Sunday, February 18, 2018

St. Isaac the Syrian - Confounding and Illuminating, Disturbing and Consoling

Abbot Vasileios captures the enigma that St. Isaac and his writings are to us.  They are a stumbling block and a stepping stone.  They heal the wounds of our sin and ignorance, yet Isaac is not hesitant to apply the medicine or perform the painful treatment that is needed. 

Both young and old find that St. Isaac speaks to them and the realities of their lives.  But, Abbot Vasileios warns us, we must be careful not to assume prematurely that we understand what St. Isaac is saying; for in reality he may be directing a judgement towards us.  Likewise, we must not rejoice too quickly over what is said before making it our own through practice.  In fact, our judgement must be suspended; for what we reject at one moment may be a source of consolation later.

St. Isaac is perceptive and can discern the smallest movement of insincerity within our words and hyprocrisy in our actions.  He strips off the veneer of false piety and reveals the lack of humility within us.  We dare not confuse a moment of compunction with true and humble sorrow for sin. Great toil for the sake of God must take place before hope proves true.

Reading St. Isaac's writings frustrates and spurs one on in the spiritual life.  Every word and every bit of silence is full of meaning.  We must not pretend that we can seize hold of it on our own yet we must allow it to carry us along to a place both wonderful and terrifying - where we are flooded with light from above and cast out of ourselves to the edge of madness.

One is left to wonder who they are and whether their life will ever be the same; terrified as they are as they are being  drawn into what arises from no earthly philosophy or logic.  The self seems to dissolve as St. Isaac opens up a new world to you, with a new language and new ideals. Everything within you cries out this cannot be and though paralyzed you nonetheless receive it as a gift.  We learn that life is a dying, a losing all to gain all.  St. Isaac invites us ever to extend the journey - to make an exodus - and "when we have gone beyond everything, this is expression, Word (Logos), Passover, Christ."

With St. Isaac you settle and quiet down.  Everything that he does, he does with complete assurance.  He is loving and implacable.  He puts balm on your wound.  And he drives the lancet in deep, if need be.  

He is appropriate for every age and culture.  And he is an intolerable scandal to every kind of narrow-mindedness.  

Everyone can find elements that suit themselves - the young and daring find words of freedom; the quiet and aged, words of virtue.  But you should be a little careful.  If you approach the Abba in honesty you feel compelled to say: He is not saying exactly what I am saying.  He is judging me.  

If there is something in his writings that you feel happy with, do not rush to rejoice too lightly; you have a long way to go before making it your own.

If something creates a bad impression on you or seems a hard saying, do not be too quick to judge it or reject it; later on, this will infuse within you the most precious consolation.

He is genuine: he loves all and favors none.  He accepts everything, but allows nothing deceptive or dubious to pass.  No one can pass off his counterfeit coinage on him.  He discerns and sifts everything.

"Do not be angry with me that I tell you the truth.  You have never sought out humility with your whole soul."

He is a violent iconoclastic whirlwind and a gentle breeze in which God is present.  It is impossible for any heresy to enter his theology or any error to endure his presence.  He blows up and lays bare the festering sores of our false virtue and hypocrisy.

He reveals the worthlessness of our empty freedom and cleverness.

No one with a veneer of piety can stand in his presence as a saint: "Not everyone who is naturally gentle, or quiet, or prudent, or meek, has attained to the star of humility" . . .  "Therefore let no man be so audacious as to think concerning himself, that he has attained to the stage of humility within himself because of a single conpunctionate thought which rises in him on some occasion. . . "

And no one who is imprudent can approach him without having the wings of his presumption clipped: "Err not, O fool!  Toil for God's sake and sweat in his husbandry precede hope in Him."  There is a sequence in the virtues, and "whoever says impudently that it is possible to acquire the more perfect virtues before he accomplishes the elementary has, without a doubt, laid the first foundation for the ruin of his soul."  For "speech that comes from righteous activity is a treasury of hope, but wisdom not based on righteous activity is a deposit of disgrace."

It often happens as you read a book that you skim quickly through the pages.  You finish it without difficulty.  You put it aside and forget about it.

At other times, with a different book, you do not make easy headway.  It makes your head reel with its conundrums.  It gets you tangled up in intellectual constructs.

When you pick up Abba Isaac, you do not make easy headway as in the first case.  You stop, but the pauses are not for the same reason as with the second type of book.  Here you do not stop because you have got a headache.  You are not worn out with dry "logic."  You pause, flooded with life: "Sometimes verses become sweet in a man's mouth, and  . . .  one verse is chanted numberless times and does not permit him to continue to the next, for he finds no satiety therein."  You stop as you fly along.  You fly along as with the first book, but in this case it does not end.  The life that opens for you does not pass away.  The spring that has welled up does not run dry.  Your interest and joy do not cease.

You sit by the sluice gates of the waters from his ever-flowing spring.  And it is as if you are traveling all over the world, to all countries, all ages; into all the thoughts, the hearts and the sufferings of men.

All things come together organically.  All things are to be found in each single thing.  And each thing rejoices and communes in God's love for mankind.

The easiest and the most tiring reading are here united.  And a joyful light has shone out, which illumines and embraces the whole mystery of life.

You are unable to say a word.  You are frightened out of your wits.  All commentary stops.  Your head spins.  You feel drunk.  You are paralyzed in the face of that which rises up in love for mankind and carries you away, violently and calmly, into another world, another space - another dance.

"At times our soul is suffocated, and is, as it were, amidst the waves."

Abba Isaac is a man unique on earth.

This is not philosophy.  It is beyond philosophy, in the realm and the ease of "foolishness", of the true wisdom which saves man.  "For no one is able to acquire the Kingdom o heaven by instruction."

He does not set out categories of thought.  He does not coldly express principles or values.  What we have here is events, eruptions.  "Suddenly", "without his knowledge", he is filled with something that goes beyond himself, and this is what he transmits, in a way that is full of holiness.  From everywhere, from the whole "nobility of his behavior", the way he speaks, moves and expresses himself, a spirit proceeds "without external cause", without effort, without being deliberately shaped. The inconceivable is made manifest.  The unapproachable is communicated.  There reaches into our innermost parts that which is utterly desirable and which is beyond all knowledge, which has not entered into the heart of man.

He says many things, and even more things are constantly saying themselves.  What his words say, his silence also says.  When he speaks he puts us at ease, he refreshes us; and when he is silent he enlightens us, he teaches us.  His leniency is drastic and his severity loving.

This is the grace of the divine-humanity which has taken up its dwelling within him.  This is why you do not know whether he is rather a poet or a prophet, whether he lives here or resides in the beyond.

He has crossed great chasms.  He has set foot in the new age.  He has breathed the still air of the freedom of the Spirit.  He has seen that there is a possibility for man to live, and he returns to give us good news, glad tidings of peacefulness.

And then you say: What am I doing?  What am I looking for in life?  What is my success worth?  What will I gain if I achieve what they try to make me aim for?

You understand his advice: "Be contemptible in your own eyes, and you will see the glory of God in yourself."

Could your transitory failure perhaps be a beginning, a starting point for hope and for the possibility of true life?

He challenges you, calling you to a higher life with a different rationale.

Once you fall under his spell, one you attune your being to his wavelength, something singular happens.  You read one page, one phrase or one line, and you cannot go any further.  He burns you up, bring you consolation.  He quite literally dissolves you.  He opens new worlds to you, with a different air and light; with a different language and ideals.

These new things are strange, unknown to you and incompatible with what you have experienced hitherto.  Yet you find that they are compatible and fit in with your deepest nature and being, the one that was despised and forgotten.  And you weep.

And so you pause in fear and joy.  You pause because you cannot do anything other than to stay here, amidst the music which has beguiled you.  And you delight in this - this "cannot" - as a possibility; you receive it as a gift.  And you say: Better that I should not take a step in falsehood.  "Death for God's sake is better than a shameful and sluggish life."

"O Lord, account me worthy to hate my life for the sake of the life which is in Thee."

A monk has written: "I read Abba Isaac.  I remained motionless.  I breathed in.  I took in paradise.  I was experiencing a marriage between my being and the beyond, what is over there and what is in us.  In the whole of my body I was delighting in my baptism into the uncreated and unapproachable.

"A gate opened.  I went into a different space.  Another spirit came and found me.  It was very light, enduring, a spirit of resurrection.  This was what counted in my life, and nothing else.

"I was enriched with other senses.  It was different ground that I trod.  I stood on different feet.  I saw all that was previously well-known and familiar to me with different eyes, and heard it with new ears.  And everything took on meaning.

"Suddenly all the same things exist in a different way.  A different light comes from within them and makes life shine.

"Then the value of each person and his beauty is revealed as something different  There is a different relationship between things and between people.

"You move about freely where previously you were stumbling.  You speak quite clearly where at first you could not say a word.

"You love everyone.  And you remain free, leaving them pure and whole.

"A sense of forgiveness and forbearance spreads everywhere.  You are grateful to God.  You forgive everyone.  You do not bother anyone.  No one touches you.  You do not look for human justification.

"Gladness comes from all sides.  From darkness light.  From poverty, wealth.  From jostling, stillness. From despair, calm and renewed hope.

"Going further into Abba Isaac, in my mortal body I was wedded to incorruption, making it my spouse.

"I vanished from the earth.

"The increase does not end.  Life is ours.  And death is ours.  We live in order to die: we live with the aim of being extended, of becoming capable of entering into a marriage with death, with dying, with the loss of everything.  And so we gain everything.  We find it.  We enjoy it.  We exist with and for these things, being absent, removed and nonexistent.

"Our struggle is to attain to the maturity of "non-existence" - to be found worthy of this crowning honor - to the freedom of traveling and being present everywhere through complete immobility and absence.

"We are confined within the prison of the present age, within the walls of appearances - 'no visible thing is good' (St. Ignatius of Antioch) - in the sterility of what is relative.  In the dumbness of mechanical motion and life.

"The music that is truly such wells up as we journey.  Movement is prayer.  The journey is vision.  The extension is gladness.  When we have gone beyond everything, this is expression, Word (Logos), Passover, Christ.

Archimandrite Vasileios
Abbot of Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos
Abba Issac the Syrian
An Approach to His Life

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Isaac the Syrian - A Teacher Who Leads Us to the Kingdom of Freedom in Christ

Abba Isaac, as a man transformed by the grace of God, becomes as teacher as Christ is Teacher.  He comes in love and humility offering freely and tenderly renewed health to the others and arousing within them the appetite and desire for Life.  He does this respecting the mystery and uniqueness of each person; understanding that he must allow others to take their own path to freedom.  Abba Isaac guides but does not constrain what must be given room to grow and breath.  Even if he knows you better than you know yourself, Abba Isaac realizes that you must come to see these realities yourself; you must come to see the beauty of God's grace and what he has made you to be.  You must be allowed to knit together your life and learn where to find hope. Abba Isaac lays out clearly the trials that we will face but leaves us to face them when and how they come to us.  His gift to us is to teach us to diagnose our own sickness, see where are passions lie, use our own experience to map out the path the set before us. As teacher he leads us to the Kingdom of freedom in Christ in order that we might drink from the living springs of water that well up within us. And all of this Isaac gives in order that we might lead and nourish others; that like Christ we might live and die constantly in order that others might live.   

You do not save man with advice and exhortations from outside.  Nor do you offer him freedom by telling him, "Do whatever you want."

Wordlessly, like a sun of tender love and a fresh breeze of courage, your love needs to be able to give him health and arouse within him his own person appetite for life.

This happens with Abba Isaac.  He is wholly on fire, and passes on the mystery of cooling fire, the mystery of the Church.  A love proceeds from his being which provides the other with a space for freedom; it gives him possibilities for realizing his own self.

He embraces the other in leaving him free in his entirety.

He knows you.  He understand you.  He leaves you free to move, to get to know your being and your endurance, the nature of things and their beauty.

In this life and this environment freedom is not just a permissible state of affairs, but an indispensable presupposition.  "It behooves us to observe our liturgy in complete freedom, far from every childish and disquieting thought."

He speaks calmly and simply.  Clearly and in hints.  So that each person can take a thread, a strand of wool to knit his own garment to fit the body of his own being; to warm his bones and hatch out his hope.

He informs us of the trials facing those who engage in the struggle at the various stages of spiritual life.  And he concludes: "You may comprehend the subtle pathways of your mind by the kinds of trials that beset you."  "Examine in which of these passions you are alive, and then you will know in which parts you are alive to the world, and in which you are dead."

He leaves us to understand for ourselves where we stand, to diagnose our own sickness: "Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because this knowledge becomes to him the foundation, the root and the beginning of all goodness."  He helps us to flee for refuge to Him who is strong: "Whoever subjects himself to God is near to having all things subject to him."

He leads us by the hand towards the true knowledge of man, which is the fount of the knowledge of all things: "When a man knows himself, the knowledge of all things is granted to him."

"Whoever desires to learn these things, let him make his way on to the past indicated above; let his doing of them follow up his consideration of them!"  "For the testimony of his own understanding is sufficient to persuade him above endless words having no experience behind them."

"Our intellect . . . is able of itself to move toward the good uninstructed."  And he urges: "Be diligent to enter into the treasury that is within you, and you will see the treasury of heaven: for these are one and the same."  "Be peaceful within yourself, and heaven and earth will be at peace with you."

"And when in actuality a man has come to these things, he himself will learn by himself, and will need no one else to teach him."

That is where the true teacher leads us: to the "kingdom of freedom", to the point where we do not need a teacher.  Where we find the spring which flows, or is able to flow, within us.  Where we drink from our own spring.  Where our whole being becomes a flowing spring.

Spiritual knowledge and contemplation "immaterially manifests itself within the soul by the grace of God, suddenly and unexpectedly, and it is revealed from within.  For 'the Kingdom of the heavens is within you.'

Then you quench your own thirst and the thirst of others.  You learn to be active and still.  You find relaxation in toil, and renewal in old age, in the passing of time.  And the ocean of eternal life in the ultimate death and immobility of everything.  "He regards fearful death as a joy."

Thus you teach and keep silent, you are nourished and nourish, you live and die constantly.  All in the same action.  And this action raises up the true man and reveals him as god-man by grace, as a true light.

Archimandrite Vasileios
Abbot of Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos
Abba Issac the Syrian
An Approach to His World

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

St. Isaac the Syrian's Message - The Wonder of Eternal Love

Abbot Vasileios unequivocally tells us that Isaac's value is in his being a Saint. He had found "something" that he seeks to impart to us and to all: the one thing necessary, the one thing which is true - unique divine Love.  It is this Love that permeates all things.  Whether present to us or hidden it fills the heart with joy.  We may seem to lose it, yet even then it penetrates all.  And sometimes in its loss we see its worth and measurelessness all the more.  

The fundamental uneasiness and existential anxiety that so many experience in the world is due to the fact that they cling to what is false.  Therefore, even when they find and possess it, the void they experience remains.  

To possess what St. Isaac found fills the soul with eternal joy and warmth.  It is only the one who forcibly cast it away the comes to know the torment of his own choosing; an inexplainable isolation.

All worldly wisdom and ideas fall away as inadequate and meaningless and yet we bear within our very nature the image and likeness of that which shapes all things.  We would imprison ourselves in our feeble world views and understanding of ourselves, yet Isaac would draws us where he has gone - into the Eternal that envelopes all things, quenches every thirst and fills all that is empty. 

St. Isaac happens to be learned and well-read (he lost his sight from reading so much).  But he does not offer us undigested information or worldly wisdom.  His value lies elsewhere: He is a saint.  A brother of the God-bearers - whether learned or uneducated - who have found the secret of life and impart it to us.

The sister in the monastery of Tabennesi, the fool for Christ referred to in the Lausiac History had found "something".

Abba Isaac has found "something".

The one had no need of any attentiveness, understanding or respect.  She had her unique divine Love (eros) which gave her light, life and inner warmth.

And the other, Abba Isaac, has illumined everything with the unique grace which he has found and penetrates everything.

When you find the one thing, you find everything.  And when you lose it, you are not without it.  It is everywhere.  It penetrates everything.

You enjoy it better when you lose it.  Because in the lack of it you experience the measurelessness of its grace.  You appreciate its worth.  You see it from a different angle.

As for what is false, even when you possess it, it eludes you, it torments you.   Even when you possess it, it leave you in the void.

That which is true has many meanings, with endless application and ramification.

You possess it, and you possess everything.  You love everyone.  You truly rejoice in every joy.

You lose it and it appears before you and within you, imperishable.

You deny it, and it does not deny you.  You send it away and it comes to you.

You compel it to go and it goes (this i the ultimate courtesy).  And you suffer on your own.

One has felt that which Abba Isaac experienced and has lost it through his negligence, "only he knows to what misery he has been abandoned."

The content of Abba Isaac's message is that one thing which is true.

It is not bound to corruption.  "It blows where it will."  It becomes familiar to strangers.  It finds those who are far away.  "And there is none who can hide from its warmth."  All things belong to it.

It goes right through the prison of systems.  It pushes aside the false disguise of ideologies and finds the complete human being where he actually is.  It has something to tell him, regardless of whether he belongs to this or that camp, ideology or world view.  Our view and beliefs cannot alter "that which is within our nature", which is what Abba Isaac addresses.

He was accepted in the East and in the West.  He created an entire school and tradition for his own region and for Syriac speaking Christians (despite all the negative reactions that the boldness of his holiness provoked.  Through the Ethiopian translation he entered Africa.  He was translated into Greek and found a place as the doyen of hesychasm.  He influenced St. Symeon the New Theologian, Niketas Stethatos, Gregory Palamas.  St. Nikodemos calls him "my spiritual philosopher."

From the Greek text he passed to the Slav world, and was read avidly by the Russians of the last century.

The Elder Ieronymos of Aegina (+1966) recommends anyone who has no money to go out into the streets and beg in order to collect money for basic needs and get a copy of Abba Isaac.

The waters of his river rise utterly pure from a deep spring in the desert.  His life was spent in seventh century Syria.  His presence fills history; it has entered into eternity.  The setting for his life is the depths of the desert.  He is a hermit.  His regime is not like even that of monks who live in community.  Yet he lays the foundations for true, Orthodox anthropology.

Here the thirsty quench their thirst, those who have gone hungry eat their fill, the demanding grow quiet.

He does not concern himself with the few things, with the particular.  He speaks of the eternal, the general and inescapable.  And all this interwoven with the small, transitory things that make up the body of our life.

Archimandrite Vasileios
Abbot of Ivernon Monastery, Mount Athos
Abba Issac the Syrian
An Approach to His World

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Writing of St. Isaac the Syrian - Heavenly Manna Leavened by the Yeast of the Kingdom

Turning more explicitly to St. Isaac's writing, Abbot Vasileios describes it as an expression of spiritual and psychological maturity - capturing states and changes in being that one experiences through the action of the Holy Spirit.  Isaac moves to draw his readers into the Mystery of God and unspeakable joy of walking in the light of Grace.  He follows no worldly pattern in his writing; while precise in his thought, it neither springs from nor is dissected by the human intellect but flows from the heart of a partaker in the mysteries as a whole.  Thus, Isaac knows equally the paths that lead to holiness and depravity. "A melody full of harmony rises inaudibly from his ample and mature writings" moved by love for God and for all his fellow men.  Having tasted the ripe fruit of this love, you will come to love him and not want to read anything else. "You eat it on earth, and dance in heaven.  It gives rest to your spirit and sanctifies your body.  It paralyses you and restores you, clothed in a new nobility and an indestructible power."  Indeed you would consume nothing else if not for the knowledge that "he helps you to understand and weigh the value of everything.  Here the light and warmth comes from the Spirit who sanctifies and unifies all things."

Abba Isaac does not express thoughts or give moral exhortations.  He describes states and ontological changes ("Making the change by the power of Thy Holy Spirit").  

He speaks with brevity and precision about the saving changes which come upon him who practices abstinence, who engages in the struggle and receives the grace of the Holy Spirit.

He speaks in a tangible way about things that are beyond nature and sense perception.  He walks in heavenly places.  And he describes the unspeakable joy which fills man's body in the hour of grace.

The he may write haphazardly about all the virtues and states, all jumbled together, and everything will still be harmonious and balanced.  Because it is not held together by some external plan devices by the brain, but springs forth like living branches from the trunk of an everlasting tree.

In talking about all things he reveals the one thing.  And in talking about any one detail, he makes you a partaker in the mystery of the whole.  The whole is feather-light and transparent.  And each part preserves intact the value of the whole.

Whether he is giving an exhortation or warning against something, he is disclosing a state that he himself has attained.  That is where his value lies: "Do not pass on to another what you yourself have not attained lest you put yourself to shame and your lie be exposed by a comparison with your life."

Through the things he says, he reveals the physiology of man's spiritual and physical being: the way in which the unified human entity becomes holy or depraved in both soul and body.

There is not a single superfluous word or phrase.  And there is not a single flaw in the architecture of his phraseology.  Everything arises from within him naturally, in maturity.

A melody full of harmony rises inaudibly from his ample and mature writings, and in love for his fellow men he reveals for all the workings of the spiritual law which peacefully and incontestably upholds and guides all things.

He does not say anything that has not passed through him, and has not caused him pain; like the mother who, when her time comes, gives birth to the fruit she has received in her womb, in pain and in completion of a process.

The way he expresses himself is characteristically bipolar.  He will present both aspects of the truth.  He speaks in positives and negatives.  He knows both one side and the other:

"He who reviles and belittles himself will be made wise by the Lord, but he who considers himself wise will fall away from divine wisdom."

"Spiritual wisdom causes silence to reign within the soul, but worldly wisdom produces a fountain of distraction.  When you have discovered spiritual wisdom, you will be filled with much humility and gentleness . . . 

When, however, you have become possessed of the second wisdom, you will acquire a proud mind, unspeakably perverted thoughts, a disturbed intellect, shamelessness in the senses."

He knows everything, and tells you about things, not at the top of his voice, but with the unquestioned authority of the silence of his words and his virtue:  "Confute those who dispute with you by the strength of your virtues and not by the persuasiveness of your words."

He is certain of what he believes and writes: "For I am telling you the truth in these words of mine, and in all that I say."  And "if someone should teach you otherwise, do not believe him."

He describes to you with assurance and sobriety what happens on the journey towards deification, and what the physical and spiritual consequences are in each case: "As long as a man is negligent, he fears the hour of death; when he draws nigh to God, he fears standing before the judgement; but when he proceeds forward with his whole heart, both fears are swallowed up by love."

If you decided you want to underline one phrase of his, you should underline them all.  All have the same weight, maturity and grace.  You either have to underline the entire book, or leave it without underlinings.  This means that nothing can or should be given more attention than anything else.  If when you first study him you want to underline something, on second reading you feel that the passages you have left unmarked are more important than the others.

With him, you are at a total loss.  And you find yourself in a different climate, another logic, another world, where all things are united in fellowship.  It has a mathematical precision, a musical melodiousness, an architectural completeness, a philosophical depth, a prophetic insight and a divine humaneness.  The entire body of his words is at the same point of maturity.  It gives forth the same fragrances of compunction.

When you read him and come to love him, he makes you unable to read anything else.  And at the same time he helps you to understand and weigh the value of everything.  Here the light and warmth comes from the Spirit who sanctifies and unifies all things.  He shows how all things function in a way that is theanthropic, at once divine and human; things present and things to come; what is his own and what pertains to others.

You have no appetite for other nourishment once your mouth has tasted the delicious sweetness of this this ripe fruit; of the heavenly manna which is formed from the substance of the earth, and leavened with the yeast of the Kingdom which is to come.  You eat it on earth, and dance in heaven.  It gives rest to your spirit and sanctifies your body.  It paralyses you and restores you, clothed in a new nobility and an indestructible power.

Archimandrite Vasileios
Abbot of Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos
Abba Isaac the Syrian
An Approach to His World 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Encountering St. Isaac the Syrian

How do we approach the world and writings of St. Isaac the Syrian?  For, Archimandrite Vasileios tells us, he "commands a territory which is difficult to describe.  It is the mystery of the age to come, as it is lived out today by a saint who is mature, totally transfigured; who not only sees the strength of things uncreated and the beauty of things unseen, but has the power, in the likeness of God, to create new worlds, as he himself says.  And although this is something so vast, it is not a dizzying vastness; on the contrary, it soothes you.  It calms you down.  Because he has attained to the mercy of God, the incomprehensible compassion which loves the whole creation."  St. Isaac makes present to us, then, all that we can be and are meant to be by the grace of God.  In him and in his writings we see what it is to live as a saint in the world and so also glimpse the glory of the Kingdom.  

"He is above created things," Vasileios continues, "beyond all activity.  And at the same time he cannot bear to see even the least of creatures suffering.  This is why in the likeness of God he prays with tears for all creation, even to the very reptiles."  St. Isaac though sharing in the life of God is not separated from creation; rather he shares in the very compassion of God that forever links him to every creature. 

It is for this reason, Vasileios warns, "the text that dares to speak about the spiritual world of Abba Isaac cannot be organized systematically.  It cannot be divided into sections; it cannot fence his teaching in."  To do so would be to do violence to the man and to the saint, to do violence the mystery of God's ways.  

Thus, Vasileios continues, such a work "will speak in a way that is general and fragmentary.  It will leave place for those who approach this wonder to register their amazement."  St. Isaac is a wonder; a wonder of God and His grace.  His life itself becomes for us a revelation.  It pulls back the veil and allows us to gaze upon the heavenly Mystery in which we find ourselves caught up.  For this very reason any writing or discussion of Isaac will not fully give us simply the flavor of the man, but "inevitably reveal how this uncreated grace and sparkling radiance are reflected off the uneven surface of the writer's own disorderliness.  Thus it both speaks the truth, and unavoidably distorts it.  It helps towards an understanding of Abba Isaac and at the same times obscures it."  What St. Isaac reveals to us is more than we can ever fully comprehend outside of sharing in his experience; outside of becoming saints.  Every encounter with him radically humbles us.

And so Vasileios sets the path for us: "Nothing remains - this is a desire and a wish - but for each of us to cross himself, and quietly proceed to his own personal encounter with the Abba.  Thus each of us will receive, secretly and silently, what he is looking for, what he can find nowhere else with such maturity, universality and completeness. 

In the weeks to come we will seek to enter, with the help of Vasileios, into the world of St. Isaac and so be made "fellow guests at the eternal feast of his joy." 

Abba Isaac is there.

He could have lived without every writing anything, and still nothing of his grace and richness would have been lost.

But because we lack the receivers to pick up all that radiates from him in silence, out of love he starts to write:
"My beloved, I have become foolish, and I cannot bear to guard the mystery in silence, but I am become a fool for the sake of the profit of my brethren."
The whole truth that the Church believes and lives, all that is set out in St. Gregory of Nyssa, the Areopagitic writings or St. Maximus the Confessor in a form which is intellectually difficult and dogmatically crystal clear, is to be found here - not reproduced verbatim, but verified through experience.  His joy and his ethic stem from this nourishment and the way he has digested it.

He experienced the grace of the incarnation in his whole body.

He was taken up into the paradise of deification with his whole being. 

In his life the grace of the Church exists in its entirety.  And in his book you find the whole of his sanctified self.

He is a genuine person, shaped by momentous experiences.  For long years he was battered by temptations from the right and from the left.  And he received experience of "divine aid"; "Having been tempted over a great period of time in things from the right hand and from the left, . . . and having received countless blows from the adversary, and been deemed worthy of great and secret aid, I have gained experience from many long years, and through trial and by the grace of God I have learned these things."

He was tried in his entirety and saved in his entirety.  This is why he is able to transmit salvation.

He passed through the ultimate crisis of darkness: "This hour is full of despair and fear; hope in God . . . is utterly effaced from his soul, and she is wholly and entirely filled with doubt and fear."  "Many times we have experienced all these things."

He entered in his entirety into the paradise of future blessedness, where "a certain delight and gladness descends into the whole body."  And "a certain sweetness constantly wells up from the heart, and draws the intellect altogether after it."

Thus he attained to the measure of the true "giants", as he calls the saints, those who "do not practice each virtue separately, but all the virtues at once, completely and comprehensively."  This is why he was able to write this book.

And the writing of it was a convergence of experiences; a torrent of life passed right through him, testing his endurance and paralyzing his members and his heart: "Often when I was writing these things my fingers failed me in setting down everything on paper, and they were unable to endure the sweetness that descended on my heart and silenced my senses."  His teaching flows like molten gold, pouring at this very moment from the furnace of his being.

A certain elder, as Abba Isaac relates, said of his writings: "These are . . . true deliberations that are stirred in me by nature.  I write them down when they come to me, so that I might reflect on them in my periods of darkness, and they might deliver me from delusion."

That was how Abba Isaac wrote.  His words wrote themselves in the hour of grace.  This is why now, as you study them, they fill you with grace, the light and the holy stirring that engendered them.  The writing and the study of his words are a participating in divine and eternal life "for remission of sins, for communion of the Holy Spirit and for boldness towards God."

As you study his holy writings, you truly live with Abba Isaac.  And he lives in you.  Your being functions in a way that is ecclesial, a liturgy.  You receive and involuntarily you offer, and at the same time you feel gratitude: "These things I have written down as a reminder and source of profit for myself, and for everyone who comes upon this book . . . in order that they might be a help to me through the prayers of those who are profited by them.  For I have taken no little trouble to set these things down."

He knows that by the way he has lived and the way he has written, he has enslaved us in freedom to his ethic.  He has made us fellow guests at the eternal feast of his joy.  And we all dwell there.

Historical scholars want to find out whom he was influenced by and whom he influenced (and this is a legitimate exercise).  But in entering into that realm where he has entered, he has taken from all, both earlier and later, and gives to all.  He lives in the realm of the Kingdom.  And he influences everyone through the high dignity he has attained in his own being.

Archimandrite Vasileios
Abbot of Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos
Abba Isaac the Syrian
An Approach to His World 

Friday, February 9, 2018

St. Isaac the Syrian - the measure for man, for life and art and action

In St. Isaac the Syrian, I have encountered someone like no other.  Even among the Fathers, East and West, whom I have engaged over these past thirty years, Isaac stands alone; which admittedly is to say a lot. When I first picked up his Ascetical Homilies and heard them described thus: "If all the writings of the desert fathers which teach us concerning watchfulness and prayer were lost and the writings of Abba Isaac the Syrian alone survived, they would suffice to teach one from the beginning to end concerning the life of stillness and prayer. They are the Alpha and Omega of the life of watchfulness and interior prayer, and alone suffice to guide one from his first steps to perfection," I was certainly intrigued but thought it simply to be hyperbole.  Of all the the Fathers we have studied in groups at the Oratory, St. Isaac (unfamiliar in name and stature) garnered the least amount of interest; especially in comparison to the somewhat better known Cassian and Climacus.  His style of writing was certainly different from the others; not Conferences or Steps but rather Homilies.  They were exhortative, meant to set the heart afire for the love of God; not simply to be read or studied but to be received as a calling as sure and as strong as the Lord's "Follow Me".  As true homilies, they arose from a heart that had experienced that call and had found his life turned upside down; only then to discover true Life.  

After a year passed, with the homilies being read aloud and verbatim in our small group, the image of St. Isaac became clearer and with it his writings more and more compelling.  The thought would echo following each group that "after hearing this there was no going back to looking at one's life as before."  To do so one would have to live in complete denial - would have to silence the conscience. Uneasiness with oneself and one's life is the necessary prelude to conversion. St. Isaac at every turn anticipates such unease and resistance, expecting that it would arise and gently yet persistently beckons the listener to move ever forward.  Now the words of another describing St. Isaac no longer seemed hyperbolic: "Isaac is the mirror. There you will behold yourself. The mirror is so that we may see if we have any shortcoming, any smudge on our face, in order to remove it, to cleanse ourselves..... In Abba Isaac you will behold your thoughts, what they are thinking. Your feet, where they are going. Your eyes, if they have light and see. There you will find many sure and unerring ways in order to be helped." 

Indeed, St. Isaac the Syrian was like no other.  However, it was in the reflections of Archimandrite Vasileios, Abbot of Iveron Monastery on Mount Athos, that I finally found one who captured the full extent of the extraordinary nature of the man, the Saint, I have come to revere beyond all expectation.  Here was one through whom the hitherto unknown and untouched was revealed.   

"The best is of everything the measure."  Man is the measure - the holy person.  And St. Isaac is a measure for man, for life and art and action.  

Look at where he is!  The way he lives!  The way he writes!  What poetry, what philosophy, what psychology he produces!  Look at the way he acts, the way he keeps silence, the way he moves and the way he remains still!  Is it possible to judge people by the yardstick of St. Isaac?  Is he not a great man, supremely great, unique?  Is it not unfair or impertinent to compare everyone else - ordinary people like us - with figures of this stature?  I would have no hesitation in answering: NO.  If he were someone who had been very active in a particular field, or who had some altogether exceptional natural gifts by which he astonished all mankind, then it would not be right to take him as a yardstick to judge and compare other people.  But something different is goin on here: this Abba is supremely great and supremely human.  He is at once grand and affable.  In his presence, the great feel insignificant and the small take courage and feel able to function.

He does not flatter the one, nor does he despise the other.  He is not ignorant of anyone's sufferings, their propensities or sorrows.  He himself is a complete whole.  A mature fruit of the Spirit,  which shows its maturity by its color, aroma, softness and taste.

St. Isaac the Syrian is humane, humble. He understands, he has a deep knowledge of the weaknesses of the suffering world. He is not some stern judge or merciless inquisitor. He knows all about our weaknesses and our poverty; he shares in our nature and - at the same time - partakes in the joy and consolation of the age to come. 

He does not argue with anyone. He provides opportunities and waits. He speaks the truths and leaves it to work within us. 

Great as he is, he respects those who are small, who are humble. He respects their struggles and their confessions, even more than they themselves do, given that they all live to a greater or lesser extent within the realm of corruption, rivalry, jealousy, and of the effort to go beyond all this. 

The Abba does not tell you, by his life and by his writings, “Abandon your struggle”.  He does not reject your efforts. He does not deny you the joy that comes from them. He wants to liberate you from the cycle of corruption: to break down the dam that blocks your progress, and push you out onto the fathomless waters of the mystery of life. 

He can see that you are closing yourself up. You imprison your inner person which thirsts for freedom. You are stymieing your development, narrowing the horizons of your life, depriving yourself of the openings towards new expansion- the deaths and resurrections - which dignify man and the endless and eternal grace that come to you. 

As you follow St. Isaac faithfully, you go deeper into man. And every person enters into you. All together you go forward as brothers towards the new creation; you are able to breathe, in the still air of unfettered freedom. Together you undergo increase without end and ceaseless extension, even as you are humbled, as you “contract”, and you sacrifice yourselves for what is greatest. 

It is possible, however, for man to be grafted into an everlasting tree. He can become a “branch of the vine of life“. His ascesis can be linked with another ascesis. He can be baptized in his entirety. He can offer himself, he can die, as true lovers of Truth seek to do. And as he dies and is buried with Jesus in His death, he can be raised up with Him into a new life. 

The journey, the extension, the ascent does not stop at some point. You keep on advancing. You divest yourself of the desire to project yourself. You abandon defensiveness. Everything does you good. You are concerned with something else. You avoid things human, and you find human beings. You attain to silence. And your words and your life speak in a different way. 

If you are demanding in your life, you can come into contact with St. Isaac. He will initiate you into hidden mysteries. He will meet you where you yourself stop. He will take you by the hand when you feel you cannot go any higher. He will help you make progress along your own path. He will reveal to you - you will see and experience yourself - that kingdom of God which is to come is given to human beings even from today. 

And St. Isaac remains a criterion and a measure for this life and the next, for your conduct, for action and contemplation, for dealing with every happiness or disaster, for concealing and revealing, for silence and speech. 

When you come back to St. Isaac after some experience, after coming into contact with a different logic, a different character, ethos or even speech, the impression is always the same: at every point, in every subject - he gets full marks. There is no other yardstick more stable, so as to give you a genuine standard for judging everything: human behavior, philosophy of life, use of time, progress from the temporary to the eternal, strictness and leniency. . . 

How is it that he does not have a single loose phrase!  There is not a single appearance he makes, a way he deals with something, the nature of criticism, that would not leave you in awe!  Here we have the offspring of a good and blessed hour. A fruit that is ripe, that attracts and satisfies every hunger. An understanding that embraces all the world. A weeping that softens the heart. A figure that inspires every character. A blessing that extends to every occupation and path that a person might choose to take: the musician finds harmony. The philosopher, wisdom. The anthropologist and psychiatrist, the fullness of their science. The revolutionary finds strength. The hesychast, guidance. The old person, understanding and companionship. The young person, wind for his sails to adventure onto the most open and stormy of seas and even beyond. The father, a teacher in how to behave to his children. The husband, guidance in living with his wife. The mother, infinite love, delicacy and tenderness. Someone on the point of death finds consolation. Someone embroiled in difficulties finds a way out. The prisoner serving life finds absolute freedom of movement and living. The patient incurably sick finds divine visitation and is taken up, with his whole body, into a place, a realm and a way of life where everything is transformed into an outpouring of tears of gratitude. 

He is in a place where no one else is. And yet he finds everyone, in harmony. And everyone unfailingly regards him as their own person, the only one who understands them with delicacy and tact. He heals their passions, he gives them courage, he “slaughters” them with his utter compassion. 

Suppose some person or people fell down dead, wounded by something that other people said or did, albeit unintentionally: this Abba forgives things that are unforgivable to most people.  He is familiar with the inconceivable.  He soothes the pain of murderers.  He raises up the life of those who have been killed.  He gives light to the blind.  He gives feet to the lame and makes hardened criminals act like children, innocent, guileless and unformed.

How does this happen?  It was a gift bestowed on him because he received directly the blessing of the whole Godhead in the Trinity, because the auspicious time came when, through humility, he offered everything forever to the One and Only.  And the One gave him the eternity of blessing in all his being for evermore.

It seems that when he was born, he was baptized.  He was baptized indeed into the death of Jesus.  And he pursued a way of life that surpasses life and death.

And when he died, this man full of holiness and above measure, he himself passed into life in its completeness in a different manner.  You do not know whether his presence was more vivid when he was living this temporary life, or whether his help and support for all is more active now that he has left history and his life in the flesh - now that, in perceptible terms, he has gone away from us all.

His life has been extended through death.  His intellect has been illumined through Grace; his body is filled with the life that transcends the whole world.  He has discovered a different basis for support; a different manner of conduct; a different way of perceiving assurance; a different love of truth; a different Truth - an incomprehensible and ineffable truth, which is identified with mercy.  And this state, this logic, this ethos, this freedom, this delicacy, this undaunted fearlessness, have shaped and formed his entire being, his way of life and his existence.

So in him "before" and "after" are not separated.  The same applies to strictness and leniency; to speech and silence, immobility and movement, life and death, truth and love, light and darkness, struggle and stillness.  This is because in his entirety, with the whole body of his existence, he has attained to a state above existence.  He has advanced to the point where everything ceases: activity, struggle, prayer, freedom.  Everything that he loved, that he aimed for and achieved, has been superseded.  It has all passed into another realm and way of  life, one that is strange, inaccessible to man.  And that which is inaccessible and unattainable - for man - has taken St. Isaac himself, with all his wares, to that place.

He vanished, was lost.  And he found himself in a different manner, in perpetuity; he was there even for those who had not been looking for him, who had not known him, who had never be interested in his life, his words, and his interests.  

Even if many people were not interested, St. Isaac was interested.  And because he wore himself out, shared himself, broke himself to pieces, he found himself in a different way; he was given a self by the One and Only.

And now, it is this self risen from the dead, found after it was lost, the self over which "death has no more dominion", that he has scattered and continues to scatter, like a blessing of charity and a wealth of understanding for all.  From no one does he ask anything for himself, wishing only for others to act freely, hoping in Christ Jesus.  And for them to know that if at some time they find themselves at a point where there road is ending, their daylight is fading, where loneliness overwhelms them . . . then they should not go to pieces.  They should be patient for a while.  They should wait.  And a door will open; an open road will stretch before them; light that knows no evening will rise; and the cosmic chaos which through loneliness pierced their being will be filled with a presence of love, of charity.  Something unrevealed and unknown to them will be revealed.

They will hear things unheard, they will touch things intangible.  They will be at ease.  And they themselves will go on in a different way, as different people, continuing their endless journey which is nothing other than He who is the most holy Passover and endless extension.

Archimandrite Vasileios
Abbot of Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos