Abba Isaac the Syrian - Part 1
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Abba Isaac the Syrian?
Abba Isaac the Syrian was born in 613 in Beth Qatraye (what is now known as Qatar in the Persian Gulf). He joined a monastery at a young age, was ordained as a priest in Nineveh (modern day Iraq), and promptly left his post five months after having been ordained to pursue the life of a solitary in the Arabian desert.
Shortly after having been ordained as a priest, he felt the lure of the desert beckoning him. He missed the solitude of the monastic life he had enjoyed before becoming a priest and wondered if grace had departed from him on account of his new found rank. The story of a particular father who felt as if divine care was present as long as he dwelt in the desert had particular appeal to Abba Isaac. Needing no further convincing he left for the desert after his brief turn as a priest.
Abba Isaac was known to have penetrated the depths of the spiritual life. The scriptures and a healthy respect for the mystery of God drove Isaac to embrace the heart of God. He wrote and studied extensively on the life of spiritual discipline. It is even said that he lost his eyesight later in life due to his reading and discipline.
To Isaac, the beginning of the spiritual life was struggle. He was convinced that we would have to unlearn what we had learned, and there was no greater facet for that process than the bible. As scripture was imprinted upon the mind through reading, meditation, and prayer, the heart was transformed and illuminated.
He ate sparingly, being known to eat only a few loaves of bread a week, along with some vegetables. Isaac claimed that half of his diet was provided to him by a particular bird who would bring him bread, much like Elijah the Prophet or John the Baptist.
He knew a divinely inspired balance between dealing with the present life of sin, and knowing the care and compassion of the Lord. Isaac recounted the story of a particular monk to illustrate this point. This monk, while weeping and lamenting over his sin, fell asleep and had a dream. In this dream, Christ appeared full of compassion and asked the monk what was troubling him. The monk responded and said,
“Do you not wish for me, Lord, to cry and to be sad since, though I have enjoyed so many good things from You, I have nonetheless so saddened Thee?”
In this dream, the Lord stretched out his hand and gently touched the head of the monk and said,
“Do not be sad any longer. Since you have wept much for My sake, I bear no sadness on your account. If I have shed My blood for you, should I not all the more offer up forgiveness to you and to every soul which has sincerely repented for his sins.”
The monk awoke and was filled with the love and tenderness of God. Rather than lamenting his sin, the monk spent the remained of his life in humility, thanking God continually for erasing the debt of sin.
Abba Isaac the Syrian spent his time collecting the extensive wisdom of the church fathers on the spiritual life, recounting that to the men and women of his age, penetrating the heart of God, and teaching others to do the same. He served the purpose of communicating the teachings that had come in the centuries before, and setting to record the main tenets of the spiritual life. As such, his work is heralded as some of the greatest writings on the spiritual life in the Syrian writers of Christian history.
The Spiritual Life
To Abba Isaac, the spiritual life began, matured, and culminated in divine hunger and humility.
“Always, and in all matters, believe yourself to be in need of learning, and throughout the whole of your life you will be shown to be wise.”
The basic principles of the spiritual life are the practice of restraint and silencing the heart to meditate upon God. Restraint curtails the activity of the flesh, while silence clarifies and helps to form the interior life. Without restraint the flesh will hinder the activity of the interior life, and without silence, the will to practice restraint will wane.
Isaac taught that to practice restraint and meditating upon God was the path to growth.
“He who puts these two rules into practice will make great progress and set out henceforth to attain all the virtues.”
But to Isaac, the life of virtue was not seen in great accomplishment, but rather is found in the heart rendering its hope in God. The heart that hopes in God combines bodily works with spiritual practice and derives benefit from both. But external practice divorced from the interior path of silence before God produces little fruit.
When these principles are practiced the mind begins to find purity, and purity is necessary to begin to know God. As one labors in the spiritual life the womb of the heart becomes fruitful and produces knowledge of the mysteries of God. The aim of the spiritual life is the cultivation of purity of thought. Isaac echoes the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
He taught that when you set out to find God, you can expect the enemy to resist you.
“When you wish to begin a good work, you should first prepare yourself to face the temptations that are going to attack you; for when the adversary sees someone beginning a pleasing way of life with fervent faith, he is accustomed to impede him with fearful temptations of different kinds, so that the man may lose his nerve as a result and abandon the good intention of his heart.”
But God has a higher purpose in allowing this temptation: to train the individual to find his mercy. This echoes a constant refrain of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, without temptation no one can be saved. To Isaac, temptation provided the opportunity to dive into the heart of God and discover his grace, mercy, compassion and care. This process begins to cultivate a mind set upon God, and to implant the very nature of God within the heart.
“…the memory of God may be implanted in your mind and you may approach Him through prayers, in which case your heart will be sanctified by ceaseless recollection of the name of God.”
This makes the spiritual life reciprocal in nature. God allows the test, man struggles for God, God reveals his care, and man becomes like God. The ability to overcome the temptation towards sin is found in the struggle to resist the temptation towards sin. God grants grace to those who struggle. Grace is a free gift, and not earned by merit. It is provided as a significant by-product of the death and resurrection of Christ, no one needs to wait for grace to come, it is freely offered to those who will receive it. And that grace is acted on by faith. Without attempting the struggle, grace can hardly be found at all.
In order to discover the glory of God humility of heart is required within the individual.
“Lower yourself before all men and you will be exalted above the princes of this age; humble yourself, and you shall see the glory of God within you.”
As the image and likeness of God was seen in the life of Christ (who humbled himself, emptied himself, took upon lowliness of nature, esteemed himself as nothing, and died ignobly) then humility in the individual would move them closer and closer to acquiring the likeness of God. Isaac taught that honor would pursue him who fled honor, and only when we despise honor is it granted to us. The lower we go the greater that God elevates.
Humility would be tested through the verbal barbs of others.
“If, indeed, you want to find out if you are truly humble, test yourself by whatever befalls you.”
Often we miss the issue that a false accusation exposes. The degree of violent emotions that arise out of a false accusation is the degree of pride the individual carries over his own image. If we were truly dead, a false accusation would brush itself off without taking root within the emotions.
“Do not, then, think that you are humble, if you cannot accept condemnation for even insignificant things.”
Once, Abba Isaac was asked how to recognize if one has attained a measure of interior illumination. His answer was simple, the one who has had his interior life illuminated is the one who recognizes the bitterness inherent in worldly stimulation, and who struggles to grow close to God in this present life. Furthermore, he says that the mark of internal illumination is that one will see all men as good, and none as unclean. It is one thing to esteem others as better than oneself (Philippians 2:3) when you agree with those around you, it is another thing entirely to esteem others that we would normally shun.