Love: Abba/Amma Love

The early Christian spiritual guides were called abbas and ammas, people who incarnated Trinitarian (”Abbba/Amma”) love.  Their central teaching was perfection (completion) in love in keeping with Jesus’ teaching of it in Matthew 5:48. The context for their theology of love was the two great commandments.

The devotion to prayer of the abbas/ammas confirmed their love of God, but their emphasis was on the second commandment, their love of others.  John the Short’s statement summarizes how the abbas/ammas understood that to remain in the love of God meant to “suffer injury without anger, remaining peaceful, and not rendering evil for evil, not looking out for the faults of others.” [1]

The hallmark of love was humility.  Amma Syncletica taught that “a ship cannot be built without  nails and no one can be saved without humility.” [2]  Humility was nothing other than being “poor in spirit” (self-surrendered) as Jesus described it in the first Beatitude.

The sign of love for the abbas/ammas was compassion.  They practiced it through two key means: encouraging others and bearing others’ burdens. [3] These acts were shown to all, but especially to those who were weak, marginalized, and negatively judged by others.  An unnamed abba put it this way, “it is by encouragement that our God bears people,” so they went out of their way to do this through their words and deeds. [4]

As a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition, it is clear that John and Charles Wesley’s theology of love is drawn from the abbas/ammas of early Christianity.  But it is also important to note that the New Monasticism and Emergent Christianity are drawing on abba/amma wisdom as well.  [5]  Leaders in these movements are calling us to a renewal of love, and doing so with reference to the early Christians, who indeed surround us like a cloud of witnesses, urging us to run the race set before us—the race of outdoing one another in showing love to all.

[1] Benedicta Ward, ‘The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks’ (Penguin Books, 2003), 4.  This is Ward’s translation of the ‘Verba Seniorum,’ compiled around 550 a.d.

[2] Ibid., 161.

[3] Douglas Burton-Christie, ‘The Word in the Desert’ (Oxford University Press, 1993), 282-291.

[4] Ibid., 283.

[5] Brian McLaren, ‘Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices’ (Thomas Nelson, 2008).

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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