"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012
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
My presentation will be dedicated to the theology of St Isaac the Syrian, known also as Isaac of Nineveh, a famous Eastern Christian ascetical writer who lived in the seventh century.
The biographical information on Isaac is contained in two Syriac sources: The Book of Chastity by the East Syrian historian Isho‘denah, the Bishop of Basra, comprised of short biographies of Persian ascetics, and in a West Syrian source of uncertain date and origin.
Chapter 124 of the book by Isho‘denah is called ‘On the holy mar Ishaq, Bishop of Nineveh, who abdicated from his episcopacy and composed books on the discipline of solitude’. Isho‘denah says about Isaac the following: ‘He was ordained Bishop of Nineveh by Mar Giwargis the Catholicos in the monastery of Beit ‘Abe. But after he had held the office of the Shepherd of Nineveh for five months.., he abdicated his episcopacy for a reason which God knows, and he departed and dwelt in the mountains... He ascended the mountain of Matout, which is encircled by the region of Beit Huzaye, and he dwelt in stillness together with the anchorites who lived thereabouts. Afterward he went to the monastery of Rabban Shabur. He was exceedingly well versed in the divine writings, even to the point that he lost his eyesight by reason of his reading and asceticism. He entered deeply into the divine mysteries and composed books on the divine discipline of solitude. He said, however, three points which were not accepted by many. Daniel Bar Tubanitha, the Bishop of Beit Garmai, was scandalized at him on account of these three propositions which he expounded. Howbeit, when he reached deep old age, he departed from temporal life, and his body was placed in the monastery of Shabur. He was born in Beit Qatraye, and I think that envy was stirred up against him by those who dwelt in the interior parts of Persia’.
The West Syrian source contains similar information on Isaac, not mentioning the controversies surrounding Isaac’s theological propositions, but adding some other descriptive traits. In particular, the source says that, when Isaac became blind, his disciples wrote down his teachings. ‘They called him the second Didymos, for indeed, he was quiet, kind and humble, and his word was gentle. He ate only three loaves a week with some vegetables, and he did not taste any food that was cooked. He composed five volumes, that are known even until this day, filled with sweet teaching’.
The province of Qatar, where Isaac was born, was situated on the Western shore of the Persian Gulf (the present Qatar is part of the United Arab Emirates). Around 648 the Bishops of Qatar separated from the Persian Catholicos: the schism lasted until 676, when the Catholicos Giwargis visited Qatar and reconciled its Bishops with the Church of Persia. Possibly, it was at that time that he consecrated Isaac, who was known for his strict asceticism, as the Bishop of Nineveh.
Isaac had little success in his capacity as a Bishop. The following East Syrian legend, preserved in Arabic translation, tells us of his abdication. The first day after his ordination, when Isaac was sitting in his residence, two men came to his room disputing with each other. One of them was demanding the return of a loan: ‘If this man refuses to pay back what belongs to me, I will be obliged to take him to court’. Isaac said to him: ‘Since the Holy Gospel teaches us not to take back what has been given away, you should at least grant this man a day to make his repayment’. The man answered: ‘Leave aside for the moment the teachings of the Gospel’. Then Isaac said: ‘If the Gospel is not to be present, what have I come here to do?’ And seeing that the office of Bishop disturbed his solitary life, ‘the holy man abdicated from his episcopacy and fled to the holy desert of Skete’.
What were the three ‘propositions’ which Isaac allegedly expounded and what precisely instigated Daniel Bar Tubanitha against Isaac remains an enigma. It is known that Daniel composed ‘a solution to the questions raised by the fifth volume of Mar Isaac of Nineveh’. The only testimony about this work of Daniel which is left for us is one recorded by the ninth-century East Syrian writer Hanoun Ibn Yohanna ibn as-Salt. The latter describes a visit of the Catholicos Yuhanna ibn Barsi to a famous monk. The Catholicos brought with him the writings by Isaac and read them aloud, ‘without lifting his head until the sun shone on him’. After he finished, the monk asked the Catholicos, what is more trustworthy: Isaac’s writings or what Daniel composed as a refutation of them. The Catholicos replied: ‘Is it possible for a man like you to ask such a question? Mar Isaac speaks the language of the heavenly beings, whereas Daniel speaks the language of the earthly ones’.
The precise date of Isaac’s death is unknown, as is the date of his birth. It is quite likely that already during his earthly life he was venerated as a saint. After his death his glory increased as his writings spread. Joseph Hazzaya, who lived in the eighth century, called him ‘famous among the saints’. Another Syrian writer calls him ‘the master and teacher of all monks and the haven of salvation for the whole world’. By the eleventh century, due to the Greek translation of his writings, Isaac became widely known in the Greek-speaking East. In the Middle Ages his writings were translated into Latin and several European languages. This is how this humble Syrian ascetic became universally known and appreciated.
In St Isaac we find many interesting theological and ascetical notions, which cannot be discussed in the course of one 45-minute presentation. I therefore decided to explore together with you three fundamental ideas that shape the theological vision of St Isaac. In the first part of my presentation I will speak about his understanding of God as love. The second part will be dedicated to his teaching on solitude and renunciation of the world. In the third part of my talk I will concentrate on St Isaac’s understanding of God’s commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbour.
Divine love which reveals itself through the created world
The presentation of St Isaac’s theology should begin with an investigation into his doctrine of God, the Creator and Guide of the universe, and his understanding of how God reveals Himself through the created world.
God, in Isaac’s understanding, is first of all immeasurable and boundless love. The idea of God as love is central and dominant in Isaac’s thought: it is the main source of his theological opinions, ascetical recommendations and mystical insights. His theological system cannot be comprehended apart from this fundamental idea.
Divine love is beyond human understanding and above all description in words. At the same time it is reflected in God’s actions with respect to the created world and humankind: ‘Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us’. Both the creation of the world and God’s coming on earth in flesh had the only aim, ‘to reveal His boundless love to the world’.
Divine love was the main reason for the creation of the universe and is the main driving force behind the whole of creation. In the creation of the world divine love revealed itself in all its fullness: ‘What that invisible Being is like, who is without any beginning in His nature, unique in Himself, who is by nature beyond the knowledge, intellect and feel of created beings, who is beyond time and space, being the Creator of these… Let us consider then, how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation, and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men’.
Divine love is a continuing realization of the creative potential of God, an endless revelation of the Divinity in His creative act. Divine love lies at the foundation of the universe, it governs the world, and it will lead the world to that glorious outcome when the latter will be entirely ‘consumed’ by the Godhead: ‘What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God’s!.. In love did He bring the world into existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised’.
The will of God, which is full of love, is the primal source of all that exists within the universe.
God is not only the Creator of the universe and its driving force: He is first of all ‘the true Father’, ‘who in His great and immeasurable love surpasses all in paternal affection’. Thus His attitude to the created world is characterized by an unceasing providential care for all its inhabitants: for angels and demons, human beings and animals. God’s providence is universal and embraces all. None of His creatures is excluded from the scope of the loving providence of God, but the love of the Creator is bestowed equally upon all: ‘...There is not a single nature who is in the first place or last place in creation in the Creator’s knowledge.., similarly there is no before or after in His love towards them: no greater or lesser amount of love is to be found with Him at all. Rather, just like the continual equality of His knowledge, so too is the continual equality of His love’.
All living creatures existed in God’s mind before their creation. And before they have been brought into being, they received their place in the hierarchical structure of the universe. This place is not taken away from anyone even if one falls away from God: ‘Everyone has a single place in His purpose in the ranking of love, corresponding to the form He beheld in them before He created them and all the rest of created beings, that is, at the time before the eternal purpose for the delineation of the world was put into effect... He has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen’.
The providential care of God and His love extends to angels, who were the first product of God’s creative act, including those who had fallen away from God and had turned into demons. According to Isaac, the love of the Creator towards fallen angels does not diminish as a result of their fall, and it is not less than the fullness of love which He has towards other angels. ‘It would be most odious and utterly blasphemous’, Isaac claims, ‘to think that hate and resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings; or to imagine any other weakness, or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious Nature. Rather, He acts towards us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief, whether they cause joy or grief, whether they are insignificant or glorious: all are directed towards the single eternal good...’
To say that the love of God diminishes or vanishes because of a created being’s fall means ‘to reduce the glorious Nature of the Creator to weakness and change’. For we know that ‘there is no change or any earlier or later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser place in His love, no before or after in His knowledge. For if it is believed by everyone that the creation came into existence as a result of the Creator’s goodness and love, then we know that this original cause does not ever diminish or change in the Creator’s nature as a result of the disordered course of creation’. Nothing that happens in creation may affect the nature of the Creator, Who is ‘exalted, lofty and glorious, perfect and complete in His knowledge, and complete in His love’.
This is why God loves equally the righteous and sinners, making no distinction between them. God knew man’s future sinful life before the latter’s creation, yet He created him. God knew all people before their becoming righteous or sinners, and in His love He did not change because of the fact that they underwent change. Even many blameworthy deeds are accepted by God with mercy, ‘and are forgiven their authors, without any blame, by the omniscient God to whom all things are revealed before they happen, and who was aware of the constraints of our nature before He created us. For God, who is good and compassionate, is not in the habit of judging the infirmities of human nature or actions brought about by necessity, even though they may be reprehensible’.
Even when God chastises one, He does this out of love and for the sake of one’s salvation rather than for the sake of retribution. God respects human free will and does not want to do anything against it: ‘God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge.., but seeking to make whole His image… Far be it, that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!’
Thus the image of God as Judge is completely overshadowed in Isaac by the image of God as Love (hubba) and Mercy (rahme). According to him, mercifulness (mrahmanuta) is incompatible with justice (k’inuta): ‘Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves... Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul’. Thus one cannot speak at all of God’s justice, but rather of mercy that surpasses all justice: ‘As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures’.
Rejecting with such decisiveness the idea of requital, Isaac shows that the Old Testament understanding of God as a chastiser of sinners, ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’, does not correspond with the revelation that we have received through Christ in the New Testament. Though David in the Psalms called God ‘righteous and upright in His judgments’, He is in fact good and merciful. Christ himself confirmed God’s ‘injustice’ in His parables, in particular in the Parables of the Workers in the Vineyard and of the Prodigal Son, but even more so by His incarnation for the sake of sinners: ‘Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us?’
Thus, Isaac claims, one should not interpret literally those Old Testament texts where wrath, anger, hatred and other similar terms are used with reference to the Creator. If such anthropomorphic terms occur in Scripture, they are used in a figurative sense, for God never does anything out of wrath, anger or hatred: everything of that sort is far removed from His Nature. We should not read everything literally as it is written, but rather see within the bodily exterior of the Old Testament narratives the hidden providence and eternal knowledge of God. ‘Fear God out of love for Him, and not for the reputation of austerity that has been attributed to Him’.
If God is love by His nature, everyone who has acquired perfect love and mercy towards all creation, becomes godlike: his perfect state of love towards creation is a mirror where he can see a true image and likeness of the Divine Essence. All the saints ‘seek for themselves the sign of complete likeness to God: to be perfect in the love of the neighbour’.
Characteristic in this connection is Isaac’s famous text on the ‘merciful heart’, through which one can become like God: ‘And what is a merciful heart? - It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God’.
The ‘merciful heart’ in a person is, therefore, the image and likeness of God’s mercy, which embraces the whole of creation, people, animals, reptiles and demons. With God, there in no hatred towards anyone, but all-embracing love, which does not distinguish between righteous and sinner, between a friend of truth and an enemy of truth, between angel and demon. Every created being is precious in God’s eyes, He cares for every creature, and everyone finds in Him a loving Father. If we turn away from God, He does not turn away from us: ‘If we believe not, yet He abideth faithful, for He cannot deny Himself’. Whatever may happen to humankind and to the whole of creation, however far it may be removed from God, He remains faithful to it in His love, which He cannot and will not deny.
Solitude and renunciation of the world
The main hero of Isaac’s writings is the ihidaya, ‘solitary’, or literally, ‘single one’ (related to Hebrew Yahid, ‘single’). In the time of Isaac this term was used to designate a solitary monk, as opposed to dayraya, a cenobitic monk. However, the initial meaning of the term is much broader: it points to the unity of a human person within himself and to his unity with God. Thus in the Peshitta, the term ihidaya was used as a title of Adam as created after the image of one God: ‘It was wisdom which preserved the ancestral father, the ihidaya, who had been created in the world’. In the New Testament ihidaya is first of all the epithet of Jesus Christ, translating Greek monogenes, ‘the Only-Begotten’. In Syriac writings of the fourth century the term is already used referring to ascetics, who are like angels in that they do not marry. A solitary is the one who lives in Christ, ‘the Only-Begotten (ihidaya) from the Father who gives joy to all solitaries (ihidaye)’, as Aphrahat says.
Solitude in Isaac is not a synonym for celibacy and the eremitical life. It is first and foremost an experience of union with God. Most people find loneliness burdensome, taking it as a fully negative experience of isolation, abandonment, the absence of ‘the other’, with whom they might share the joys and sufferings of earthly existence. For Isaac, on the contrary, loneliness is an experience of the presence of God, who is closer to him than any other friend and who always cares for him. ‘...God has never perceptibly shown His action except in a region of stillness, in the desert, and in places bereft of chance encounters with men and of the turbulence of their habitations’. If one lives in the desert, far from people, one should be sure that there is a Guardian with him who will never leave him alone. The soul of the one who is separated from the world and leads the life of stillness is lifted up toward God: being astonished, it is struck with wonder and remains with God.
Solitude is one’s internal experience of living within oneself, withdrawal into one’s inner person, something that is necessary for uniting oneself with God. At the same time, it is the experience of renouncing the ‘other’, even if it were a friend or a relative. It is finally an experience of withdrawal from the world and renunciation of it in order to achieve union with God. Solitude can be painful, full of inner suffering, but without this experience one can never come close to the fullness of life in God.
Thus the renunciation of the world for the sake of a solitary life in God is, according to Isaac, a necessary condition for entering the way to God. ‘Liberation from the material things precedes the bond of God’. ‘No one can draw nigh to God save the man who has separated himself from the world. But I call separation not the departure from the body, but departure from the world’s affairs’. The ‘world’ in this context means ‘a collective noun which is applied to the so-called passions’. To go out of the world and to die for the world means to liberate oneself from passions and ‘the mind of the flesh’, that is, from everything bodily and material, which puts obstacles in the way of spiritual life. The love of the world is incompatible with the love of God; one should liberate oneself from the first in order to acquire the second: ‘The soul that loves God finds rest only in God. First detach yourself from all external bonds and then you may strive to bind your heart to God, because unification with God is preceded by detachment from matter’.
The renunciation of the world is a gradual process, which begins with the desire to reach the contemplation of God. Renunciation includes the discipline of both the body and the mind. There is a correspondence between the degree of one’s renunciation and one’s ability to enter the contemplation of God: ‘Blessed is the majesty of the Lord who opens the door before us, so that we might have no other wish save the desire of Him! For thus do we abandon all things and our mind goes forth in quest of Him alone, having no care which might hinder it from the contemplation of the Lord. The more, my beloved brethren, the mind takes leave of care for the visible and is concerned with the hope of future things.., the more it is refined and becomes translucent in prayer. And the more the body is freed from the bonds of worldly affairs, the more the mind is also freed from the same.’
This ideal of total renunciation of the world was embodied in practice in early eremitical monasticism. It is because of the wish to avoid the struggle which arises from the proximity of worldly things that the ascetics of the past withdrew into the desert. The monks flee from the world in order not to create occasions of encounter with the passions, sins and sinful thoughts. But apart from this, there is the quest for a renunciation of people in eremitical monasticism, which in some cases leads a solitary to total rejection of any encounter with them. This flight from people is undertaken for the sake of union with God: the solitary does not want anyone to distract him from being with God. Isaac finds very strong words to point to the harm which may be done to a solitary through encounters with people: ‘O, how evil is the sight of men and intercourse with them for solitaries..! For just as the sudden blast of ice, falling on the buds of the fruit-trees, nips and destroys them, so too, contacts with men, even though they be quite brief and, to all appearance, made for a good purpose, wither the bloom of virtue - newly flowering due to the temperate air of stillness - which covers with softness and delicacy the fruit-tree of the soul planted beside the channels of the waters of repentance. And just as the bitterness of the frost, seizing upon new shoots, consumes them, so too does conversation with men seize upon the root of a mind that has begun to sprout the tender blades of the virtues. And if the talk of those who have controlled themselves in one particular thing, but who in another have minor faults, is apt to harm the soul, how much more will the chatter and sight of ignoramuses and fools..?’
Speaking of the necessity to flee from the world and from people, Isaac often cites as an example the ancient ascetics, in particular, Arsenius the Great, who was especially dear to him. He mentions the episode when Arsenius, upon seeing a visitor who came to his desert, ran away from him. ‘Wait for me, father’, a monk cried, ‘because I am running after you for God’s sake’. - ‘And I for God’s sake am fleeing you’, Arsenius replied. On another occasion he fell down before a monk who came to see him, saying: ‘I shall not get up until you have departed’. When an Archbishop came to see Arsenius and asked for spiritual instructions, he answered: ‘Whenever you hear that Arsenius is found, do not draw nigh to that place’. Being asked by Abba Macarius about the reason for his avoiding people, Arsenius replied: ‘God knows that I love you, but I cannot be with both God and men’. This is how Arsenius fulfilled the commandment given to him by God: ‘Arsenius, flee men and be saved’.
The renunciation of people, according to Isaac, should be radical and absolute. Any bond of relationship, friendship or love should be cut off. The renunciation of relatives is a theme which is particularly traditional in monastic literature. Developing it, Isaac refers to the example of a saintly monk who never visited his brother, also a monk. When the latter was about to die, he sent word to him asking to come to bid him farewell. ‘But the blessed man was not persuaded, not even at that hour when nature is wont to be compassionate to other men and to overstep the limit set by the will. He said: “If I go out, my heart will not be pure before God...” And his brother died and did not see him’. This story, which may seem very cruel by contemporary standards, shows the degree of renunciation which was required from monks in early monasticism.
Love of God and love of one’s neighbour
How does this radicalism in insisting upon the renunciation of people correspond to the commandment of love of one’s neighbour? Is this flight from people not a flight from Christ Himself, who said: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’? Does this self-isolation not lead to a loss or absence of love for people, to selfish indifference towards anyone except oneself?
Isaac would give negative answers. On the contrary, he says, flight from people paradoxically leads to the increase of love of them. The commandment of love of God is universal and it embraces the commandment of the love of one’s neighbour: ‘The commandment that says, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind”, more than the world, nature, and all that pertains thereto, is fulfilled when you patiently endure in your stillness. And the commandment that speaks of the love of neighbour is included within the former. Do you wish to acquire in your soul the love of your neighbour according to the commandment of the Gospel? Separate yourself from him, and then the heat and flame of the love of him will burn in you and you will rejoice over the sight of his countenance as though you beheld an angel of light. And do you wish that those who love you should thirst for you? See their faces on fixed days only. Truly, experience is the teacher of all’.
It should be emphasized here, for the sake of those to whom such an attitude towards other people might seem shocking, that Isaac does not give here recommendations which would be universally applicable. As his writings are addressed primarily to the solitaries, he is usually talking to a very specific readership. Moreover, he speaks only of his own experience of a solitary by vocation, and of the experience of other solitaries around him and those of the past. The question is therefore about the specifically monastic way of acquiring the love of people as a result of giving up all encounters with them.
Isaac is convinced that the main task of a Christian is the purification of his inner person: this is more important than encounters with people and any activity for the sake of them. This activity is especially dangerous when the soul of a monk is not yet purified and the passions are not yet exterminated from it. There were many people, Isaac says, who were known for their deeds of philanthropy, but because of their constant dwelling within the world with its passions and temptations, they failed to take sufficient care for their own souls: ‘Many have accomplished mighty acts, raised the dead, toiled for the conversion of the erring, and have wrought great wonders; and by their hands they have led many to the knowledge of God. Yet after these things, these same men who quickened others, fell into vile and abominable passions and slew themselves, becoming a stumbling-block for many when their acts were made manifest. For they were still sickly in soul, and instead of caring for their soul’s health, they committed themselves to the sea of this world in order to heal the souls of others, being yet in ill health; and, in the manner I have stated, they lost their souls and fell away from their hope in God. The infirmity of their senses was not able to confront or resist the flame of things which customarily make wild the vehemence of the passions’.
Thus Isaac does not reject good deeds but only points to the necessity of being spiritually healthy before going into the world to heal others. One can bring more profit to others when one is spiritually strong and has acquired necessary experience of the inner life. Inner depth cannot be substituted for external activity, even if it is an apostolic activity which is indeed very useful for others: ‘It is an excellent thing to teach men that which is good and by constant care to draw them away from delusion and into the knowledge of life. This is the path of Christ and the apostles, and it is very lofty. But if a man perceives in himself that through such a way of life and continual communion with men his conscience is weakened by seeing external things, his serenity is disturbed, and his knowledge is darkened.., and that while he seeks to heal others he loses his own health, and departing from the chaste freedom of his will his intellect is shaken; then let him... turn back.., let him watch over his own good health. Instead of audible words let his excellent manner of life serve for education, and instead of the sounds of his mouth let his works teach others, and when he keeps his soul healthy, let him profit others and heal them by his own good health’.
Therefore it is necessary for the solitary, according to Isaac, first to heal his own soul and then care for the souls of others. Inner life in God is higher than any philanthropic and missionary activity: ‘Love the idleness of stillness above providing for the world’s starving and the conversion of a multitude of heathen to the worship of God. It is better for you to free yourself from the shackles of sin than to free slaves from their slavery. It is better for you to make peace with your soul... than by your teaching to bring peace among men at variance... It is more profitable for you to attend to raising up unto the activity of intuitions concerning God the deadness of your soul due to the passions, than it is to resurrect the dead’.
This does not mean that Isaac disapproved of works of charity in general; he simply wanted to emphasize that these works are not the primary task for hermits: they are more fitting for laymen. Speaking outside the narrow context of the eremitical life, Isaac emphasizes the necessity of good deeds for the sake of one’s neighbour. He objects to the words of a certain monk who says that ‘monks are not obliged to give alms’: only that monk, Isaac says, is not obliged to do so who ‘possesses nothing upon the earth, who earns nothing for himself among material things, who in his mind clings to nothing visible, and does not endeavour to acquire anything’. The cenobitic monks are not free from the necessity to give alms and to perform acts of philanthropy for their neighbour. As to hermits, they cannot give alms, but they must have mercy, which should be revealed not so much in good deeds as in prayer concerning the whole world.
The hermits, Isaac insists, have no task to perform good deeds. Yet in some situations they must act as deliverers and defenders of people. In general, they should strive to obtain love of their neighbour as an inner quality, to acquire a universal merciful love towards every human being and every creature. Through being merciful they may heal their own souls, Isaac says, thus making an important addition to his own opinion that good deeds should not be accomplished before one’s soul is healed. If good deeds cannot heal the soul of someone who performs them, the inner mercy does heal his soul: ‘Let the scale of mercy always be preponderant within you, until you perceive in yourself that mercy which God has for the world. Let this our state become a mirror where we may see in ourselves that likeness and true image which naturally belong to the Divine Essence. By these things and their like we are enlightened so as to be moved toward God with a limpid intellect. A harsh and merciless heart will never be purified. A merciful man is the physician of his own soul, for as with a violent wind he drives the darkness of passions out of his inner self’.
This universal love, about which Isaac speaks, cannot be obtained by deeds of philanthropy or, in general, by human effort: it is a gift which we receive directly from God. Isaac’s teaching on how the love of neighbour is acquired can be depicted in the following scheme: a person withdraws himself from his neighbour for the sake of life in solitude and stillness; through this he acquires an ardent love of God; this love gives birth in him to the ‘luminous love’ (hubba šapya) of humanity. The theme of ‘luminous love’ is developed by Isaac in one of his himilies: ‘A person who has stillness and converse of knowledge will easily and quickly arrive at the love of God, and with the love of God he will draw close to perfect love of fellow human beings. No one has ever been able to draw close to this luminous love of humanity without having first been held worthy of the wonderful and inebriating love of God’.
The scheme which is offered by Isaac is therefore different from the one we find in the 1st Epistle of John: ‘He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?’ According to Isaac, someone should first love God whom he does not see and by means of this draw near to the love of his neighbour whom he sees, or rather whom he does not see either as he has deliberately withdrawn from seeing him. To acquire the love of one’s neighbour by means of good deeds is as impossible as to acquire the love of God by means of the love of neighbour: ‘To come from the toil and struggle with the thoughts to the luminous love of humanity, and from this, to be raised up to the love of God - for someone to complete such a course in this life, even up to the time he departs from the world, is impossible, however much he struggles.’
The question is here of a special and highest form of love of one’s neighbour, which is called by Isaac ‘luminous’ and ‘perfect’, and which is a gift from God that does not belong to human nature. It is not therefore a natural love of human beings, domestic animals, birds, wild animals and so on, which we might encounter in some people, but a supernatural love, which is born from ‘inebriation’ with the love of God. The luminous love of neighbour is that sacrificial love which makes one like God, who loves sinners and righteous equally.
Therefore, basing himself on the Gospel’s teaching about the two greatest commandments, Isaac offers his own interpretation of them, his own path of attaining to the love of God and neighbour. But this path is not for the majority of people who live in the world: it is only for those who have chosen solitude as their way of life, who have renounced the world and who draw near to God by means of life in stillness.
Living far from people and remaining internally alone, one can and must show love to others: ‘Rejoice with the joyous and weep with those who weep; for this is the sign of limpid purity. Suffer with those who are ill and mourn with sinners; with those who repent rejoice. Be every man’s friend, but in your mind remain alone. Be a partaker of the sufferings of all men, but keep your body distant from all. Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even men who live very wickedly. Spread your cloak over the man who is falling and cover him. And if you cannot take upon yourself his sins and receive his chastisement in his stead, then at least patiently suffer his shame and do not disgrace him... Know, brother, that the reason why we must remain within the door of our cell is to be ignorant of the wicked deeds of men, and thus, seeing all as holy and good, we shall attain to purity of mind’. Thus the luminous love of neighbour, when someone does not want to see another person’s sins and infirmities, seeing only his advantages, is born from the heart that is purified and the mind that dwells in stillness and that is totally freed from worldly affairs.
Let us now draw a conclusion about the way to God as it is described by St Isaac. This way is an ascent from an outward activity of the body to the heights of inward contemplative activity, when one is deemed worthy of mystical ‘wonder’ and union with God. To attain to this, it is necessary that one first renounce the world and be left alone with God. It is also necessary for a person to achieve inward stillness of mind and heart, which is born of the outward silence of the mouth and of solitude. The renunciation of the world and the life in solitude do not mean a denial of the love of one’s neighbour: on the contrary, by means of this renunciation and withdrawal a person participates in the love of God, which becomes the reason for the awakening within him of the ‘luminous love’ of his fellow human beings.
In other words, from outward asceticism to inward contemplation of God, from silence of mouth to stillness of intellect, from solitude to union with God, from outward activity for the sake of people to ‘luminous love of humanity’ - such is the way of a solitary described by Isaac.
 The theme of the divine love runs through the whole of the Syriac theological tradition beginning with St Ephrem; see Brock, Spirituality, 84.
 I/52 (254) = B51 (361).
 I/7 (65) = B7 (103).
 II/10,23. Cf. II/40,1.
 I/48 (230) = B45 (323).
 I/51 (244) = B50 (345).
 Ex.20:5; Num.14:18.
 See Mt.20:13-15; Luke 15:20-22.
 I/51 (250-251) = B50 (357-358).
 I/51 (251) = B50 (358).
 I/64 (312) = B65 (455).
 I/71 (346) = B74 (510).
 I/71 (344-345) = B74 (507-508).
 1 Tim.2,13.
 Wisd. Sol.10:1. Cf. the Palestinian Targum in Syriac translation: ‘Behold the first Adam whom I created is single (ihiday) in the world just as I am single in the heights of heaven’; see Brock, Luminous Eye, 112; AbouZayd, Ihidayutha, 269.
 Demonstrations 6,6.
 I/72 (355) = B72 (531).
 I/54 (270-271) = B53 (386).
 I/3 (16) = B3 (20-21).
 I/1 (7) = B1 (7).
 I/1 (3-4) = B1 (2).
 I/2 (14) = B2 (18).
 I/2 (15) = B2 (19).
 I/4 (29) = B4 (40).
 I/63 (302-303) = B63 (437-438). Cf. Luke 14:33.