Academic journal article Magistra

Growing Wings like Eagles: Women's Bodies and Women's Work in the Life of Syncletica

Academic journal article Magistra

Growing Wings like Eagles: Women's Bodies and Women's Work in the Life of Syncletica

Article excerpt

It can sometimes be difficult to remember how novel was the concept of conversion to early Christian ascetics. Having inherited a worldview from Plato's day about the fixity of the soul and of one's state in life - whether dominated by appetite, spirit, or intellect - the first Christian ascetics, taking to devotional practices with rigor, noted with astonishment how these practices effected change in their lives. It was possible, they found, as the Apostle Paul had taught, to change from physical beings to spiritual beings (1 Cor. 3:1).

Nevertheless, Paul never meant to disparage the body and the earliest Christian monks and nuns understood that transition from fixation on worldly affairs to abandonment of themselves to God necessarily occurred in the context of daily embodied life. They knew that physical processes such as eating, sitting, walking, sleeping, speaking, giving and listening to instruction occurred through the instrumentality of human flesh. Thus, their teachings on spiritual life grew out of the fertile soil of personal experience and their meditation on, and understanding of, such experience.

The Life of Syncletica expresses a sophisticated awareness of the importance of integrating physical and spiritual life in pursuit of purity of heart.1 This awareness manifests itself in Syncletica's use of metaphors drawn from everyday life experience and from specifically female life experience. Nothing was beneath her notice in possessing an essential utility for thinking about and speaking of Christian life. Accordingly, her metaphors are drawn from the human body and from chores associated with domestic life, and these metaphors are surprising in the context of ancient monastic literature. Living alone or in company with a few others, the desert ascetics were all involved in some manner in maintaining their living environments. But though the cell gave other desert fathers a useful object to allegorize the soul, domestic chores within the cell were seldom explored as having the potential to express meaningful activities associated with spiritual life and growth. Syncletica is unusual in having seen these ordinary chores as richly capable of expressing the ascetic's spiritual growth.

Who was Syncletica? She likely lived in fourth-century Alexandria.2 What is known of her comes from two sources: a fifth-century vita falsely attributed to Athanasius, and a collection of nearly thirty short teachings which circulated with other sayings of the fourth and fifth century desert fathers and mothers. In many ways, Syncletica is not a singular figure in the landscape of late antique ascetic literature; she champions the usual practices: poverty, virginity, fasting, and control of thoughts. Yet, unlike other texts which regale readers with the extremity of their heroes' ascetic feats and radical breaks with convention, Syncletica's teachings promote spiritual life as a dynamic, embodied reality and they do this in a way that unusually appropriates women's bodies and women's work as useful means by which one might think about and speak of spiritual life.

Unlike other sayings which betray a certain exoticism of the spiritual life by concentrating success in the ability to will change, such as Abba Joseph's advice to Abba Lot that, if he willed it, he might become "all flame,"3 Syncletica seems to have believed that spiritual maturity takes time and lies beyond a Christian's ability to achieve as quickly as she might like.4 The sense of instant gratification which Joseph's advice treats as a possibility within spiritual life is lacking in Syncletica's teachings; unlike Joseph of the fiery fingers who seems to believe that transformation may be willed and instantaneous, Syncletica uses the human body to show that spiritual growth unfolds at its own rate, resembling the organic rate at which other biological processes unfold.

The same is true of women's work: its necessarily inconclusive nature, requiring patient repetition, gave Syncletica scope for considering the integral relationship between her life's physical and spiritual dimensions. …

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