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Syncletica of Alexandria (270? - 350?)

Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, a Christian saint and Desert Mother of the 4th century, was of a wealthy background and is reputed to have been very beautiful. From childhood, however, Syncletica was drawn to God and the desire to dedicate her life to him.

From the time she gained responsibility for her family's affairs, after the death of her parents, she gave all that had been left her to the poor. With her younger sister Syncletica abandoned the life of the city and chose to reside in a crypt adopting the life of a hermit. Her holy life soon gained the attention of locals and gradually many women came to live as her disciples in Christ.

St. Syncletica is regarded as a "Desert Mother" and her sayings are recorded with those of the Desert Fathers. She is believed to have died in her eightieth year, around 350 AD.
source: Wikipedia
Saint Syncletica (called "Amma" just as the desert fathers were called "Abba") was born to a prominent family in Alexandria in the fourth century, and was one of the women who went to the desert to live a life free from distractions and close to God. Though such women were few in number, they faithfully followed the example of Abba Anthony (Saint Anthony the Great) and others in fasting strictly, praying intensely, and inspiring those who came to them for counsel or to join them in asceticism. Many, like Saint Syncletica, received spiritual gifts of discernment and healing.

Syncletica was approached by great numbers of women who hoped to become monastics. Because she had the gift of discernment she perceived that some of them, though they were full of enthusiasm, were not ready to take on the rigorous discipline of poverty. They had been comfortable and not at all deprived in their lives. Syncletica knew that if they simply threw away their possessions without taking the "proper prerequisites" they would "be like one who squanders her goods without careful deliberation, only to repent of her rashness."

What were the "proper prerequisites" that Syncletica considered to be so important? They were things such as fasting, sleeping on the ground and other bodily hardships. These, she said, must come first. They would prepare a woman for the hard discipline of poverty, which should come last of all. She pointed out that Our Lord, in talking to the rich young man (Mark 10:21), did not ask him to take on poverty first, but instead recounted the commandments. Only when He was sure that the young man had been seriously observing those did He say that the one thing lacking, the next thing to be done, was to become poor. It was Christ who said that poverty was to come last.

Saint Syncletica recognized that poverty is a strong defense against the devil and his temptations, because the devil's great weapon is to make us fear the loss of something we value. Those who have given up everything, who have no attachments to things, can't be threatened with the loss of anything. At the same time, she warned that greed is a terrible sickness, because once we want a little bit of something, our desire grows and grows, so that we always want more. Desire can consume us just as much as the fear of loss can.
source: Orthodox Church in America
SHE was born at Alexandria in Egypt, of wealthy Macedonian parents. From her infancy she had imbibed the love of virtue, and in her tender years she consecrated her virginity to God. Her great fortune and beauty induced many young noblemen to become her suitors for marriage; but she had already bestowed her heart on her heavenly spouse. Flight was her refuge against exterior assaults, and, regarding herself as her own most dangerous enemy, she began early to subdue her flesh by austere fasts and other mortifications. She never seemed to suffer more than when obliged to eat oftener than she desired. Her parents, at their death, left her heiress to their opulent estate; for the two brothers she had, died before them; and her sister being blind, was committed entirely to her guardianship. Syncletica, having soon distributed her fortune among the poor, retired with her sister into a lonesome monument, on a relation’s estate; where, having sent for a priest, she cut off her hair in his presence, as a sign whereby she renounced the world, and renewed the consecration of herself to God. Mortification and prayer were from that time her principal employment; but her close solitude, by concealing her pious exercises from the eyes of the world, has deprived us in a great measure of the knowledge of them.
But as soon as Syncletica begins to speak, any polite interest vanishes and we hear the authentic and original voice of a supremely clever person who knows what she is talking about. The discourse, therefore, is genuine, profound and just as important as anything we have of Evagrius. Hardly surprising is it, then, that Syncletica's discourse soon makes its way into the Apophthegms of the Fathers, and that in the Armenian version thereof, Syncletica herself is held to be a "Father" of the Church....This discourse, the historical obscurities, the lack of miracles, and the frank admission by the author that he knows little about her -- all these facts tell us unmistakably that Syncletica must have been a real person of such importance that even her total obscurity in the world of official influence could not prevent her breaking onto the world stage!

What is so special about her discourse? First, it is original. Second, it is far ahead of its time. Syncletica gives an outline, as it were, of the practical ascetic mind, showing first how the soul is tempted, distorted and perverted by a series of false reasonings (logismoi) and, second, how one can restore the proper reasoning faculty of the soul (dianoia) by employing its natural strengths against the perversions of reason.... Influenced as she is by the Evagrian schema of the eight deadly sins or logismoi prompted by the devil,... she follows this schema only loosely, changes it considerably, and is much more concerned to reveal the soul's natural landscape, as it were. For Syncletica, it is poverty which is the basis of the soul's constitution,... the material precondition of the development of agape, and the nakedness in which there is the birth of grace, which she calls paligennesia, the means of freeing the person from the vicious circle (kuklike antapodosis) of desire, pleasure and sadness, which she refers to as the "three heads of the devil."... Instead of the finery of the material bride, the practice of the virtues should clothe the maiden in the most concrete of ways:

In place of precious stones ... the triple crown of faith, hope and love; for necklace ... humility; for girdle ... chastity; and let poverty be our bright raiment (s. 92).

How then does the devil pervert the soul? By fitting his ploys to our own natures, Syncletica answers (s. 85). Just when we conquer gluttony, love of pleasure and fornication, then we get avarice and cupidity; and just when we have established control over these, when the poor soul despises money, then the evil-minded one prompts an irrational movement in the soul, awakes in it a bastard, death-bearing thought: he makes it think that it understands things which are not known by the many, that it excels in its fastings (s. 49).

And what do we do in the presence of such reasonings? Hold fast to the divine word, Syncletica answers, and if this doesn't work, have a change of life-style: join the coenobitic life instead of the anchoritic. If she is proud of her ascetic life, "let her be forced to eat twice a day" (s. 50)! The subtleties of self-deception are, for Syncletica, the concrete results of the devil's malignity. "In some people," she remarks, "the devil blunts their creative intellectual power, either by making them excessively ignorant or by torturing them with over-exactness" (s. 85). And instead of Evagrius' final "deadly sin", pride, Syncletica isolates as the most intellectual psychological stratagems of the devil, determinism and epiphenomenalism, the beliefs respectively that every action has a material cause fully adequate to account for it and that the soul dies with the body.19 Why are these so deadly? According to Syncletica, they dehumanise us at our core, for they take away the proper development of the human faculty of judgement (krisis) and they lead little by little to complete despair...

It is here particularly that Syncletica's psychological insight is far ahead of her time. As an anchorite, she prefers the anchoretic life, yet she insists that each experience must stand on its own ground and be examined in terms of itself: married, cenobitic or anchoretic, each has something special to give, each has its overwhelming burdens.21 One can be alone in a crowd, she says, just as one can be in a crowd when alone (s. 97). As also for Gregory of Nyssa, so too for Syncletica, marriage and sexuality are a fundamental part of life, even if not the highest seed of the soul (ss. 77-78). Instead of the physical battles with demons we read about in the Life of St. Antony, in the VSS we see the concrete weaknesses of the soul and the effort of intelligent asceticism necessary to oppose those weaknesses. In a beautiful passage which reveals so much of the human face of the saint herself, Syncletica -- the accomplished, renowned ascetic -- meditates upon the need to dispel despair as follows:

Sometimes it is necessary to purify the soul of vainglory, sometimes to encourage, praise and admire, for if the soul is found to be negligent and sluggish, still somewhat numb with regard to the pursuit of what is noble, it is fitting to encourage it; and if it does some small useful thing, we should admire and make much of it; and grave and unworthy errors we should count as least and of little moment; for the devil wants to distort everything and tries to hide the aforementioned faults in the case of those who practise the ascetic life seriously - for he wants to increase their pride, but in the case of newly-come souls, he places all their faults right in front of their eyes and engenders despair in them, saying, "You have fornicated. What pardon can there be for you?" (s. 52)

Here is a voice both intelligent and personal, a mind which from experience can think both sides of a line. How do we distinguish false from true askesis, Syncletica asks. By a proper proportion (symmetria) throughout one's life which does not end up destroying the body which is so necessary to the very battle one is fighting, she replies (s. 100). Or again, we are called to love our fellows. But how can we do this in practice? Only by divine love and hence by human poverty, Syncletica replies. But not everyone can, or should, attempt to do this in the same way, for if we are evil ourselves, we shall only make the sinners of this world worse, and if we are in between the good and the bad (partaking in both), then we need to flee the world out of fear. It is only if we have been led to great contemplation, she says in a thought certainly worthy of a Kierkegaard, that we can, and should, live with the worst kinds of people in the midst of the world, perhaps rejected by it, but, without fear, preferring the salvation of others to our own goods (s. 71). Or finally, to sum a quality so characteristic of her: the different lives, anchoretic, cenobitic, even married, have their different worries (cf. ss. 41-43): "Not everything agrees with everybody; let each to her own mind be fulfilled" (s. 97).
source: Syncletica and Macrina:Two Early Lives of Women Saints...Kevin Corrigan
"When you have to fast, do not pretend illness. For those who do not fast often fall into real sicknesses. If you have begun to act well, do not turn back through constraint of the enemy, for through your endurance, the enemy is destroyed. Those who put out to sea at first sail with a favorable wind; then the sails spread, but later the winds become adverse. Then the ship is tossed by the waves and is no longer controlled by the rudder. But when in a little while there is a calm, and the tempest dies down, then the ship sails on again. So it is with us, when we are driven by the spirits who are against us; we hold to the cross as our sail and so we can set a safe course."
source: Milk and Honey: Spiritual Food for Thought
"If you find yourself in a monastery do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk or the nun grows cold and their faith dies when they go from one place to another."
source: Journey with Jesus
19. "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."

11. "Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water."

21. "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 is destroyed by praise and loses all the results of its labor."

26. "Just as one cannot build a ship unless one has some nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility."

12. "It is dangerous for anyone to teach who has not first been trained in the practical life. For if someone who owns a ruined house receives guests there, he does them harm because of the dilapidation of his dwelling. It is the same in the case of someone who has not first built an interior dwelling; he causes loss tothose who come. By words one may convert them to salvation, but by evil behaviour, one injures them."
source: Medieval Sourcebook:Hesychasm: Selected Readings
Amma Syncletica said, "In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and, afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire. At first they are choked with smoke and cry, until they obtain what they seek. As it is written, "Our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:24); so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work."
Life Together
Amma Syncletica said, "We ought to govern our souls with discretion and to remain in the community, neither following our own will nor seeking our own good. We are like exiles: we have been separated from the things of this world and have given ourselves in one faith to the one Father. We need nothing of what we have left behind. There we had reputation and plenty to eat; here we have little to eat and little of everything else."
True Poverty
Someone asked amma Syncletica of blessed memory, "Is absolute poverty perfect goodness?" She replied, "It is a great good for those capable of it; even those who are not capable of it find rest for their souls in it though it causes them anxiety. As tough cloth is laundered pure white by stretched and trampled underfoot, so a tough soul is stretched by freely accepting poverty."
source: Paradise of the Desert Fathers
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