“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 personal thoughts.” —Syncletica of Egypt
Today the church commemorates Sarah, Theodora, and Syncletica, three Desert Mothers from the fourth and fifth centuries. Syncletica (sin-clett-i-cuh) was born in Alexandria, Egypt into a well-respected Christian family. Her two brothers died young and her sister was blind, so Syncletica’s parents expected great things of her (marrying into another well-respected family).
However, as is the pattern with many monastic women on our church calendar, she refused marriage despite her parents’ pleas. Syncletica instead began her honing her ascetical practices while still living at home. Asceticism involved dedicated every aspect of one’s life to to contemplation and seeking union with God. Not only did Sycletica refuse marriage, she remained in her parents’ home deeply committed to prayer, fasting, and other forms of self-denial.
When her parents died, Syncletica inherited their wealth and as well as caring for her sister. She did was any desert ancestor would do: sold everything, distributed the family fortune among the poor, and moved into a tomb with her sister outside the city. Tomb dwelling wasn’t completely unheard of at the time; it was an ancient Egyptian practice that put one in touch with the spirit world. This is when Syncletica’s life in the desert began.
Soon women sought her out for spiritual direction. Reluctantly, Syncletica welcomed them to the tomb. She spoke to these women about cultivating qualities of gentleness, patience, humility, and endurance. Based her family history, Syncletica was likely well-read and educated, however her teachings reveal that she taught in language accessible to the women who flocked to her. Her recorded sayings indicate her tendency to teach using earthly metaphors and stories.
“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.” —Syncletica of Egypt
Syncletica believed that staying put in a community helped one grow in spirituality. It’s been my experience in parish ministry that when people are unhappy with the clergy, they do one of two things: change churches or push out the clergy person. Rather than seek reconciliation of differences, we choose to instead irradiate the problem altogether. Syncletica believed that the desert journey but a single inch long though many miles deep. When things are uncomfortable, she encouraged her flock to remain rooted and travel inside themselves.
Spiritual journeys require perseverance, steadfastness, remaining with commitments and working through difficulties. I’m not speaking about abuse of any kind here, rather disagreements, division, or disunity within a community. These are the things that happen in any community. And all too often we leave after experiencing hurt or if there is a breakdown in relationship rather than trying to work through it..
For Syncletica, the only hope we have of being a community over the long haul is by continually opening ourselves up to the flow of God’s forgiving grace—to us and through us to other people.
As adults, how do we help the children in our lives navigate disagreements and disunity?
When do we encourage them to walk away from a relationship or community and when do we help them remain and repair what’s broken?