Philokalia

Philokalia

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