Amma Syncletica of Alexandria - Part 2
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Poverty and Simplicity
Amma Syncletica taught that poverty and simplicity trained the mind to focus on the heavenly treasure.
“In other ways too those who practice poverty gain a great benefit; for, by not focusing their mind on treasure here on earth, they are putting on the kingdom of heaven…”
Our desire to acquire things often flies in the face of the command of Jesus to seek first the kingdom of God and the righteousness of God. The discipline of simple living recognizes that, like the birds of the air that neither sow nor reap, they are nourished from their Father in heaven (Matthew 6:26).
She went on to teach that the command to give did not mean that acquiring possession in order to give was to be the goal, the goal was to develop a deeply compassionate heart.
“…almsgiving is prescribed not so much for the sake of feeding the poor as for teaching men love and mutual concern.”
She goes on to say that,
“…almsgiving was prescribed for the purpose of instilling in men love for one another.”
The practice of poverty and simplicity was to instruct the monk to look towards heaven for fulfillment and to train the heart for love and compassion. In giving we learn to and are moved by love, in living simply we are recognizing our source of life. To Syncletica, the point was love.
“You have achieved a small victory with little effort, for you have given away all that is dear to your soul, with one goal in mind; henceforth, direct your gaze to what is greater, namely, to love."
To Syncletica, mastery of the thought life is of utmost importance to maturing in the spiritual life. The assault of the enemy on the monk so often takes place in the mind, that what we dwell upon in our thoughts begins to dictate what we take action upon. Syncletica compared the thought life to that of a ship. Sometimes it is assaulted by waves from the outside and sometimes it can be overwhelmed by water within.
Succumbing to our thought life is two-fold. The first consideration are the waves that pound the outside of the ship. These waves are the attack of demonic influence upon the mind. The second consideration is the water that has been taken on by the pounding of the waves, these are the malformed thought patterns within us.
As Syncletica says,
“Therefore, we must observe the assaults of evil spirits that come from without and also detect the evils within us, which derive from our own thoughts; and we must, in particular, be vigilant towards our thoughts, for they are constantly pressing on us and, without our realizing it, they send us to perdition."
To the one hoping to grow into a spiritually mature person, the enemy will attempt to use desire to lead you to destruction. Desire originates from within the soul and must be checked in order to grow in Godliness. Desire of the soul will lead to pleasure in the body, while sadness and melancholy is the fruit of both. Desire unfilled leaves the heart sick. When the thing wished for comes, it fails to satisfy the deep longing of the soul. Carnal appetite that wages war on the mind will never bring deep, spiritual satisfaction.
So what are we to do? In the words of Amma Syncletica…
“Consequently, the mind must become painstakingly diligent with respect to its thoughts,” and, “And so the person wishing to be saved must be very watchful. We do not have here something to be careless about; for Scripture says: Let the one standing firm take care lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12)."
Amma Syncletica’s practice was to turn her thoughts to heaven.
“When the Enemy’s campaign was being directed against her, first of all through prayer she used to call upon her Master to join in the battle, for she was not strong enough to quell the onslaught of the lion (1 Pet 5: 8)…”
The battle for her thought life was the Lord’s battle. She didn’t attempt to confront the thoughts head on and fight, she turned herself to the presence of Christ.
She also gave practical instruction for overcoming pride.
“What must one do, then, when such thoughts are present? Without ceasing one must meditate upon that inspired word which the blessed David proclaimed when he said: but I am a worm and not a human being (Ps 22:6). And in another passage Scripture says: but I am earth and ashes (Gen 18: 2.7). And also, to be sure, one should listen to that passage of Isaiah, the one which says: All human righteousness is like a filthy rag (Isa 64: 6).”
If pride is your vice, attack it with the virtue of humility. In the face of pride, turn to Jesus and meditate upon humility.
She taught that disobedience was another unruly passion that helped to weaken the spiritual life. Disobedience precedes pride and must be attacked through submission. The practical outworking of choosing submission is to put to death disobedience. This is why, according to Syncletica, scripture states the God desires obedience rather than sacrifice.
But what are we to do if we succumb to any of our thought life?
“For the one who has fallen has a single thought: that of standing up again.”
Those who have fallen should have only one response, to get back up. In fact, the fall is not the real problem.
“Those who have fallen have, to be sure, lost their footing; but as they lie there, they have not suffered any harm.”
The deeper consideration is the judgement of others.
“And the one who has kept his footing should not judge inferior the one who has fallen, but should fear for himself, lest he fall and perish, and go to a deeper pit."
The real issue when one falls is how will those around that one who has fallen respond? How you respond to the fall of another will prove who your heart owes allegiance to.
Remembrance of Wrongs
Those who refuse to relinquish their “remembrance of wrongs” become even less than wild beasts.
“Even a dog, enraged against someone, relinquishes its anger when coaxed with a tidbit; and the other beasts also become gentle with habit.”
The remembrance of wrongs embeds itself deep in the soul and is difficult to root out.
“One who is governed by remembrance of wrongs, however, is not persuaded by entreaty, nor made gentle by food, nor indeed does time that transforms all things heal the suffering of such a person.”
She goes on to say that these people have even directly contravened the command of Jesus to go and be reconciled to their brothers. Remembering wrongs and letting them fester disintegrates relationship and removes the peace of Christ from your heart. How can Christ’s peace rule in a place that refuses to acquiesce to his instruction?
The consequence that flows from dwelling on past hurts will be jealousy and slander. These worm there way into our thought life because they occur in “small doses” according to Sycnletica. Sexual impurity, greed, murder, etc…are much more obvious and seem to be dealt with straightaway upon conversion. They are a large and easily noticed. Resisting them is easy as we are well acquainted with them. Jealousy and slander are far more malicious and go unnoticed. Because we fail to recognize how insidious these are, they slowly degrade our conscience and make the criticizing of others common place with our hearts. Amma Syncletica said,
“And these vices do damage not by the size of their blow, but by the negligence of the wounded.”
The application of this to prophetic ministry is deep and profound. Past hurts that continue to drive our thoughts and language will dilute the revelation we have received when we attempt to help another. Jealousy and slander are so malicious, they taint all that we do. As James states, we bless God while cursing man. We are double-minded when we gossip and slander and yet still expect God to use us considerably. If we fail to recognize the proclivity to gossip and slander we have failed to recognize our fallibility. We must be honest about past hurts, recognize how they have driven our actions, and trust God to be faithful to cleanse and purify our hearts. Outside of that, the one who gossips and slanders yet continues to practice prophecy should expect to eventually find themselves facing the judgement of God.
Syncletica’s advice was simple and profound.
“Why do you hate the person who has vexed you? He was not the one who wronged you, but the Devil. Hate the disease and not the one who is sick."
In all of her teaching on the spiritual life she recognized that many would live in the desert and never find Christ.
“There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one's mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”
The point of her teaching was not to be disciplined for disciplines sake. It was to be alone in your thoughts in the midst of a company, and thus near to Christ in the heart.
Amma Syncletica spent the last three years of her life battling with physical sickness, most likely some form of cancer. Her body consistently wore down, and eventually it was difficult for anyone to be around her for the state of her body was more dead than alive.
However, upon her final days she had an incredible vision of angels, other mothers, and paradise.
“…the watchful hovering of angels, the encouragement of holy maidens for her passage, the radiance of ineffable light, and a paradisal realm.”
She knew the hour of her death three days before it came. It was said of Syncletica, when her time was up…
“the blessed Syncletica went off to the Lord, having received from him the kingdom of heaven as a praise for her struggles and praise of our Lord Jesus Christ with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever.”
This woman who made Christ her goal gained glorious eternity with Him around the year 460 AD.