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)


Armenië: drie tentoonstellingen in Nederland

door Annabelle Parker

(English summary below)

Dit jaar wordt gevierd dat de Armeniërs in 301, 1700 jaar geleden, bekeerd werden tot het christendom. Grigor de Verlichter (ca 240-332) zou toen koning Trdat III bekeerd hebben door een wonder: hij genas de koning van een ziekte die hij kreeg, nadat hij een groep christelijke maagden had laten vermoorden. In 314 werd Grigor de eerste paus (catholicos) van de Armeniërs.

De drie tentoonstellingen die vanwege dit feit georganiseerd zijn omhelsen de late Bronstijd (15de tot 10de eeuw voor Christus) in het Rijksmuseum voor Oudheden in Leiden, de Middeleeuwse miniaturen in het Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, en hedendaagse Armeniërs in de Lakenhal in Leiden, waar een expositie van vier Armeense kunstenaars uit de diaspora is georganiseerd.

De Middeleeuwse handschriften en miniaturen zijn een ware schat om te zien. Ik vroeg me af waarom deze handschriften nooit ter sprake kwamen bij de studie Mediaevistiek en Byzantinologie. Waarschijnlijk omdat het voor ons in Nederland een onbekend gebied is. Toch vreemd, te meer omdat er sinds de zeventiende eeuw Armeniërs gevestigd waren in Amsterdam. Zelfs de vierde-eeuwse Servatius van Maastricht zou van Armeense afkomst zijn geweest…

Ik las op diverse opschriften dat de handgeschreven boeken worden beschouwd als zeer waardevol, bijna heilig (de bijbel wordt in het Armeens ‘de adem van God’ genoemd). Een ander interessant detail is dat de handschriften door de afschrijver worden ondertekend, waarbij ook de opdrachtgever en illustrator vermeld staan, en details over onder welke omstandigheden het boek geschreven is. Sommige illuminaties geven op heel directe wijze een scène weer: een dronken bruidegom op de bruiloft van Kana bijvoorbeeld, in 1392 door Tserun gemaakt.

Aan het begin van de tentoonstelling is een video die de bezoeker veel bijbrengt over de geschiedenis van de Armeniërs. Er zijn enkele relieken in Armenië bewaard die zeer oud zijn. Zo is er een stuk van het originele kruis in een kostbare reliekenhouder bewaard, en een stuk van de arm van Johannes de Doper. Ik was verbaasd dat deze onvervangbare relieken tentoongesteld waren.

De tentoonstelling in het Rijksmuseum voor Oudheden in Leiden heeft ook een leerzame video, en topstuk is een huifkar uit de vijftiende eeuw voor Christus, gebruikt als grafwagen, en teruggevonden in het Sevanmeer in 1956. De kar werd dit jaar in Leiden gerestaureerd door Hans Piena.

De tentoonstelling over hedendaagse Armeense kunstenaars uit de diaspora laat werken zien van Krikor Momdjian, die o.a een ontroerend schilderij maakte, geheten ‘Uitzicht op Woubrugge’; een video van Atom Egoyan, cineast die in Canada opgroeide, getiteld ‘A portrait of Arshile’; Sonia Balassanian die in Perzië opgroeide en o.a. video gebruikt als medium om rituele handelingen weer te geven; Linda Ganjian combineert droom en werkelijkheid over Armenië in een fotoserie ‘Mother Armenia in Present-Day Yerevan’.

Over alle drie de tentoonstellingen is een informatief nummer van het tijdschrift Artissage verschenen.

Armenia: three expositions in the Netherlands

This year we celebrate the fact that 1700 years ago, christianity became the state religion for the Armenians. Gregory the Illuminator (c. 240-332) converted king Tiridates III, after having cured him from a disease he received after he had ordered the killing of a group of christian virgins.

Three exhibitions were organised to celebrate this: National Museum for Antiquities, Leiden: ‘Armenia: Hidden Wealth from the Mountains’, showing artefacts from the Middle Bronze Age. Highlighted is a wooden funerary car from the 15th century B.C., found in 1956 in the Sevan Lake, and restored this year in Leiden.

Catharijneconvent, Utrecht: ‘Armenia. Medieval Miniatures from the Christian East’, showing beautiful manuscripts (the Bible is called the ‘breath of God’ in Armenian) and some very old relics (a piece of the original cross and a piece of the hand of St John the Baptist).

Municipal Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden: ‘Armenia: Four Contemporary Artists from the Diaspora’. Shows works of Sonia Balassanian (Iran, lives in New York), Krikor Momdjian (Lebanon, lives in Woubrugge), Atom Egoyan (Egypt, lives in Toronto), and Linda Ganjian (USA, lives in New York). Works include a touching painting by Momdjian with a view of Woubrugge and the Ararat, a video by Egoyan called ‘A portrait of Arshile’, photos of Balassanian reflecting ritual acts, and Ganjian’s photo-work on dream and reality called ‘Mother Armenia in Present-Day Yerevan’.


Armenië, theme issue of Artissage. Contains articles about all exhibitions, with many illustrations. All articles in Dutch with English translation.
Fl. 12,50 = € 5,70. ISSN 1434-5986.

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

Medewerkers/Contributors – Volume 9, issue 1 (winter 2001-2002)

Volume 9, issue 1 (winter 2001-2002)

Dirk Krausmüller is a Research Fellow in Byzantine Cultural History at the AHRB Centre for Byzantine Cultural History for 2001. Last year he completed his PhD thesis Saints’ Lives and Typika: the Constantinopolitan Monastery of Panagiou in the Eleventh Century, at Queen’s University Belfast.

Annabelle Parker is co-founder/editor of Golden Horn. She finished her M.A. in Byzantine/Medieval Studies at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in 1992, focussing on the Desert Fathers/-Mothers. She is marketing manager at Edita KNAW. In her spare time she works on a critical edition of the Vita Syncleticae.

André de Raaij is a social historian (University of Amsterdam) whose interests involve currents in religious anarchism in The Netherlands and elsewhere. He is one of the founders of Golden Horn.

St Jacob van Sarug, Warburg (D)

Gouden Hoorn 8,1: St. Jacob van Sarug

door Annabelle Parker1

English text below

Op 27 Augustus 2000 is in het Duitse Warburg een nieuw Syrisch-Orthodox klooster ingewijd door de patriarch van de Syrisch-Orthodoxe Kerk van Antiochië, Moran Mor Ignatius Zakkai I Iwas. Het klooster, dat vanaf de twaalfde eeuw dienst deed als een klooster van de Dominikanen, is gewijd aan St. Jacob van Sarug.

Wie was St Jacob van Sarug? Hij werd in 449 geboren in Kurtam (Kurtah) aan de Eufraat, in het district Sarug. Hij stierf 521 in Batna, Sarug, waar hij ook begraven is op 29 November. Op deze dag wordt zijn feest gevierd in de Syrische kerk. Hij bezocht de school van Edessa rond 470, en werd priester, terwijl hij een reputatie opbouwde in welsprekendheid en kennis.

In 502 werd hij benoemd tot chorepiscopos (‘periodeutos’) in Haura. In 518 werd hij tot bisschop van Batnan gewijd door Severius, die kort daarna in ballingschap moest.

Er is niet echt sprake van een ‘doctrine’ die Jacob van Sarug uitdroeg. Hij was voor alles priester en daarmee helper van de gelovigen in zijn kerk. Hij schreef in het Syrisch. Hij heeft veel memre, of metrische homilieën geschreven (ongeveer 760), waarvan er ongeveer 300 bewaard zijn, en 212 daarvan uitgegeven door Paul Bedjan.2 Deze lange ritmische gedichten (van 300 tot 400 verzen) werden gelezen (of gezongen) bij diensten om de gelovigen te stichten, volgens de traditie van St Ephrem. De verzen hebben twaalf voeten, verdeeld in drie maal vier. Dit soort 12-voetige vers staat bekend als het ‘vers van St Jacob van Sarug’.

Ook zijn er 43 brieven van Jacob van Sarug bewaard gebleven3, evenals 8 feesthomilieën (turgamè)4, een heiligenleven5, en enkele liturgische en liturgisch-poëtische werken.6 Alhoewel de vraag of St Jacob van Sarug een monofysitische geloofsleer aanhangt, sinds de achttiende eeuw rondwaart (sinds 1716, Eusèbe Renaudot), is deze vraag niet opgelost, en misschien is het ook geen eerlijke vraag, omdat die duidt op de opzet deze kerkvader in een hokje in te delen, en te ‘claimen’.

Jacob van Sarug’s werk wordt gekenmerkt door symbolisme, liefde en hieruit voortspruitend, een neiging tot ‘anti-intellectualisme’, in die zin, dat hij een onmatig gebruik van de rede, het willen doorgronden van het mysterie Gods, niet goedkeurt:

‘Beschouw de Schrift, daarin vind je de Zoon Gods’.7

St Jacob of Sarug, Warburg (D)8
by Annabelle Parker

On 27th of August, 2000 a new Syriac-Orthodox monastery was consecrated in Warburg, Germany, by the Patriarch of the Syriac-Orthodox Church of Antioch, Moran Mor Ignatius Zakkai I. Iwas. The monastery, which was built in the twelfth century to house Dominican monks, has been named after St Jacob of Sarug.

Who was St Jacob of Sarug? He was born in 449 in Kurtam (Kurtah) on the borders of the Euphrat in the district of Sarug. He died in 521 in Batna, Sarug, where he was buried on 29th of November. This date is his nameday in the Syriac church, whereas it is on 25th of September in the Armenian church, and on 5th of April in the Maronite church. He went to the School of Edessa around 470, and he became a priest, while building up a reputation in eloquence and knowledge.

In 502 he became chorepiscopos, (‘periodeutos’) in Haura. In 518 he was consecrated as bishop of Batnan by Severius, who had to go into exile a short while later

Jacob of Sarug did not really carry out a specific ‘doctrine’. He was most of all a priest and thus a servant of the faithful in his church. He wrote in Syriac many memre or metric homilies (about 760), of which about 300 have been preserved, and of these 212 have been published by Paul Bedjan.9 These rythmical poems (of 300 to 400 verses) were read or sung during services to educate the faithful, following St Ephrem’s tradition. The verses have 12 syllables, divided in 3 times 4, and they are known as the ‘meter of St Jacob of Sarug’.

Also, 43 letters10 of St Jacob of Sarug have been preserved, just as 8 feastal homilies (turgamè)11, a saints’ life12, and some liturgical and liturgical-poetical works.13

The question whether Jacob of Sarug held a monophysitical doctrine has been raised time and again since the 18th century, but the unfairness of the question can be pointed out, because it leads to sticking a label on this churchfather. Jacob’s work is characterised by symbolism, charity, and from this an ‘anti-intellectual’ attitude in this sence that he does not approve of fathoming Gods mystery:

‘Contemplate the Scriptures, there you will find the Son of God’.14


Graffin, F., ‘Jacques de Saroug’, in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, 8, col. 56-60, Paris, 1972.

Jacques de Saroug, Homélies contre les Juifs, ed. F. Graffin, Turnhout, 1976 (Patr. Or. t. 38, Fasc. 1, no. 174).

Jacques de Saroug, Quatre homélies métriques sur la création, éd., trad. par Khalil Alwan, Lovanii 1989 (CSCO 508-509, Scriptores syri 214-215).


1 Zie ook voor een uitgebreid verslag met foto’s.

2 Homiliae selectae Mar Jacobi sarugensis, 5 vols, Paris-leipzig, 1905-1910.

3 Uitg.: G. Olinder, Jacobi sarugensis epistulae quotquot supersunt, CSCO 110, Lovanii, 1937 (herdruk 1952).

4 In Duitse vertaling, ongeëditeerd, met geëditeerde uittreksels, door Pius Zingerle, Monumenta syriaca, T. 1, p. 91-96, en in Chrestomattria syriaca, Roma 1871, p. 286-298.

5 Abbeloos, J.-B., De vita et scriptis sancti Jacobi Batnarum Sarugi in Mesopotamia episcopi, Louvain 1867.

6 Een Ordo baptismi, J.A. Assemani (ed.), in Codex liturgicus Ecclesiae, t. 2, Roma, 1749, p. 309-350, en een Ordo Confirmationis, in idem, t. 3, p. 184-187.

7 Homélies contre les Juifs, IV, 212, ed. F. Graffin, Turnhout, 1976 (Patr. Or. t. 38, Fasc. 1, no. 174).


8 See also for a comprehensive report with photos.

9 Homiliae selectae Mar Jacobi sarugensis, 5 vols, Paris-leipzig, 1905-1910.

10 G. Olinder, Jacobi sarugensis epistulae quotquot supersunt, CSCO 110, Lovanii, 1937 (reprint 1952).

11 In German translation, unedited, with edited extracts, by Pius Zingerle, Monumenta syriaca, T. 1, p. 91-96, and in Chrestomattria syriaca, Roma 1871, p. 286-298.

12 Abbeloos, J.-B., De vita et scriptis sancti Jacobi Batnarum Sarugi in Mesopotamia episcopi, Louvain 1867.

13 An Ordo baptismi, J.A. Assemani (ed.), in Codex liturgicus Ecclesiae, t. 2, Roma, 1749, p. 309-350, and an Ordo Confirmationis, in idem, t. 3, p. 184-187.

14 Homélies contre les Juifs, IV, 212, ed. F. Graffin, Turnhout, 1976 (Patr. Or. t. 38, Fasc. 1, no. 174).

Published in print in Golden Horn Vol. 8, issue 1 (2000)

Redactioneel – Editorial Volume 7, issue 1 (summer 1999)

Volume 7, issue 1 (summer 1999)

door Annabelle Parker

Dit nummer van Gouden Hoorn verschijnt na een warme zomer met een enerverend bezoek aan de International Patristics Conference in Oxford. Maar de aardbeving in Turkije, gevolgd door één in Griekenland, ligt ons ook nog vers in het geheugen. Ondanks toenaderingspogingen van beide landen, is daar nog steeds veel religieuze tolerantie. We spreken de hoop uit dat de bewoners van die streken minder rampen, meer vrede zullen ontvangen.

Aan de orde komt in dit nummer een beschrijving door Gabriel Rabo van de inrichting van Syrisch-Orthodoxe kerken, door de eeuwen heen volgens traditie en symbolen onveranderd.

Verder Dirk Krausmüller met de datering van Johannes van Karpathus, een vrij onbekende monnik die hopelijk wat meer voor ons gaat leven als we weten in welke tijd hij leefde.

Schrijver dezes laat in haar artikel over Domnika de lezers kennis maken met een obscure heilige die een zeer actief leven heeft geleid in het Constantinopel van de 4de en 5de eeuw.

Tenslotte schreef Edip Aydın een verslag van de jaarlijkse bijeenkomst van Orthodoxe jeugd, de ‘Syndesmos’, in het Valamo klooster in Finland.

by Annabelle Parker

After a long hot summer with a visit to the enervating International Patristics Conference in Oxford, the earthquakes in Turkey and Greece are still fresh in our memory. We hope that disasters pass over that region, and peace will prevail where there is still a lot of religious intolerance.

In this issue, Gabriel Rabo gives a description of the inner structure of Syrian Orthodox churches as they have been furnished throughout the ages.

Dirk Krausmüller discusses a possible dating of John of Carpathus, a relatively unknown monk who might become more vivid to us if we know when he lived.

Writer of these words presents Domnika, an obscure saint who lived in 4th-5th-century Constantinople, to the reader.

Finally, Edip Aydın summarizes the yearly gathering of Orthodox youth, called ‘Syndesmos’ this year held at Valamo Monastery, Finland.

A female role model among religious women: Domnika Hegoumena*

Volume 7, issue 1 (summer 1999)

A female role model among religious women: Domnika Hegoumena*
by Annabelle Parker

In making a comparison between women who have become role models for other women, it is difficult to say which characteristics are similar and which ones different, and we can ask ourselves what we are trying to retrieve for kind of information. In what way does it help us to analyse role models, and thus those women and maybe men who followed these models. If it is so, that it explains a development in female religious experience, then it is worthwhile. I will study one woman in this paper, so that later on her life and the many other lives of female religious role models, or spiritual guides, may tell us about what was important for women in Late Antiquity and later periods.

I have chosen to focus on Domnika, because she deserves our attention, having been buried in obscurity for so long.

The Vita Domnicae as a historical text

First, let’s look at the ‘historical’ Domnika: Domnika Hegoumena is a Greek saint who lived during the reign of Theodosius the Great (379-395) in the 4th century. Her Life is to be found in several manuscripts containing Menologiae, on 8th of January. 1 I have used the text edited by Theophilus Johannes in 1884.2 Luckily, a new edition is under way, (by Maria Alexiou) because it is in need of revision. Maybe a new look can clarify the obscurities that one finds in encyclopedias, when researching this text…

For instance: the question “where did Domnika come from?” Will bring up some meddled answers, for which we need to study the manuscripts:

According to the existing edition, Domnika comes originally from Rome (ch. 3), although an article in Bibliotheca Sanctorum wants us to believe she originates from Cartagena.3 It could well be that in other manuscripts than the one(s) used by Theophilus Johannes (Mark. 25), the words tou apo tès Hispanias to genos katagontos in chapter 3 were interpreted as meaning: from Cartagena. But here, this information is given about emperor Theodosius, mentioned in the sentence above, who, as we know from Socrates Scholasticus in his Ecclesiastical History: “This person [Theodosius] was descended from a noble family in Spain.”4

In a Greek encyclopedia 5 we find an item on Domnína (or: Domniki), (8th jan.) in which Domnika’s story is told but it is stressed that she lived under Theodosius II (408-450) and not under Theodosius I. Also it is mentioned that Domnína originates from Cartagena, which corresponds with the article in Bibliotheca Sanctorum.

Then after some other items, follows the Monastery of Holy Domnínes (or: Domnikes). This, a double monastery erected by 2 women from Rome, and the Monastery which Domnika erected, named after the Prophet Zecheriah, are discussed and reduced to monasteries that existed on paper, but maybe not in reality. But apart from this, in discussing Domnika’s monastery and the chapel in name of the Prophet Zecheriah, this author (S.G.P.) discusses how Domnika did live in Theodosius the Great’s time. So the encyclopedia contradicts itself. Unless there are 2 very similar saints, called Domnína and Domnika, who are intertwined.6 The information about these monasteries in Constantinople was probably taken from a 15th century work entitled De Aedificiis or peri ktismatoon tès Koonstantinoupoleoos, by George Kodoni.7 R. Janin writes more thoroughly about the monastery of the Domnikes, or Domnines and the chapel of Zecheriah, that are difficult to localize. Also, in Theodosius the Great’s time, there were apparently only 2 monasteries built, not for women, but for men: that of Dalmatius and of Dius, around 382 and later.8 Janin suggests that the legendary story of Domnika was used to give one of these monastery a worthy history. But he is sure a monastery with a church dedicated to te prophet Zecheriah existed.

In the text of Domnika’s life we find a mention of a contemporary Constantinopolitan, Daniel the Stylite (409-493).9 In this Life we find in chapter 64 a mention of the chapel of St. Zecheriah in Catabolus, the Harbour. In Domnika’s Life the monastery, which is built with the help of Bishop Nectarius (381-397) in a remote place in or near Constantinople, is actually built as an ‘euktèrion’, a chapel, so could this chapel of St. Zecheriah be the same as Domnika’s? It must have been erected before 395, when Theodosius I died, whose death Domnika predicted. The reader can conclude that the author has written this Life much later than the time of Theodosius the Great, because the emperors Zeno and Basiliskus (474-491 and 475-476) are mentioned.

Domnika’s saintly life

At an early age, Domnika learned to read or recite the Bible (Ch. 2). She decided to choose to lead the life of an ascetic. She went to the harbour in Rome, and a boarded a ship for Alexandria. After suffering a heavy storm, she reaches Alexandria, and comes to a prisonbuilding, where she finds 4 virgins, who are not (yet) christian, but who are virtuous heathen. She manages to convert them, and through her prayers, the locks on the doors break open, and they are free. They all go to a ship that is bound for Constantinople, and during this crossing they again suffer storms. In Constantinople, they are greeted by Bishop Nektarius, who had foreseen the arrival of Domnika in a dream. They are taken to the church, and there, the 4 virgins are baptized. The emperor, Theodosius the Great, himself comes to visit her, and many other people come to receive her blessings.

Domnika decides to build a chapel near Constantinople, because she cannot take the pressure of the bad demons who are afflicted by her being there. So with the help of the bishop and the emperor, the Zecheriah-chapel is built, and she wants the ceremony of inauguration to take place at 24th in stead of 29th January, because she foresees a disaster on that day. This disaster is not mentioned after this., although it is suggested by Gédéon in 1899, that in 388 troubles with the Arians mighr have been the disaster Domnika was hinting at.10

In her residence at that chapel, she cures the ill, and also those who are mentally ill. She then hears from an Angel that Theodosius is going to die. In chapter 14 and 15, Domnika’s situation is compared to that of Daniel the Stylite, who had to descend from his pillar (ch. 72-73) to reason against Basiliskus, who had thrown Zeno off the throne for 20 months, and who favored the anti-Chalkedonian, ‘monophysite’ current. Domnika has to go to the empress (whose name is not given), to advice her and bring salvation upon her. Domnika sends her ‘second’, Dorothea, one of the virgins who were baptised, but she is refused entrance by the empress. The empress dies shortly after Dorothea predicts she will never be deigned worthy of entering the church.

Domnika herself foresees her own death, and arranges that Dorothea take over the monastery or convent and everything that she has built up. She offers a prayer, lasting most of chapter 16. After her death, Domnika appears in the sky, and the whole population of the monastery sees her amongst other saints, clothed in bridal suit.

At a great fire (maybe the one of 465? Also mentioned in Daniel the Stylite’s Life), they see a woman, standing next to the Prophet Zecheriah, and they are holding off the flames from the buildings. Later on, a woman who approaches the monastery, is posessed of an evil spirit. This spirit is tormented by the late Domnika, who chases him away.

Domnika as a female role model

In this text, clearly, Domnika is characterized as a leading figure, with a lot of power. Many people, men and women, up to the emperor, came to see her.

For the girls in the prison, Domnika represented a person who was very much in touch with God, through her strong belief, and they wanted to copy her life. Domnika gave direction to the lives of these women. It was not her femininity that was their primary example, because in the text there is not much hint of her as a woman. She does not for instance encounter specific boundaries for women, as a planned marriage, or evil thoughts. And if one changed the name of Domnika into Domnikus, one would not see much difference.11 It is most of all what she did that makes Domnika a role model.

Speaking of Role Models, it is noticable, that our heroine, Domnika, herself chooses a man, the prophet Zecheriah, as role model for her. The chapel she builds is named after him, because she received prophecies herself by imitating him (ch. 9).


* Summary of a paper given at the 13th International Conference on Patristic Studies 16-21 August, 1999.

1 See: Bertocchi, Pietro, ‘Domnica, egumena di Constantinopoli, Giorgio, chozibita, ed. Emiliano, santi’, in Bibliotheca Sanctorum, T. iv, p. 762, [1964].

2 Mnèmeia hagiologika nun prooton hupo (hieroiakonou) Theofilou Iooannou, Benetia, 1884, p. 268: Bios kai thaumata tès hosias mètros hèmoon Domnikès.

3 Idem.

4 Socrates Scholasticus: Ecclesiastical History: A history of the Church in seven books (306-445), transl. from the Greek, London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1844, p. 366: Bk. 5, Ch. 2.

5 Thrèskeutikè kai èthikè egklopaideia, 5e Tomos, Athinai, 1964, column 162.

6 F. Halkin in Bibliotheca Hagiographicorum Graecorum mentions 3 types of Vita and 1 epitome: see BHG 562. There is another Domnína, mentioned in the Historia Religiosa or History of the Monks of Syria by Theodoretus of Cyrrhus (393-458). Here, Domnína is a saint who lived around 444 in a hut by her mother’s house, somewhere in the province of Cyr, and who posessed the Gift of Tears. See: Theodoret de Cyr: Histoire des Moines de Syrie, ed. Pierre Canivet et Alice Leroy-Molinghen, 2 tomes: S.C. 234 and 257, Paris, 1979, T.2, Caput xxx.

7 Georgii Codoni / Geoorgiou tou Koodinou: ‘peri ktismatoon tès Koonstantinoupoleoos’ (Saec. XV, anni 1400-1462), in: Migne PG 157, Kol. 605.

8 R. Janin: La Géographie ecclésiastique de l’Empire Byzantin, Iière partie: Le siège de Constantinople et le Patriarchat Oecuménique, T.III: Les églises et les monastères, 2ième éd., Paris, 1969, p. 100-101. He uses M. I. Gédéon’s book: Buzantinon heortologion, Constantinople, 1899, which I have been unable to study.

9 An English translation of this Life is: ‘St. Daniel the Stylite’, in: Three Byzantine Saints, by Elizabeth Dawes and Norman H. Baynes, Crestwood, 1977.

10 See R. Janin: La Géographie ecclésiastique de l’Empire Byzantin, p. 100.

11 With thanks to Dirk Krausmüller for pointing this out to me.

‘Nothing but blood mixed with phlegm’: Desert Mothers’ teachings on the object of desire

by Annabelle Parker(1)

Three years ago I introduced the audience of this symposium to Synkletike, ascetical teacher and Desert Mother. This time the theme of the symposium seemed appropriate to look at the Vita again from the angle of ‘desire and denial’…

In this paper I will discuss desire and temptations of women who lived ascetically in Late Antique christianity, with emphasis on Synkletike. It is not an attempt to prove that women had different temptations than men when in the desert.

Most women who wanted to become a ‘Bride of Christ’ went to live in a church, to become ‘virgins of the church’. These communities already existed in fourth-century Egypt, because for instance the well known Anthony sent his sister to a community of virgins, when he started his ascetical lifestyle.2

The culmination of desert asceticism can be found in fourth-century Egypt. According to Athanasius, Anthony did a most unusual thing: he retreated into the desert, not just at the edge of his village, but deep into the desert.3 He closed himself in a tomb, and later on in a fortress, to emerge some twenty years later as if transfigurated, for he had gained the state of ‘apatheia’, passionlessness. Many men followed in his footsteps, and the retreat into the desert as an ascetic became an important ‘movement’.

But, as this paper suggests, not only men retreated, we have accounts of women who also lived a life of asceticism in or on the edge of the desert.

Synkletike was a virgin who lived on the outskirts of Alexandria in the 4th or 5th century. The Vita of this ‘didaskalos’4, written by someone who has been called ‘Pseudo-Athanasius’,5 can be taken as an example for women in that age, who chose an ascetical lifestyle, and for whom it was meant to be an example. As the name of Pseudo-Athanasius suggests, Synkletike has often been referred to as the female St. Anthony. This could mean that her Vita was a literary construction.

In Palladius’ Lausiac History6 not only stories about holy men, but also of women are mentioned.7

But, to quote Peter Brown: “No Life of Anthony heralded a new departure in the piety of Christian women”.8 The Life of Synkletike can be seen as an example of a female St. Anthony, because of her monologue on the Devil’s works (also called logismoi, or ‘thoughts’), and her retreat in a family tomb, and her giving away everything after the death of her parents; but the big movement of men going into the desert and building communities has not such a ‘heroic’ female counterpart. Not many women who became consecrated virgins, or Brides of Christ, had made this choice for themselves. It was mostly their parents who decided for them that they should live in a church, and dedicate themselves to being a gift to the church, a sacred vessel, although they kept their own free will.9 A virgin meant a lot to the household or small community: her prayers and fasting were a protection for the house from evils and disasters.10

But the women who became ‘famous’ were those who had chosen the ascetical life for themselves, wether it was through their sins or as widows, or even like Anthony, and who were not pushed by their parents. In the Apophthegmata Patrum 11 there are stories about the brave or seductive conduct of women, but we find only three headings of women whose sayings have been collected: Sarra, Theodora and Synkletike. Of these three, Synkletike’s life has been written down and transmitted separately, and both her sayings and Life may have a common source. Sarra and Theodore have left us just some of their sayings.

Before I start talking more about the Desert mothers, I would like to consider these stories about individual women living ascetically more in general. These are, amongst others: Mary of Egypt, Alexandra, Pelagia the Harlot, Thaïs, and in other places than Egypt: the female companions Jerome corresponded with (Eustochium, Melania the Younger, Paula), Egeria, Olympia, Febronia, Thecla, etc.

Some of these women are known through churchfathers. Sometimes a Vita has been written by a bishop, or it was mentioned in compilations of desert stories. Synkletike’s life was made famous through Athanasius (or rather: Pseudo-Athanasius), Thecla’s acts through Paul, Olympia through her friendship with Chrysostomos, Eustochium, Melania (the Elder: 340-410), Paula and Melania (the Younger: (+439) through their teacher Jerome, and Macrina, who was Gregory of Nyssa’s sister.

Others gained merit on their own: Egeria, who wrote her pilgrim’s travel journal, Mary of Egypt, and Sarra and Theodora, the desert mothers.

So even though some of these stories and lives of women have come to us introduced by a churchfather, it was also possible for a female ascetic to become well-known on her own accord.

The reasons for women to become an ascetic varied of course, but sometimes it seems to us that there is a cliché or pattern to be found, for instance, some females lived ascetically because they wanted to do penance for a sin, usually a sexual sin, for example: Mary of Egypt (harlot), Pelagia (harlot), and Alexandra, who felt guilty, because she had seduced a man. Others became ‘didaskalos’, teachers for other women or even men: for example Thekla12, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa’s sister, who is depicted as a ‘virgin-philosopher’ and Synkletike, who teaches a crowd of women about ascetical practice.

Concerning teaching, Peter Brown13 states, that it was not at all unusual to have females as ‘spiritual guides’. Theodora is such a spiritual guide for men and women alike,14 and in the Vitae of Macrina15 and of Synkletike16, Thekla is mentioned as an example for their lives. In Synkletike’s Vita, the Saint addresses women in particular, but in the quotes of her Vita taken over in the Apophthegmata and in Paul of Evergetis’ Synagoge17, her words are for monks as well, shown in the male participiats.

There are also those women who, in order to survive in the desert, dressed themselves successfully as men, for example: Pelagia was a harlot in Antioch; on hearing a sermon spoken by bishop Nonnus in church, she decided to live ascetically, and was baptized by this same bishop. She disappeared and when she died in her cell in Jerusalem many years later, everyone, including bishop Nonnus, who came to visit her, or rather, him, thought she was the monk Pelagius, a man. But when they ‘set about anointing the body with myrrh, they found that it was a woman.’18

A lot of these women come from a rich background. That leaves them a lot to give up, which in some cases makes them very virtuous. Jerome helps a group of aristocratic women in Rome educate themselves, and Synkletike seems to have a lot to give away when her parents die. The name ‘Synkletike’ could mean female senator, senatrix, or wife of a senator. In the Vita, the author explains her name as being derived from ‘assembly of saints’ (from Synkletos, assembly)19 can also be a literary construction to take a wealthy woman as an example for other women, just because she can stand out as very generous. What news is there in the story of a poor girl living ascetically?

Finally we can categorize the women who were on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and some of them also wanted to visit the famous Desert fathers: Egeria20, who travelled supposedly from Galicia to the east, Melania the Younger21 and Severa the deaconness.22

As mentioned above, women who wanted to live ascetically, were able to do this in churches, where they were taken up with other virgins. Usually, these groups in churches or convents were gathered together by rich widows or unmarried women. Some virgins lived together in rooms or with their family.

But there were also women who lived alone, in a cell, not in a group. One of the three women mentioned in the Apophthegmata Patrum 23, Sarra, spent sixty years on the banks of the Nile, where the passage was very narrow, and thus the place where she lived was very difficult to approach. In a saying, we read: “It was said concerning her that for sixty years she lived beside a river and never lifted her eyes to look at it.”24 So looking at water while being in the desert was a temptation she resisted.

What were the desires or temptations to be on the look out for? Clearly, gluttony, and other ‘luxuries’, because they make us weak (c. 32); possessions of all kinds are also vices, because “the majority of our griefs and trials originate in the removal of possessions”, as Synkletike tells the reader (c. 35), “What course of action does he (the Enemy) have against those without possesions? None! Can he burn their estates? Impossible! Destroy their livestock? They do not have any! Lay hands on their dear ones? To these too they long ago said good-bye.”(c. 35)25 So the devil cannot touch those who have let go of their earthly possessions, according to Synkletike.

What about the other desire, the desire for another person?

For men, to be far away from women, preferably in the desert, was an effective way to live ascetically. Ascetical women lived more often in houses in cities, and could separate themselves from the ‘world’ by following a strict diet. Is this so?

According to Synkletike, fasting was not the only option for women, they also had to keep themselves from making public excursions in order to stop images arising in their thoughts (c. 25). Synkletike also gives the following warning for ‘sisterly love’: (c. 27) “…the Malevolent One has transformed even sisterly love into his own brand of evil. He has actually tripped up, through their attachment to their sisters, virgins who have fled from marriage and all worldly illusion”.

The true ascetic must really be the person who stands above the male or female body of the other, as Susanna Elm in her book ‘Virgins of God’ shows by quoting an anonymous saying about a monk who takes a detour to avoid a group of virgins. The leader of the group says: “If you were a perfect monk, you would not have seen us as women.”26


The Life of Synkletike contains a large monologue on the logismoi, or: ‘thoughts’. According to the author of the work, not a lot is known about her ascetical practice, because Synkletike did not allow anyone to “be an observer of this” (c. 15). But the monologue explaining the ways in which every person’s logismoi work shows that the Vita is a work of great psychological insight (for instance: caput 41, see below).

The theory of the logismoi has been developed by Evagrius of Pontus (+399). Every person has ‘thoughts’. One of the thoughts that Synkletike uses in her teachings is for example: fornication (c. 26). The Devil uses the thoughts to “promote his own plans” (c. 27): he sets the thoughts to work through memories or visions of objects. It is how we react to these memories or visions that we know which thought the Devil is using.27 The ascetic has to learn to master his or her thoughts. The impure and material thoughts are the first ones to be mastered by ascetics. After these follow the more interior ones like arrogance. The Devil uses more subtle means for those ‘internal’ thoughts, so one has to be more advanced in the ascetical lifestyle to handle those internal thoughts.

What does Synkletike say about the logismos of fornication, of sexual ‘impure’ thoughts? of physical attraction? The devil works through the senses, or he works through remembrance, images of the past that go through one’s mind. Even “to give assent to these fantasies, is equivalent to sexual impurity in the world” (c. 26). One of the most interesting chapters of the Vita Syncleticae, concerning thoughts of desire is the next: (c. 29)

“For example, if in the crannies of the mind there should appear a vision of a beautiful apparition, it should be opposed instantly by one’s rational faculty. One should mentally gouge out the eyes of the image, and tear the flesh from its cheeks, and slash off the lips too – then one should look at the ugly framework of the bare bones! then one should view with scorn what was the object of desire! For thus the mind would have the strength to retreat from a foolish deception. The love object was nothing but blood mixed with phlegm, a mixture that for living creatures requires a covering. In this way, then, also through such mental processes it is possible to frighten off the foul evil… And still further, one should imagine over the entire body of the object of lust foul-smelling and festering sores and to see it with the inner eye, to put it briefly, as something like a corpse or even to see oneself as a corpse. And most important of all is control over the belly, for thus is possible also control over pleasures beneath the belly.”

This is a cruel but effective citation, and there are more stories like this one.

In his article ‘Mères du désert et Maternité spirituelle’, p. 236-237,28 Joseph Soler writes that the fathers did not underestimate the spiritual and ascetical life of females, and that the spiritual direction that women were taught did not vary much from that of men. The emphasis on Christ as the husband of virgins, and taking Mary more as a model for them, were the only differences. But Sarra, the desert mother, had to prove herself still in front of men, according to this tale:

“Another time, two old men, great anchorites, came to the district of Pelusium to visit her. When they arrived one said to the other, ‘Let us humiliate this old woman.’ So they said to her, Be careful not to become conceited thinking to yourself: “Look how anchorites are coming to see me, a mere woman.” ‘ But Amma Sarah said to them, ‘According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.'”29.

So did women de-womanize themselves or their thoughts? As I have mentioned, some women dressed as men, because it was safer, and in some cases, to gain acceptance among a community of monks. Maybe some women did not want to live with hundreds of other women, who often had fights, or to avoid what Synkletike had called ‘sisterly love’. In order to live alone, a woman had the choice between making herself inapproachable (like in a cell that was sealed off, or up a steep mountain), or pretending to be a man. And anyway: if a woman went to live in the desert, her appearance would adapt itself to the climate there, like Mary of Egypt, whose clothes were torn and lost long ago.30

Synkletike went to live in a family tomb on the outskirts of Alexandria. Many women found their way to her place, and it was only after many pleas that she talked about the way to leave the whole world behind in order to “advance towards God” (c. 60). But Synkletike’s sayings were taken up in the Apophthegmata Patrum, just as Sarra’s. And moreover, Synkletike’s Vita is cited in the tenth-century monastic florilegium, Paul of Evergetis’ Synagoge, that was being read in monasteries, and the verbs in female form were written in the male form, in order to appeal to ‘everyone’, not only to women… And as Benedicta Ward told me, when discussing the Desert fathers and mothers: “some Desert fathers were spiritual mothers too, so it is not a matter of gender, but more a matter of approach.”31

So if the difference between men and women in the desert was not mentionable, what about the difference between women who lived in the ‘world’ and ascetical women: Synkletike tells this to those who have come to hear her (c. 42):

“Let us women not be misled by the thought that those in the world are without cares. For perhaps in comparison they struggle more than we do. For towards women generally there is great hostility in the world. They bear children with difficulty and risk, and they suffer patiently through nursing, and they share illnesses with their sick children — and these things they endure without having any limit to their travail. For either the children they bear are maimed in body, or, brought up in perversity, they treacherously murder their parents. Since we women know these facts, therefore, let us not be deluded by the Enemy that their life is easy and carefree. For in giving birth women die in labour; and yet, in failing to give birth, they waste away under reproaches that they are barren and unfruitful.”

Conclusion, a general one

This paper has been about ascetics, about women, about the temptations of sexual attraction, how to act against it. The fascinating world of desert fathers and mothers still captures our imagination, even though the monastic environment is not desired by most. The teachings that were written down, even if the persons may not be historical, are still read today. Does this prove they have a universal message? To train body and soul for salvation, to be free of desires, it must be as old as man himself. And I admit, when I am stuck in my thoughts like possessiveness, or fornicative ones, then it helps to read about the struggles of others before me, and to realize that it makes sense to be able to discern between the different ‘thoughts’ and what stirs me, and how I get addicted, and how I can project my bad feelings on a devil, rather than on a human being. The stories of these women and men make our own bad thoughts more human, and they prove that nothing that one wants is reached by not putting in an effort. And that temptations are a basic force in everyone’s life.

I hope you have enjoyed hearing something about the temptations in the desert.


1 This paper was given as a communication at the 31st Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Brighton, 21-24 March 1997, which carried the theme ‘desire and denial’.

2 Vita Antonii, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca 26, col. 835-976, 841 b.

3 Idem, 860 B- and further.

4 Some mss. refer to Synkletike as didáskalos, see Migne’s ed. in P.G. 28, col. 1487-1558; Colbert’s ed. has metros, see Ecclesiae Graecae Monumenta, T. 1, Parisiorum 1677, ff. 201-277, so have Vat. gr. 825, Paris grec 1449, and Gotob. 4, and Athena 2104; Coislin 124 has aeí parthénou; Paris grec 1598 has parthénou; Uppsala gr. 5 has a strange reference to kallipárthenou Théklis.

5 Ed.: Migne, J.-P.: Patrologia Graeca 28, col. 1487-1558.

6 Palladius: Historia Lausiaca, ed. C. Butler, Cambridge 1898-1904 (2 vols).

7 Margot King: The desert mothers, Toronto, 1989, p. 10, has apparently counted 2975 women mentioned in the Historia Lausiaca.

8 Peter Brown, The body and society, 262.

9 Idem, 260.

10 Ibid., 264.

11 Ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia graeca, T. 65, col. 72-440, Paris, 1868. Transl.: Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo, 1975. Dutch: Chr. Wagenaar, Vaderspreuken: gerontikon, Bonheiden, 1987 (3de herz. uitg.).

12 Who taught or preached even though Paul had written: (1 Tm 2, 12): ‘But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.’

13 The body and society, p. 269.

14 The sayings of the Desert Fathers: the alphabetical collection, transl. forew. by Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo, Mich., rev. ed. 1984 (1975), p. 82.

15 Vita Macrinae: Migne, J.-P.: P.G., T. 46, cols 96-1000. Translat.: Kevin Corrigan, The Life of Saint Macrina, by Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, Toronto, 1989 (Peregrina transl. series no. 10), p. 28/Dutch transl. F. van der Meer en G. Bartelink, Utrecht, 1971, p. 35.

16 P.G. 28, see caput 10 for mention of Thekla.

17 Euergetinòs etoi Sunagooge toon theofthóngoon remátoon kaì didaskalíoon toon theofóroon kaì hagíoon patéroon, ed. Makarios Korinthos, Nikodemos Hagiorites, Venetië, 1783; 7de ed. in 4 vols: Athena, 1983.

18 Helen Waddell: The desert fathers, translations from the Latin with an introduction, London, 1987 (1936), p. 281.

19 PG 28, caput 4.

20 Peregrinatio ad loca sancta, éd. P. Maraval (Journal de voyage), Paris, 1982 (Sources chrétiennes, 296).

21 There is no edition known to me of this Saint’s Life, see Joyce E. Salisbury: Church Fathers, independent virgins, London, 1992 (1991), for a chapter about her deeds, p. 89-96.

22 See for Severa: Susanna Elm: ‘Virgins of God’: the making of asceticism in Late Antiquity, Oxford, 1994: Severa wanted to cross the desert on her pilgrimage to the Desert fathers, pp. 277-279.

23 Ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia graeca, T. 65, col. 72-440, Paris, 1868. Transl.: Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo, 1975. Dutch: Chr. Wagenaar, Vaderspreuken: gerontikon, Bonheiden, 1987 (3de herz. uitg.).

24 Sarah 3, Ward: p. 230. Wagenaar, p. 250.

25 Vita Syncleticae, transl. E. Bryson-Bongie.

26 Susanna Elm, p. 267 and n. 45: N 23 and also Abraham 1.

27 See for this specific psychological explaining of the thoughts: Anselm Grun: Het omgaan met de boze, Bonheiden, 1984, transl. from Der Umgang mit dem Bösen, der Dämonenkampf im alten Mönchtum, Münsterschwarzach [s.d.], p. 26.

28 Joseph M. Soler: “Mères du désert et maternité spirituelle”, in Collectanea Cisterciensia 48 (1986) 235-250.

29 Sarah 4, transl. Ward, 193, Wagenaar, 250.

30 See for Mary of Egypt: J.-P. Migne (ed.): Patrologia Graeca 87, col. 3697-3726, and the translation of Benedicta Ward: Harlots of the desert, Kalamazoo, 1987, p. 26-56, for this citation: p. 41.

31 On my visit to the Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Oxford, Sept. 1996.