17 February 2009

'Pillar of Monastic Rules & Divine Vision'—St Isidore of Pelusium

On this day, 4 February on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Venerable Father, Isidore Pelousiotes, or 'of Pelusium' (†436). St Isidore was born into a wealthy and prominent family and was related to the Patriarch Theophilus and St Cyril of Alexandria. St Nicholas (Velimirović) tells us in the Prologue that he ‘studied all the secular disciplines’, a characterisation supported by Fr Georges Florovsky (The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers, trans. Raymond Miller, et al., Vol. 10 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987], p. 191):

Isidore had a great respect for the secular sciences, provided they are illumined by Divine truth. There is nothing to prevent Christians from being nourished from the writings of pagan philosophers, for the Christian knows what to take that is authentic nourishment and what to reject. He quotes extensively from Demosthenes, Plato, and Aristotle. He was also fond of Homer. Isidore had a wide-ranging interest in everything secular and Divine, in everything that concerned the world in which we live and in everything that concerned the Church into which we are baptized. His judgment is passed on the secular world as well as the world of the Church.

But this holy Father renounced all attachment to family, wealth, and opportunities for advancement, and withdrew into the Egyptian desert to pursue God in constant prayer and ascetic endeavour. According to this account, ‘The spiritual wisdom and strict asceticism of the Monk Isidor, in combination with his broad erudition and innate knowledge of the human soul, allowed him in a short while to win the respect and love of his fellow monks.’ Eventually, he was ordained a presbyter and became abbot of a monastery. Having been deeply impressed by an encounter with St John Chrysostom in Constantinople, St Isidore became a zealous homiletician, communicating to his fellow monks ‘that “practical wisdom” which, in his own words, is both “the foundation of the edifice and the edifice itself”, while at the same time logic is “its embellishment” and contemplation— “its crown”.’

St Isidore opposed the persecution of St John Chrysostom by his kinsman, Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria. Furthermore, while there is a story that Theophilus’s successor, St Cyril, had a vision of St Chrysostom himself (The Lives of the Three Hierarchs, comp. and trans. Holy Apostles Convent [Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1998], p. 291), various Lives of St Isidore give the latter credit for having persuaded St Cyril to add St John to the diptychs in 418. He has been said to have played a part in convening the Third Œcumenical Council (Ephesus, 431), and according to this account, when hostility broke out between St Cyril and John of Antioch, St Isidore wrote to the former, ‘As your father, since you are pleased to give me this name, or rather as your son, I adjure you to put an end to this dissension lest a permanent breach be made under the pretext of piety.’ He fell asleep in the Lord in the fifth decade of the fifth century.

Severus of Antioch called St Isidore, ‘a priest, correct in faith, full of divine wisdom and biblical knowledge’ (qtd. in Johannes Quasten, Patrology, Vol. III [Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1988], p. 180). According to Fr Florovsky, St Photius the Great ‘considers Isidore as a model of the priestly and ascetical life’ (p. 191). This account relates:

The Church historian Euagrios (Evagrius, VI Century) writes about the Monk Isidor, that ‘his life seemed to everyone the life of an angel upon the earth’. Another historian, Nicholas Kallistos (IX Century), praises the Monk Isidor thus: ‘He was a vital and inspired pillar of monastic rules and Divine vision and as such he presented a very lofty image of most fervent example and spiritual teaching’.

St Isidore left many letters to various correspondents (including emperors and patriarchs), which were preserved for us by the monastery of the ‘Sleepless Ones’ in Constantinople, and of which Roger Pearse has posted translations of a few samples here and here, as well as discussing aspects of the letters in various posts. According to Quasten, the eminent critic St Photius the Great called St Isidore ‘a master of epistolography’ and a model ‘of style and phraseology’ (p. 181). Quasten himself tells us, ‘Isidore’s correspondence reveals indeed an outstanding personality with a classical education and excellent theological training’ (p. 181), and that ‘they testify to Isidore’s depth of wisdom and honesty of soul’ (p. 183). Fr Florovsky and Quasten also give us a brief look at St Isidore the dogmatic theologian, an aspect that I will not delve into here except to note the interesting observation that St Isidore anticipates ‘in a certain way the definition of Chalcedon’ (Quasten, p. 184).

Last but not least, one must note that St Isidore is featured in the Gerontikon, with a total of six apophthegmata to his name. Here are the first four (Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], p. 98):

1. Abba Isidore of Pelusia said, ‘To live without speaking is better than to speak without living. For the former who lives rightly does good even by his silence but the latter does no good even when he speaks. When words and life correspond to one another they are together the whole of philosophy.’

2. The same abba said: ‘Prize the virtues and do not be the slave of glory; for the former are immortal, while the latter soon fades.’

3. He also said, ‘Many desire virtue, but fear to go forward in the way that leads to it, while others consider that virtue does not even exist. So it is necessary to persuade the former to give up their sloth, and teach the others what virtue really is.’

4. He also said, ‘Vice takes men away from God and separates them from one another. So we must turn from it quickly and pursue virtue, which leads to God and unites us with another. Now the definition of virtue and of philosophy is: simplicity with prudence.’

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