16 July 2009

'He Drew Abundant Streams of Spiritual Wisdom'—St Isaiah the Solitary

Today, 3 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Isaiah the Solitary of Scetis and Palestine (370). St Isaiah authored a full-length ascetic treatise, only part of which was included in the Philokalia by St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (see The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 1, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1983], pp. 21). Here is my poor translation (assisted greatly by this more modernised Greek text) of the brief biography of St Isaiah composed by St Nicodemus:

Our Holy Father Isaiah the Solitary lived in the year 370 AD, a contemporary of Abba Macarius the Great. Studying the divine Scriptures night and day, he drew from the founts of salvation abundant streams of spiritual wisdom and became the author of many and most beautiful words on various subjects of profit to the soul, so as to fill an entire book. From these we offer here this small discourse, for those who long to preserve their own intellect [nous]. For this discourse teaches succinctly how we can repel the attacks of wicked thoughts [logismoi] so that our conscience does not accuse us, how to meditate [on Divine things], and how to preserve appropriately in imperturbability the three parts of the soul.

According to the editors of the English Philokalia, however, most modern historians consider him to have lived in Scetis and then moved to Palestine around 431, ‘eventually dying in great old age as a recluse near Gaza on 11 August 491 (according to others, in 489). Whichever date is preferred, it is evident that the author reflects the spirituality of the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Palestine during the fourth and fifth centuries’ (p. 21). Here is a chapter from his treatise ‘On Guarding the Intellect’ as it is appears in the Philokalia (here, again, is the link from above, featuring the entire treatise in Modern Greek along with St Nicodemus’s biographical note and additional ‘introductory comments’):

23. Holy Scripture speaks everywhere about the guarding of the heart, in both the Old and the New Testaments. David says in the Psalms: ‘O sons of men, how long will you be heavy of heart?’ (Ps. 4:2. LXX), and again: ‘Their heart is vain’ (Ps. 5:9. LXX); and of those who think futile thoughts, he says: ‘For he has said in his heart, I shall not be moved’ (Ps. 10:6), and: ‘He has said in his heart, God has forgotten’ (Ps. 10:11).

A monk should consider the purpose of each text in Scripture, to whom it speaks and on what occasions. He should persevere continually in the ascetic struggle and be on his guard against the provocations of the enemy. Like a pilot steering a boat through the waves, he should hold to his course, guided by grace. Keeping his attention fixed within himself, he should commune with God in stillness, guarding his thoughts from distraction and his intellect from curiosity. (pp. 26-7)

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