"In the desert communities of the fourth and fifth century, women were encouraged to stay put. Once a woman had found the right place for her, she was not to flit from one monastic community to another. The desert way values going deep, and going deep requires staying put. While on the one hand, these counsels from the desert mothers refer to one's physical shelter, from an inner perspective, Amma Syncletica is counseling us to not run from ourselves. She is encouraging us to stay faithfully with whatever new life is being hatched within us.
"In all probability, you are not reading this as a member of a monastic community, so you may be wondering what Amma Syncletica's words have to do with your life and prayer. On the one hand, Syncletica is writing about the vowed life of the Egyptian desert in ancient times. On the other, she is addressing a universal human temptation to miss our lives by living completely on the surface. After all, our culture encourages competition and ambition, and we are highly mobile. If we are not careful, that mobility can create a kind of rootlessness that will injure us and those with whom we live and move and have our being. This is the kind of rootlessness that is internal, that is caused by our not staying with anything long enough to grow deep roots. Any gardener will tell you that pulling up a plant and moving it repeatedly does not contribute to the health of the plant. The cultural dilemma of mobility often is beyond our control. The spiritual response of finding ways to put roots into the soil of prayer and faith will support us even when our external lives are mobile.
"In the desert, men and women were counseled, 'Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything.' The cell was often a small, unadorned hut, perhaps a cave hewn from rock. In any event, the cell was a sacred space, a place in which a woman could be with herself and the divine Presence and listen. The cell was a place of divine encounter and of ongoing, daily experience of being immersed in God's presence.
"Amma Syncletica's counsel with regard to this uses a tenderly maternal metaphor that of the mother bird hatching her young. Each woman in Syncletica's community would have been formed by this teaching as it was repeated and handed down. The life of faith looks like a mother bird, sitting on her eggs. For all we know, that mother bird has moments when it seems like nothing is happening. There are moments when real boredom sets in and the temptation to leave the eggs and do something more interesting arises.
"Amma Syncletica's metaphor speaks directly to one of the dilemmas of the spiritual life that of coming to terms with the plain old ordinariness of spiritual practice and the life of prayer, of the whole of life becoming prayer. Instead, we are encouraged not to sit, not to persevere, not to struggle with boredom. We are enticed by a variety of means to leave our 'eggs' and simply move continually from one interest to another. The result is that we don't allow ourselves the opportunity to bring forth new life. The 'eggs' die because they are not tended. We miss the deeper life of the Spirit because we are constantly moving from one interest to another rather than focusing on one thing.
"Our ancient mothers knew that when boredom threatened, it could very well be the outward and visible sign of God's secret, hidden, inner work within the human heart and soul. Consequently, they emphasized staying in the cell, in the little room of daily living, and letting that cell be their teacher.
"What does that mean, letting the cell be our teacher? For one thing, it means that there is a blessing in persevering when a practice gets boring. We are overstimulated and overextended, and the consequence of that is stress. Doctors and researchers tell us that stress is not only a mental condition. Stress creates real physical distress and is a causal factor in physical maladies from heart trouble to cancer. Never-ending stress leads our immune systems to malfunction, and that in turn hurts our bodies. It is hard for us to know the innately humane rhythm of life as long as we are harried and hurried. We become strangers to the persons God calls us to be, simply for lack of steadiness.
"Staying in the cell, or 'sitting on the eggs' means noticing our appetite for overstimulation. The cell teaches us to slow down, to be less of a slave to our impulses, to notice what is right in front of us. The wisdom the desert mothers offer us is that by staying with ourselves, with our inner ups and downs, with our hurts and our fears, we will bring forth the new life that God is creating within us. The cell teaches us to trust in the Presence even when it feels like absolutely nothing is happening. The cell helps us to see that skipping from one activity to another, from one interest to another, from one focus to another results in never putting down roots, never getting to deeper meaning and purpose, never going beyond surface reality.”