Mary Forman, O.S.B., Ph.D., is a Benedictine from the Monastery of Saint Gertrude, Cottonwood, Idaho. At the time of writing she was teaching monastic studies and theology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota. Forman has published before on the subject of the Desert Mothers, and this book grew out of a course entitled "Desert Ammas: Midwives of Wisdom" which she has taught at the School of Theology at Saint John's.
The book contains a Preface, an Introduction, nine chapters, a Conclusion, and a Bibliography. The Introduction and all the chapters reflect the following pattern, with the Introduction laying out the plan of the book: Opening Reflection, Introductory Remarks, Stories and Commentary, Contemporary Example, Reflection Exercise, Further Scriptural Passages for Prayer.
Part of Forman's interest in this subject has been addressing the common ignorance about the contributions of female leaders reflected in modern scholarly work. She noted that more recent translations of literature on the ammas "have brought to light the unique role in history these women played in the actual foundations of monasticism" (2). At the same time, she clarified that the term amma, an equivalent to the term abba, indicates "spiritual mother" and reflects a role of spiritual guide, not any formal organizational role. Forman's work was also motivated by encouragement from friends and colleagues to "write a way of praying with these fourth and fifth- century founders of some of the first communities for women, so that their wisdom would be available to a wider audience" (vii). The format of the book reflects her strategy for accomplishing this goal.
The Opening Reflection contains a scripture citation, including a few Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical sources, and then a prayer. The Introductory Remarks sections seem aimed at providing some information on a particular type of work or experience that the ammas were involved in. This section is a mixed bag, sometimes containing information directly related to a suggested focus (e. g., ch 3 "Heralds in the Desert"), and sometimes not (ch 2 "Ammas as Scripture Scholars").
The Stories and Commentary section gives some specific history of one or more ammas as illustrative of the focus of the chapter. The Contemporary Example is self-explanatory. The Reflection Exercise pertains to a major goal of the work–to enable moderns to pray with the desert mothers by inviting readers "to discover and to experience the reality of the wisdom of these early sources," that is to "come to know their wisdom in one's own life" (vii).
This book is a very interesting and stimulating source not only for learning about a part of the history of the church which has been little emphasized, but also as a source for promoting the continuing value of the work of the ancient ammas for spiritual guidance in a modern world.