Abba Isaiah The Solitary - 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.
Silence is simply to listen attentively to the movement of the heart. It is foundational to attaining the presence of God in the heart.
"A monastic will not succeed in stillness and will not experience peace unless he first acquires silence and abstinence."
Without silence you won't see what moves your heart, and if you can’t see what moves your heart how can you hope to find purity of heart?
If your heart remains agitated by worldly cares (possessions, relationships, pleasures, insults, offences, bitterness, monetary gain, etc…), it will be very difficult to find peace, which is essential to the presence of God.
“A person who is bustling about with cares can neither be at peace, nor in stillness of mind, nor silent. The memories of vain things, even against the will, brings agitation, and disturbs his peace, stillness and silence. The vain bustling of the many cares of life delivers the soul of the monastic to the devil."
Isaiah and the other desert father and mothers took 1 Peter 2:11 seriously: “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.”
Those maturing in the spiritual way will find themselves detached from things of the world and caught up in the Holy Spirit.
“As much as the heart is separated from external affairs and ties, to the same measure the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the soul and the heart obtains such peace…”
Stillness can be summed up as this: not being moved internally by anything externally. It is the cutting off of the will from all things of the world. Stillness is being detached from the cares of this world and attached to the cares of the heavenly life.
While stillness is about interior disposition, it can be cultivated by external discipline.
“The deeds of stillness are: fasting, vigils, sleeping on the ground, reading, and prostrations every hour.”
Certain disciplines would remove care for worldly things (fasting) and foster the growth of the heavenly life (vigils, reading, prostrations, i.e. humble prayer).
Abba Isaiah counselled his disciples to practice these things, he also recognized without the aid of God no growth was possible:
“However know this, my lady, that no one can do anything without the help of God, just as without one’s own desire and zeal no progress can be made in anything.”
Progress in Godliness took God’s grace and our effort.
The motivation behind any discipline was the love of God and the desire for him and him alone.
"A monastic who loves stillness is loved by God, because it is out of his love for God that he remains in stillness and silence, wishing to converse with God alone in pure prayer. Living on earth, he thinks of Heaven, and his mind is always occupied with one thing only-how to please God and become the temple of the Holy Spirit. Such fervency lends its neck to the easy and light yoke of Sweetest Jesus."
The desire for pure prayer was the light and easy yoke that led to Jesus.
Stillness is Mary choosing to sit at the feet of Jesus.
"Stillness is the easy yoke and the light burden that gives rest and saves the one who loves it. It is that good part which Mary chose, as Christ the Lord said. Keep it also, my good sister, with love and in the fear of God. In this way you too can receive the delight of your Lord, and sitting near Him you can say to Sweetest Jesus: My soul hath thirsted for Thee let my soul be filled as with marrow and fatness (Ps. 62:1,5)."
To practice of silence is to remove that which would hinder internally, to practice stillness is to cut off that which would hinder externally.
"My brother: Know that a man cannot make progress in God, unless he becomes detached from all the cares of this age. For there are two material forces that hinder the soul. One is exterior: it concerns itself with worldly work in order to provide respite for the body. The other is interior: it is the force of the passions, which hinders the virtues. But the soul does not see the interior force of the passions, unless it is freed from the exterior one."
Unless you are free from that which attracts you externally, you will never find internal freedom. Exterior matters, as long as they are a concern to us distract the heart from its true purpose, to find its rest and identity in Jesus. Many find their rest in owning some possession or in material gain. Identity comes from the size of house, type of car/phone/computer/etc… This cannot be the case for the one serious in their pursuit of God.
Remembrance of God and Remembrance of Death
Two constant disciplines of Abba Isaiah are to keep the presence of God present in your heart and the transitory nature of humanity in your mind.
"Keeping constantly in mind the honour which all the Saints have received and the zeal which they demonstrated, you will bit by bit be drawn to the good. At the same time, call to mind the degradation in store for sinners, and your mind will then be safeguarded from things evil."
The remembrance of God draws you to the virtuous life, the remembrance of death is a protection against sin.
"The mind of one who lives in silence becomes one with God.”
The man who separates from worldly pursuit in his quest for God finds God in the midst of his silence.
“Man does not have such a mind united with God, but by the memory of Jesus Christ, and of death, Jesus enters into the heart of one living in stillness, and his mind thus becomes united with God.”
By practicing the presence of God and recalling that we are “like a breath (Psalm 144:4),” we find the presence of God transcending our mind and entering our heart. This is the place of deep transformation, the presence of Christ deep in the heart.
Part of the remembrance of God is to fulfill the commandments of God, it has to do with the will coming into subject to Christ.
“By fulfilling the commandments, the constant memory of Jesus is instilled in his heart; and from this, his mind becomes deified. Then he becomes entirely Christ’s and thinks of nothing more than to do His commandments with fear and love."
The one in pursuit of God out of a heart of love will think of nothing more than becoming one who is pleasing to the Lord.
This is a practical approach. If you keep death in mind it puts life into perspective. To what end is your pursuit? If it is God, this puts the entirety of life in perspective. In what way does our lifestyle reflect our pursuit. If we consider death, our actions would most likely change.
The life of prayer is the turning inward with the heart to the presence of Jesus.
"A monastic given to virtues must be totally separated from all cares of the world-so much so that when he turns to his inner self he ought to find there absolutely nothing of this world. Only the mind free from these cares, by the grace of Christ, is' able without distraction to learn, pray and be in stillness day and night."
The end of stillness, silence, remembrance of God, and the remembrance of death is that we would be able, without distraction to enter into the presence of God deep in the heart.
"The mind will not be able to see the place of God in the heart unless it first comes to be outside all things.”
This is simply restating the words of Jesus, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” If we are caught up with worry over what we will eat or drink, we will have much difficulty putting the seeking of God first. Prayer cultivates the place that God dwells in the heart of the believer.
The daily discipline of prayer is to…
“Hold in your mind the Sweetest Jesus, remembrance of death, remembrance of your past sins and daily downfalls such as: negligence, which the enemy incites against every virtue; slips of the tongue; irrational movements of anger and desires of the flesh; wandering of the mind; and evil thoughts. Try to see all of this in yourself and, as soon as you find anything like it, hurry to correct it; and after cutting it off at the root throw it far away from your heart.”
Silence and stillness help calm the thoughts and cares that would normally agitate the heart in order that, when we enter prayer, we are able to see the downfalls of our heart. In what ways have we been negligent in following God? In what ways have we been moved to anger irrationally, or to passionate desire of the flesh, or evil thoughts regarding another? The more sensitive to our heart we are, the more we see these interior dispositions, and the quicker we can correct them and become the vessel for God that we desire to be.
Spiritual prayer is to constantly call to God for help.
“Force yourself to spiritual prayer, such as you were taught to practice unceasingly day and night: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!"
Without his grace we have no hope of accomplishing anything. As David claimed in Psalm 3:5, “I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord sustained me.” David recognized this principle, the only way we are sustained in our spiritual life is through the grace of God.
An important principle taught by nearly all the early fathers of the church was that the one engaging on the spiritual journey could never hope to know God if one did not know themselves.
"Before everything else, come to know yourself. When you come to know yourself, you will also come to know God; and forgetting in mind that which is created, you will unceasingly remember the Creator alone."
Without knowledge of self, fallibility and all, we could never hope to distinguish between what is of us, and what is of God.
Abba Isaiah encourages us never to sacrifice momentum for comfort.
"Who is that true and wise monastic? The one who preserves unextinguished the warmth that he had at the beginning, and to the end of his life strives to add fire to tire, zeal to zeal, aspiration to aspiration, and ardor to ardor; one who is continually attentive to himself, and has patiently borne his most difficult burden."
The Role of Scripture
To Abba Isaiah, Scripture was absolutely essential in pursuing God.
"Always remain in stillness, and study the Holy Scriptures. I will point out this example: As those who cannot see visible light are never able to walk well, just so are those who do not read the Holy Scriptures and do not remain in prayer. They often stumble and are necessarily lost since they are surrounded by fatal darkness.”
Without God’s Word, it will be hard to hear God’s Word.
“The Holy Scriptures are for the soul as rain is for the thirsty earth. No matter how much a person may sow in the dry ground, it will not grow anything: so is it without the reading of the Holy Scriptures-the soul will not grow spiritually."
Without Scripture it will be impossible to grow. How could you grow into the image of the King without the image of the King present before you?
Isaiah did not consider not understanding Scripture to be an excuse.
“Insatiable is the sweetness of the Holy Scriptures! When you read and do not understand the power of the word do not become depressed; read it twice, thrice, and many times, calling upon our Lord Jesus Christ to open the eyes of Your mind."
What to do if you don’t know what the Bible means? Ask God to bring clarity and trust that He will.
This prolific author was known as an excellent guide into the heart of Jesus and was sought out for his excellent spiritual counsel. The date of his passing is unclear, but some have pegged it to be right around 490 AD. This would make him one of the oldest of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
Lastly, he recognized the distinction between those the Holy Spirit in-dwelt, and those that prepared themselves as a dwelling for the Holy Spirit. As one of the oldest men in the movement of the desert spirituality, Abba Isaiah was uniquely qualified to make this statement, for he had seen some of Christianity’s greatest men:
“The Holy Spirit is for everyone: but in those who are pure of the passions, who are chaste and live in stillness and silence, He reveals special power."