Women Saints: Syncletica and Mary of Egypt
Sermon preached by Claire Koen on Sunday, March 27, 2022 as part of Antiochian Women's Month
Glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Good morning! Today I’d like to share with you a little about the lives of two desert woman saints: Syncletica and Mary of Egypt. Many of you are probably quite familiar with the Life of Mary of Egypt as it is read at the beginning of Great Lent, but may be less familiar with the life of Syncletica. The Gospel for today reminds us that we are called to pick up our crosses and follow Christ, but the reading ends with the strange declaration that “there are some here among us who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come in Power.” Today I’ll be sharing the earliest accounts of Mary of Egypt, the life of Syncletica, and the ways in which these women recognized the presence of the reign of God within themselves and reorganized their lives in order to live more fully in that awareness.
Beginning in the second century, and maybe earlier, men and women left their villages and towns to pursue a simpler life in the deserts of Egypt. Some lived alone or in small groups while others joined the growing communities of monastics founded by Pachomius , Shenoute of Atripe, and others. While we know less about the women’s communities, they lived in very similar ways to their male counterparts: few possessions, moderate amounts of food and water, memorization of the Scriptures and Psalms, and frequent or constant prayer. Some of their sayings are preserved in the collected sayings of the desert fathers, while the memory of others, such as Mary of Egypt and Syncletica, are preserved in hagiographies.
Syncletica came from a wealthy Macedonian family who had relocated to Alexandria to join the thriving Christian community there. She reportedly was quite beautiful and attracted many suitors. From an early age she began to develop an awareness of her thoughts and inclinations and began living in an ascetic fashion in order to better observe and temper her desires and thoughts. She refused to marry and, after her parents passed away, she took her blind sister, sold her property and distributed it to the poor, and retreated to the tomb of a relative. She attracted a following of women who wanted to live an ascetic life.
While she herself observed a rigorous ascetic life of fasting and prayer, and encouraged her followers to practice this as well, she taught that the first step towards salvation was the recognition that each person inherently knows how to attain salvation: love God with your whole soul, and your neighbor as yourself. In other words every person inherently knows how to reach salvation because the reign of God is already present within them and in others. Salvation comes about from the recognition of the reign of God in our midst and the natural love of God, neighbor, and self that follows this awareness. Beyond this first step she offered practical advice, in the Evagrian tradition, to her disciples on how to combat unwanted thoughts and cultivate an awareness of God’s reign. For example, when an unwanted image pops into your mind, combat it with its opposite image, or when a bothersome thought troubles you turn to psalm or line of scripture.
Now I would like to turn to Mary of Egypt in order to consider another model of female desert monasticism. While the version of the Life of Mary of Egypt that is read during lent presents Mary as a reformed sex worker, the earliest version of her Life depicts her as having been a singer in the choir at the church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, to have retreated to the desert in order to not be a source of temptation for men, and to be living as a hermit in a cave in the Judean desert. In this account a monk named John stumbled upon her and when he returned the next year found that she had died. The second account depicts her as a nun from Jerusalem who moved to the desert in order not to serve as a temptation for young men. In these earliest accounts she lived on one jar of water and a basket of legumes for 17 or 18 years. As is the case with most stories that are handed down, scribes embellished her story: by the 7th century she was no longer a pious nun who fled to the desert but a sex worker with an insatiable sexual appetite who, after being repelled, due to her sinful life, from entry into a church, fled to the desert where she lived a life of repentance for 38 years. In this latest account she is discovered by a monk named Zozimos who brings her communion and, a year later, upon finding her dead, buries her with the help of a friendly lion.
Unlike Syncletica, Mary had no disciples since she lived as a hermit, but her impressive asceticism nonetheless influenced the monk who discovered her and later buried her, and the various depictions of her journey to asceticism--the choir member, the nun, or the sex worker--have helped to reveal the immanence of God’s reign to countless Christians who came after her. Both of these women defied the societal norms of their times in terms of how an upstanding woman should comport themselves. They were not waiting for the reign of God to come but recognized that it was already here: with this awareness of the reign of God in themselves and their midst they adjusted their lifestyles and behaviors in order to foster their perception of it.
I invite you to think about these two women saints who reoriented their lives around what they recognized as most important and life-giving. As they each understood their ascetic practices to be in service to honing their awareness of God, how might we also undertake an ascesis (ascesis just means a disciplined type of work towards a particular goal) to re-shape our lives and behavior in ways that foster our own perception of God’s reign, already come in Glory, in ourselves, in our midst, and in those around us? Just as Mary and Syncletica did not taste death before they saw the reign of God come in Glory, each of us here can also turn towards Christ’s invitation to recognize that God is here, now, while we’re alive: God’s reign is already here in Glory.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.