10 February 2009

'This Glory of the Orient'—St Isaac the Syrian

Today we also celebrate the memory of our Venerable Father Isaac the Syrian, bishop of Nineveh (7th c.), the other great Syriac Father after Mår Efrêm. There is an account of St Isaac’s life here, and another here, the latter one including this interesting information:

After the death of the Monk Isaac of Syria, from the early VIII Century through the beginning XVIII Century, nothing was known about him in Europe except for his name and works. Only in the year 1719 at Rome was there published a biography of the monk, compiled by an anonymous Arab author. In 1896 the account about the Monk Isaac was enlarged upon. The learned French soteriologist Abbot Charbot published the works of the Syrian history of the VIII Century by Iezudena, bishop of Barsa, wherein was located the account about the Monk Isaac the Syrian.

But of course, even today St Isaac is known primarily for his writings. Sebastian Brock calls him ‘indubitably one of the most profound writers on spirituality produced by the Syriac Churches’ (The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1987], p. 242). A.M. Allchin goes even further, calling St Isaac ‘one of the greatest spiritual writers of the Christian East’ (Introduction, Daily Readings with St Isaac of Syria, ed. A.M. Allchin, trans. Sebastian Brock [Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1990], p. 9).

Of course, our Orthodox writers go still further than Allchin. Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron calls St Isaac ‘a measure for man, for life and for art and for action’ (‘Απο τον Αββά Ισαάκ στον Ντοστογιέβσκι’, Φώς Χριστού Φαίνει Πάσι [Karyes, Mt Athos: Holy Monastery of Iveron, 2002], p. 85), and elsewhere, ‘the great mystagogue of the mystery of humility’ (Abba Isaac the Syrian: An Approach to His World, trans. Elizabeth Theokritoff [Montréal: Alexander, 1999], p. 43). In a memorable passage (‘Encomium: An Offering of Praise to Saint Abba Isaac the Syrian, Inadequate for the Sublimity of Its Subject, but Written With Much Love’, The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, trans. Dana Miller [Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984], p. lvii), Photios Kontoglou writes:

With the harmonious art of the tongue, come now, let us extol this humble wildflower of Syria, this gold-spangled fountain of immortality, this salt of the earth, this honeybee of virtue, this gold-stringed lute which ravishes the heart, this divinely-fashioned intellect, this glory of the Orient, this tremendous ocean, this enchanted light shining to unfathomed depths, this blessed child of God, and whatever else our tongue may call him, accustomed as it is to speak of trivialities.

Finally, according to Elder Joseph the Hesychast (qtd. in Ascetical Homilies, p. ix):

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 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.

What are these gems of spiritual writing of which these men speak? I have quoted previously St Isaac’s famous words about the ‘merciful heart’, as well as one of my favourite passages concerning the humility of God here. In this post, I’d like to offer something I hadn’t come across before (since I read St Isaac fearfully, and, therefore, only fitfully). This is from ‘Homily Thirty-Six: On the Modes of Virtue’ (Ascetical Homilies, p. 161):

A small affliction borne for God’s sake is better before God than a great work performed without tribulation, because affliction willingly borne brings to light the proof of love. But a work of leisure proceeds from a self-satisfied conscience. That is why the saints were proved by tribulations for Christ’s love, and not by ease. For good works accomplished without toil are the righteousness of those in the world, who do righteous deeds with their possessions but not their bodies, thus gaining nothing within themselves. But you, O struggler, taste within yourself Christ’s suffering, that you may be deemd worthy of tasting His glory. For if we suffer with Him, then we are glorified with Him (cf. Rom. 8:17).

Here is one more, taken from ‘Homily Seventy-Six’ (Ascetical Homilies, p. 378):

Those who fear God, O beloved, are cheerfully assiduous in keeping the commandments, even if labours are required to do so and they imperil themselves for their sake. The Lifegiver confined the fullness of the commandments in, and made them to hang upon, two which embrace all: the love of God, and a love similar thereto, the love of His image. The first achieves the goal of the spirit’s divine vision. The second achieves the goal of divine vision and praxis. For since the Divine nature is simple, uncompounded, invisible, and naturally is not subject to want, the consciousness in its meditation does not naturally require praxis, nor any sort of physical activity, nor gross material concepts. Indeed, its operation is simple and it is active in one portion of the intellect, in a manner corresponding to the simplicity of that worshipful Cause which transcends the perception of the flesh. The second commandment is the love of man in accord with the duality of human nature; consequently its observance is twofold. I mean that we invisibly fulfill it in our consciousness and at the same time we fulfill it with the body, and not only in an evident manner, but secretly as well. And that which is fulfilled by outward actions should be likewise fulfilled in our consciousness.

There is an interesting connection between St Isaac of Syria and Dostoevsky. The latter owned an 1858 edition of the Slavonic translation of the Homilies by St Paisius Velichkovsky (Victor Terras, A Karamazov Companion: Commentary on the Genesis, Language, and Style of Dostoevsky’s Novel [Madison: U of Wisconsin, 1981], p. 22). Furthermore, Dostoevsky mentions St Isaac’s Ascetical Homilies by name twice in The Brothers Karamazov. The first time is in Part I, Book III, Chapter 1, ‘In the Servants’ Quarters’, where the narrator observes that Grigory Vasilievich, Fyodor Karamazov’s manservant, ‘somewhere obtained a copy of the homilies and sermons of “Our God-bearing Father, Isaac the Syrian”, which he read persistently over many years, understanding almost nothing at all of it, but perhaps precisely for that reason prizing and loving it all the more’ (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky [NY: Vintage, 1991], p. 96). Dostoevsky then mentions the book again in 4.11.8, this time in the rather more sinister context of Ivan’s third meeting with Smerdyakov, when the latter 'took from the table that thick, yellow book, the only one lying on it, the one Ivan had noticed as he came in, and placed it on top of the bills. The title of the book was The Homilies of Our Father among the Saints, Isaac the Syrian. Ivan Fyodorovich read it mechanically' (Dostoevsky, p. 625).

But more importantly, Victor Terras has pinpointed a number of St Isaac’s teachings that make a definite appearance in the words of Elder Zosima in II.VI.3, especially in (g) ‘Of Prayer, Love, and the Touching of Other Worlds’ (Dostoevsky, pp. 318-20), and (i) ‘Of Hell and Hell Fire: A Mystical Discourse’ (Dostoevsky, pp. 322-4). Terras quotes the following passage from ‘Homily Twenty-Seven’ as being ‘important for the argument of The Brothers Karamazov’ (Terras, p. 23):

Sin, Gehenna, and Death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects, not substances. Sin is the fruit of free will. There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist. Gehenna is the fruit of sin. At some point in time it had a beginning, but its end is not known. Death, however, is a dispensation of the wisdom of the Creator. It will rule only a short time over nature; then it will be totally abolished. Satan’s name derives from voluntarily turning aside [the Syriac etymological meaning of satan] from the truth; it is not an indication that he exists as such naturally. (Ascetical Homilies, p. 133)

Terras may, however, be on the wrong trail with this particular passage, though not perhaps with the rest of his parallels, since according to a note in the translation, this particular homily only exists in Syriac (Ascetical Homilies, p. 133), and does not appear to have been available in any translation Dostoevsky would have read (Introduction, Ascetical Homilies, pp. lxxvi-lxxvii). Another interesting, though less important, discrepancy, is that Pevear and Volokhonsky, in their note on the name of St Paisius (he is referenced in I.I.5 [Dostoevsky, p. 27], and footnoted on p. 780 of Pevear’s and Volokhonsky’s translation), date Dostoevsky’s edition of the Elder’s translation of St Isaac to 1854 rather than 1858. Furthermore, J.M.E. Featherstone lists among St Paisius's works, Svjatago otca našego Isaaka Sirina episkopa byvšago ninevijskago, slova duxovno-podvižničeskija perevedennyja s grečeskago.... (Moscow, 1854), thus making Pevear and Volokhonsky's date more likely, it would seem ('Select Bibliography', The Life of Paisij Velyčkovs'kyj, trans. J.M.E. Featherstone [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1989], p. 163 ).

I just wanted to highlight briefly this interesting connection. At an even deeper level, however, it has been picked up on, for one, by Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron. Having considered the ‘artistic’ gifts of St Isaac and the spiritual insight of Dostoevsky, he concludes, ‘Thus, whether you read Abba Isaac, or Dostoevsky, in the end you get the same message, grace and consolation’ (‘Από τον Αββά Ισαάκ’, p. 100).


The Ochlophobist said...

Do you own a copy of HTM's Ascetical Homilies? You could put a down payment on a mortgage with the money you could make selling that book. Not that one should ever sell a copy.

I am blessed to own a copy of their Ladder trans. by Arch. Lazarus Moore. But the Ascetical Homilies are the real prize, currently on the second-hand market for over $2,000.

I know many have wondered this as well, but I cannot, for the life of me, understand why HTM does not republish the Ascetical Homilies. They could sell them for $150 each on a first run of 400 or 500 and make fistfulls of money.

Thanks for the fine post and the excellent selections from St. Isaac.

The Ochlophobist said...

Well, I just noticed that they do sell a spiral bound photo-copy for $90. Not much romance for a bibliophile there.

The Ochlophobist said...

Correction, I just checked and my Ladder is Moore's translation, but it is Faber & Faber, 1959, and not the HTM one. I don't know why I thought it was HTM. I do have some of their prayer books, and I like the bindings and paper well enough.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Owen, on the same page offering the pricey spiral-bound (and incomplete!) photocopy, they mention that a second edition is to be published in late 2008 or in 2009. So, any time now, we should be seeing the new edition. I managed to get a copy of the first edition not too long ago for a reasonable price, but it's quite worn. I should mention that the wear indicates that it was regularly read by someone who obviously loved it. Knowing that makes it worth more to me than the pristine multi-thousand dollar copies which are soon to be much more affordable.

I've got some links to other editions of Saint Isaac's works in English here.

Ian said...

A Blessed Feast Day! And what a wonderful and informative post; thank you.
[And thanks for dropping by and commenting on my blog. The Eastern Fathers and Saints are particular loves of mine.]

aaronandbrighid said...

Owen> I do indeed have a copy of the book in question. I ordered it directly from HTM back in 1996 or 1997, apparently one of the more sensible book purchases I've ever made. I've heard about the exorbitant prices being asked, and although my copy's in excellent condition since I don't read it frequently, I have no intention of parting with it. I'm saving it for when I start living an hesychastic life of solitude and, having been purified of the passions, attain a state of illumination.

Kevin> I'm surprised to learn that the spiral-bound copy is incomplete! Just one more reason to avoid it!

Ian> Thank you for the greeting and kind comment! I came across your blog when I did a google search for 'isaac the syrian'. Keep up the good work!

aaronandbrighid said...

Owen> I almost forgot, I was going to mention that I was interested to hear of your Faber & Faber edition of the Ladder. I have this dream of one day collecting a lot of the old Faber editions of Orthodox spiritual classics. I love the font they use and I find the history surrounding them rather fascinating. They seem to have played an important role in English-speaking Orthodoxy in the 20th c., especially in the UK.

The Ochlophobist said...


Thanks. I just emailed HTM to ask them if that second edition is still in the works.

What is the relationship, if any, between Peeters' Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium and Brepols' Corpus Christianorum?

I would be nice if an Ancient Christian Writers or (CUA's) FOC series did a non-critical publication of most or all of the series once Brock is done.


I assume the Zernovs played some role in the faber story?

The Ochlophobist said...

It would be nice, that is. Though I would also be nice if such a thing were to occur.

aaronandbrighid said...

Owen>I'm not sure that the Zernovs were involved. Fr Louth has written that G.E.H. Palmer 'persuaded' Faber to publish the 2 original volumes of translations from the Russian Philokalia and also Unseen Warfare. But even more interestingly, he points out that Faber's in-house editor for those volumes was T.S. Eliot himself.

The Ochlophobist said...

Good heavens.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

You're welcome, Owen. The two series both produce critical texts in the original languages, but CSCO consistently also provides translations, as well as introductions and notes. The CC provides intros and notes in modern languages, but they just generally don't provide translations. So the CSCO tends to be more accessible. I would also be nice if someone did a full translation series of St Isaac. Sebastian Brock seems to be doing the former, pretty much. I would be very nice for a complete translation of all St Ephrem's stuff, though.

Yes, Aaron, the photocopy only includes what they have listed at the page (Table of Contents, Kontoglu's Encomium, the 77 Greek Homilies, and the subject and scriptural indices), nothing else. So the great introduction and history of the Persian church are lacking, as well as all the Syriac-only homilies. And the "Pearls" section is missing too, which is a favorite of mine. Before I had a copy, I sat down one afternoon in the library and copied out the pearls by hand in my notebook, which I should do again, since I've moved on to another Moleskine now.

That's also quite awesome about T. S. Eliot editing those editions. I wonder what he thought of them.

The Ochlophobist said...


I used to sell CC volumes when I worked for Loome Theological Booksellers. I don't recall the CSCO, but they may have come through. As I recall, most of the critical apparati of the CC was usually in French, which I, with my couple years of high school French, muddled through. The CSCO sounds more appealing. Do you have any posts which highlight other CSCO volumes that you would recommend? And, for someone in my position, would it make sense to only purchase the translation volumes, or are the introductions in the critical text volumes such that it is worth getting those volumes as well, even if you do not plan to work with the Greek or the Syriac? I have had 3 semesters of Biblical Greek from an Evangelical Bible college, which is to say, I can use a lexicon and pull out Machen as needed. Patristic Greek is way beyond my pay grade.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I actually can't recall ever having used the CC for much of anything. CSCO, though, I've popped in on quite alot. They've got a much more extensive catalogue. But CC would be great for some editions. The only recent comparison of a text and translation volume that I have is that of Brock's "Second Part." The introduction in the text volume is much more extensive than that in the translation volume, which is pretty much a summary of textual issues and citations. The real introduction, in that case, is in the text volume. I'll keep your question in mind next time I pop into the library. I'll look through several volumes and see if that's consistently the case.

Are you familiar with the Sources Chrétiennes series? Those are amazing! Little, inexpensive paperbacks with a critical text and (generally paraphrastic) French translation on facing pages. Something like a Patristic Loeb, also with hundreds of volumes. I've used these much more often than the CSCO and CC combined.

The Ochlophobist said...

Yes, we used to get Sources Chrétiennes at the store I worked in, and we would sell (almost complete) sets from time to time. I love the look and feel of continental academic pbs, they are so dignified.

I think I have a couple of volumes around the house somewhere, but I am sure they are of Latin fathers.