Abba Isaac the Syrian - Part 2
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.
To Abba Isaac, spiritual maturity was not about performing astonishing miracles or claiming many salvations. Spiritual maturity was seen more in the health of the interior life than in the accomplishments witnessed by everyone else. Those that accomplished great works yet never cared for their heart were a great affront to Isaac because of the damage they would eventually wreak on those that they led.
“From history, we see that many have performed astonishing miracles, have raised the dead, and have labored to return those who are erring to the straight path and the true Faith; they worked great miracles and by their efforts led many to knowledge of God. Later, however, those who gave life to others fell into base passions and put themselves to death; and they scandalized many when (from their daily behavior) their actions became known.”
Abba Isaac was more concerned about becoming a blessing through the long slow burn of spiritual maturity than to have an immediate impact yet fall astonishingly in the next sentence.
Growth in the spiritual life comes about in a two-fold way: crucifixion of the body and ascent to God. Crucifixion of the body is the death of the passionate display of the natural, carnal life. The first God sovereignly works in us, the second we participate in the life of God by his grace. Both work in a death of sorts. Abba Isaac said,
“The first is a consequence of liberation from the passions; the second comes about from carrying out the works of the Spirit.”
Crucifying the natural life happens in a moment, and is also an ongoing discipline of the spiritual life. It is effectively continued through fasting, abstinence, and simplicity. The ascent to God is found through prayer, silence, solitude, and remembrance of God. Both are worked by God and participated in by the individual.
Bringing to death the natural life happens moment by moment. A crucial component of this is a discipline the desert fathers call watchfulness. Abba Isaac sums this discipline up as such,
“Set a small desire at naught as soon as it begins to be aroused in you, lest you be consumed by its intense heat when it flares up; for the attention and patience that we exhibit in small temptations drive away the danger that comes from great temptations.”
Refuse to allow temptation to take root in your heart when it is small, and it won’t lead to greater temptations. This is merely restating what Jesus said about faithfulness in Luke 16:10,
“He who is faithful in the small things will also be faithful in the greater things.”
If we are struggling in our thought life, the problem is rarely the overt thing we are thinking. Generally speaking, there has been a slow degradation of the spiritual life over time that lends itself to greater temptation. The spiritual life is not won in the moment, it is won moment by moment over a lifetime.
Those who have attained a level of spiritual maturity have removed themselves from the acquisition of material things and find hope in the promise of the age to come.
“A monk is he who abides far from the world and unceasingly beseeches God that he might enjoy the good things to come.”
Hunger for God is a mark of spiritual maturity.
“God inundates with His sweet consolation the man who hungers for Him.”
As Jesus stated in the beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
The spiritually mature individual will find silence vital to the spiritual life.
“He should live in silence, maintaining vigil over his senses and keeping them well-disciplined.”
Silence serves to highlight the thoughts of the heart. Absent silence, we are inundated with external noise that drowns out internal awareness. As we embrace periods of silence, the thoughts of the heart become clear and apparent. In silence, we choose to cut off those thoughts that hinder the spiritual life, and foster the disposition of the heart that hungers after the presence of God.
The mark of maturity will carry a disdain for anger.
“…he should make himself a stranger to all contentiousness and not give way to anger…having no remembrance of wrongs at all.”
Spiritual maturity doesn’t live for earthly recognition.
“A monk should not love the honors of men.”
Those who concern themselves with the opinion of others will find themselves carried about emotionally by how others view them. Anger can be justified when the opinion another carries towards you is offensive to the opinion you desire.
Prayer is a significant mark of maturity.
“He should devote himself to prayers and give heed to, and meditate upon, the true and blissful realm (that is, the Kingdom of Heaven).”
To Abba Isaac, the prayer life begins in death of the exterior life. Absent the dissolution of our material attachments, we will be far to concerned with our appearance, our acceptance, our possessions, and our attitudes to truly enter into the sweetness of the presence of God. It is not merely external actions of sin that deter the prayer life, but it is our attachment to pleasure and fulfillment that hinder true intimacy. If you practice the material life you gain the material life. The practice of the spiritual life is a different thing entirely. Hence we are called sojourners and aliens in this life. The inner essence of stillness, silence, and solitude is a divine dance between death of self and contemplation of Christ.
Abba Isaac said,
“There is nothing superior and higher than for a man to fall before the Cross of Christ and to beseech Him unceasingly, day and night.”
The prayer life begins and matures in centering the interior gaze of the heart on Christ. The cross of Christ has a mystical and powerful attraction to the heart of man. Contemplation of the cross of Christ leads the individual to delight in God.
“…it so happens that a man’s heart overflows with an ineffable and inexpressible delight, and from the sweetness thereof his members are paralyzed, his eyes are veiled, and he falls with his face to the ground.”
Isaac teaches his readers to take careful watch of the heart, guarding the heart and mind against that which would disrupt the presence of Christ. Thoughts have the potential to lodge themselves in the mind and heart when dwelt upon. What we think about we eventually welcome and imitate in our lives.
Silence will greatly aid the endeavor of prayer. In periods of silence we eventually begin to hear the depth of our thought life.
To Isaac, “Silence deadens the external senses.”
When one sense is negated, another is heightened. If I cover my eyes I am aware of what surrounds me not because of what I see but because of what I hear. Silence highlights the interior movement of my heart. Practically, in periods of silence, I can tell my mind to stop thinking what it is thinking, and focus my thoughts on the heart of God. In addition to that, what you being pondering in silence is often what has filled your heart unbeknownst to you. Silence helps to curtail the mind and direct the heart.
Abba Isaac taught that the focus of the prayer life ought to be continual mourning coupled with spiritual delight.
“For how can he who constantly has his death-that is, his own soul, which has been put to death by sins-laid out before him, not always weep? From such mourning, then, a person arrives at purity of heart; and when he has arrived at this condition, he thenceforth enjoys unremitting consolation of spirit.”
We are told to abide in Christ yet remove ourselves from his presence in all manners of different ways. This understanding ought to beckon constant mourning. The interior awareness of my own depravity should drive me to the arms of a loving God who offers consolation and sweetness as the exchange for my darkness. Tears are brought on by the understanding of the potential of the human heart to hurt the heart of Christ, and sweetness falls as a grace. To Isaac, this is summed up in the beatitude,
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
As I mourn my own inclination to sin, I am comforted by the love, care, and grace of God.
Fasting would aid the prayer life.
“Bodily ascesis (bodily hardships and fasting) precedes spiritual ascesis (prayer of the heart and contemplation), just as Adam’s body was first fashioned from the earth and his soul was then breathed into him.”
Fasting tears our desire from worldly things and offers us the opportunity to bind our hearts to God.
And Scripture was integral to the prayer life. As the individual reads and meditates on scripture the the very words of God begin to permeate their thoughts and being. Scripture serves to direct the mind to eternal truths of the heart of God. As the words of God fill the mind, your mind begins to find purity of thought and intent. There is inherent to this one part the practical application of filling your mind with something different (Scripture) and another part the grace of God to transform the interior life. When we are admonished in Romans 12 to renew our minds we must take an action that displays our faith. God does not force our hand in the prayer life, he is lovingly patient, extending his grace to transform us as a free offering readily available to our feeble will.
This love affair with Scripture creates within the heart a disposition favorable to the Holy Spirit. Abba Isaac said,
“For when this power of the Holy Spirit finally endows one with that power of soul which acts with the help of the Spirit, then there takes root in his heart the commands of the Spirit, rather than the laws of Scripture, and thus a man is given knowledge mystically by the Spirit, without having the need of sensory material, in the work of his spiritual upbuilding.”
When the presence of the Spirit is coupled with the formation of the heart, the individual looks to fulfill the spirit of the law and not the letter.
And Scripture is not to be read flippantly, but intentionally. When one sets out to gain understanding by reading, they should not read as if they are reading mere text. Rather, they should set out to understand the depth of the words. This begins with a simple prayer,
“O Lord, grant me the ability to understand the spiritual power contained herein.”
The grace of God will transform the heart through prayer, meditation and Scripture if we will but allow him the space.
The Love of God
The love that is exchanged between the heart of God and man exists as a certain warmth that dwells within.
“The love which a person feels towards God is, by nature, warm, and when it comes richly to dwell in one’s heart.“ Love attaches the lover to the beloved. And this love eradicates fear and shame: “From a man who has been overcome by, and has felt, this overwhelming love for God, there departs any fear or shame, for since he loves God, he neither fears Him nor shrinks before Him.”
The love of God is an experience shared between the one seeking and the heart of God. It is shared intimacy in a moment. It is rest in the heart of God.
“The soul that loves God finds rest in God and in Him alone.”
Fear drives us to God, for without his grace we would face incredible judgement. But God drives out fear by the means of his love. When the love of God has settled deep within the heart of the individual fear dissolves as it has no place to rest (at least fear of judgement). Abba Isaac calls this love a divine ecstasy. This divine ecstasy drove Apostles and early church fathers to the ends of the earth without fear of suffering or death. The one caught up in divine ecstasy finds his mind dwelling in heaven and occupied with eternal mysteries.
“Fear (of God) leads us to love, and by means of works of foolishness in Christ, we enter into spiritual paradise and draw near to the Tree of Life, which is love.”
Eventually, love becomes central to the interior life. We are to come to a “safe harbor of love” and moor ourselves there. This safe harbor has no anchoring place for fear and we find ourselves drawn to constant communion with the Spirit of God.
Abba Isaac lived until old age and spent his time contemplating the love and glory of God. He learned to let God be mysterious and it forever changed him.