Friday, March 13, 2015

Desert Mother

From A Monk in the Inner City by Mary Lou Kownacki:
Original image here 

I first saw the name Amma Syncletica in the book Desert Wisdom by Yushi Nomura. As a younger seeker, I was seized by the tales of the desert fathers and eager to sit at their feet. What a surprise to find a woman's name among all those abbas. My consciousness of the women's issue was just kindling, but I remember feeling great joy. A desert mother!

In the mid-nineties I was asked to do a book review of The Life of Blessed Syncletica by Pseudo-Athanasius. By the time I finished the book, I knew that I had met a good and strong woman, one whom I would have trusted as a spiritual teacher.

Why would I trust her with my darkest fears, my most embarrassing thoughts, my deepest secrets?

Concern for the poor is my litmus test for a spiritual teacher, and Syncletica had a great consciousness of the poor. She preached and practiced almsgiving, giving away all her possessions to the poor. The first teaching she shared with the women who gathered around her was, "Do no violence to poor persons, for they are needy."

Next, I was awed by her self-knowledge, evident in the discerning spirit that is so critical to a guide of souls. With great depth and clarity she pointed out the pleasures and pitfalls on the spiritual path; for example, when sadness is helpful and when it turns destructive, the differing temptations in youth and middle age, how easily asceticism can turn to pride, how to spot false humility, the place of anger in spiritual growth, and the battling of demons.

Third, she had great leadership gifts, proof that God's spiritual giants come in both genders. The great Sufi  poet and mystic Rumi was struck to the ground upon meeting his spiritual elder, Sham, which translates as "the sun," so brilliant and dazzling was his inner light. Her biographer, Pseudo-Athanasius, pays Syncletica the same compliment. He compares her to the sun, claiming that "those who try to mirror the radiance of her life fall victim to confusion of mind, dazzled, overcome, unstrung by the magnitude of her achievements." Obviously, she was "the sun" for many women, firing them with a burning desire for God. Her description and critique of the plight of women in her society are remarkable for a fourth-century anchorite. No wonder women flocked to her. And there is no doubt about where she would stand on today's feminist agenda.

I am both amazed and grateful that Pseudo-Athanasius preserved the teachings of a woman. He must have been an unusual man. But I wish that Syncletica herself or one of her young women followers had edited the texts. Let us hope that in monasteries around the globe women are writing and promulgating the insights of the ammas who now live among us. If we do not do it for our own, it will not be done. Here is to Societies of Syncletica springing up across the land. Wherever women gather, may they raise a toast to you, Amma. 

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