Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Lesser Known Fathers IV: St. Isaac the Syrian and the Ascetical Life

Today's continuation of our Lesser Known Fathers series brings us to a saint somewhat obscure to us in the West, particularly those of us in the Roman rite. St. Isaac of Syria died around the year 700 AD at an unknown age. He and St. John of Damascus are generally held by Easterners to be the last of the Church Fathers, whereas the Latin Fathers end with Pope St. Gregory the Great. The "Catholicos," an oriental term denoting something akin to a patriarch, of the Assyrian Church, which was rife with Nestorianism, made Isaac a bishop, a disastrous venture which ended after a matter of months. He moved to Mount Matout and became an anchorite, a solitary hermit usually among a community of like hermits who meet once or twice a day for liturgical purposes. He famously believed that all would be reconciled to God in the end. In his ascetical practices he devoted his time to the study of Scripture and to writing tracts that would be read as instruction to later monks. Today's piece, On Ascetical Life, is one such work.
Syrian monks tended to make the spiritual journey into a threefold process: purification from sinful tendencies; Illumination by God; and the divine vision. St. Isaac re-imagines the process as Way of the Body; Way of the Soul; and Way of the Spirit. The last point the Saint gives the least attention because it is the least attained of the three. Not a systematic treatise, On Ascetical Life reads as a collection of wisdom germane to the first and second Ways that the Saint wishes to impart to future monks.

Way of the Body

The first words of the first treatise are "It is difficult to find anyone who is able to bear honors" (I:2), meaning that few can accept honors of this world without losing their souls or their minds to the passions of this world. "No one is able to draw near God without leaving the world far behind" (I:4), he continues. The "world" is a term the Saint uses for earthly passions and desires: pursuit of wealth, gluttony, lust, greed, power and popularity (II:30), not necessarily a state of life. The Saint found that for himself living in popular society did not work, but other saints like Thomas More were quite able to live among men of power and avoid their malevolent influence.
The body without the physician of the soul will meander through sin and vice unchecked. Pain without healing not only remains, but it compounds the frustration and discomfort of the afflicted one who refuses medicine (II:3). The soul is no different. Sin is our wound, our disease, our ailment, and it is an ill that God can heal under one condition: contrition. Contrition is an act of the will, and will only remain should one decline the Divine medicine (II:4). Is this not one of the seven petitions in the prayer Jesus taught us? "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"? God's mercy is communion with God in a way invisible to the senses: "Do you desire to have communion with God in your mind by receiving the perception of that delight which is not subject to the senses? Cleave to mercy. For if [mercy] is found within you, it is formed by that holy beauty which it resembles. All acts of mercy will make the soul a partaker without delay, in the unique glory of the divine rank" (I:32). Mercy, aside from an act of God and an act of healing, is an act of humility. All acts, particularly in the Way of the Body, must be geared towards humility, specifically in liberating the mind from the passions of the body. Humility is a step in the purification so prominent in the Syrian tradition.
Nature is rife with the consequences of sin and man ought to use nature as his first teaching moment concerning sin (V:5-6). He who fails to see the natural place of sin, either in the world or in his own life, tends to downplay and detumesce his view of the swelling within his soul. The only possible result is that such a man will sin even more (V:17). Man must wean from sin and hold the passions and honors in contempt in order to have communion with God and become so familiar with Him so as to "find Him a housemate" (V:14). This is the Way of the Body.
Saint Isaac, although a hermit writing for the benefit of hermits, gives advice that a single lay person, a married person, a child, a priest, a nun, or a Pope could follow to a degree suitable to his or her state of life. "A man who wishes to grow in God must first wean his soul from the world, as an infant is weaned from its mother's breasts" (IV:4); this is accomplished by purifying the body through the traditional practices of the Jews and Christians: fasting and praying. The Saint singles out vigils and all-night watches as highly efficacious in tuning one's attention to God for protracted periods of time (IV:25). Eventually the mind will be freed from the body's passions, a freedom that St. Isaac equates not with freedom to do something, but freedom from sin. General freedom the Saint condemns out of hand, judging it a chaotic state that eventually makes one "slave of slaves" (IV:35).
This is probably as far as most of us will get. St. Isaac uses the term "temptation loosely," meaning both occasions of sin and tests. The first is bad, but the second should not be resisted. The first we should pray never comes to us (III:57). The second kind is a necessary condition for knowledge and intimacy with God: "Before being tempted one prays to God as a stranger. But when one has entered tribulations because of his love and has not undergone change, then, as one who has laid obligations on God, he is considered God's housemate and friend, who has contended for the sake of [God's] will against the army of his enemies. This is the meaning of: 'Pray lest you enter into temptations'" (III:58).

Way of the Soul

The next phase of the journey is the Way of the Soul, equivalent to the Illumination phase in other Syrian traditions. At this point one has left sin and now must fill his mind with the things of God and heaven. Catholics often think of themselves as either in a state of grace or in a state of sin. At face value this is true, but it does not tell the entire story. One could think of one's soul as a number line, with the negative numbers as sin and the positive numbers as various states of knowing God. Passing the Way of the Body gets one out of the negatives, but still leaves a person at the zero in the center. The Way of the Soul begins a person on the path to the positive numbers, to holiness.
St. Isaac constantly exhorts the reader to reflect on the Scriptures and to contemplate their meaning, a sort of lectio divina. In these practices a person derives wisdom not just from the obvious meanings of the text, but from the actions and subtleties of the stories within. How the men and women of Scripture acted should influence how we act (III:62).
Such an undertaking is only possible when one is spiritually still, past the Way of the Body, and a stable receptacle for God's grace and friendship. The soul is not naturally subject to the passions, meaning that by nature the soul should be above these animalistic instincts. The current order is a perversion of how things ought to be. The ascetic's task is to restore that order and make the soul a fitting dwelling place for what is holy. "For when outside waters," the Syrian saint writes, "do not enter into the fountain of the soul, its natural waters spring up—wondrous thought they are, which are being continually moved toward God" (III:2). One does not "purify" the mind by Scripture and by ascetic prayer, but rather puts in the mind in a state of purity. The Saint holds this taxonomy to be critical. By combatting the body, the soul, the world, and demons one does not eliminate knowledge of evil things. One becomes captivated with God, subduing the body and mind in the process (III:9-10).
Lastly, participating in the "work of the cross" raises one in the Way of the Soul and confirms one in the Way of the Body (II:21). First there is affliction of the body, concerning which he quotes Abba Isaiah in saying "If the mind desires to ascend the cross before the senses cease from weakness, the anger of God will attack it" (Logos 17). The physical must be subdued and sensibly so. Suffering for the sake of suffering profits nothing. The second facet of the work of the cross is contemplation and its accompanying consolation. Philosopher Roger Scruton writes extensively about consolation in the context of physical beauty, but the Saint is thinking about consolation with regards to spiritual beauty, which God brings on His own accord and own time: "For the things of God comes of their own accord when you are not aware of them, if the place of your heart is pure and undefiled. If the small pupil of your soul has not been purified do not presume to gaze at the sphere of the sun lest you be deprived altogether of sight (which is sincere faith and humility and heartlfelt confession and a little work according to your strength) and you be cast into one of the immaterial places which is darkness without God, like that one who presumed to enter the banquet in dirty cloths"—a reference to Matthew 22:2-14 (II:23).
Clearly one should not approach the Way of the Soul before having purified the senses, but doing so is far too common. Many a charismatic movement in Church history has led people into a spiritual "experience," usually an emotional high, without sufficiently preparing those persons. The same can hold true of individuals and their own prayers. The spiritual path is just that. A path.

Way of the Spirit

This last segment gets the least attention from St. Isaac, likely because it is least often reached and the most ineffable. One cannot put the experience of God found in deep contemplation and consolation into too many words without betraying some element of truth or mystery. Contemplation is a immersion in the Divine mysteries (II:25). In the Way of the Spirit, the contemplation level of prayer never is unceasing. God send temptations to the idle to keep them busy (V:58), but those in the Way of the Spirit are beyond such interventions. Reception of the Holy Spirit at this point replaces sensory temptation to sin. "But when the power of the Spirit enter and dwells in the intelligible powers of the pious soul, then instead of laws that are [written] in ink, the commands of the Spirit are fixed in the heart which the heart learns secretly from the Spirit without having need of the help of sensible materials mediated by the senses," Isaac teaches (VI:19). Man achieves a higher teaching, a holier instruction: "Whenever the mind learns from material things, its learning is followed by error and forgetfulness. But when its instruction is in those things which are incorruptible, its memory, which is also not corrupted, will be founded on their intelligible nature" (VI:20).
The last point carries tremendous relevance to the lay person, who has less time that an ascetic to pray. The lay person often takes on a ritual, regular schedule of prayer, and that is fine. Still the lay person, or monk for that matter, can still run the risk of letting prayers become monotonous. Daily novelty is not the answer. Instead one should take on whatever prayers or devotion one can maintain and from which one can consistently learn. Pray, holy reading, and contemplation are eventually better teachers in the faith than matters of study that one must re-call like a computer.
And so this installment of the Lesser Known Fathers come to an awkward end. As St. Isaac is uneager to write more about the Way of the Spirit, the Rad Trad will not put words in his mouth. Most of the above advice and wisdom may seem obvious and intuitive, but how arduous and onerous are these things to practice? On our own they are impossible. But all we need to accomplish them is to want to do them. St. Isaac writes that all one need do to find forgiveness is to desire. Holiness is the same. Do we want it? If so, give St. Isaac the Syrian a look.

One other note: the Rad Trad is still entertaining thoughts about a patron saint for the blog and is open to suggestions. Pseudo-John proposed St. Philomena, though the Rad Trad would prefer someone more embedded in the Roman Church's past than the 19th century. Throw out ideas!
On the Vigil of the Assumption of the Mother of God,
The Rad Trad


  1. Thanks for recalling St. Isaac! We hear too little of him, sadly.

    BTW, I've already "followed" the blog? What's the next step to sending a message?

    1. Mark, I sent you a message that ought to show up in your email. Check your spam, as your email client might think Blogger is send you junk.

    2. Checked spam, but nothing.

      I've now permitted my e-mail to be visible on my profile.

  2. I'm afraid I did smile at the typo in your second paragraph - "The Way of the Soup", very ascetical!

  3. RadTrad,

    What do you think of Isaac's eschatology? It seems more Cappadocian than Roman.

    These are some stirring words of the saint's:

    “As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful. That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion: remorse. But love inebriates the souls of the sons and daughters of heaven by its delectability.”

    Was Balthasar influenced by Isaac? What about Benedict XVI, whose eschatological ideas were often more eastern than western?

  4. I apologize, but I completely forgot your comment!

    What St. Isaac writes on hell is very true when you think about it. Recall psalm 138:7 "Si ascendero in caelum, tu illic es; si descendero in infernum, ades."

    St. Isaac's theology is less Cappadocian and more Syrian in my view. He was greatly influenced by Evagrius and Origen, the same Origen who greatly influenced the Cappadocian fathers, especially St. Gregory of Nyssa. I know all three believed in universal salvation, which went out of fashion in the 15th century, although they believed in it for different reasons: Origen believed in it because of his controversial theory of universal restoration of souls (which he though anteceded the body), including for the Devil. St. Gregory believed that the soul, redeemed by Christ, properly belonged to God and hence could not be lost. I am unsure about St. Isaac's views on the matter.

    Hans Urs von Balthasar has some following in the Eastern churches for his use of the Greek and Syrian fathers, although some are unhappy and consider his quotations mis-contextualized and dishonest. John Paul II basically expected universal salvation with very little caution about the possibility he was wrong: “Christ, Redeemer of man, now for ever "clad in a robe dipped in blood" (Apoc, 19,13), the everlasting, invincible guarantee of universal salvation.” (Message Of John Paul II To The Abbess General Of The Order Of The Most Holy Saviour Of St Bridget)

    Benedict XVI is harder to understand. He was part of a movement to rehabilitate Origen, whose condemnation centuries after his death may well have been unjust. I do not really read Josef Ratzinger, though I have read the first two Jesus of Nazareth books and found them less concerned with eschatology than with the immediate Christ presented in the Gospels.