10 February 2010

'O Revealer of Unfathomable Mysteries'—St Isaac the Syrian


Today, 28 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of St Isaac the Syrian (7th c.). Archimandrite Justin (Popović) writes, ‘Among the most outstanding of these holy philosophers [i.e., the Church Fathers] was the great ascetic, Isaac the Syrian.’ [1] Archimandrite Placide (Deseille) tells us, ‘He is viewed by all Christendom as a saint and a spiritual author of the first rank.’ [2] Olivier Clément calls St Isaac ‘One of the greatest spiritual figures of the Christian East where his influence has never ceased to make itself felt . . . .’ [3] Finally, according to Photios Kontoglou, ‘Saint Isaac, you might say, had wisdom sit like a golden bee on his mouth. Not the futile and bewildered wisdom of the clever, but the unfading wisdom, the source of incorruption, which truly liberates the man who possesses it.’ [4] Here is the account of his life in the Prologue:

Born in Nineveh, he began at an early age to live the ascetic life in the monastery of Mar-Matthew near Nineveh. When he became known for his holy life and miracles, he was chosen as bishop of Nineveh and forced to accept this state. But after only five months he left his episcopate and fled secretly to the desert monastery of Rabban-Shapur. He was the author of many works, of which about a hundred sermons on the spiritual life and asceticism, written mainly from his own experience, have come down to us. He was without equal as a writer and guide in the spiritual life. He entered into rest at a great age at the end of the seventh century. [5]

In his introduction to the hesychastic tradition, Fr Placide rounds out the picture somewhat:

[St Isaac’s] knowledge of the Scriptures and tradition rapidly earned him the repute of a master. . . . [6]

. . .

Filled with meekness, radiant peace, and humility, he nourished himself only with three pieces of bread and a few raw vegetables per week. His great asceticism and intense study caused him to lose his sight, but the other monks devoted themselves to writing down his teachings. They nicknamed him Didymus the Second. . . . [7]

Though St Isaac is often referred to without any qualification as a ‘Nestorian’, the renowned translator of the Homilies, Dana Miller, argues that the characterisation of the 7th-c. Persian Church as ‘Nestorian’ is a gross oversimplification, and that, at any rate, St Isaac’s ‘confession of our Lord’s incarnation is entirely orthodox’. [8] Fr Placide notes that ‘there is no trace of Nestorianism in his writings’, and that ‘Unlike the writings of Evagrius of Pontus, Isaac’s work did not have to be expurgated.’ [9] Thus, his example is certainly no evidence that a heretic can be venerated as a Saint in the Orthodox Church, but rather an illustration of the Church’s great latitude and pastoral condescension when it comes to the complexities of schism and heresy when they are still in the process of hardening.

Much has been said by readers about the great profundity of St Isaac’s spiritual teaching. Indeed, St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) classes it among those works written expressly for hesychastic ‘solitaries’, allowing the reading of St Isaac to coenobites only ‘after some considerable time’ and extensive reading in the ‘books written [specifically] for coenobitic monks’. [10] In his review of Archbishop Hilarion’s book on St Isaac, [11] Dana Miller writes:

His books were meant for fellow ascetics, for people who devote their every effort to being physically and mentally disassociated from the world we know and to being physically and mentally joined to another, very different world. It is a kind of accident that we can pick up a copy of Isaac as we idle away hours in a local bookstore. I doubt very much that Isaac ever foresaw this and I am uncertain whether or not he would be pleased. [12]

Indeed, St Isaac himself illustrates just how far we still have to go to attain the real end of his ascetic program—knowledge of God:

There is a knowledge that precedes faith, and there is a knowledge born of faith. Knowledge that precedes faith is natural knowledge; and that which is born of faith is spiritual knowledge. What is natural knowledge? Knowledge is natural that discerns good from evil, and this is also called natural discernment, by which we know to discern good from evil naturally, without being taught. . . . Those who have been deprived of it are inferior to rational nature, but those who possess it stand aright in their soul’s nature, and do not have any deficiency in those things that God has granted their nature to honour its rationality. . . . The honour belonging to rational nature is the discernment that tells good from evil, and those who have destroyed it are justly compared to ‘mindless cattle’ (Ps. 48:12), which have no rational and discerning faculty. With this discernment it is possible for us to find the pathway of God. This is knowledge that is natural; this is the predecessor of faith; and this is the pathway to God. [13]

St Isaac says ‘this is the predecessor of faith’! Yet how many of us are still ‘mindless cattle’ with no discernment? And we dare to delve into the deepest teachings of this man whose eye, in Kontoglou’s words, ‘scans the sun and remains undazzled’? Wisely, Kontoglou warns us, ‘Let no one, however, off-handedly approach this priceless ark, but with fear and trembling, because it would not be right for anyone who has ruined his palate with the foul and poisonous liquors of this world to refresh himself here.’ [14] And let us not think that we are sufficiently qualified for this study because we are educated. Further on Kontoglou writes:

Nevertheless, most of the educated are only going to admire from the outside the masterful way these sayings are turned, the odd glints they give off, a few of the soaring high points and paradoxes; they will not be able, however, to see the inner riches and the mother-of-pearl depths of this entrancing abyss; they will remain strangers, unable to taste that blissful delight. The key to this prolific mind and this deep soul is given to the humble man, and to the man who searches by the light of faith, but not to the expert. To all but these this spiritual paradise is locked, and all who are confident of entering by their knowledge remain sitting outside the gate, like Adam. [15]

Yet I do think there are passages where something is thrown to us that is sufficiently ‘practical’ that we may find immediate profit. As just one example, I offer this from Sebastian Brock’s translation of ‘The Second Part’, Chapter IV:

3. Varieties of (different) prayers indeed greatly help a mind which is harassed by distraction: from them, and by means of the strength resulting from them, the mind feels compunction and (so) acquires sweet prayer, prolonged kneeling, intercession for creation, and extended supplications which are set into motion from within. This happens to him because, with each single word which he encounters in these (prayers), he is like someone who is awoken out of sleep: he encounters in them astounding insights all the time, seeing that these very words are the result of the gift of grace and (so) possess a hidden power. Thus he is continually assisted through being occupied by them and through reading them. [16]

It seems to me that, having already opened the Triodion and standing upon the threshold of the Great Fast, we are faced with a unique opportunity to realise the truth of these words. Let us indeed find continual assistance ‘through being occupied by’ the words of the Triodion ‘and through reading them’.

I have quoted a couple of my favourite passages of St Isaac here and here, and in last year’s post on the Saint (here) I quoted still more. In that post I also considered Dostoevsky’s debt to St Isaac, upon which Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron has written a profound spiritual meditation [17] and concerning which Kontoglou memorably writes:

I have not come across anything anything written about Saint Isaac in any book from Europe. We have left him to be forgotten like a light hidden under a bushel. But there was an Orthodox fellow, a Russian, Dostoyevsky, who wrote about him in one of his books; I thought of it the other day when this book was being printed. No theologians remembered him, just this sinful fellow, a no-gooder, a gambler, a soul curried like leather from agony, the prodigal son. But for him they killed the fatted calf: ‘The publicans and the harlots go before you into the Kingdom of the Heavens.’ [18]

I consider Fr Justin’s ‘Theory of Knowledge of St Isaac the Syrian’ a crucial exposition of Orthodox gnoseology, [19] and highly recommend Archimandrite Vasileios’s Abba Isaac the Syrian, [20] though Fr Alexander (Golitzin) is not exaggerating too much when he says Fr Vasileios ‘sings Isaac’s praises to the point of near incoherence’. [21] In conclusion, here is the Troparion of the Saint:

Dismissal Hymn of Saint Isaac
Plagal of First Tone. Let us worship the Word

He that thundered on Sinai with saving laws for man * hath also given thy writings as guides in prayer unto monks, * O revealer of unfathomable mysteries; * for having gone up in the mount * of the vision of the Lord, thou wast shown the many mansions. * Wherefore, O God-bearing Isaac, entreat the Saviour for all praising thee. [22]


[1] Archimandrite Justin (Popović), ‘The Theory of Knowledge of St Isaac the Syrian’, tr. Mother Maria (Rule), Orthodox Faith & Life in Christ, ed. Fr Asterios Gerostergios (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies), p. 120. See also, Archimandrite Justin (Popović), ‘The Theory of Knowledge of St Isaac the Syrian’, tr. Mother Maria (Rule), Man & the God-man (Alhambra, CA: Sebastian, 2009), p. 69.

[2] Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), Orthodox Spirituality & the Philokalia, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008), p. 27.

[3] Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Text & commentary, tr. Theodore Berkeley, OCSO, rev. Jeremy Hummerstone (London: New City,1995), p. 345.

[4] Photios Kontoglou, ‘Encomium’, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana R. Miller (Boston: HTM, 1984), p. lviii.

[5] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 106.

[6] Fr Placide, p. 26.

[7] Ibid., p. 27.

[8] Dana R. Miller, ‘Epilogue’, Ascetical Homilies, p. 514.

[9] Fr Placide, p. 27.

[10] St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, tr. Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore) (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991), p. 22.

[11] Archbishop Hilarion (Alfeyev), The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 2000).

[12] Dana R. Miller, ‘Review of The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Archbishop Hilarion (Alfeyev)’, here.

[13] St Isaac the Syrian, Hom. 47, Ascetical Homilies, p. 226.

[14] Kontoglou, p. lviii.

[15] Ibid., p. lix.

[16] St Isaac the Syrian, ‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV-XLI, tr. Sebastian Brock, Vol. 555 of Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium (Louvain: Peeters, 1995), p. 2.

[17] Archimandrite Vasileios (Gondikakis) of Iveron, ‘Απο τον Αββά Ισαάκ στον Ντοστογιέβσκι’, Φώς Χριστού Φαίνει Πάσι (Karyes, Mt Athos: Holy Monastery of Iveron, 2002), pp. .

[18] Kontoglou, p. lx.

[19] See n. 1, above.

[20] Fr Vasileios, Abba Isaac the Syrian: An Approach to His World, tr. Elizabeth Theokritoff (Montréal: Alexander, 1999).

[21] Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin), ‘Review of The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Archbishop Hilarion (Alfeyev)’, St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 46, No 2-3, 2002, pp. 285-290 (here).

[22] The Great Horologion, tr. Holy Tranfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 402.

14 comments:

David.R said...

In the book Orthodox Prayer Life by Fr Matthew the Poor it is listed a primary source on St Isaac that I have not seen mentioned anywhere.; "The Four Books of St Isaac Bishop of Nineveh" which was copied from a manuscript in the possession of Fr Mina El-Baramousi (Pope Kyrillos VI 1951-1976)
Do you know anything about this source?

Interestingly, on a different subject, in this book there is also listed an unpublished book by Lazarus Moore, "Some Aspects of Orthodox Prayer" Did you know about this?

Again, on a different subject :-) Is there a life of Photios Kontoglou written yet?
Thanks.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

David, there is a very beautiful book titled Photis Kontoglou by Nikos Zias, published by the Commercial Bank of Greece. It contains a biography/history and many, many different images of his wide range of artistic endeavours, particularly his iconography. I got my copy from St Nectarios Press, from this page (it's about 2/3 of the way down).

I think that Fr Matthew the Poor was likely referring to an Arabic translation made of St Isaac early in the twentieth century. If I recall correctly (the history of publishing St Isaac's works is extremely complex, as I describe partly here in reference to the known collections), it is only a partial translation of the First Part. I think George Bebawi has done some Arabic translations of St Isaac the Syrian, too, and Fr Matta may have been referring to these. But I don't recall exactly how much existed earlier and how much Bebawi has translated. I'll try to remember to check this evening.

aaronandbrighid said...

Actually, Fr Alexander (Golitzin), in his review of Archbishop Hilarion's book, mentions that Fr Matta used 'Wensinck’s eccentric English rendering of Isaac’s Discourses'! 'Manuscript' certainly makes it sound like an ancient Coptic or Semitic tome, but could he perhaps be referring to Wensinck?

I haven't heard of the Fr Lazarus book you mentioned, David. But I do have another, less expensive but less substantial, source on Kontoglou: there is a brief life by Cavarnos in Divine Ascent 1.3/4.

Samn! said...

There is an Arabic version of the homilies of St. Isaac published in Cairo in 1974 by Pope Cyril VI. My university library has a copy, so I'll take a look this afternoon...

If it's not an original translation by Pope Cyril, there are two Arabic possibilities for its source--- one is the translation made from the Syriac by the 9th century (?) Nestorian writer Abu Nuh ibn al-Salt al-Anbari. This was published in Cairo some time in the 30's by Paul Sbath. The more likely source is a translation made of the Greek version by the 11th century Orthodox philosopher-deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl of Antioch. This version was in medieval times used in Coptic circles and was the source of the Ethiopic translation. It hasn't been edited, but I've got photos of one manuscript of it on this computer.

In terms of translations in any language, Dana Miller's is the only really accurate one-- the amount of manuscript research that went into it is astounding... it's a shame that it didn't also result in a critical Greek edition!

Also, when your sources say that there wasn't any editing of the text to de-Nestorianize it, that's not wholly accurate. The Greek version is dependent on a West Syrian (Jacobite) recension that expunged the name, but not the quotes, of Theodore of Mopsuetstia. It also includes material not found in the East Syrian (Nestorian) version whose source appears to be the East Syrian writer John of Dalyatha (aka John Saba / John the Elder).

aaronandbrighid said...

Samn!> Thank you. I'd appreciate hearing about anything you find on this. It is of course a tangent, but a fascinating one!

As for Fr Placide's comment, I took him to be referring to the doctrinal content of the Homilies. It seems to me that changing the names is not that big a deal. Of course, perhaps it was a much bigger deal to Byzantine monks!

Samn! said...

So, I took a look at the book. It's three slim paperback volumes published in Cairo during the 70's. The introduction states that it is a copy of a manuscript of at the Coptic Patriarchate, but it does not cite a reference number (all the Christian Arabic manuscripts in Cairo have been well-cataloged for about a century... the Coptic patriarchate is of the Nome della Rosa school of library science).

Also, the language itself has been updated, another annoying modern Coptic habit. From what I can figure, though, it does seem to be Ibn al-Fadl's translation.... (I'm working on Ibn al-Fadl at the moment, so this was sort of a nice find, for bibliographic purposes at least).

David.R said...

Samn:
Thank you very much. This is fascinating stuff. What do you think of Wensick's translation?
I find it very difficult to read. Bishop Hilarion mentions it in his book, and this is the only reason why I bought it.
Do you think we will ever get a comprehensive translation into English, of the First part of the homilies? I have the Second part by Dr Sebastian Brock and I love it!

aaronandbrighid said...

David> Do you find it so important to have a translation from Syriac? For spiritual (not scholarly) reading, I find HTM's comprehensive translation from Greek entirely adequate.

David.R said...

Oh no Aaron. My understanding is that not all the homilies of the First part made it to the HTM collection. Is this wrong?

aaronandbrighid said...

Perhaps Kevin or Samn! can correct me, but Miller says, 'All passages and homilies not found in the Greek, but existing in both Western and Eastern Syriac manuscript traditions, have been included.' I took this to mean his translation represented the entire First Part.

Samn! said...

To my knowledge the HTM translation is in fact the whole first part, more-or-less synthesizing the Greek and the Syriac.

A major problem with the text of St. Isaac is that we don't have a critical Greek edition and any such project will be a long time coming, as it's a difficult textual tradition for a difficult text. The version printed in Patrologia Graeca has serious problems. Likewise, the Syriac edition by Bedjan is quite oblique in some points and I think only depends on a couple manuscripts. (Wensink's translation is no help to the text, to say the least....)

The HTM translator, Dana Miller, did an amazing job of using a quite wide base of Greek manuscripts along with manuscripts of both the Western and Eastern recensions of the Syriac text. As I said above, it's the most accurate version for, shall we say, the Greek/West Syrian version of the text. I'm not sure how much the Greek translation leaves out of the 'first part' of the text, but it does have additions from other East Syriac spiritual writers, which the HTM translation includes.

If you want a textual history of the first part of St. Isaac, I would read the introduction to the HTM translation as well as Sebastian Brock's article on translations of St. Isaac, which is probably somewhere on the interwebs if you poke around for it.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks, Samn! Textual history really is a fascinating subject. Are you familiar with Scribes & Scholars by Reynolds & Wilson? It's about classical literature, but it's really a neat introduction to the whole subject.

Samn! said...

Actually, I haven't read it... I should take a look... manuscripts wind up taking up far more of my time than is healthy for a non-medieval person....

aaronandbrighid said...

You should take a look. Although it's very informative and is intended as sort of a textbook for young scholars, I found it an extremely pleasurable read.