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Amma Syncletica: Choose Meekness
Meekness is not a deficiency of strength, it’s a disguised and abundant kind.
Amma Syncleticasaid, "Imitate the publican, and you will not be condemned with the Pharisee. Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water."
A life saturated with humility is not easy to come by. I wish I could simply choose it, but I can’t.
I have to cultivate it.
Which is why Amma Syncletica says, “choose meekness,” because choosing meekness leads to humility.
The kind of meekness she is referring to is not the character trait that organically grows out of our lives. No, she has something else in mind, something we select. She’s pointing to the spiritual practice of choosing meekness, which John Climacus said was the key to cultivating humility:
“The morning light precedes the sun, and the precursor of all humility is meekness.”
I know the word meekness can be mysterious. What does it mean? What’s it about?
It’s not about embracing weakness or frailty, as is commonly thought. On the contrary, meekness is not a deficiency in strength. It’s actually a disguised and abundant kind of strength. In other words, it’s not about forfeiting your power, it’s about channeling or harnessing your power for the good of others.
For desert dwellers, that meant submitting their will to the will of an abba or amma. But it was more than that, meekness was practiced impromptu, in spontaneous moments where fellow monks were given preference, or monastery guests were given priority.
For me, choosing meekness means I’m working to drop my heroic image, which has been a great relief:
- I don’t always need to be right
- I don’t always need to have my way
Of course, I don’t stop being a person. I still have a will.
- I can offer an opinion gently
- I can make suggestions with non-coercive tones (at least I try)
But I have had to watch out for one trap: meekness is not an excuse for me to checkout of human relationships — to not care, to not have a point of view.
I can’t bow out. I have to be involved. I have to participate. I have to be a genuine contributor in my relationships. But my goal is to do all of that in a less self-determined way.
The more I practice desert meekness, the more I recognize the gift of other’s ideas, thoughts, and opinions. And I’ve even noticed a tiny increase in my own compassion for others, which I think is what Amma Syncletica meant when she said, your stoney heart will transform into a gushing spring.
I’m definitely not gushing, but, perhaps I’m trickling.
Like almost all the desert wisdom I read, Amma Syncletica’s advice is timeless.
She helps me train to become more like Christ:
- I’m training myself to imitate the publican.
- I’m praying repeatedly, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me (Lk 18: 9-14).”
- I’m laying down the intolerable burden of imagining I’m the “healthy” one — I’m always “right” — I see “clearly.”
None of this means I embrace a loathsome portrait of myself. It just means I’m working to embrace an accurate portrait — as one designed in God’s image and developing in his likeness.
That’s really all I want, an accurate portrait. For when I have this, the old masters say, I have humility.
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Amma Syncletica was a 5th-century Christian saint from Egypt. She was one of the Desert Mothers, a group of women who devoted their lives to a life of prayer and contemplation in the Christian desert tradition. Syncletica was known for her wise counsel and her teachings of humility and charity. She is also remembered for her asceticism, her love of solitude, and her willingness to help those in need. Her example and reputation continue to inspire Christians today.
Swan, Laura. The forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women. New York: Paulist Press, 2001.
Kallistos. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. United States: Paulist Press, 1982.