Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This week I’m featuring Amma Syncletica of Alexandria.
“Imitate the publican, and you will not be condemned with the Pharisee. Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water.”
“For just as those who wish to kindle a fire are at first choked with smoke, suffer watery eyes, and in this way achieve their purpose, indeed Scripture says: ‘Our God is a consuming fire,’ so we too must kindle the divine fire within us with tears and effort.“
Few ages of church history have seen such a notable figure as Amma Syncletica of Alexandria. Influenced by Evagrius the Solitary and an imitator of Abba Anthony, Syncletica became one of the brightest flames in the desert tradition. Her life is written by Athanasius, the same author of Abba Anthony’s history (though his authorship has been challenged by some historians). She is in a class of her own as a spiritual instructor and desert mother.
“A treasure is secure so long as it remains concealed; but when once disclosed, and laid open to every bold invader, it is presently rifled; so virtue also vanishes once it is known and made public. Just as wax melts in the presence of fire, so also does the soul disintegrate in the face of praises and lose its vigour.”
She was hesitant to share publicly what she practiced privately, knowing that intimacy with Christ is a serious matter. Only after being pressed by those that came to her did she begin to teach the way she had come to know Christ in solitude. She was convinced that teaching without experience would lack substance: “It is dangerous for someone not formed by experience of the ascetic life to try to teach; it is as if someone whose house is unsound were to receive guests and cause them injury by the collapse of the building. It is the same in the case of someone who has not first built an interior dwelling; he causes loss to those who come.”
The whole of her teaching begins with the question, “What must we do to be saved?” This is the common question asked of disciples to their teachers in the desert movement. It had less to do with salvation as we understand it through faith in Christ, but rather, “How do I work out my salvation with fear and trembling?” She answers practically and profoundly on topics ranging from dealing with the internal thought life to spiritual disciplines such as fasting and prayer.
Amma Syncletica was born around 380 AD to a wealthy family from Macedonia who had immigrated to Alexandria. Her parents had heard of the reputation of Alexandrians and their love for Christ and were drawn there based upon it. Though Alexandria was a major metropolis of the ancient world, they were struck by the faith and charity that existed in the city.
From an early age she was committed to Christ. Her name practically implied this would happen as Syncletica is derived from the Greek meaning “heavenly assembly.” As a young woman, she had no shortage of suitors looking for her hand in marriage, and she was firmly encouraged by her parents to choose someone to wed. Syncletica consistently rebuffed every man who came to her, claiming that hers was to be the Heavenly Bridegroom.
Amma Syncletica made Song of Solomon 2:16 her life goal, “My beloved is mine and I am his.” She fasted, prayed, and practiced solitude all towards this end as a young woman. Fasting to her was a fulfillment of 2 Corinthians 4:16, “As our outer person perishes, so our inner person is being renewed.” Fasting starved the carnal nature of the flesh while feeding the inner man the virtue of temperance.
Fasting and prayer enabled her to keep, ”…careful watch over the first impulses of her soul, not allowing them to be led astray by physical passions.” It was said that, “Through fasting and prayer she trimmed the thorny offshoots of her thought.” Fasting helped to expose carnal desire, while prayer helped retrain that desire onto the heavenly life.
She had two brothers who had passed away while she was young, as well as a sister who was blind. Her parents passed away when she was a young woman and the care of her sister as well as her parents estate was entrusted to her. Amma Syncletica promptly gave away the fortune she had inherited to poor and entered into the solitary life with her sister with these words, “I have been judged worthy of a great title. What worthy return shall I make to the giver? I do not have anything.”
Determinism was alive and well in her day and age. She chastised those who would blame God for their sinful inclinations: “If, then, they say that God is first, it will necessarily follow that everything has its origin in him; and, in fact, he is present in all. He is, therefore, himself the Lord of Destiny. If, moreover, one is greedy or lustful as a result of his destiny-at-birth, God is necessarily the cause of evil.” She goes on: “The end of their point of view is a despair that is fatal for them; as a result of these thoughts God is necessarily eliminated from their lives and even more his judgement.” Men have attempted to mentally remove the justice of God throughout every age of history.
In her day, certain women were considered oracles in the pagan world. They were known for their ecstatic prophecies and generally amassed a significant following. Regarding the truth of their “prophetic utterances” she said, “Just as some uneducated people and sailors have a kind of a hazy knowledge of winds or rainstorms from the character of the clouds, so also these people have a confused foreknowledge from demons. Actually they make some prophecies by guesswork, as also do mediums.” There is a certain prognostication utilized by psychic mediums influenced by demonic forces. Their foretelling is, at best, guess work. God alone knows the future, Scripture makes that abundantly clear.
To her, vulnerability was of more worth than reputation: “Those who are describing their own successes should also try to mention the weaknesses that go with them.”
The Spiritual Life
Amm Syncletica found the spiritual life anchored in the two fold statement of Jesus regarding the greatest law, loving God and loving your neighbor. “Salvation, then, is exactly this the two-fold love of God and of our neighbour.” Though the principle itself is brief its importance cannot be understated. Anything helpful regarding the spiritual life must flow from these two fountains. Paul even elaborates on this when he states that the end of the law is love.
She had no illusion that the spiritual life would be easy, but rather it would begin in struggle and effort and culminate in joy: “For those who are making their way to God there is at first great struggle and effort, but then indescribable joy. For just as those who wish to kindle a fire are at first choked with smoke, suffer watery eyes, and in this way achieve their purpose (indeed Scripture says: Our God is a consuming fire), so we too must kindle the divine fire within us with tears and effort.“ Tears are repentance and humbling ourselves before God, effort is prayer, fasting, and discipline.
As to the issue of effort, she makes the comparison to women who prepare themselves elaborately to be wed and our preparation for intimate union with Christ: “The spectacle of a secular marriage should be a model for us. If those women who are matched to an easily-acquired mortal put so much enthusiasm into baths, ointments, and various adornments…how much more should we surpass those women in will. We who are betrothed to the Heavenly Bridegroom ought also to wash away the Filth of our sins with strenuous discipline and to exchange our bodily garments for spiritual ones.”
However, she recognized that not all would approach life with Christ the same. Some were created to find satisfaction in prayer and contemplation, some in the spiritual disciplines such as fasting and simplicity, others would find fulfillment by practicing good works towards others. God is no respecter of person (Romans 2:11), yet creates each individually and uniquely. We are all created to experience God, yet not all of us will experience God in the same way.
She taught that we are born three times into life, the first through the womb, the second through baptism, the last in our discipline. When a baby is born, the manner in which it is sustained changes. So when we are born into grace the nature of how we receive life changes. As we progress in the spiritual life we are incubating the life of heaven. Our present experience is a kind of womb feeding us the life of the age to come. We are being prepared for the life of heaven.
When it came to spiritual growth, we should recognize the maturity of the person when we consider admonishing them or chastising them: “For the Devil, who wishes to destroy all things, or rather to succeed at our spiritual destruction, resorts to the following ruse. On the one hand, with accomplished and ascetic monastics, he tries to cover their sins and to make them forget them, so as to create pride in them. On the other hand, he constantly exposes the sins of neophytes-whose souls have not yet been strengthened in the ascetic life-before them, exaggerating these sins, so as to drive such neophytes to despair, until they abandon their ascetic efforts.”
For those that are mature, we must remind them of their faults, else they fall to pride. But for the beginner, we must give praise to encourage them not to quit. The design of the enemy is to remind beginners of their faults and convince them that those faults are too difficult to overcome: “But in the case of newly converted and less firmly committed souls, he places all their sins before their eyes. To such a soul he suggests: ‘Since you have committed sexual impurities, what forgiveness will there be?’ And to another he says: ‘Since you have been so greedy, you cannot obtain salvation.’”
If the less mature is beginning to despair because of these attacks, we are to remind them that, “Rahab was a prostitute, but she was saved through faith; Paul was a persecutor, but he became a chosen instrument; Matthew was a tax collector, but no one is ignorant of the grace granted him; and the thief stole and murdered, but he was the first to open the door of Paradise. Keeping these people in mind, therefore, do not give up hope for your own soul.”
However, those who are more prudent in their growth we must treat with proper care. Syncletica uses the analogy of a gardener to great effect: “Let us take an example from the work of the best gardeners, who, when they see that a plant is of small stature and sickly, water it profusely and care for it greatly, so that it will grow and be strong; while, when seeing in a plant the premature development of sprouts, they immediately trim the useless sprouts, so that the plant does not quickly wither.” Some must be pruned in order to grow, while others must be watered in order to thrive.
The first step of training was to teach spiritual discipline. Beginners were to be taught fasting and watchfulness. One limited the body and the other curtailed the mind. The rest of the spiritual disciplines hinged upon this. Without proper training in the spiritual life, many may over extend and later enter into regret. For instance, one may give all of his possessions and later regret his decisions, yet not have a stable foundation to deal with the disappointment engendered from his generosity.
If fasting is the most important exterior discipline, then humility is the utmost interior discipline. “For just as it is impossible for a ship to be built without nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility.” Syncletica taught her disciples to “Let humility become for you the beginning and end of virtues.”
Jesus himself said that his heart was “meek and humble.” To which Syncletica responds, ”He means a humble heart; he refers not to appearance alone, but to the inner person, for the outer person will also follow after the inner. Have you observed all the commandments? The Lord knows, but he personally commands you to take up again the rule of servitude. For he says: When you have done all these things, say: ‘We are useless servants ’”
To Syncletica the most surefire way to forge humility was to embrace rebukes and insults. After all, wasn’t this the way of Jesus? “These our Lord heard and experienced, for they said he was a Samaritan and was possessed. He took on the form of a slave, he was beaten, and he was humiliated with blows. And so we must imitate this humility that he put into practice.”
She goes on to say that, for those pressing on to spiritual maturity, praise removes the vigour of the soul and insults lead the soul to great heights. “’Rejoice,’ Scripture says, ‘and be glad when people speak against you every kind of lie.’ Elsewhere it says, ‘By affliction you extend me.’ And again, ‘My soul has awaited rebuke and humiliation.’ (Matthew 5:11-12, Psalm 4:1, Psalm 69:20)”
Syncletica warned that some would don a false humility only to be seen and rewarded: “There are some, you see, who feign humility through their outward appearance and submissive manner, but who are seeking fame by this very behaviour.” How would we know the difference? Simple. Their response to mild insults, “But they are known from their fruits; for in fact, when mildly insulted, they do not tolerate it, but immediately, like serpents, they spew forth their venom.”
Lastly, she taught that any discipline was to be practiced moderately. Lack of proper balance leads to destruction: “Always use a single rule of fasting. Do not fast four or five days and break it the following day with any amount of food. In truth lack of proportion always corrupts.” Lack of moderation practices excess. Excess can be practiced whether in denial or in surplus.