(The following is Part Two from the workshop on the Desert Mystics that I presented June 4, 2022, for the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange at their Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, California)
On a chilly March morning, during my Lenten desert retreat, I am walking in sand dunes just outside of Death Valley, California. I climb the steep, slippery slope of a hundred-foot dune. I like to follow animal tracks that are easy to spot on the fresh, wind-swept surface. A jack rabbit and deer passed through here last night. And a surprise: small, human footsteps appear. I follow them, climbing higher and higher, wondering who is walking in front of me in this quiet, desolate place. I arrive, breathless, at the top of the dune. No more human footsteps. What unfolds before me is a majestic view of the desert and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.An inner voice exclaims: “this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice.”
Fourth century Palestine: Father Silus of Pharan is on a mission bringing bread to a holy man. He loses his way in the intense desert heat and prays for God’s mercy. He sees tiny footsteps in the sand, following them until they disappear. In the distance, he sees a small person entering a cave. He draws near. Thinking he has found the holy man, he cries out. “Bless me, father”. No response. Father Silus draws closer, seeing a monk in the shadows. Father Silus asks for a prayer. The voice responds, “You are the priest. Pray for us.”
Who is this? How does this person know I am a priest? The monk in shadows ask, “would you like to know my story?” The monk is a woman, Syncletica of Palestine, born to a wealthy family, destined to be married off to a noble, but she hungered for God. She was drawn to the solitude and stillness of the desert. Her father allowed her to go to Jerusalem on pilgrimage before the marriage, where she escaped her servants and guards, and headed out to the Palestinian desert. She gave herself fully to the desert, living an ascetic life with contemplative prayer for 28 years, speaking to no one until this moment with Father Silus. Father Silus describes her radiant, youthful face, emanating a spiritual essence. He returns to his cell at his monastery, and sometime later returns to this cave to once again see this holy woman. Syncletica was no longer there. She had moved off further into the desert.
Benedictine Sister Laura Swan reveals:
“Here is a common motif for many desert mothers: having a deep love for God and longing for deeper friendship with Jesus. Escape from a previous life that might have been notorious or highly controlled by family, retreating into the desert. Encounters with desert monks who recognize their holiness, honed by years of fasting, prayer, and silence. Frequently, we only have their story, no insightful spiritual teaching. They disappear into anonymity far into the desert. But their soul and story leave indelible footprints in the desert sand for us to follow today.”
As we invite these desert mothers/ammas to walk with us in our journey toward God, spiritual writer Wendy Wright suggests these ammas were “practiced in peeling back the layers of silence, pierced to the core the hearts of fellow seekers and laid bare for them the voice of the living God.”
AMMA SYNCLETICA OF ALEXANDRIA (AD 270 to AD 350)
The best-known desert mother is Amma Syncletica of Alexandria. Athanasius communicated her sacred story along with that of Anthony of the Desert. She was a revered spiritual director. Twenty-seven sayings are recorded in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Syncletica was well educated, including the writings of desert father Evagrius Ponticus. When her wealthy parents died, she sold everything and gave the money to the poor. With her blind sister, now dependent on her, Syncletica moved to live as a hermit in the cave-tombs outside of Alexandria. Women visited her for spiritual counsel, which would have been one to one. The visitor would share a spiritual issue with her, but instead of immediately responding, there would have been long silent, contemplation. She shared the fruit of her own spiritual struggles.
She counseled women who were seeking deeper friendship with the Lord, advising:
“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 by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek…. so, we must also kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.”
Syncletica counseled that our struggle with our thought life is vital to growing toward God.
She encouraged us to grow in self-awareness and to understand our passions and desires. Her counsel speaks to us today about the Power of Thought, which can move us toward discouragement, despair, anxiety and depression (the dark spirit) or toward joy, hope, love and peace (consolation). She recommends fasting and prayer as help to break the cycle.
The assaults of the dark spirits take place in the mind, our mental focuses direct the actions that we take. The mind is like a ship that can be assaulted by waves coming from outside of us and overwhelmed by water rising within, distorting habits of our mind.
As Syncletica says
“Therefore, we must observe the assaults of the 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.”
One must control these inner passions, which the enemy uses to take us off the path.
What does Amma Syncletica advise for us to do?
“Consequently, the mind must become painstakingly diligent with respect to its thoughts. And so, the person wishing to be saved must be very watchful. We do not have there something to be careless about; for Scripture says: Let the one standing firm take care lest she fall. (1 Cor 10:12).”
Syncletica tells her disciple 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 the battle, for she was not strong enough to quell the onslaught of the lion. 1 Peter 5:8.”
The Lord Jesus joins the battle for her thought life. She turns to the presence of Christ.
Syncletica speaks to some of the inner voices that can possess us.
“What must one do, then, when such thoughts are present? Without ceasing, one must mediate upon the inspired word which the blessed David proclaimed when he said: but I am a worm and not a human being (Psalm 22:6). And in another passage Scripture says: but I am earth and ashes (Gen 18: 27), 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.”
When the voice of pride is inflaming your heart, turn toward Jesus and meditate on humility.
DISOBEDIENCE is another passion that disturbs our life with God. Attack it with submission.
One of her disciples asks: what do I do when any of these passions, these dark voices, take over my life?
Syncletica counsels, “For the one who has fallen has a single thought that of standing up again. Those who have fallen have, to be sure, lost their footing; but as they lie there, they have not suffered any harm. And the one who has kept his footing should not judge inferior the one who has fallen, but should fear for himself, lest she fall and perish, and go to a deeper pit.”
Syncletica asks her disciple: your concern is how the other people in your life will respond to you if you fall. How you yourself respond to someone who has fallen will prove if you belong to Jesus.
REMEMBRANCE OF WRONGS.
We all have hurtful memories of when others have wronged us. This can feed an inner rage.
Syncletica counsels, “Even a dog, enraged against someone, relinquishes its anger when coaxed with a tidbit; and the other beasts also become gentle with habit.”
Those hurtful memories of wrongs done to us in the past burrow deep into our very soul and they can fester.
Syncletica responds: “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.”
These festering memories destroy relationships, and the peace of Christ does not live in our heart.
These angry memories foster jealousy and slander, which invade our thoughts. You can face head on the Seven deadly sins because they are grave. Jealousy and slander subtly worm their way deep into our soul. This is difficult to notice as it slowly degrades our conscience and creates a controlling voice that is fixated on criticizing other people. Syncletica advises:
“And these vices do damage not by the size of their blow, but by the negligence of the wound.”
(Reading the journals of Thomas Merton, who lived many years in the silence of the Trappists, I could see how the power of thought was his own spiritual battleground. He had a persistent nasty critic living within in him. As they chanted the psalms in the monastic services, the inner voice chastised the choir master: I could do so much better at this than he.).
Of all of her insights about mind and consciousness, this hits home for me. Our wounded memories of the past can control our thoughts. When I am doing a mindless task, that voice can grab me and beat me down as I relive a hurtful memory, especially an event in which I have wounded another person.
An Evangelical source on Desert Spirituality, Wind Ministries shares this commentary:
“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 stain 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.”
Syncletica’ s soft voice advises
“Why do you hate the person who has vexed you? He/she was not the one who wronged you, but the Devil. Hate the disease and not the one who is sick.”
Syncletica must have counseled hundreds of men and women on their desert visits to her. She knew that many of those souls might live in the desert but never find Jesus. Syncletica teaches:
“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/her own thoughts.”
Wherever you are, city or desert, you can be alone in your thoughts and near to Jesus in your heart.
Amma Syncletica battled a form of cancer that lasted three years of her life, suffering greatly. In her last days, she spoke of visions of angels, other desert mothers, and heaven:
“… the watchful hovering of angels, the encouragement of holy maidens for her passage, the radiance of ineffable light, and a parade of a paradisal realm.”
When she died, it was written:
“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.”
Seminary professor Mary Earle reflects
“What do these desert mothers have to offer to us today? I find their insistence on practicing silence, solitude and stillness, a kind of medicine for our over-heated, frenetic culture. Many women today are trying to balance work, family, volunteering, and participation in a faith community. Our lives are harried, and we have no sense of being able to rest in the divine silence, the Source from which we come and to which we will return. When I am teaching this material, I always begin and end the class with simply sitting in silence. Inevitably, participants remark that it is like getting a drink when you are really thirsty, so thirsty you have forgotten what water tasted like.”
“The practice that the desert offers us is down to earth, simple ways of allowing ourselves to be reminded that we are always living in the Love which creates, redeems and sustains us. The ammas draw us away from the assumption that technique is what matters. They remind us that this is a way of life.”
Reflecting on your own life today, what guidance has Syncletica given to you about your own Thought Life?
What help do you seek from the Lord with the struggles of your Thought Life?
Forman OSB, Mary OSB. Praying with the Desert Mothers. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005.
Wheeler, Rachel. Desert Daughters, Desert Sons: Rethinking the Christian Desert Tradition. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2020.
Ward SLG, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Trappist, Kentucky: Cistercian Publications, 1987.
Russell, Norman (translator). The Lives of the Desert Fathers: The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto. London: Mowbray, 1981.
Swan OSB, Laura. The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women. New York: Paulist Press, 2001.