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The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Thursday, 11 February 2010

St Isaac the Syrian (thanks to Ambrose Young of Irenikon)

10 February 2010


'O Revealer of Unfathomable Mysteries'—St Isaac the Syrian


Today, 28 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of St Isaac the Syrian (7th c.). Archimandrite Justin (Popović) writes, ‘Among the most outstanding of these holy philosophers [i.e., the Church Fathers] was the great ascetic, Isaac the Syrian.’ [1] Archimandrite Placide (Deseille) tells us, ‘He is viewed by all Christendom as a saint and a spiritual author of the first rank.’ [2] Olivier Clément calls St Isaac ‘One of the greatest spiritual figures of the Christian East where his influence has never ceased to make itself felt . . . .’ [3] Finally, according to Photios Kontoglou, ‘Saint Isaac, you might say, had wisdom sit like a golden bee on his mouth. Not the futile and bewildered wisdom of the clever, but the unfading wisdom, the source of incorruption, which truly liberates the man who possesses it.’ [4] Here is the account of his life in the Prologue:

Born in Nineveh, he began at an early age to live the ascetic life in the monastery of Mar-Matthew near Nineveh. When he became known for his holy life and miracles, he was chosen as bishop of Nineveh and forced to accept this state. But after only five months he left his episcopate and fled secretly to the desert monastery of Rabban-Shapur. He was the author of many works, of which about a hundred sermons on the spiritual life and asceticism, written mainly from his own experience, have come down to us. He was without equal as a writer and guide in the spiritual life. He entered into rest at a great age at the end of the seventh century. [5]

In his introduction to the hesychastic tradition, Fr Placide rounds out the picture somewhat:

[St Isaac’s] knowledge of the Scriptures and tradition rapidly earned him the repute of a master. . . . [6]

. . .

Filled with meekness, radiant peace, and humility, he nourished himself only with three pieces of bread and a few raw vegetables per week. His great asceticism and intense study caused him to lose his sight, but the other monks devoted themselves to writing down his teachings. They nicknamed him Didymus the Second. . . . [7]

Though St Isaac is often referred to without any qualification as a ‘Nestorian’, the renowned translator of the Homilies, Dana Miller, argues that the characterisation of the 7th-c. Persian Church as ‘Nestorian’ is a gross oversimplification, and that, at any rate, St Isaac’s ‘confession of our Lord’s incarnation is entirely orthodox’. [8] Fr Placide notes that ‘there is no trace of Nestorianism in his writings’, and that ‘Unlike the writings of Evagrius of Pontus, Isaac’s work did not have to be expurgated.’ [9] Thus, his example is certainly no evidence that a heretic can be venerated as a Saint in the Orthodox Church, but rather an illustration of the Church’s great latitude and pastoral condescension when it comes to the complexities of schism and heresy when they are still in the process of hardening.

Much has been said by readers about the great profundity of St Isaac’s spiritual teaching. Indeed, St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) classes it among those works written expressly for hesychastic ‘solitaries’, allowing the reading of St Isaac to coenobites only ‘after some considerable time’ and extensive reading in the ‘books written [specifically] for coenobitic monks’. [10] In his review of Archbishop Hilarion’s book on St Isaac, [11] Dana Miller writes:

His books were meant for fellow ascetics, for people who devote their every effort to being physically and mentally disassociated from the world we know and to being physically and mentally joined to another, very different world. It is a kind of accident that we can pick up a copy of Isaac as we idle away hours in a local bookstore. I doubt very much that Isaac ever foresaw this and I am uncertain whether or not he would be pleased. [12]

Indeed, St Isaac himself illustrates just how far we still have to go to attain the real end of his ascetic program—knowledge of God:

There is a knowledge that precedes faith, and there is a knowledge born of faith. Knowledge that precedes faith is natural knowledge; and that which is born of faith is spiritual knowledge. What is natural knowledge? Knowledge is natural that discerns good from evil, and this is also called natural discernment, by which we know to discern good from evil naturally, without being taught. . . . Those who have been deprived of it are inferior to rational nature, but those who possess it stand aright in their soul’s nature, and do not have any deficiency in those things that God has granted their nature to honour its rationality. . . . The honour belonging to rational nature is the discernment that tells good from evil, and those who have destroyed it are justly compared to ‘mindless cattle’ (Ps. 48:12), which have no rational and discerning faculty. With this discernment it is possible for us to find the pathway of God. This is knowledge that is natural; this is the predecessor of faith; and this is the pathway to God. [13]

St Isaac says ‘this is the predecessor of faith’! Yet how many of us are still ‘mindless cattle’ with no discernment? And we dare to delve into the deepest teachings of this man whose eye, in Kontoglou’s words, ‘scans the sun and remains undazzled’? Wisely, Kontoglou warns us, ‘Let no one, however, off-handedly approach this priceless ark, but with fear and trembling, because it would not be right for anyone who has ruined his palate with the foul and poisonous liquors of this world to refresh himself here.’ [14] And let us not think that we are sufficiently qualified for this study because we are educated. Further on Kontoglou writes:

Nevertheless, most of the educated are only going to admire from the outside the masterful way these sayings are turned, the odd glints they give off, a few of the soaring high points and paradoxes; they will not be able, however, to see the inner riches and the mother-of-pearl depths of this entrancing abyss; they will remain strangers, unable to taste that blissful delight. The key to this prolific mind and this deep soul is given to the humble man, and to the man who searches by the light of faith, but not to the expert. To all but these this spiritual paradise is locked, and all who are confident of entering by their knowledge remain sitting outside the gate, like Adam. [15]

Yet I do think there are passages where something is thrown to us that is sufficiently ‘practical’ that we may find immediate profit. As just one example, I offer this from Sebastian Brock’s translation of ‘The Second Part’, Chapter IV:

3. Varieties of (different) prayers indeed greatly help a mind which is harassed by distraction: from them, and by means of the strength resulting from them, the mind feels compunction and (so) acquires sweet prayer, prolonged kneeling, intercession for creation, and extended supplications which are set into motion from within. This happens to him because, with each single word which he encounters in these (prayers), he is like someone who is awoken out of sleep: he encounters in them astounding insights all the time, seeing that these very words are the result of the gift of grace and (so) possess a hidden power. Thus he is continually assisted through being occupied by them and through reading them. [16]

It seems to me that, having already opened the Triodion and standing upon the threshold of the Great Fast, we are faced with a unique opportunity to realise the truth of these words. Let us indeed find continual assistance ‘through being occupied by’ the words of the Triodion ‘and through reading them’.

I have quoted a couple of my favourite passages of St Isaac here and here, and in last year’s post on the Saint (here) I quoted still more. In that post I also considered Dostoevsky’s debt to St Isaac, upon which Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron has written a profound spiritual meditation [17] and concerning which Kontoglou memorably writes:

I have not come across anything anything written about Saint Isaac in any book from Europe. We have left him to be forgotten like a light hidden under a bushel. But there was an Orthodox fellow, a Russian, Dostoyevsky, who wrote about him in one of his books; I thought of it the other day when this book was being printed. No theologians remembered him, just this sinful fellow, a no-gooder, a gambler, a soul curried like leather from agony, the prodigal son. But for him they killed the fatted calf: ‘The publicans and the harlots go before you into the Kingdom of the Heavens.’ [18]

I consider Fr Justin’s ‘Theory of Knowledge of St Isaac the Syrian’ a crucial exposition of Orthodox gnoseology, [19] and highly recommend Archimandrite Vasileios’s Abba Isaac the Syrian, [20] though Fr Alexander (Golitzin) is not exaggerating too much when he says Fr Vasileios ‘sings Isaac’s praises to the point of near incoherence’. [21] In conclusion, here is the Troparion of the Saint:

Dismissal Hymn of Saint Isaac
Plagal of First Tone. Let us worship the Word

He that thundered on Sinai with saving laws for man * hath also given thy writings as guides in prayer unto monks, * O revealer of unfathomable mysteries; * for having gone up in the mount * of the vision of the Lord, thou wast shown the many mansions. * Wherefore, O God-bearing Isaac, entreat the Saviour for all praising thee. [22]


[1] Archimandrite Justin (Popović), ‘The Theory of Knowledge of St Isaac the Syrian’, tr. Mother Maria (Rule), Orthodox Faith & Life in Christ, ed. Fr Asterios Gerostergios (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies), p. 120. See also, Archimandrite Justin (Popović), ‘The Theory of Knowledge of St Isaac the Syrian’, tr. Mother Maria (Rule), Man & the God-man (Alhambra, CA: Sebastian, 2009), p. 69.

[2] Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), Orthodox Spirituality & the Philokalia, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008), p. 27.

[3] Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Text & commentary, tr. Theodore Berkeley, OCSO, rev. Jeremy Hummerstone (London: New City,1995), p. 345.

[4] Photios Kontoglou, ‘Encomium’, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana R. Miller (Boston: HTM, 1984), p. lviii.

[5] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 106.

[6] Fr Placide, p. 26.

[7] Ibid., p. 27.

[8] Dana R. Miller, ‘Epilogue’, Ascetical Homilies, p. 514.

[9] Fr Placide, p. 27.

[10] St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, tr. Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore) (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991), p. 22.

[11] Archbishop Hilarion (Alfeyev), The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 2000).

[12] Dana R. Miller, ‘Review of The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Archbishop Hilarion (Alfeyev)’, here.

[13] St Isaac the Syrian, Hom. 47, Ascetical Homilies, p. 226.

[14] Kontoglou, p. lviii.

[15] Ibid., p. lix.

[16] St Isaac the Syrian, ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV-XLI, tr. Sebastian Brock, Vol. 555 of Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium (Louvain: Peeters, 1995), p. 2.

[17] Archimandrite Vasileios (Gondikakis) of Iveron, ‘Απο τον Αββά Ισαάκ στον Ντοστογιέβσκι’, Φώς Χριστού Φαίνει Πάσι (Karyes, Mt Athos: Holy Monastery of Iveron, 2002), pp. .

[18] Kontoglou, p. lx.

[19] See n. 1, above.

[20] Fr Vasileios, Abba Isaac the Syrian: An Approach to His World, tr. Elizabeth Theokritoff (Montréal: Alexander, 1999).

[21] Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin), ‘Review of The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Archbishop Hilarion (Alfeyev)’, St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 46, No 2-3, 2002, pp. 285-290 (here).

[22] The Great Horologion, tr. Holy Tranfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 402.
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