various Hebrew terms to define the names of God and the structure of church life. Much of what we know about Amma Marcella is communicated in a letter penned by him as a eulogy about her.
Marcella carried a stellar reputation. Given her rank and influence, it would not be surprising if scandals had surface regarding her life, but it was not so with her. No complaint could be levied against her, much like Samuel in the Old Testament, who said, “Here I am. Witness against me before the Lord and before His anointed: Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken, or whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed, or from whose hand have I received any bribe with which to blind my eyes? I will restore it to you (I Samuel 12:3).” Her life was a source of inspiration for Christian and non-Christian alike.
Jerome defends the position of women in his day while extolling the life of virtue that Marcella practiced, “The unbelieving reader may perhaps laugh at me for dwelling so long on the praises of mere women; yet if he will but remember how holy women followed our Lord and Saviour and ministered to Him…he will convict himself of pride sooner than me of folly. For we judge of people’s virtue not by their sex but by their character…”
Marcella was every bit the theologian that Jerome was: “…she never came to see me that she did not ask me some question concerning them (the Scriptures), nor would she at once acquiesce in my explanations but on the contrary would dispute them; not, however, for argument’s sake but to learn the answers to those objections which might, as she saw, be made to my statements.” She was not contentious in her questioning, yet could see the frailty of a position and in what ways it could be strengthened. In this way she most likely aided Jerome and his understanding of theology. She was both student and teacher.
She was widely sought by men and women, priests and laypeople alike for her wisdom and teaching. She also understood the cultural ramifications of being a women in a predominantly patriarchal society. Amma Marcella was so cunning that she understood if she gave her opinion as a woman teacher to others they may reject her opinion because she was a woman. So instead of arguing with the individual over gender roles she would style her response and her opinion as something Jerome, or another theological heavy weight would teach.
In this way she disarmed her opponents who would denigrate her for her gender and forced them to respond to what she actually taught. Jerome said, “…when she answered questions she gave her own opinion not as her own but as from me or someone else, thus admitting that what she taught she had herself learned from others.”
She had grace for those that would not listen to her based upon her gender: “For she knew that the apostle had said: “I suffer not a woman to teach,” and she would not seem to inflict a wrong upon the male sex many of whom (including sometimes priests) questioned her concerning obscure and doubtful points.” She was far more intelligent than many of the priests who would oppose her opinion. Oh the poor state of the male ego.
When some contentious teaching arose in Rome based upon of Origen’s works, Amma Marcella publicly charged priests, monks, and church fathers with holding to heretical doctrine. She refuted their teachings openly by writing letters and challenging them to debate her. None of the accused met her challenge. Jerome credits her influence with being the main reason the heretical teachings spreading through the region were refuted and eventually corrected.
The Spiritual Life
Amma Marcella’s spiritual life hinged upon giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. Though she was born into wealth, she did not consider her wealth something that would sustain her, but rather something that allowed her to feed the poor: “Of gold she would not wear so much as a seal-ring, choosing to store her money in the stomachs of the poor rather than to keep it at her own disposal.”
She was extolled for pursuing virtue above the pursuit of gold and wealth. She made heaven her treasure and earth her ministry. She truly carried the mind of Christ according to Philippians 2:5-6, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God…” She sought poverty and humility by divesting herself of her financial wealth and feeding the poor.
As far as prayer was concerned the Scriptures were vital. She could recite the book of Psalms in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. But her point was not merely memorization, it was the presence of God in the heart: “Her delight in the divine scriptures was incredible. She was forever singing, “Thy words have I hid in mine heart that I might not sin against thee…”
She meditated on scripture not for information, but to learn spiritual principles and practice these in her life. Jerome said, “This meditation in the law she understood not of a review of the written words as among the Jews the Pharisees think, but of action according to that saying of the apostle, ‘Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).’”
To Marcella, you could not divorce prayer from practice. The words of scripture must impact the heart and change the life. Without personal change the words are meaningless. Amma Marcella put her money where her mouth was: “In this sense we read elsewhere that “Jesus began both to do and teach.” For teaching is put to the blush when a man’s conscience rebukes him; and it is in vain that his tongue preaches poverty or teaches alms-giving if he is rolling in the riches of Croesus (a wealthy ancient king)…” Without practice coupled with prayer, teaching would be hypocritical, and influence would be lost.
She practiced fasting as a discipline, but not in excess. She fasted the things that would remind her of her former way of life, preferring to guard her heart against temptations derived from the memory of old ways. Meat and wine were the pleasure she denied herself, preferring the check against temptation rather than the indulgence of a moment.
Amma Marcella considered her life as a vapor. A common discipline of desert fathers was to consider daily the mortality of life. If daily the monk considered that they may pass away, the things value become increasingly clear. Many today who pass their time in acquiring things would do well to consider their own mortality, Amma Marcella, “…passed her days and lived always in the thought that she must die…”
By the end of her life the term “monk” had passed from a by-word in Rome to a term of honour. Marcella’s influence was largely responsible for shifting the entire culture towards serving God in silence and solitude, and giving of themselves to others. She served the region for 40 years and, and due to her, “Monastic establishments for virgins became numerous, and of hermits there were countless numbers.”
In the final days of her life, the city of Rome was invaded by Goths and her monastic community was sacked. She was beaten for protecting her spiritual daughter and dropped at the Basilica of Paul. Her final moments were directed towards Christ, “Marcella is said to have burst into great joy and to have thanked God for having kept (her spiritual daughter) unharmed in answer to her prayer. She said she was thankful too that the taking of the city had found her poor, not made her so…” Too many, their safety is in their possessions, to Marcella it was in Christ. Amma Marcella passed a few days later away in 410 AD.