Tag Archives: Syncletica of Blessed Memory

The Spiritual Battle Behind Simple Living

joshs-phone-127For the past 13 years I have worked in an office where the majority of my coworkers regular go out to eat each and every day. Fancy to-go boxes fill the breakroom refrigerator while I carry around an old lunch box cast aside by my son with a simple sandwich or last night’s leftovers inside….

Closing time comes with talk of concerts, drinks at a local pub, or other such money intensive activities. On those rare times when I choose to join the after work pub visit, I typically drink water or perhaps just one alcoholic drink…all the while wishing I could buy multiple drinks for myself and my friends like those around me ….

Lest I forget, the mid-day talk of boats, cars, concerts, sports games, TVs, sound equipment and the like don’t really help… rather they all seek to tip my envy scale dangerously into the dark green slime of jealously….

Over the years I have fought my envious urges by consoling myself to the fact that I had very little debt and that my coworkers most likely had lots of debt. I read books about simplicity and hung onto stories about people who lived simply and gave away lots of money to help others.

It didn’t really work.

Oh, it kept me out of debt (for the most part). And it helped take the edge off the desire to experience the finer things in life… but the fight never really left my heart and mind. It was always there in the shadows ready to pounce when things got difficult, bringing with it negative thoughts and questioning my self-worth.

Early this year my wife and I joined an organization that seeks to help people get out of debt and break the cycle of poverty. One of the tools the organization uses to help folks is a becoming statement. That is, a written statement about who one wants to become over the next ten years. Once crafted, the becoming statement is supposed to help keep one on track when the green monster of envy and materialism strikes.

I, being a good student and volunteer, wrote such a statement. Only it wasn’t working as I found myself unable to articulate what it was that kept me striving for simplicity in the midst of a culture that values both material possessions and entertainment experiences.

Then I read the Desert Fathers.

Buried in their “rough-hewn words of life” I found something that I had previously missed. Forsaking material possessions and monetary entertainment wasn’t just about saving money to give away (though that is part of it). [1] Rather, the embracement of simplicity was about facing the darkness within ourselves and fighting the “battle of the heart.” [2]

Painting depicting Syncletica of Alexandria, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)
Painting depicting Syncletica of Alexandria, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)

It is about fighting the desires of flesh and the forces of this current evil age of pain. It is about resisting the seductive nature of modern culture which is unfriendly to the spiritual life. It is about recognizing the forces at work that cause a person to desire something they currently do not have. It is about seeking redemption through the suffering of self-control. It is a type of fasting that refines the soul.

Amma Syncletica of Blessed Memory, a wealthy noblewomen in the 4th century who gave away all her money, put it this way when asked about desire to suffer through lack of material possessions:

“It is a great good for those who are able. For those who can endure it endure suffering in the flesh, but they have quiet of soul. Even as stout garments trodden underfoot and turned over in the washing are made clean and white, so is a strong soul made steadfast by voluntary poverty.” [3], emphasis added

St. Augustine, another wealthy individual in the 4th century, read about the simplicity of the Desert Fathers (specifically St. Anthony) and gave way his riches. He would later write that “no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even of mention, beside the happiness of the life of the saints.” [4], emphasis added.

The quietness of the soul…

a strong soul…

the happiness of the life of the saints…

These are things that I can put into my becoming statement that will help me keep true when the forces of envy, materialism and others such items pull at my soul.

 

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), xix.

[2] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Trans.by Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), 44.

[3] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 90.

[4] Augustine. Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 197.

Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part of a paper about the values of simplicity and self-sacrifice as seen in the lives of the early Dessert Fathers. The first part of this series can be found here.

Danger signSt. Anthony, the most famous of the Desert Fathers, was reported by St. Athanasius as teaching his follow sojourners not to pursue nor yearn for earthly possessions. Rather, followers of Jesus were to pursue “prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger,” and “hospitality.” [1] These are the possessions that will run ahead of a believer, preparing heaven for their arrival.[2] This message of Anthony carries within it echoes of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:23-34 to his disciples: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[3]

The thought of giving away one’s material possessions in an effort to pursue Jesus may sound strange and extreme to most 21st century Christians in the United States of America. Capitalism and materialism has so enveloped American culture that such thoughts of simplicity and self-sacrifice are rarely, if ever, heard or contemplated. The Desert Fathers, however, beckon the believer of today to resist the seductive nature of modern culture and fight the “battle of the heart.”[4] It is about recognizing the forces at work that cause a person to desire something they currently do not have while simultaneously embracing an indifferent attitude towards material items.[5] Rather than pursuing riches and the American Dream, modern Jesus followers would do better to “live simply and generously, promoting economic equality and sustainability.”[6]

The struggle to live simply with few material possessions was seen by the Desert Fathers as part of the Christian life in which they tried to face the darkness within themselves.[7] Drawing on the example of Jesus, they saw the incarnation as something to “inspire them to choose suffering because through the incarnation suffering had become redemptive.”[8] Syncletica of Blessed Memory, one of the few Desert Mothers remembered by history, once commented on this desire to suffer through lack of material possessions: “It is a great good for those who are able. For those who can endure it endure suffering in the flesh, but they have quiet of soul. Even as stout garments trodden underfoot and turned over in the washing are made clean and white, so is a strong soul made steadfast by voluntary poverty.”[9]

The abbot Hyperichius echoes this sentiment about the redemptive quality of simplicity and self-sacrifice when he declared voluntary poverty as the “treasure house of the monk.”[10] An unknown Desert Father was recorded in the Verba Seniorum as proclaiming that “if a man have humility and poverty and judgeth not another, so comes in him the fear of the God.”[11]  The abbot Abraham expands the redemptive quality of simplicity beyond a lack of material possessions in his comments to Cassian of Marseilles about why the fathers dwelt in the desert rather than in the valleys of the Nile. “We have despised…all the luxurious pleasures of the world: we have joy in this desolation, and to all delight do we prefer the dread vastness of this solitude…whence the saying of the Lord in the Gospel, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.’”[12]

Footnotes

[1] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Trans.by Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), 43.

[2] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, 44.

[3] New International Version: Thinline Bible, Luke 12:23-34.

[4] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 94.

[5] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments: A Rule of Life (Lexington, Kentucky: The Order of Sustainable Faith, 2014), 32-33.

[6] Grenholm, Micael. “Charismactivism: Combining Miracles, Evangelism, Peace and Justice” (Unpublished book manuscript emailed to the author, May 5, 2016), 81.

[7] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 85.

[8] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 79.

[9] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 90.

[10] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 90.

[11] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 69.

[12] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 166-167.