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The Spinning Wheel of Success

Amma Syncletica said, “Just as a treasure exposed is quickly spent, so also any virtue which becomes famous or well-publicized vanishes. Just as wax is quickly melted by fire, so the soul is emptied by praise and loses firmness of virtue.”

A statement like this one may have struck a vein of serious spiritual depth in third-century Egypt. In the twenty-first century, however, Syncletica’s rather casual dismissal of the importance of public acknowledgment of personal success could feel more like churlishness, if not discrimination.

In this culture in which, as Andy Warhol said, “Everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame,” the very thought of avoiding publicity seems like some kind of social treason. The idea now and here is to get more and more attention, to become more and more a center of attraction, however ephemeral the image may be. In the new global marketplace, publicity is key. The great commercial struggle is to capture all the light there is in order to become the light the world follows. It is the opening of the self to a world of strangers.

It’s just the way things are: shallow––self-centered—and exhausted—by wanting more and more and more. We are part of the great public dance called the national economy. We are totally consumed trying to keep up with all the other publicity seekers around us.

It is the very situation Amma Syncletica defined centuries ago. Only then, she was warning the world—and even its Desert Monastics—about the danger of giving oneself away so totally that what is left is nothing but the husk of ourselves. Then, ironically, exhausted by the empty climb up the spinning wheel of success, we have become dry and lifeless, pale and uninviting. As our Novice Director warned us in the spirit of Syncletica long before our final profession, “My dear young sisters, remember this: the empty vessel must be filled.”

When the soul is depleted, there is no more wisdom to give. There is no more depth to expect here than from any other to whom we have already given more than we can afford at the present time.

Once the principal of the treasure is touched, Syncletica warns us, it’s so much easier to spend it all than to save it for another day. Syncletica’s soul-vision is a true one. Even virtue, our special gifts and talents, she goes on, exposed too long, too much—more for show than in passion—will become too sapped to be revived again. We go through the steps of listening, counseling, and encouraging others, but we have lost the heart for it ourselves. Once forged in prayer and intent on responding to those in need, we are now in need ourselves.

“Just as wax is quickly melted by fire,” she says, “so the soul is emptied by praise and loses firmness of virtue.” Once the attention of the public settles on the strength that brings us to the height of ourselves, it is that very strength that is most in danger of collapse. 

Does the spiritual word of an Amma in the third century have anything to say to us in our century? Only if you are a surgeon who is so much in demand that you haven’t taken a week off in years. Only if you are the director of the local soup kitchen who does all the cooking yourself and, in the off hours, runs a food pantry on the side. Only if, in the name of holiness, you have neglected your own spiritual life, your own physical energy. Then, it is clear that to be one of Amma Syncletica’s disciples, it is time for you to rest for a while. Rest. Look at life again—this time through the vision of spiritual wholeness that started this work in you to begin with.

—from In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics, by Joan Chittister (Franciscan Media)