Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Amma Syncletica, Part I. The Story

In fourth and fifth century Egypt, the desert was peppered with folks renouncing regular life in order to empty out and find God. Although the best-known hermits were men, there may have actually been more women practitioners. (see Laura Swan’s The Forgotten Desert Mothers)

My favorite desert mother was Syncletica. The written record of her life was, of course, obscured - although a few of her sayings made into the Western monastic cannon. Even now, many misogynist theologians will argue that she didn’t exist and is but a hagiographic “type.” (Hagiography is writing about a saint’s life.) But Syncletica’s earthy, pragmatic voice rings with authenticity, while her supportive, no-nonsense advice - as useful that of any modern, spiritual writer - is obviously based on experience.

Besides, The “first” desert father, Antony, only gets to speak in 28 chapters (actually paragraphs) out of 93 in his Life. The rest is Athanasius using hagiography to go on a rant. (He was battling to destroy heterodoxy AND have the soon-to-be-imposed orthodoxy mirror his beliefs - at which he succeeded.) Syncletica’s Life has 113 chapters of which 81 are her sayings. There just isn't much hagiography there. This is pretty amazing given that hagiography is big theological business for promoting the author’s view of proper religion. (See this article by Kevin Corrigan.)

The story goes that Syncletica was born in a wealthy, educated Macedonian family that moved to Alexandria. Two brothers and then her parents died. She took her blind sister and went to live in the family tomb.

I used to imagine desert hermits alone in their cave, but many lived within yards of each other. Which is why the elders’ advice includes many cautions against visiting, as well as ways to release aggravation over others’ actions. Women like Syncletica soon attracted followers who settled as “solitaries” in the surrounding area.

Following her own advice, at first Syncletica refused to teach. She eventually gave in, but never let anyone witness her actual practices. She wanted to avoid pride which easily destroyed even the seasoned ascetic if they were known and admired. "Just as a treasure that is exposed loses its value, so a virtue which is known vanishes. Just as wax melts when it is near fire, so the soul disintegrates in the face of praise and loses all the results of its labour."

(Wonder what Bill Gates, with his recent foray into high profile munificence, would say to that!)

But if you felt God truly wanted you to teach, you'd just have to make the sacrifice of exposing yourself to this terrible danger. As a remedy, Syncletica advised teachers to keep spiritual gains hidden, to highlight every one of their failures, and even to invent a few “thus rejecting the good esteem of people while concealing good acts.”

I wonder what life would be like if we were all so courageous, but it's an awful unrealistic expectation. My desire for God just doesn't overwhelm my desire to be accepted - not to that extent, anyway. I often wish it did. Then I could really "drink all my passion and be a disgrace," as Rumi advised.

Unlike Rumi, however, Syncletica was a guide on the way of austerity.

But she wasn't actually unrealistic. She knew about the quandaries spiritual seekers get themselves into. For example, she warned people not to set themselves up as teachers unless they had already "built an interior dwelling" (more or less a metaphore for enlightenment). Otherwise it was as if “someone whose house is unsound were to receive guests and cause them injury by the collapse of the building."

Ack! Well I feel strongly drawn to teach, and haven't even got an interior foundational-hole-in-the-ground, much less an entire dwelling. OTOH, I'm not about to tell anyone what to do to build an "interior dwelling" as I've never done it - despite voluminous reading of people, like Syncletica, who say they have.

But I figure if I remember that I'm not anybody's guru, and stay within the limits of my own experience, I'll be o.k. I've spent decades trying to wiggle out of the spiritual guide role and I've run out of excuses. And when (I know myself too well to say 'if') I get caught up in pride and self-righteousness, I trust God, my soul, entropy - whatever - will create circumstances that'll provide the wake-up slap I need - painful as that is apt to be.

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