Abba Isidore of Pelusium
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.
“…our God is a consuming fire, those who contemplate God with purity are likewise called burning coals. Being set ablaze in union with him, they appear as stars in the world.”
"Just as the quality of the site of a city is closely related to the quality of the climate of the location, in the same way for hearts, a good disposition to virtue helps the divine alliance along."
“Habit is a powerful agent, and by degrees is changed into nature itself; so that some call it a second nature.”
Who was Abba Isidore of Pelusium?
Abba Isidore of Pelusium was a Desert Father whose “life seemed to everyone the life of an angel upon the earth.” He dedicated his life to seeking God in solitude at a young age. No records accounts for the year of his birth, though speculation would put his birth firmly in the latter half of the fourth century.
Abba Isidore was established as a priest and oversaw a monastery outside of the city of Pelusium, the region near the eastern edge of the Nile Delta. He was a disciple of John Chrysostom and every bit the theologian as his spiritual father. Isidore wrote extensively on issues of doctrine, theology, spiritual practice, and the practical matters of a life dedicated to following Christ. Some 2000 letters have been handed down from the fifth century penned by the hand of Abba Isidore, though most of them have never been translated into English.
“From their pages shine forth the saint's prudence, humility, undaunted zeal and ardent love of God.”
His style is poetic, his depth profound, his instructions practical.
“Many with a high opinion of their own steadiness and excellent principles, and fancying themselves secured thereby from whatever temptations may occur, have by slow and gentle steps been led on till they fall into the gulf.”
As it pertains to theology, Isidore taught that God was a mystery and ultimately unknowable to the human mind. The knowledge of God’s true essence and nature is so vast and superior that our limited human comprehension has no hope of grasping the unlimited nature of the Divine being. The knowledge of God is only obtained by faith, and it is not so much what He is, but THAT He is. By faith, the seeker enters into the mystery of the divine union witnessed in Christ, the ultimate melding of divinity and humanity. In Christ, the weakness of humanity was united with the unlimited nature of Divinity.
The mystery of God, His unknowability, is summed up by Isisdore like this…
“The Lord united and purified the human nature and inflamed it by His own fire of the Godhead and became one Person with it and one worshipped Hypostasis.”
The mystery of God is that He who is ultimately unknowable united himself with human nature, purified that nature, and then began revealing himself to humanity.
It is one thing to gaze at the sun, it is a far different matter to stand in the centre of the sun. One is possible for all humans, one is only possible for God. The nature of God is such that we can never hope to achieve pure knowledge of Him, yet the desire of the Godhead is to be known. Isidore says that it is not possible to see God, but that it IS possible to think of God. Yet it is still far more difficult to understand God, His ways are far above our ways. His ways are not far above in the sense that there is a measurement between his ways and ours, they are far above in the sense that they are far removed from our limited and finite reality.
The God who is unknowable made himself known first through his interaction with the world, then through the prophets, then in Jesus (who was the exact imprint of his nature), and finally through Scripture. Isidore teaches that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are three yet one, indistinct, yet distinct. The Father has always been the Father, just as the Son has always been the Son. If the Son was at any time created, then there was a time that the Father was not a father. The begottenness of Christ does not indicate the beginning of Christ, but rather the relationship between father and son. For the Father to be the Father eternally, the Son must exist eternally in relationship to the Father, both having no beginning and no ending, co-equal, and co-eternal.
To show the equality of the Spirit to the Son and the Father, Isidore states,
“It was in order to show the union of the most Holy Spirit with Himself and the Father that Our Lord and Master, after rising from the dead, said to his disciples, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive any ones’ sins, they are forgiven.’ Namely, by the authority of the divine Spirit you receive, who has divine power to remit sins.”
By receiving the Holy Spirit they were granted the authority the forgive sins. Jesus demonstrated his equality with the Father when he forgave the man lowered on his bed through the roof, and then showed the equality of the Spirit within the Trinity by claiming the reception of the Spirit granted the ability to forgive sins.
The Spiritual Life
Abba Isidore taught that the spiritual life was about preparation of the heart, and the outworking of the spiritual life would be seen in the actions of those whose lived had been changed by Divine encounter. The life of the Christian without the character of Christ formed within is meaningless. That life will have no lasting impact. The message preached without the character of the message lived leaves little hope for those who hear the preacher. The life of Christ, coupled with the character of Christ, leaves hope in the heart of the hearer that they too can be transformed.
Abba Isidore said regarding preparation of heart.
“Just as the quality of the site of a city is closely related to the quality of the climate of the location, in the same way for hearts, a good disposition to virtue helps the divine alliance along.”
The heart prepared for the life of virtue creates a climate that aids union with the Holy Spirit.
Sin separates man from God, while virtue unites them in Spirit.
“Sin alienates us from God and separates us from other people. So we must immediately turn away from sin and pursue virtue, which leads us to God and unites us with each other.”
Sin not only damages our nearness to Christ, but it wounds those around us. Psalm 11:5 says,
Isidore taught that fear would keep man from pursuing the virtuous life.
“Many desire virtue, but fear to go forward in the way that leads to it, while others consider that virtue does not even exist. So it is necessary to persuade the former to give up their sloth, and teach the others what virtue really is.”
Fear keeps the man from pursuing righteousness, for what if he pursued something and never attained it? The fear of failing keeps man from succeeding. But the command to pursue righteousness also implies the grace to accomplish the pursuit. How could God be just by commanding us to pursue something that was impossible to attain?
By pursuing virtue, the monk can establish what would become his habit. His habit would eventually become his nature.
“Habit is a powerful agent, and by degrees is changed into nature itself; so that some call it a second nature. Others say that nature is subverted by habit, adopting the notion of the old poet: ‘The drop continuous hollows out the stone.’ What is harder than stone, or what softer than water? but by perpetual attrition nature is thus overcome.”
What you take action on becomes your nature, and eventually it becomes your “second nature.” With consistent practice, what you focus on becomes the life you live.
Ultimately, the monastic was to be set ablaze for God.
“For since our God is a consuming fire, those who contemplate God with purity are likewise called burning coals. Being set ablaze in union with him, they appear as stars in the world.”
Christ not only bestowed gifts upon men, but he taught them how to live a kingdom life, seeking his righteousness. The first apostles were sent into the world with gifts, but not without the requisite character to demonstrate the nature of Christ to a fallen world.
Spiritual warfare is an interior conflict, and he counselled others never to shrink from it, the struggle determines the reward.
“Concerning the conflicts which you undergo, excellent sir, be convinced: the present circumstances put before us are an invisible arena, in which we do not wrestle against perceptible beasts, but against perceptible passions. These are the very things that, if they should prevail over the strength in us, will bring on danger not just as far as the body but bring death to the soul itself. But if they should be controlled then they will flee, and we will gain for ourselves great rewards and acclamation.”
But those great rewards and acclimation were not for this present life, they were for the life to come.
“Prize the virtues and do not be the slave of glory; for the former are immortal, while the latter soon fades.”
The prize of the Christian life is to hear, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
Abba Isidore wrote about the failings of the church in his era. His statements echo down to us through time and speak prophetically towards the state of the church today.
First, he defined the church.
“Now that a church is properly an assembly of holy men, having a sound faith, and the surest moral discipline, is the view entertained of it by all wise men,” and, “For it was not to contemplate walls, but living souls, that the King of Heaven visited us here below.”
The church was meant to be led by those inspired by God.
“That while the church was flourishing, and not yet in the diseased state in which it now is, divine graces formed a sacred band or chorus around it, its affairs being under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and every minister moved and directed by its influence, is known and admitted by all.”
While Christians pursue God, God dwells with them. Isidore says that the great ornaments of the church are the men and women pursuing righteousness and holiness.
He makes the distinction between the building of a gathering and the people therein:
“I will try to make myself understood by examples. As the altar is one thing, and the sacrifice another; as the censer is one thing, and the incense another ; as the council-chamber is one thing, and the council another, the one signifying the place of assembling, the other the persons meeting for consultation, to whom are committed questions of public danger and safety, the same is the difference between the temple and the church.”
The temple is the place of gathering, the people the church of God. The great ornaments of the church are not the edifices of a temple, but the lives of the people.
Isidore was grieved by the state of the church in his day.
“The church has her caskets and her cases of jewels and ornaments, but of her real wealth she is bereaved, not from the neglect of him who first adorned her, but from the unfaithfulness of those who have mal-administered her affairs.”
The church has not been neglected by God, but by those entrusted with the leadership of the church. As Peter said, “For the time has come for judgement to begin at the house of God.”
But to those who would pursue God before financial gain or earthly recognition he wrote,
“O thou illustrious pupil of the church, pay no respect to those who are on the eve of shipwreck, nor compare yourself with these senseless persons; but render still more luminous the light of your understanding, refreshing it from the source of living virtue. And expect the Bridegroom to come attended by those who are, as virgins, pure in mind and body, to take vengeance upon those who, by their iniquities, have sullied the dignity of the priesthood, and its virgin sanctity.”
Our cry today must echo the cry of this dear desert father when confronted with the atrocities he witnessed in church…
“I would certainly choose rather to live in times in which the temples were not thus expensively adorned, but the church was encircled with divine and heavenly graces, than in times when the fabrics themselves are adorned with all kinds of marble, and the church left naked and destitute of spiritual graces.”
Abba Isidore passed away around 450 AD and left wealth of spiritual teaching, theological depth, and profound wisdom. We would do well to imitate his example and be remembered as “the life of an angel upon the earth.”