Mary Forman, osb
Centre for Medieval Studies
The Vita Syncleticae is a mid-fifth century work which presents an ideal “amma” who may or may not be based on historical evidence. The fact that there may have been a historical person called “Amma Syncletica” can be gleaned from the incorporation of twenty-seven apophthegms derived from this life in the alphabetical collection of the Apoththegmata Patrum. She is but one of three ammas – Sarah and Theodora are the other two – whose words have been included with the sayings of about 128 “abbas.” Josep Soler believes that the incorporation of these women’s sayings into the collection puts them on a par as “spiritual teachers” with their male counterparts.2
The Life of Syncletica consists of those teachings which were the fruit of one woman’s experience of the ascetical life. A fourteenth-century Greek historian, Nicephorus Calixtus, attributed the authorship of the Vita Syncleticae (VS) to Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (296-373) and claimed that after having written the Vita Antonii (VA) for monks, Athanasius wished to furnish for nuns “an exemplar of the monastic life in the form of a story.”3 This attribution, however, has been questioned on the basis of the stylistic differences from Athanasius’s usual style and the traces of Evagrian and Cassian thought which would date it to the middle of the fifth century.4Some manuscripts attribute it to a certain ascetic named Polycarp or possibly to Blessed Arsenius of Pegades, of whom nothing is known.5 It seems most likely that the VS was written in Egypt in the same region where the holy woman lived, i.e., around Alexandria. The commemoration of her feast in the Roman martyrology occurs on January 5, while the Greek calendar celebrates her memory on January 4.6
Although the VS was probably not written by Athanasius, it does share a few correspondences with the VA with respect to themes and similar phrasings. (See Appendix I.) What these correspondences tell us is that the biographer of Syncletica’s life was familiar enough with the VA to be able to draw parallels and reminiscences from it for his own work. With regard to the discourses these two spiritual leaders delivered to their disciples, however, one notes a difference in both topic and in length. The discourse in VA (ch. 16-43) addresses the issue of discernment of spirits, for the most part discussed in terms of the attacks of the demons: how to recognise and counteract them. The discourse in VS, on other other hand (ch. 22-102), covers the complete range of Syncletica’s teaching and includes the eight principal vices as well as the distinctions of kinds of perfection required of monks and nuns (§80), the value of the cenobitic (§94, 97, 100) and the anchoritic (§97) life and, finally, the practice of the virtues (§56-59, 68-71, 72-76).
It is noteworthy that of the 113 chapters of the VS, 73% – eighty-two chapters – are devoted to this long discourse, in comparison to the 30% found in VA – twenty-eight of the ninety-three chapters. Based on the Evagrian-Cassian teaching on the eight principal vices, the discourse found in the VS is a spiritual treatise on the monastic life. The “demon” language of VA is replaced by the sophisticated spiritual system outlined by these two major systematicians of the monastic life.
The very first chapter of this mid-fifth century vita prepares us for the beauty of a pearl whose external appearance belies it true nature. This Gospel allusion to the pearl of great price7 is placed before the reader as the image of the priceless teaching about to unfold, which must not be heedlessly cast before “swine,”8 i.e., the dull, negligent and infantile souls who are yet unexercised in ascesis. The author expects the reader to be dazzled by “the magnitude of her perfection” and he likens the sight of it to to eyes gazing directly at the sun(§2).9An introduction of this sort prepares us for a dazzling hagiographic account of a woman whose very name, Syncletica, indicates that she is not a solitary amma of the Egyptian desert, but a woman whose wisdom gathered an assembly (suncletos) of virgins around her.
In comparison with the great Vita Antonii, this vita is quite brief. Of 113 chapters, only thirty-one comprise her vita: prologue: ch. 1-3; life and virtues: ch. 4-21; and an epilogue dealing with her final illness and death: ch. 104-113. Her teachings which form the bulk and focus of the vita are found in the remaining eighty-two chapters and constitute 73% of the work. It is clear therefore that the biographer’s main purpose was to present the teachings of a spiritual master to which he added a few biographical elements
Perhaps because of its strong didactic purpose, the VS retains few signs of the narrative structure of most lives of desert saints. Alison Elliott’s schematic analysis of themes and motifs found in these lives10 can be applied only to two themes: “circumstances preceding departure” and “the journey.”
Like most early saints, Syncletica eschews marriage – the social norm for safeguarding property through succession of the family lines by means of progeny – in favour of divine marriage to the heavenly bridegroom (a1). Thecla, of course, was the model for such behaviour and Gregory of Nyssa used this image in his Life of Macrina (ch. 2), as did the authors of other ascetical works to or about Christian virgins.11 In the same way Synclectica is held up as a Thecla figure (§8) and when she leaves her family for a “more” holy life (a2), the comparison is made once again:
For if the one Saviour was the object of their desires, there necessarily was one opponent for them. And I understand the gentler sufferings to be Thecla’s, for the evil of the enemy attacked her from the outside. But with Syncletica he displays his more piercing evil, moving from the inside by means of opposing and destructive thoughts. (§8)12
By closing all her senses in order to associate only with her Bridegroom in converse “with the inner treasures of her soul,” Syncletica flees the seduction of the world. She eschews multi-coloured clothing and precious stones, no longer hears cymbals and flutes, and ignores the tears of her parents and the exhortations of relatives (§9). But above and beyond these flights, she takes refuge in secret fasts (a3-4) “to cure her body” while bringing “blossom to her soul” (§10).
After the death of her parents, Syncletica leaves her parents’ home in company with her blind sister and journeys to the tomb of a relative, remote from the city of Alexandria. Thus begins the journey-motif. Although her journey is not a lengthy one in comparison with the desert fathers who often travelled many miles from human habitation, her choice of habitation does follow an ancient monastic pattern. The ancient Egyptians believed that by the practice of tomb-dwelling (b3) they might encounter the whole arena of the spirit world, for they thought that the dead inhabited the isolated regions of the tombs. As Peter Brown has said, the desert was mythologised as “a clear ecological frontier.” It was seen to be distinct from its worldly counterpart – the city – because “it identified the process of disengagement from the world with a move from one ecological zone to another, from the settled land of Egypt to the desert.”13 It is clear that the area of the tombs demarcated this new zone even further.
The shutting up of oneself in the solitary confinement of a sepulchre for the purpose of meditation had been practised in pagan Egypt by the katochoi, the priests at the service of the god Serapis who lived inside the Serapeum temple at Memphis. The practice of visiting the tombs was considered an experience of a “living death:” one approached a likeness to death and from there journeyed to the “frontiers of the beyond” in the hope of arriving at a secret, hidden understanding. The walls of these tombs were covered in frescoes and texts describing the Kingdom of the Dead: judgement, the nightly journey of the sun, the Infernal Regions and the Realm of the Dead. One can easily imagine how phantasms of various kinds could be conjured up as the pilgrim fasted and prayed in the midst of such vivid pictures of human, divine and monstrous creatures who inhabited the land of the dead. It is no wonder that Antony had such vivid descriptions of the demons who attacked him.14
Unlike Antony, however, our heroine’s experiences of fantastic spirits such as these are not commented upon at all. Rather, the focus is turned toward her simple ascetical practices: cutting her own hair, putting away of all cosmetics (§11), distributing her wealth to the poor and clothing herself with humility by living as a recluse (§12).
In her journey to the tomb, Syncletica does not follow the pattern of those solitary desert women who disguised themselves as men in order to ward off untoward advances by wearing male clothing15 or by hiding in remote places.16 She merely cuts her hair and clothes herself in humility. This commonplace serves to show a reversal of her former life of adornment in worldly pleasure (§5), physical beauty (§7) and the attraction of her abundant wealth (§7). In the stories of her male counterparts, such a reversal of the customary dress code of the culture is indicated by the frequent mention of garments made from date-palm fronds or shaggy animal skins or no clothing at all.17
Syncletica’s journey is recounted in only three paragraphs (§11-13) and, on her return from the tombs to the courtyard of her childhood home, she is described as having been "trained sufficiently in sufferings … .Having been led to the very height of the stadium, she made progress in virtues (§13)."
Her rite of passage, though brief in description, nonetheless manifests Victor Turner’s indices of liminality: leaving a Familiar Place, journeying to a Far Place, and returning once more to the Familiar Place,18 changed for the better. What her journey lacks in external detail, it makes up for in description of her internal preparations:
Just as people who are about to make a journey first give thought to their provisions, just so she, having prepared herself with provisions – with long sufferings – she made the journey toward heavenly things without restraint. For, having put away beforehand the things for the completion of the house, she made herself the most secure tower. And whereas the work of dwelling places is usually constructed from external materials, she did the opposite thing. For she did not bring with her external materials, but rather she poured out internal things. For having distributed her property to the poor, and having renounced anger and memory of past injuries, and expelled envy and love of fame, she built up her house upon the rock from which the tower was splendid and the house free from storms (§13)19
But lest Syncletica’s virtue be compared to that of the eremitical desert dwellers so familiar to early readers of these early vitae, her biographer is quick to add: “For from the beginning she surpassed those who were in the habit of the solitary life” by outrunning them (§14). He further notes that no one can speak of her active and ascetic life, since she did not allow anyone to observe it and she herself guarded the secret of her good deeds under the influence of divine grace and the exhortation of scripture not to let the left hand know what the right was doing (Mt 6:3, §15).
It is through his use of this literary device that Syncletica’s biographer preserves a certain secrecy (a3) concerning her hidden life, while at the same time concealing his own lack of knowledge (b4) of the details of her ascetical program. He does, however, incorporate other elements of the journey theme into his narrative. She was able, at times, to survive by means of a little bread made from bran (§18) or, at other times, with no bread and little water (§17; b1). The mention of the assault of the lion (§17) contrasts with the commonplace use of this literary and iconographic figure as guide (b2), protector, merciful and gentle beast, grateful beast, provider of food, and Christ-figure in other vitae.20 Her symbolic death (b3) in the tomb is described as a battle with a murderer:
And from her supplication the Lord was there, and the enemy fled. But often the hated one endured the battle, and the Lord did not ward off the murderer, in order to strengthen the exercise of the virtuous soul (§18).21
The significance of the relationship of the beasts in the peaceable kingdom (“the lion and the sheep shall abide together:” Is. 11:6) is brought out less by seeing this image as the representation of paradise regained22 as by combining two other biblical texts, Psalm 9:13 and Luke 10:19: “You will walk on the asp and the basilisk and on all the power of the hated one” (§20). Her ascent from the solitude has produced the inner harmony of prayer and calming of the passions which, manifested in the outer ability to deal with “principalities and powers” (§20), are the fruits of the struggles of solitaries in their withdrawal.
With ascent comes the recognition by others of one who has been initiated into the mysteries of wrestling with God and the demons. Thus is Syncletica approached by “some” (who are never named) who ask her in the formula so customarily asked of any abba or amma, “In what way is it necessary [to be] saved?” (§21). Syncletica requires some persuasion, but finally she agrees to be a teacher to those still young in virtue and zeal and the bulk of the text is devoted to these teachings.
Unlike many other vitae, the other themes outlined by Elliott which are common to the narrative pattern expected of the genre are not found in the VS: the discovery of place [C], encounter (discovery of a person) [D], the tale [E], and the request [F]. Even Syncletica’s death does not follow the pattern [G] of the desert saints: suffering, death, unexpected discovery of the dead body, and burial.
According to her biographer, Syncletica lived to the ripe old age of eighty years without any diminishment of her acuity, but with a heightened share in bodily suffering. During the last three and a half years of her life (§106), she suffered from a disease that first started with a toothache, then developed into infected gums, and finally spread throughout her mouth and jaw area – likely some form of cancer (§111). Typical of an age when knowledge of disease processes was very underdeveloped, this malady was attributed to the devil, a subject occupying four chapters (§106, 108, 110 and 111). In the last few months of her suffering, gangrene set in and the odour was so bad that many could not tolerate being in her room and those who did enter, brought incense to ward off the stench. The amma refused all external aids, desiring not to have any of her glorious combat taken away or alleviated. Finally a doctor was called in who persuaded her to accept his mixture of aloes, myrrh and the wine of myrtle, with which dead and decomposing bodies were shrouded. She complied with these ministrations only out of compassion for her visitors (§111). During the last three days of her life she experienced visions, by which she knew her hour of departure was arriving (§113). There is nothing here of the miraculous. It is only the teaching of this holy woman of God alone that is the salvific remedy, healing the wounds of others (§107).23
The events of the life of Syncletica thus occupy only a few chapters of the vita and the nature of elements reported are so commonplace that it seems as if the writer had been quite unfamiliar with the actual life of this holy woman. Her teachings, however, are altogether different in tone and it is in them that her personality is captured.
Sources for Syncletica’s Teaching
Syncletica’s discourse is centered around the Evagrian-Cassian monastic teaching on the eight principal vices and the ways to combat them through the development of their corollary virtues. There are, however, significant differences between her approach to the vices and the sources of her teachings.
Evagrius begins his Praktikos with a prologue on the symbolism of the monastic habit wherein he provides a pithy summary of the spiritual life:
The fear of God strengthens faith, my son, and continence in turn strengthens this fear. Patience and hope make this latter virtue solid beyond all shaking and they also give birth to apatheia. Now this apatheia has a child agape who keeps the door to deep knowledge of the created universe. Finally, to this knowledge succeed theology and the supreme beatitude.24
Syncletica, in contrast, begins her discourse with the double love command: love of God and neighbour are the basis of all salvation (§22). This approach had also been taken by Basil, the Eastern father of communal life, in his Asceticon, who grounded all his teaching of the ascetical life on the double love command.25 Syncletica’s introduction thus is a concrete, relational, non-systematic approach to the vices and is founded on the chief tenet of the New Testament.
Whereas Evagrius had proceeded systematically from gluttony to pride26 and had devoted a paragraph to each one before moving on to their cure, and Cassian, his disciple, had categorised these vices even further into two classes and their four-fold manner of acting,27Syncletica does not follow this order. Rather than describing the vices and following them with a separate section on their cure, she discusses each vice in respect to its effects on other people. For example, she states that fornication occurs through “many and varied mechanisms against Christ-loving human beings” such as sisterly relationships among virgins who eschew marriage (§27)28 – likely a reference to illicit relationships in the monastery. Unlike Evagrius, who treated of the thoughts which present “certain words almost as if the reality were actually present to be seen,”29 she is addressing actual concrete relationships which are subject to temptation. She also differs from Evagrius in blending two vices together since they manifest a common acquisition in life. In her treatment on property (§32), she indicates that its acquisition is a result of a life of pleasure founded on gluttony and luxurious living. Only when one does away with the underlying motives, can one proceed to give away one’s property. P. Hausherr has noted that Syncletica combines vainglory and pride and then substitutes determinism (genesis) as the most terrible weapon of the devil (§81-88).30
There are two passages in VS, however, which seem to reflect direct borrowings from Evagrius.31 The first concerns the treatment of a shameful thought by the posing of its opposite (§29). Here she uses an expression found in Evagrius’ Praktikos 58: “to drive back a nail with a nail.”32 The second is the definition of anachoresis as melete thanatou (=rehearsal for death: §76; Praktikos 52), an expression found in Platos’s Phedon 81a where it is used to describe the practice of philosophy.33
Scripture, not surprisingly, forms the other major source of Syncletica’s teaching, whose stories served as examples for concrete living of the Christian ascetical life. When she teaches about the value of voluntary poverty (§32), she explicates the Scripture text of the rich young man coming to Jesus by using a pedagogical example: one must first learn the alphabet and then pronounce syllables before one can read. Her exegesis of this text is instructive for two reasons. First, she uses a scripture text familiar to monastic readers, the very text Antony heard one day, which caused him to sell all his possessions and pursue the ascetic life (VA 2). Secondly, she makes an analogy for learning to live the gospel demands of the monastic life by drawing on the experience of learning one’s alphabet. In this way she combines both the biblical and monastic traditions in order to teach her own community the value of voluntary poverty.
It is thus apparent that while Syncletica’s basic teachings on ascesis – fasting, prayer, vigilance, discernment and discretion, the battles against temptations and vices, chastity, and poverty – are commonplace issues in the early literature by and about monks, she manifests a unique approach to these issues by means of her examples.
The Teachings of Syncletica: An Earthy Spirituality
The opening remarks of Syncletica’s discourse (§21) portray the Lord as a teacher, whose breasts supply the milk of the Old and New Testaments, an image which is not explicitly biblical, but draws on biblical sources. While the apostle Paul speaks of providing milk to the Corinthians who are not yet spiritually mature enough for solid food (1 Cor 3:2) and while both Hebrews 5:12-14 and I Peter 2:2 also take up this theme, the Christian scriptures make no mention of breast-feeding on the Lord. The most likely source for the breast-feeding Christ is Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus I.6, where the themes of both Christ nourishing Christians on the breasts of his word and of Christians drinking the milk of his teaching are mentioned several times.34 However, nowhere in Clement’s work are the breasts of Christ referred to as in the Old and New Testaments. That remains an expression unique to Syncletica’s teaching.35
When Syncletica is persuaded by her disciples to teach them, her biographer describes her weeping “as though a newborn at the breast” (§21). Thus Syncletica is portrayed as an infant, still herself in need of breast milk, yet finally consenting to teach from the nutriments she has received from scripture, i.e., the breasts of the Lord. Her teaching was for her disciples “like the pouring out of divine drink and liquid”, from which each “received whatever she wanted” (§30). The breast-feeding of the Lord is transferred into “chalices of wisdom” (§30) in the spiritual mother, who in turn feeds her disciples.
One of the first issues Syncletica addresses is that of voluntary poverty, a topic to which fifteen chapters are devoted.36 Voluntary poverty is not seen as a requirement for Christian living, but as “entirely good fro those who are capable of it” (§30). Syncletica describes poverty in robust souls – i.e. those of “virile spirit” (§30) – in terms of a rugged garment being washed and bleached, crushed under one’s feet and wrung out energetically. Poverty in feeble souls, by contrast, is like a torn garment, to which one can apply the same foot rubbing and wringing out, but the garment becomes torn and destroyed. Thus does poverty for virile temperaments act as a rein to prevent the commission of sins. Although an Evagrian text refers to the fuller kicking and stretching a soul like flax, its context is not voluntary poverty but, rather, that one should not avoid those who can give a good drubbing (Prayer 140). Nor does the Evagrian work refer to virility of spirit. Syncletica, on the other hand, extends the metaphor even further: those who practice voluntary poverty by renouncing all that is unnecessary (§33), “are clothed in the kingdom of heaven” (§34).
In a contrast, then, between virile and weak souls, Syncletica is able to portray vividly how each can live out poverty by means of an everyday activity of women, the washing of clothes. When one washes clothes, one becomes aware of the condition of the cloth and how much scrubbing it requires. So, too, in discerning the strength of someone’s spirituality, one knows how much poverty to expect. The most difficult part of voluntary poverty, the place “of grief and temptations, lies in the removal of riches” (§35).
Syncletica asks how persons can be tempted if they have no lands to burn up, no draught animals that can be destroyed, no possessions which can be taken away (§35). Avarice, then, is the opposite of poverty, “the mother of all evil,”36 since it leads to desire for riches, perjury, theft, hatred, war and so on. Once someone is in the grip of this bottomless vice, there is no limit to its destruction, first of all to the possessor, and then to those whom the possessor envies for having more (§36). Those who pursue the riches of the world are called “hunters of the vain world” who “survive shipwreck … encounter pirates … fall in with robbers”, and undergo “storms and violent winds” (§37). These hunters have to feign poverty so that they will not lose what they have but yet obtain what they still desire. Chapter 37 concludes with a reversed understanding of riches and poverty: for the greedy, riches consist of their possessions, but the poor can call themselves rich only when they endure the most extreme poverty (§37).37
Beyond the value of poverty freely chosen by ascetics, Syncletica is also aware of the real poverty of people in the world, particularly the destitution suffered by women:
In general, for women the hatred in the world is great, for they bear children with difficulty and in danger, and they endure the nourishing of babies with milk, and they are ill with them when their children are ill. They nevertheless survive these things without having a result for their labour. For either the ones who have been borne in the womb are disabled in their bodies, or in perversity the ones who have been poured forth murder the ones who brought them forth. Therefore knowing these things, let us not be enticed by the enemy, as if having a relaxed and carefree existence. For when they give birth, they perish from sufferings; when they don’t bear children, they waste away sterile and childless under reproaches. (§42)38
When dealing with the life of virginity Syncletica’s approach is less polemical and dualistic in tone and more realistic than many of the Church Fathers. To them, virginity seems a less burdensome life than that of marriage/motherhood, and writers like Gregory of Nyssa wax eloquent on the value of virginity in comparison to the woes of marriage, childbirth and widowhood.39 That her audience was young seems to be indicated by her reference to fornication, gluttony and love of pleasure as the temptations of youthful years (§49), as well as by her particular concrete example of child-bearing, rather than a group of widows whose first-hand knowledge of these matters would need no explicit reference. Her use of corporal images rather than abstract argumentation would tend to indicate an appeal to a non-literate audience.
Syncletica’s use of concrete images can be seen in her discourse on the different planes of human existence when she compares people who live different kinds of lives to various animals of the animal kingdom, each of whom needs different foods to survive (§43). There are those who are nourished on contemplation and gnosis or wisdom; those who feed on ascesis and action; and those in the world who act honestly in the world with regard to power. Some people are like animals who live on land, the middle pathway; some are like birds who soar in the air; and some are like fish who are plunged in the waters of sin. She then calls her fellow virgins to soar like the eagle toward the heights and to crush the lion and dragon underfoot, an image taken from Ps. 90:13 (§43). Choosing the heights, however, will not prevent temptation nor struggles of a different sort.
Among the vices that tempt the soul, one that is particularly troublesome is fornication, “the first among the evils of the enemy toward the perdition of the soul” (§26). In the case of lustful desire, when one conjures up the mental image of a pleasant face or his body, one is to counter this with a picture of a skeleton, stripped of flesh, or a body covered with infected and purulent ulcers (§29). Now try and take pleasure in that! Syncletica was not alone in this pedagogical method, for there is a story of an abba, who, in recalling a beautiful woman whom he had known before becoming a hermit, found himself wavering. The day he found out she had died, he went later to her tomb, rolled his mantle in her decomposing body and went home. The bad smell was enough to purge his desire to recall her sweetness and soon thereafter he was released from the demon of lust.40 This symbolic act and Syncletica’s vivid imagery of stripping the body both serve to defuse the temptation. Sexual fantasies can wreak havoc with the spirit of recollection and can be quite demanding preoccupations, particularly if there is no hope of actual fulfilment. For this reason, they can appear greater than the reality. All the more so is there need to protect oneself against such fascination by opposing remedies: a contrary thought combined with ascesis and prayer (§29).
The soul struggling against vices is represented by means of several metaphors: a ship, a house, animals. “The soul, like a ship,” submerged by external tempests or overcome by internal bilge water, is a parable for the types of sin that can sink the ship: either sinful acts or interior thoughts. One must always be on guard against the latter because they occur continuously (§45). Sailors cry out to be saved when they are in external storms, but if they are in the hold of the ship when water is seeping in – which is most likely when they are asleep and the sea is quiet – then death catches them by surprise (§45).
Ship imagery is frequent in the VS. In Chapter 19, Syncletica’s biographer describes her care for her body during ascesis and prayer with a comparison to a boat which is anchored in a safe harbour:
Therefore the blessed one having seen accurately the little wave present in life and foreseeing the surgings of the spirit, she was carefully steering her own ship toward devotion to God. For she anchored without disturbance in the saving harbour, placing herself in the most steadfast anchor, faith in God (§19).41
In this example, the male author uses the image of a ship to symbolise Syncletica’s body.42When, on the other hand, Syncletica uses ship-imagery in a discourse (§45), she uses it to refer to the soul. In another instance, she contrasts those worldly people who sail the dangerous parts of the sea at night with virgins who seem to sail in calm seas by day guided by the sun of righteousness (§47), a title Evagrius gives Christ.43 Reversing the image, she also teaches that the worldly person can, in the midst of a storm, cry out and, by being watchful, save his boat, while those in the calm can be submerged by carelessness, out of neglect of “the rudder of righteousness” (§47).44 Thus a woman living in Alexandria, who no doubt saw many ships on the Nile or sailing out to the Mediterranean Sea, would readily draw from that experience a symbol for the spiritual life. In the storm-temptation metaphor she is able to bring home the message of the dangers of carelessness.
The soul is next (§46) likened to a house under attack either from the foundations (good works) or through the roof (faith) or through its windows (the senses). One must be “many-eyed” – i.e., constantly on guard – for Scripture says, “Let the one who stands watch, lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12; §46, 48). How does one fall? Chiefly through the vices, some of which are enumerated in Chapter 49: gluttony, love of pleasure, fornication (= the temptations of youthful years); love of money, covetousness, etc. (= the temptations of the struggling soul); arrogance (= the devil’s last sword against “the most able people”).
To the progression of vices, drawn from her predecessor Evagrius, Syncletica adds her own experience of living with other women, thereby teaching how the vices attack at certain stages of life. The dangers to a virgin living with others are those of presumption of her holiness which make her unmindful of her faults and deceived by her positions and gifts (§49); disobedience cured only by obedience (§51); arrogance (§52); despair, cured by praise and encouragement (§52, 54-55); pride over one’s ascetical practices, cured by finding examples of others who do more or by being forced to curtail the ascesis (§53-54). She acknowledges the usefulness of anger – losing one’s temper against evil, but never against another (§62), a theology she takes directly from Evagrius.45 Far worse is resentment. Whereas anger is like smoke, easily dissipated, resentment is like a ferocious beast, which can imbed itself in the soul (§63). Anger is like a dog, which can be distracted by giving it food; but resentment is cured neither by food nor by time (§63). Resentment brings with it other fearsome companions: envy, grief and backbiting talk – ”all bearers of death” (§65). Its cure is found in the Gospel: going to be reconciled with another before the sun sets (Mt. 5:24, §63); of hating the sickness but not the person (§64); of guarding the tongue and ears from words that arouse the passion of anger (§67). Syncletica’s personifications of anger and resentment heighten the ferocity of the vices she has enumerated from the earlier tradition. No doubt they caused her teaching to be remembered more readily than a straightforward didactic approach.
Rejoicing in the sorrow of another sinner is also forbidden. Apparently a popular colloquial phrase of her time was, “The one who spreads [his couch] badly will endure hardship during the meal” (§68), a variation of our own “You made your own bed, lie in it.” Syncletica shows remarkable discernment when she tells her followers that not only are they not allowed to hate their enemies, but they are actually called to turn sinners from their perversions. It is those who are still weak who flee from sinners, fearing to be contaminated by them (§70). She continues her discourse with a description of the three characteristic orientations of people: 1) absolute evil; 2) the middle path of attraction to evil but also attraction to good; 3) the path of contemplation (§71). To these orientations are parallelled three kinds of people: 1) malicious sinners who live in the midst of evil and do not hesitate to draw others into ruin; 2) those who fear contamination from sinners and so flee from them, whom she calls “babies with respect to the virtues;” and 3) the strong-minded characters, who are resolved to love others more than themselves and do not hesitate to associate with sinners as Christ did (Mt. 9:11). The latter see sinners as houses in flames, and having little regard for their own, they are relied upon to save from destruction what belongs to others:
And being burnt from caustic violence, they endure in the face of it ...The good people [place] their own possessions second to the salvation of the others. These things are the sure signs of true charity; such ones are the guardians of pure charity. (§71)46
Thus does the double command of love call the virtuous to forego their own reputation and, with deeds of love, act on behalf of the unlovable. Nor, in Syncletica’s mind, is the term neighbour limited to the righteous and deserving, but to whoever needs loving.
Yet for all her emphasis on love of neighbour and almsgiving on behalf of the poor – the beginning and “teacher of charity” (§73) – Syncletica reflects the developing theological distinction that stresses the difference between the lay vocation and that of the virgins. She names two categories of people which have been established by the Lord:
For some who live in a holy life he ordained marriage in order to produce children; for others he ordained chastity for the highest purity of life, making them like angels (§75).
While the first group has the task of working the earth and perpetuating the race, the second group who have been placed in service of the Lord are better. They are the objects of his favour, and are called to his table (§76). Both groups, however, are holy and are called to serve Christ, since he is the master of both. In another metaphor, the married and celibate are compared to a stock of corn: the married people to the husk which protects and maintains the seed; the monastics to the seed which produces fruit for heaven (§78). Both are necessary to produce the plant of salvation (§78) but, unlike the ascetical theology of Jerome47 who will so emphasise the height of the glory of celibate life that marriage is thereby denigrated, such is not the case here. Marriage and virginity are inter-related and, even though virgins are favoured, they are treated in Syncletica’s theology more like equals. This is not an either-or dualism, where marriage loses out to virginity.
Given their higher status, virgins must all the more be on guard lest their souls, once cleansed of the empty pomps of the world – honours, reputation, riches, sumptuous clothing, baths, and the pleasures of food – should fall into the vice of vermin. In a hair-cutting metaphor – i.e., cutting off external temptations – she gives a picturesque reminder to clean the whole head of lice (§80).48 The lice symbolise backbiting, perjury and avarice, which are all the more visible once the hair has been cut off (§80). In another image, the inner attitudes are portrayed as tiny insects in a very clean house – quite visible to all. Again, they are like poisonous animals, dwelling in the cellars of the soul, which must be purified by prayer and fasting (§80). In these three rather homey images, all found in one chapter, Syncletica conveys a vivid picture of what the soul of a virgin or monk shoud look like, a soul which has yet to attain the perfection to which it is called. To my knowledge these particular metaphors are unique to Syncletica and reveal a woman of perception who can transform her everyday earthy experiences into parables of the spiritual life. She appears as one able to see the ordinary as a lens through which to discern the deeper lessons of life.
In another parable which uses the image of a house to drive home its moral, she asserts that one who teaches by words without a firm foundation in action may welcome strangers to her house, only to have the whole structure collapse (§79). This parable is paralleled by another when she likens “unfortified exposition of words” to coloured letters which gusts of wind and rain-drops in time dissolve and compares it to “teaching that is practised [which] all eternity cannot dissolve” (§79). The living word carved “on the soul bestows forever an image of Christ in the faithful” (§79). Not only is Syncletica a woman who sees and discerns, but she also has gained a wisdom about living before she dares to speak and teach others.
Syncletica’s discretion and wisdom reach their peak when she addresses the heresy of determinism. In Chapter 86, she compares souls rushing to contemplation without a firm foundation in praxis to people who, because they have not mastered the work of learning their letters, cannot read the Creator’s signs. One must become like a child and be educated by taking down unsound foundations in order to become “like the apostle … built up on solid rock” (§86). The unsound foundations are the misplacing of trust in those who claim to know the future (§87), the rejection of free will (§85) and the like. Through such scriptural allusions – laying a solid foundation on rock (Mt. 7:24-25, §86), becoming like a child (Mark 10:15, §86) and possibly the inner dwelling swept clear of demons only to await the return of more demons (Mt. 12:38-45, §88) – Syncletica weaves an intricate tapestry of Gospel sayings to combat the evil of determinism.
Syncletica’s teachings stand in sharp contrast to the those of Antony the Great given to his monks (VA 16-43). There, there there is far more emphasis on demons and the discernment of their various wiles which deceive the desert solitary. Although Antony meets the public and heals the sick, not only does he not draw lessons of wisdom from their lives, but he relies far less on ordinary events as a source for parables of spiritual insight. The earthy metaphors of Syncletica, so reflective of feminine concerns, have no parallel in Antony. While she combines her images with the theoretical insights of her spiritual predecessor Evagrius, she strips them of their philosophical terminology and arguments, and fills them instead with scriptural wisdom in order to present homey yet wise lessons for her hearers. Just such an image is that found in one of the last chapters of her discourse, that of the earth as one of three maternal wombs (§90). The first womb is that of our earthly mothers and the third is that of heaven (§91). Although we taste food in the second womb, we long for the sun of justice, for Jerusalem “our city and our mother” awaits us. There, “we will call God our father. We will live here wisely, in order that we might have eternal life” (§90).
Our brief look at Amma Syncletica’s words of wisdom reveals a sensitive woman – very much aware of her own environment, her culture, the needs of the people she directs. She draws paradigms for living a deeply committed Christian life from her own environment: ships on a sea, disease, the dangers of riches, seeds growing in a field, the animal kingdom, and learning one’s letters in school. Some of her metaphors are taken from women’s occupations and concerns: washing clothes, a house on fire, dust in a clean house, head-lice, and dirty cellars. Moreover, her own femininity draws her to comment on the plight of women in her culture, i.e., the reality of suffering and death from childbirth.
The needs of her directees are addressed in the discretion with which she can distinguish despair, calling for words and examples of encouragement, from pride, a subtle and dangerous vice that undermines one’s spirituality by turning one from the awareness of one’s need for God’s grace. The tempering of ascetical practices in her sisters no doubt stemmed from her own experiences of prayer, fasting, suffering and hardship. Moreover, her own early life of ease, whose benefits she renounced, is itself a parable of the dangers of wealth versus the acquiring of that charity, which manifests itself in almsgiving and the recognition of the supreme value of riches: that of one’s very self.
Syncletica rivals any of the desert fathers for discernment of vices and their concomitant remedies, yet even these are couched in her own unique portrayals: the waters of inner bad thoughts slowly and secretly seeping into the boat of the soul, the dog of anger, and the fearsome beast of resentment.
Her descriptions of human categories are concrete and vivid: the strong souls who run into a burning house to save its inhabitants and the weaker children who flee any situation that might contaminate them.
Even though her preference is for the celibate life, she does not denigrate marriage but sees it as another pathway to God with its own inherent dangers. As favoured as virgins may be in the sight of the Lord, the dangers are all the more threatening because of their very subtlety and inwardness. Someone on a calmer sea can become negligent, while another on a rougher sea cries out for help. Moreover, both kinds of lifestyle need each other.
Nor in her spiritual discourse is there any of the preoccupation with demons which is found in her male counterpart. The only mention of a demon is introduced by her biographer in describing her last illness and death. Although aware of the drives, temptations and illusions of the evil one, she is more concerned with their practical effects than with the theoretical knowledge about them.
In these discourses, then, we see a strong-souled woman whose principal criterion for the spiritual life is that of the double command of love: love of God manifest in unguarded love of neighbour, whether sinner, fellow sister or any lay person called by Christ to produce “the plant of salvation.” Hers is a maternal concern that all may have eternal life.
Table of Correspondences between the Vita Antonii and the Vita Syncleticae
1. Both came from noble Christian families of some wealth (VA 1/VS 4, 7).
2. After the death of their parents, both sell all their property and give the proceeds to the poor (VA 2-3/VS 11-12).
3. Both experience the motivation for their voluntary poverty from the Gospel of Matthew (19:2; VA 2/VS 32).
4. Both retire to a tomb to live out their call (VA 8/VS 11), although Syncletica does so immediately, whereas Antony at first lives on the edge of his village (VA 3) and only later moves to a tomb.
5. What they give up in earthly wealth, they make up for in the hope of future eternal wealth of the kingdom of heaven (VA 17/VS 90).
6. Both are outstanding and surpass others in their path of renunciation and ascesis (VA 3-4/VS 14).
7. The imagery of the devil attacking like a lion appears in both vitae (VA 7/VS 18 and 48).
8. Vigilance against the attacks of temptations (demons) is necessary (VA 21/VS 26), fortified by prayer and asceticism (VA 21-22/VS 28-29) and guarding of one’s thoughts (VA 20, 55, 89/VS 45). These are themes common to the whole desert spirituality.
9. The struggle against the spirit of fornication is found in both vitae (VA 5-6/VS 26-27).
10. Both overcome temptations to impurity by means of fasting, prayer and recourse to the Lord’s help (VA 5/ VS 17-18).
11. Both experience the Lord’s strengthening only after a period of solitary endurance, which exercises virtue in the combatant (VA 10/VS 18).
12. Both consider the ascetical life an advance in the words of Phil. 3:13: “Forgetting what lies behind, it is useful to strain forward to what lies ahead” (VA 7/ VS 23).
13. Both have recourse to scripture as one of the major sources of their spiritual teaching (VA 16/VS 21).49
14. After their withdrawal both appear radiant and capable of teaching others (VA 14-16/VS 20-21).50
Appendix II: Vita Syncleticae – Outline51
Life and virtues of St. Syncletica (4-21)
Her family (4-5)
Her precocious vocation (6-7)
Emulation of Thecla (8)
Modesty and communion with the scriptures (9)
Love of fasting (10)
Renunciation of the world (11-12)
Speed of her spiritual advancement (13-14)
Hidden ascesis (15-16)
Spiritual combat (17-18)
Discretion and moderation (19)
Her radiance (29-21)
The teachings of St. Syncletica (22-103)
Salvation through the double law of love (22)
Perfect chastity and its demands (23-25)
Battle against impure thoughts (26-29)
The good of voluntary poverty (30-32)
Advantages of poverty (33-36)
True riches to acquire and preserve (37-39)
Useful and bad grief (40-42)
Various assaults of the demon (43-45)
Necessity of continual vigilance (46-48)
Battle against arrogance and despair (49-55)
Image of smoke and fire (60)
Evil of anger (61-62)
Anger and rancour (63-65)
Seriousness of backbiting (66-67)
Love of enemies and sinners (68-71)
Duty of almsgiving and voluntary poverty (72-76)
Marriage and virginity (77-78)
Teaching ought to depend on praxis (79)
Perfection required of virgins and monks (80)
A redoubtable weapon of the devil:
Living here below in view of eternal life (89-93)
Usefulness of stability in a monastery (94)
Not yielding to covetousness (95-96)
Diversity of vocations (97)
Trial by illness (98-99)
Discretion in ascesis (100-102)
Illness and death of St. Syncletica (104-113)
Illness and sufferings of the saint (104-106)
Final teachings (107-109)
The great trial of her last three months (110-112)
Her glorious death (113)50
Table of Themes and Motifs of Early Christian vitae Devised by Alison Goddard Elliott52
Theme A: Circumstances preceding departure
* flight from marriage (a1)
* the “more” motif (a2)
* secret flight (a3)
* search for penance (a4)
Theme B: The journey
* ability to survive without food or water (b1)
* unusual guides (b2)
* symbolic death (b3)
* disguise (b4)
Theme C: Discovery of a place
* an empty cave or cell (c1)
* discovery of dead body (c2)
Theme D: Encounter (discovery of a person)
* mistaken identity (d1)
* miraculous knowledge of identity (d2)
* unusual appearance (d3)
* miraculously provided food (d4)
* other miracles (d5)
* uncorrupted body (d6)
Theme E: The tale
Theme F: The request
* denied, f1
Theme G: Burial
* burial by lions, g1