Books: the Life of the Blessed and Holy Syncletica

reviewed by Annabelle Parker

The Life of the Blessed & Holy Syncletica, by Pseudo-Athanasius, Part two: A Study of the Life, by Mary Schaffer. – Toronto: Peregrina Publishing, 2001.- 167 pp., ills., select bibliography and notes.
ISBN 0-020669-68-9 (part two)

This study is what has since long been missing among those who are interested in the rather obscure Life of Syncletica of Alexandria, a virgin whose life was written somewhere halfway the fifth century.

In 1995 the English translation the Life and Regimen of the Blessed and Holy Teacher Syncletica by Pseudo-Athanasius1 was published by Peregrina Publishing (Toronto), and this volume is the study that accompanies the translation. Mary Schaffer originally ‘submitted it in partial fulfillment of a Master’s degree in Theology at St. John’s University, Minnesota’ as a thesis. This ‘slight modification’ of the text discusses the dating of the Vita (from the mid-fifth century), the authorship (‘someone lettered in Greek, most possibly dwelling in the environs of Alexandria’), audience and purpose (women, more in general: anyone who is sincerely eager for growth in the spiritual life’), subject (Syncletica’s biography framing her teachings) and genre of this text (bios and politeia, biography and regimen).

Then the author continues exploring the context of the Vita Syncleticae. For example, compared to other similar ascetical writings, we find no mention of a mentor for the young Syncletica, neither is there direct mention of ‘Mary, Mother of Christ, as Model for Virginity’.

Form and content of the Vita are commented upon with an interesting opinion of Schaffer: whereas others, like Elizabeth Castelli2, who commented upon the text as being ‘not presented as a coherent argument but rather as something of a haphazard collection of statements with Syncletica expounding upon a variety of topics’ (p. 36), Schaffer instead writes that ‘closer reading reveals form and content of the work to be harmonious. I would like to suggest that the Vita Syncleticae is quite carefully and deliberately crafted, and that its shape and use of language function to convey its message’ (p. 36-37). On p. 60 the author illustrates her argument by drawing a schema for the text in which Christ is the innermost of four concentric circles. The outer circle consists of Prologue and Epilogue, the second of Syncletica’s early life and Passion, the third cycle contains her teachings, and finally we come to Christ in the middle. All parts of the Vita are thus interconnected.

Before concluding, Mary Schaffer discusses the theological approach of Syncletica in her life as an ascete. Syncletica bases herself thoroughly on Scriptures. First in her teachings, Syncetica understands that she comes on this quest for spiritual knowledge via Grace. Evil features after that, discussed in the forms of ‘logismoi’ or ‘thoughts’. Later on Syncletica discusses at length Free Will. Schaffer concludes about Syncletica’s thoughts on this topic: ‘human will is both free and dwells in grace’ (p. 83). Prayer and Voluntary Poverty are later discussed by the author. Many notes and a select bibliography, in which I regret to say Odilia Bernard’s excellent French translation has not been included3, round off this careful study of Syncletica’s life.

Furthermore, Schaffer’s study of the Vita Syncleticae strikes me — being a long-time student of this text4 — as sympathetic towards its subject, written by someone who has read the text over and over again very carefully, noticing the contexts and deeper meaning of the form within the text. The author honestly admits that she has primarily studied the translation by Elizabeth Bryson Bongie, and not the Greek text (p. 37), but I think she has made clear to me the existence of layers underneath the sometimes stern-sounding text. The meaning of the text has come alive, not in the least through Schaffer’s inspiring and personal conclusions like ‘Syncletica could have a great deal to teach us about finding holiness in the process of aging or in states of debility. The amma could help us to understand the importance of dying and death in our life and our need to face it boldly. She might dare us to shape each day deliberately, certain in our hope that life is eternal.’


1 Transl. with notes by Elizabeth Bryson Bongie, 85 p., ISBN 0-920669-46-8.

2 Elizabeth A. Castelli, ‘Mortifying the Body, Curing the Soul: Beyond Ascetic Dualism in The Life of Saint Syncletica’, Differences 4: 2 (1992) 134-153. Castelli also made the first English translation of the VS: ‘Pseudo-Athanasius, The Life and Activity of the Holy and Blessed Teacher Syncletica’ inAscetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity, a Sourcebook, ed. V.L. Wimbush, Mineapolis, 1990 (Studies in Antiquity and Christianity), pp. 265-311.

3 O. Bernard, Vie de Sainte Synclétique (Spiritualité Orientale 9), Bellefontaine, 1972.

4 A.S.E. Parker, ‘The Vita Syncleticae: Its Manuscripts, Ascetical Teachings and Its Use in Monastic Sources’, Studia Patristica 30 (1997), 231-234, idem, ‘The Vita Syncleticae in the Synagoge: the citations of Synkletike of Alexandria used by Paul of Evergetis’, in Work and Worship at the Theotokos Evergetis 1050-1200, ed. Margaret Mullett and Anthony Kirby, Belfast: 1997, 143-151, and forthcoming a Dutch translation of the VS, published by Abdij Bethlehem, Bonheiden (B.).

Published in print in Golden Horn, Volume 9 issue 1 (Winter 2001-2002)