Amma Syncletica: A Spirituality of Experience
By Mary Forman
Vox Benedictina: A Journal of Translations from Monastic Sources, Vol. 10:2 (1993)
Introduction: The Vita Syncleticae is a mid-fifth century work which presents an ideal “amma” who may or may not be based on historical evidence. The fact that there may have been a historical person called “Amma Syncletica” can be gleaned from the incorporation of twenty-seven apophthegms derived from this life in the alphabetical collection of the Apoththegmata Patrum. She is but one of three ammas – Sarah and Theodora are the other two – whose words have been included with the sayings of about 128 “abbas.” Josep Soler believes that the incorporation of these women’s sayings into the collection puts them on a par as “spiritual teachers” with their male counterparts.
The Life of Syncletica consists of those teachings which were the fruit of one woman’s experience of the ascetical life. A fourteenth-century Greek historian, Nicephorus Calixtus, attributed the authorship of the Vita Syncleticae (VS) to Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (296-373) and claimed that after having written the Vita Antonii (VA) for monks, Athanasius wished to furnish for nuns “an exemplar of the monastic life in the form of a story.” This attribution, however, has been questioned on the basis of the stylistic differences from Athanasius’s usual style and the traces of Evagrian and Cassian thought which would date it to the middle of the fifth century. Some manuscripts attribute it to a certain ascetic named Polycarp or possibly to Blessed Arsenius of Pegades, of whom nothing is known. It seems most likely that the VS was written in Egypt in the same region where the holy woman lived, i.e., around Alexandria. The commemoration of her feast in the Roman martyrology occurs on January 5, while the Greek calendar celebrates her memory on January 4.