Sunday, February 25, 2018

Beauty and Hesychia

"In the dazzling flesh of divinity, you have shown natural beauty to be even more beautiful O blessed Virgin, we bless the One whom you bore."
Of the Athonite Life it is said: "Sacred matter, that which is given to God, is replete with divine grace.  The souls of the saints fly and flutter about, luminous and full of light.  The relics of the saints perpetually emit the same uncreated and scintillating light; and indescribable and uncreated fragrance pours from their tombs.  Everything around is filled by the beauty of their contrition and the fragrance of heaven."  Yet, if such is so for the monk, then such must also be true for every person filled with grace and part of the Body of Christ.  "True beauty is captivating; it pours forth love.  Furthermore it teaches man to love goodness, offering and sacrifice."  One's entire sojourn and journey along the Christian way proves to be a theological initiation - an initiation into the life of the Divine.  "It molds a person like a deifying womb and nurtures him for a new life.  One comes to believe in the Incarnation of the Logos of God and in the deification (theosis) of that which He assumed.  One comes to live and believe that God is love and perplexing beauty, that the unveiling of His love is a revelation of beauty, and that His beauty is an offering, freely given from the bounty of His goodness.  With this great beauty He refashioned our human substance by His Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection."  From out of the withering, fleeting prison of our sin, we pass through the hour of judgment which breaks us down and resurrects us, toward enduring beauty and the freedom of inexpressible loveliness and the maturity of stillness.  What we learn from the monk is that all men can be saved and become participants in the divine beauty through participation in the Lord's sufferings, through life-bearing mortification. To this end, Archimandrite Vasileios offers us the following reflection: 

The monk’s life is beautiful because it is associated with that awesome hour of judgment and liberation. The monk’s life is a life of repentance and in the final analysis, is also a life of Transfiguration. It is the life of asceticism, labor, pain, endurance and tears. For this reason, it is crowned with divine and mystical consolation, and the beauty of spontaneity, truth and stillness. It is a life of philokalia, the love of beauty.

The monk pursues his love of beauty through his asceticism. He is an artist who grapples not with mere paints, sounds, or words, but struggles instead with his own entire being. He fashions himself. He asked to be given totally to God, to be fashion and by Him so that he can say willingly: “Not my will but Thine be done.“ When this happens, everything is given to him in that hour when he least expects it. His whole life bears the seal of that hour of crucifixion and resurrection. All his life becomes that hour of judgment from which springs the beauty of freely given salvation and the maturity of everlasting hesychia.

Then he either speaks, or writes, or builds, or chooses to remain silent with a comfort and a source of strength which are different.  This is because Someone else is functioning instead of him.  Someone else is speaking and writing, building or remaining silent.

Every hour becomes his sacrifice, his self-offering and thus the emergence as well of a perplexing beauty.  Each of his trials becomes a blessing and so he remains silent and grateful.  His entire self becomes a wound; his entire self becomes a spring of rejoicing.  He lives Good Friday and the Resurrection at the same time.  Every day he dies and every day he is resurrected.  He does not live life as mere biological existence, but rather feels it breaking forth from the tomb at every hour to conquer death.  Everything is a divine gift and a wonderful revelation.  As the Lord said: "Do not be anxious about how you are to speak or what you are to say in that hour."  In that hour, which is eternity, everything is given to him most vividly.

The true and genuine monk, the authentic monk, puts on no pretenses of being something he is not, because he is true.  He moves and behaves unaffectedly.  His entire being radiates the beauty that is within him.  Better put, through his trials and endurance, divine beauty is revealed.  His youth passes, he grows old but is rejuvenated.  He becomes a "good" old man, a peaceful old man, in short, a monk.  There is a comfort and a light which is not created light.  There is a youth which is eternal, a humor which blossoms upon the tough branch of asceticism, and a life which ascends from the tomb.  Such a monk, since he is liberated, plays in the morning of the Resurrection like a carefree child upon the sandy beach of the sea, upon the same seashore on which walks the resurrected Christ.  He is tranquil because the Lord has mortified Hades with the lightning flash of His divinity.

A Beauty exists which abolishes death; a Stillness (hesychia) exists which abounds with eternal blessedness and splendor for all of us.

Archimandrite Vasileios
Abbot of Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos
Beauty and Hesychia in the Athonite Life

Friday, February 23, 2018

St. Isaac the Syrian - Humility is the End, the Final Goal

We come now to the denouement of Abbot Vasileios' reflections on St. Isaac the Syrian.  All that Vasileios writes comes together as a portrait of a man utterly transformed by the grace of God;  Abba Isaac is not lost to us in the 7th century but is ever so present - loving us, comforting us and giving us hope.  Having become a partaker of the ineffable joy of the age to come, he has not become absent to us.  His final teaching is the wisdom that unites us to him and God - while in this world we must struggle on for the final Sabbath for us comes only in the grave.  What we must seek and what has the greatest value for us in this world is humility.  It is in humility alone that we find rest and consolation and are protected from all enemies.  Humility must become our final end, our final goal.

Abba Isaac does far more that write about humility or exhort us to embrace it.  Through humility he becomes ever-present to us, bound to us - friend!  He would journey with us until all has been accomplished, death has been destroyed and Eternal Love alone remains.  

In order to express the ineffable, St. Isaac inevitably speaks in oxymorons, in negative terms.  He uses human terminology, concepts and values that have been broken and torn apart.

What can possibly be said about the state in which the intellect comes to a halt and the sense cease?  How can he convert the Incomprehensible and Uncreated using created elements? "There is no perfect or true name whatever for things of the age to come, but a simple state of knowing only, surpassing every appellation, every rudimentary element, form, color, shape and composite denomination."

This is why he speaks only of derangement, foolishness, inebriation; the loss of senses, of fear, shame, and free will; of disorder, measurelessness, nonexistence.  It is because he wants to express the true sobriety, perception, freedom and existence, the "new and simple world" which has received him.  

He has attained to the likeness of God.  He has become Godlike and God-minded.

All those things which before were essential (fear, shame, moderation, order . . . ), on which the Abba is so insistent, now flee; they leave him, they become an obstacle to him in his strange progress on high where Another acts, moves, and guides.  They cannot endure the fire of divinity which tests everything and makes it new.

And when he loses everything, that is when he finds everything in a way that is divine and unitary.  

He is taken up.  He disappears.  And he is truly to be found in a different place, in a different manner. "He is exalted above servitude to things earthly into the realm of its Creator."  He is given by grace "all power both in heaven and earth."  "He wields all the natures of creation even as God . . .  and  many times he can brings forth all from non-existence."

He shows us what a human being can attain.  What can be born from within him.  How this being can be extended.  "What treasures his soul has hidden within herself."  How he can be lost completely and found indeed.

He knows that one in a thousand may reach that point, may break through the bounds of corruption and be found worth of that mystery.

But insofar as even one person of the same nature as ours has reached that point, in his person we too have arrived by the grace of God.  And we become partakers of the ineffable joy of the age to come, which even now floods the souls and bodies of our deified brethren.

And these deified brethren are many.  And their multitude is defined not by a numerical value, but by the one truth and power which sums up the longings of all and satisfies the eager expectation of creation.

While he has reached that point and passed beyond the bounds of corruption, he knows that "while we are enclosed in the confines of the body", the work of repentance has not ended.  And he takes precautions against "the treachery of the demons and of those who preach the immutable perfection can be attained in this passionate and aberrant world."

And "the perfection of the perfect is truly without completion."  This is why "a man must not only work until he sees the fruit, but must struggle until his departure.  For often ripe fruit is suddenly destroyed by a hailstorm."

"Our sabbath is the day of our burial."

"The true Sabbath, the Sabbath that is not a similitude, is the tomb . . . the whole man, both soul and body, there keeps Sabbath."

Only in the grave does one find a Sabbath rest from the passions.  The end is the tomb.

And during the time one is alive, it is only in humility that one finds rest.  It is in this alone that he places his trust:

"The man who carries the pearl of chastity and journeys in the world on the road of his enemies has no hope of safety from thieves . . . until he reaches the sanctuary of the tomb, which is the land of certainty."

And "if, before you have entered into the city of humility, you observe in yourself that you have found rest from the importunity of the passions, do not believe it . . . You will not find rest from your toil, nor will you have relief from the enemy's treacherous designs, until you reach the abode of holy humility."

Humility is safety and certainty.  The humble man has the ethos and dignity of the sleeping and the dead.  He has the freedom and ease of one who does not exist.  He is "like a man that has not come into being."

He does not disturb anyone.  He is not disturbed by anyone.  He is unseen and unknown, as the soul is unseen and unknown.  And he is the soul and the consolation of the world.

Everyone loves the humble man.  They all want to be near him.  However much he shuns glory, it pursues him.

He wounds no one.  He is incapable of inflicting a wound.  And no one can wound him or do him any harm.  "He loves all and is loved by all."  He approaches wild beasts and they lose their savagery and come up to him as their master "and lick his hands and feet, for they smell coming from him that same scent that exhaled from Adam before the fall."

"For even the demons . . . become like dust as soon as they come before him."

Everyone reveres him, because they see in him the image of the Son of God who, in becoming man, put on humility as a garment.  And this divine grace clothes him about - "it is the raiment of the God-head" - and makes him inwardly alive and gives him wisdom.  "All men . . . see him as an angel of light . . . And every man waits on his words even as on the words of God."

Humility is the end, the final goal.

All the struggles, the asceticism, the virtues, have the goal of bringing us to humility.  "Without humility all our works are in vain, every virtue and every righteous labor."

The saints do not receive a reward for their virtue or toil in pursuit of virtue, but because of the humility it engenders.

"If humility becomes ours, she will make us sons of God, and even without good works she will present us to God."  "But without her, works are of no profit to us, and rather prepare us for many evils."

This is the fullness of the Kingdom; "the time appointed for the promise and the fulfillment of hope."

"Humility is a certain mysterious power which perfected saints receive when they have completed the whole course of their discipline."

"This virtue includes all in itself."  It is the power that the Apostles received at Pentecost.

It was concerning this that the Lord commanded: "Do not depart from Jerusalem, until you are clothed with power from on high."  Jerusalem is virtue; the power is humility.

In fact, it can be said that Abba Isaac is the great mystagogue of the mystery of humility.  All his ascetical homilies have this as their goal and their source.  All spiritual struggles flow out into the wide sea of humility.  And from humility proceeds the divine rest which restores the beauty in which man was first created.  "Anything whatsoever possessing humility is of its nature comely."

He recognizes humility as deification ("the humble-minded man is reckoned by all as God") and when he is about to speak of it, he hesitates and "is filled with fear" like one who knows that it means speaking about God.

This sacred hesitation and divine sensitivity rises from every page of his book, because Abba overflows with the gift of humility.

And "this it is which has sweetened the fragrance of the race of men."

Abba Isaac is the consolation of us all.

Who could appeal more the need of ordinary people who are looking for some human warmth and not exasperation?

Who could receive all the tormented children of History more warm-heartedly, or take them into a more saving embrace?

He spoke the language of existential anguish, and his insatiable yearnings were fulfilled.  He found peace.

Who can claim to be a more daring revolutionary and social reformer?  Who can say he has been more demanding in his life and more consistent in his conduct up to the end, than this elder in his cave?

He is such a deep ocean that no disturbance can trouble his waters - "he who is humble in mind is not perturbed, even if the sky should fall and cleave the earth."  And there is none more daring in his exploration of the depths.

If you are looking for human companionship, he gives it to you.  If you need a rest, you can get it.  If you are tormented by problems of faith, of existential anguish; if you are searching inwardly for the meaning of life; if many people have disappointed you and left you on your own, abandoned - make your way to Abba Isaac.  He does not abandon man.  God and find him in the Church.  Sit down beside him.  He knows all you have to endure better than you do yourself.  Everything you are going through, he has gone through before you.  His love is bound up with knowledge.  "Mercy feeds knowledge in the soul."

We can live, we can make progress.  We have someone beside us who understands us. 

We want to be still, to rest and to act.  In him we find it all.  And all alive, evolving, in progress.

He bears these things and lives them in such a way that the end and cessation of all is a blessing and a beginning, where things start to function in a different way which is more spiritual and worth.  "This is the majestical state of the good things to come, which is granted in the freedom of immortal life, in existence after the resurrection."

The serene movement of a flame at the highest temperature and in absolute silence.  The smoke has ceased, and the noise of the wood, "of the elements which will be consumed" "of methods and craftiness," "where there is darkness and the web of thoughts, and also the passions."

Everything has become light, incandescence, a strange magnificence.  Cessation, and a different movement.  The original motionlessness.

Everything has been clothed in glistening radiance and shines with "the unified simplicity of purity."

He loves everyone, and to him all are pure.

"When he sees all men as good and none appears to him to be unclean or defiled, then in truth a man's heart is pure."

His purity is not an individual matter, but an opportunity for all of us to be saved.

All things are revealed to him in a way which is uniform, and he is at peace.  There is nothing that disturbed him.  The remembrance of death kindles joy in his heart.

All is love.  The paradise of the saved, the hell of those enduring punishment.

He would not be complete if he did not love in this way.  Hell is the inability to love.  He has gone on to the greater love.  The burning of his heart melts the whole of creation.  With divine tenderness he embraces all creatures, "the enemies of truth and even the devil himself."

Only then, "when we attain to love, we attain to God.  Our way is ended and we have passed until the isle that lies beyond the world, where is the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."

In knowing him, you know God.

There is not a God who is both good and bad.  There is not a God who loves His friends and hates his enemies.   He is love from beginning to end.

In the abundance of His mercy He brings all things from non-existence into being.

Even the final judgment He carries out purely for love for all.

"God chastises in love, not for the sake of revenge - far be it! - but seeking to make whole His image. And He does not harbor His wrath for long."

"I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love . . .

It would be improper to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God.  Love  . . . is given to all in common.  The power of love works in two ways . . .  Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret."

He has fallen into the beguilement which surpasses himself.  He has fallen into the love of God which is as strong as death.  He can do no other.

"He who has attained to the love of God no longer wishes to remain in this life."

Does he who loves us want to leave us?

No.  He is simply showing us that distance can no longer separate us.  He is going to prepare a place for us.  He is truly with us and within us.

"Whom have you made your friend in this life, so that he will receive you there on the day of your departure?  he asks somewhere.

And we dare answer:

"We regard you as our friend, Abba, since you have understood us and cared for us."

Those who are silent like Abba Isaac, speak.  Those who are absent are with us in a different way, "in another form."

Their "ignorance" forges new paths of knowledge.

Their "non-existence" keeps us in being.

Their "longing for death as for life" gives us courage to confront, endure and overcomes whatever trials we face.

Death has been abolished.  The void has been filled.  Love has been conquered through them in Christ Jesus, to whom be glory and dominion unto the ages. Amen.

Archimandrite Vasileios
Abbot of Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos
Abba Isaac the Syrian
An Approach to His World

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

St. Isaac the Syrian - Slipping Beyond the Bounds to Attain the Unattainable

Archimandrite Vasileios opens our view to the horizon in this reflection in order that we might catch sight not only the journey ahead but that we might be filled with fervor and wonder for what is held in store for us.  We are on a ceaseless journey and everything in this world is transcended as we enter into the eternal silence and repose of God.  The movement is beyond virtue and ethics and all worldly hope and freedom.  The struggle is great, but the glory that is beyond prayer and freedom and that is filled with the joy of the divine, makes all other things seem as nothing.  There is a time for everything and one cannot elude the necessity of bodily toil and asceticism.  We suffer the shame of the cross in order to share in its glory and the reception of the Comforter.  The path ahead holds violence born of fervor beyond measure.  One transcends oneself and moves from glory to glory; all requiring the death to the false self, a willingness to experience the painful separation from the illusions we create for ourselves in order to be drawn into a vision of God.  In the eyes of the world it is a state of derangement where one is no longer directed or set upon the order of things here, but upon an ineffable sweetness that descends and floods man's being.

It is a ceaseless journey, an ascent, an ascension.

All things reach the point of transcendence.  They are surpassed.  They are done away with. They cease.

We enter into absolute silence and repose.

A person freed from passions, from ignorance, from vice.  He is not bound by "the other means which dishonor a man."  The present life is not big enough for him.  He does not bind himself to the present life.

He is not confined to worldly ethics and hope.  "For the hope of this present life enfeebles the thinking."  Despair shatters the hard, confining shell of worldly hope, the prison of sterility - "no weapon is stronger than despair" - pouring forth torrents of light in darkness.

He does not make good works, virtue, his aim in life.  He attains these, and by the grace of God moves beyond them: "Faith's way of life is more exalted than virtue, and its labor is not works, but perfect rest and consolation."

Calmly he moves on beyond the bounds of motion, speech, sensation, knowledge, activity of any kind.  "He becomes a free man and a ruler of himself, and as a son of God with authority he freely wields all things."

In the end he casts off even his own freedom. "Then a man's nature is deprived of its free will . . . it is led whither it knows not by some other power . . . at that moment it is held fast in captivity."  He finds himself then in the "ignorance" which is above all knowledge and the "captivity" which is above all freedom.

He has broken every barrier.  He has attained the Unattainable.  "His intellect is confounded and swallowed up in awestruck wonder, and forgets the very desire of its own entreaty."

From now on "the mind no longer possesses prayer, or movement, or weeping, or dominion, or free will or supplication, or desire, or fervent longing for things hoped for in this life or in the age to come."

But getting there takes a real struggle.  And Abba Isaac does not merely speak to you about this.  You see him in his book actually going beyond the bounds of corruption.  You can make out the divine changes in his person and the fact that he is wholly in that realm which is beyond the world, where everything has been done away with and transcended.

Now, "making his abode in the glory which brings joy," he reveals through his being how the spiritual laws work and how one progresses towards transcendence in all areas, subjects and levels.

Each thing has its own rhythm and its own time.  You have to wait and let it move along on its own.

An illness has to go run its course before it leaves the patient.  A fruit has to go through all the stages, in appropriate climatic conditions, in order to ripen.

We cannot ask for things that have their proper time when it is not their proper time.  

"When it is not the proper time, let us not yearn after the lofty things, let us not yearn after the lofty things of the noetic discipline, lest we be made a laughing stock by our cunning adversary."

"Every man that before the time begins things that are beyond his measure makes his harm twofold."

We should not ask for things that prosper in one particular place where it is not the place for them.  "Let every work be honored  in its own place, lest we become confused in our discipline."

So then all this is necessary - a place, a time, a special procedure - in order for something genuine and true to come out of what we do.  ("There is an order for every work, and for every discipline there is a fixed time."  Afterwards, this outcome speaks, stands and comforts man in every time and place.

Physical toil precedes spiritual rest. "And just as in the beginning, the fashioning of the body preceded the inbreathing of the soul, so the works of the body precede the labor of the soul."  "Regard every virtue performed without bodily toil as premature, stillborn fruit of the womb."

First comes force and toil, and later we reach the point where things are unforced and effortless.  First comes the struggle, and later we attain to rest, enjoyment and plentitude.

"Ascetical endeavor is the mother of sanctification . . . Let know man deceive himself, and imagine divinations; for a polluted soul does not ascend to the pure kingdom, nor is such a soul joined to the spirits of the holy."

We shall start, then, with the works of the body.  Matter, force, struggle will form the initial steps that enable us to climb.  Without these, we cannot make any headway: "When you desire to draw nigh to God with your heart, first show Him your yearning by bodily labors."

Without passing through the dishonor of the cross of practice virtue, it is not possible to reach the second part of the crucifixion, the glory of the cross, when man is released from passions and conceptual images.

"Until a man has received the Comforter, he requires the divine scriptures."  This is why he advises: "Fetter your intellect by reading the Scriptures."  "Occupy yourself with reading books, which will make plain to you the subtle pathways of divine vision."  "Without assiduous reading, a man will know no refinement of thoughts."  "Continual reflection on Scriptures is a light to the soul."

But "when the power of the Spirit has penetrated the power of the soul . . . then he is secretly taught by the Spirit and needs no help from sensory matter."  And "his mind will be exalted above the images of things."

He starts with teaching, and speech which "is an instrument of this world," and attains to the "silence which is a mystery of the age to come."  He is "silenced by his ignorance of all that is found there.  This is the unknowing which is more sublime than knowledge."

"Knowledge is a step whereby one can climb up to the lofty height of faith; and when one has reached faith, one no longer has need of knowledge."  One transcends the whole of the sensible world, and "perception is received by the spirit and not by the senses."

In this state, "knowledge is abolished, works come to an end and the employment of the sense become superfluous."

"Mourning is the work of the monk."  "And when the soul is given fervor, the contrition of mourning is taken away."

Tears are a bodily sign that your intellect has come out of the prison of this world.  "If you observe that your eyes are filled with tears . . . then know that a breach in the opposing camp has begun to appear for you."

"But when the mind is exalted above created things, the body also takes leave of tears and of every movement and sensation."

From just judgment it passes on to mercy.  This is the fulfillment and transcendence of just judgment. "Mercy is opposed to just judgment."

After a long life in stillness, "you find a joy which is without cause . . . and then your eyes are opened to see God's creative power and the beauty of created things."  But even there you do not stay long.  "Since all the beauty of things to exist in the newness to come is inferior to God's beauty, how can the intellect depart, through contemplation of it, from the beauty of God?"

"From activity that demands violence there is born fervor beyond measure."  And it attains to the prayer which comes about "without effort or wandering of thoughts."

In the beginning, arduous toil and pain are needed in prayer: "Reckon every prayer wherein the body does not toil and the heart is not afflicted to be a miscarriage."  Later on, "a man does not pray with labor and weariness . . . but because his heart is full of joy and wonder it continually wells up motions of gratitude."

Ultimately, even prayer itself is done away with.  "For what pertains to prayer has ceased, while a certain divine vision remains, and the mind does not pray a prayer."  "The intellect comes to be above prayer, and by the discovery of something better, prayer is abandoned."

There is a divine visitation and heavenly joy which fills the whole body.  Earthly things are abandoned.  A person forgets the things that are in the world, because an ineffable sweetness descends and floods his being.  "A fountain springs up in his heart, gushing forth sweetness: his members grow feeble . . . so that because of the joy which surges through his entire body, he cannot make prostrations."

In that state there is no distinction between body and soul.  "Whenever that delight which surges through his whole body sojourns within a man, at that hour he things that nothing else is the Kingdom of the heavens save this."

He experiences the grace of the incarnation and the blessing of the union, without confusion or division, of the two natures of Christ.  He is anti-Nestorian in both his teaching and his life.  The grace of interpenetration sets its seal on his whole being and character and gives it life.  Then night and day are one; sufferings and joys are one.  And he finds trials and tribulations sweeter than honey.

In this state, the passions are confronted in a way that is dynamic. They are overcome by other, greater things.

"The joy that is in God is stronger than the present life."  There is a divine drunkeness which makes the body insensible to all tribulations.  "When the soul is drunken with the joy of hope and with the gladness which is in God, the body becomes insensible to tribulations, even if it be feeble."

Thus, "entrance to the heart is denied to the passions not as a result of struggle, but because of the repletion of our conscious mind."  "This is not because the assaults of the passions have ceased to exist, but because the heart which receives them is now dead to them and lives in something else."  "For the conscience is satiated in the enjoyment of something else."  And "in the place of the assaults another desire, stronger than them, has gained the mastery."

Fear and shame come first.  "The fear of God is the beginning of virtue."  "The intellect weighed down by fear of God and shame is not readily upset by the things that sway it."

And when the temperature of love rises, "there is seen an unaccustomed change."  (He talks about this state in the thirty fifth homily).

The love of God is by nature fervent.  And when it comes upon a person without measure, he cannot contain it.  "Love does not know shame, and for this reason she does not know to give a form of propriety to her members."

And it brings about an unaccustomed changed in him, the signs of which are perceptible on his body. His face becomes flushed and shining with joy.

Fear and shame leave him.  He becomes like someone in a state of ecstasy.

The power of his intellect deserts him, and he becomes like a man out of his wits.

Fearsome death he regards with joy.

The contemplation of his intellect is permanently fixed on heavenly things.

Though absent, he consorts with others as if he were present, unseen by anyone.  

His natural knowledge and sight pass away; he is not aware of his movement by sense perception.

If he performs any action he is not altogether aware of it, because his intellect is rapt in contemplation.

And his mind is constantly in converse with someone else.

This is the spiritual drunkenness with which the Apostles and Martyrs were inebriated; and being wise, they were thought fools.  Others wandered in the wilderness . . . being well-ordered amidst disorder.

May God grant us to attain such derangement.

Archimandrite Vasileios
Abbot of Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos
Abba Isaac the Syrian
An Approach to His World

Sunday, February 18, 2018

St. Isaac the Syrian - Confounding and Illuminating, Disturbing and Consoling

Abbot Vasileios captures the enigma that St. Isaac and his writings are to us.  They are a stumbling block and a stepping stone.  They heal the wounds of our sin and ignorance, yet Isaac is not hesitant to apply the medicine or perform the painful treatment that is needed. 

Both young and old find that St. Isaac speaks to them and the realities of their lives.  But, Abbot Vasileios warns us, we must be careful not to assume prematurely that we understand what St. Isaac is saying; for in reality he may be directing a judgement towards us.  Likewise, we must not rejoice too quickly over what is said before making it our own through practice.  In fact, our judgement must be suspended; for what we reject at one moment may be a source of consolation later.

St. Isaac is perceptive and can discern the smallest movement of insincerity within our words and hyprocrisy in our actions.  He strips off the veneer of false piety and reveals the lack of humility within us.  We dare not confuse a moment of compunction with true and humble sorrow for sin. Great toil for the sake of God must take place before hope proves true.

Reading St. Isaac's writings frustrates and spurs one on in the spiritual life.  Every word and every bit of silence is full of meaning.  We must not pretend that we can seize hold of it on our own yet we must allow it to carry us along to a place both wonderful and terrifying - where we are flooded with light from above and cast out of ourselves to the edge of madness.

One is left to wonder who they are and whether their life will ever be the same; terrified as they are as they are being  drawn into what arises from no earthly philosophy or logic.  The self seems to dissolve as St. Isaac opens up a new world to you, with a new language and new ideals. Everything within you cries out this cannot be and though paralyzed you nonetheless receive it as a gift.  We learn that life is a dying, a losing all to gain all.  St. Isaac invites us ever to extend the journey - to make an exodus - and "when we have gone beyond everything, this is expression, Word (Logos), Passover, Christ."

With St. Isaac you settle and quiet down.  Everything that he does, he does with complete assurance.  He is loving and implacable.  He puts balm on your wound.  And he drives the lancet in deep, if need be.  

He is appropriate for every age and culture.  And he is an intolerable scandal to every kind of narrow-mindedness.  

Everyone can find elements that suit themselves - the young and daring find words of freedom; the quiet and aged, words of virtue.  But you should be a little careful.  If you approach the Abba in honesty you feel compelled to say: He is not saying exactly what I am saying.  He is judging me.  

If there is something in his writings that you feel happy with, do not rush to rejoice too lightly; you have a long way to go before making it your own.

If something creates a bad impression on you or seems a hard saying, do not be too quick to judge it or reject it; later on, this will infuse within you the most precious consolation.

He is genuine: he loves all and favors none.  He accepts everything, but allows nothing deceptive or dubious to pass.  No one can pass off his counterfeit coinage on him.  He discerns and sifts everything.

"Do not be angry with me that I tell you the truth.  You have never sought out humility with your whole soul."

He is a violent iconoclastic whirlwind and a gentle breeze in which God is present.  It is impossible for any heresy to enter his theology or any error to endure his presence.  He blows up and lays bare the festering sores of our false virtue and hypocrisy.

He reveals the worthlessness of our empty freedom and cleverness.

No one with a veneer of piety can stand in his presence as a saint: "Not everyone who is naturally gentle, or quiet, or prudent, or meek, has attained to the star of humility" . . .  "Therefore let no man be so audacious as to think concerning himself, that he has attained to the stage of humility within himself because of a single conpunctionate thought which rises in him on some occasion. . . "

And no one who is imprudent can approach him without having the wings of his presumption clipped: "Err not, O fool!  Toil for God's sake and sweat in his husbandry precede hope in Him."  There is a sequence in the virtues, and "whoever says impudently that it is possible to acquire the more perfect virtues before he accomplishes the elementary has, without a doubt, laid the first foundation for the ruin of his soul."  For "speech that comes from righteous activity is a treasury of hope, but wisdom not based on righteous activity is a deposit of disgrace."

It often happens as you read a book that you skim quickly through the pages.  You finish it without difficulty.  You put it aside and forget about it.

At other times, with a different book, you do not make easy headway.  It makes your head reel with its conundrums.  It gets you tangled up in intellectual constructs.

When you pick up Abba Isaac, you do not make easy headway as in the first case.  You stop, but the pauses are not for the same reason as with the second type of book.  Here you do not stop because you have got a headache.  You are not worn out with dry "logic."  You pause, flooded with life: "Sometimes verses become sweet in a man's mouth, and  . . .  one verse is chanted numberless times and does not permit him to continue to the next, for he finds no satiety therein."  You stop as you fly along.  You fly along as with the first book, but in this case it does not end.  The life that opens for you does not pass away.  The spring that has welled up does not run dry.  Your interest and joy do not cease.

You sit by the sluice gates of the waters from his ever-flowing spring.  And it is as if you are traveling all over the world, to all countries, all ages; into all the thoughts, the hearts and the sufferings of men.

All things come together organically.  All things are to be found in each single thing.  And each thing rejoices and communes in God's love for mankind.

The easiest and the most tiring reading are here united.  And a joyful light has shone out, which illumines and embraces the whole mystery of life.

You are unable to say a word.  You are frightened out of your wits.  All commentary stops.  Your head spins.  You feel drunk.  You are paralyzed in the face of that which rises up in love for mankind and carries you away, violently and calmly, into another world, another space - another dance.

"At times our soul is suffocated, and is, as it were, amidst the waves."

Abba Isaac is a man unique on earth.

This is not philosophy.  It is beyond philosophy, in the realm and the ease of "foolishness", of the true wisdom which saves man.  "For no one is able to acquire the Kingdom o heaven by instruction."

He does not set out categories of thought.  He does not coldly express principles or values.  What we have here is events, eruptions.  "Suddenly", "without his knowledge", he is filled with something that goes beyond himself, and this is what he transmits, in a way that is full of holiness.  From everywhere, from the whole "nobility of his behavior", the way he speaks, moves and expresses himself, a spirit proceeds "without external cause", without effort, without being deliberately shaped. The inconceivable is made manifest.  The unapproachable is communicated.  There reaches into our innermost parts that which is utterly desirable and which is beyond all knowledge, which has not entered into the heart of man.

He says many things, and even more things are constantly saying themselves.  What his words say, his silence also says.  When he speaks he puts us at ease, he refreshes us; and when he is silent he enlightens us, he teaches us.  His leniency is drastic and his severity loving.

This is the grace of the divine-humanity which has taken up its dwelling within him.  This is why you do not know whether he is rather a poet or a prophet, whether he lives here or resides in the beyond.

He has crossed great chasms.  He has set foot in the new age.  He has breathed the still air of the freedom of the Spirit.  He has seen that there is a possibility for man to live, and he returns to give us good news, glad tidings of peacefulness.

And then you say: What am I doing?  What am I looking for in life?  What is my success worth?  What will I gain if I achieve what they try to make me aim for?

You understand his advice: "Be contemptible in your own eyes, and you will see the glory of God in yourself."

Could your transitory failure perhaps be a beginning, a starting point for hope and for the possibility of true life?

He challenges you, calling you to a higher life with a different rationale.

Once you fall under his spell, one you attune your being to his wavelength, something singular happens.  You read one page, one phrase or one line, and you cannot go any further.  He burns you up, bring you consolation.  He quite literally dissolves you.  He opens new worlds to you, with a different air and light; with a different language and ideals.

These new things are strange, unknown to you and incompatible with what you have experienced hitherto.  Yet you find that they are compatible and fit in with your deepest nature and being, the one that was despised and forgotten.  And you weep.

And so you pause in fear and joy.  You pause because you cannot do anything other than to stay here, amidst the music which has beguiled you.  And you delight in this - this "cannot" - as a possibility; you receive it as a gift.  And you say: Better that I should not take a step in falsehood.  "Death for God's sake is better than a shameful and sluggish life."

"O Lord, account me worthy to hate my life for the sake of the life which is in Thee."

A monk has written: "I read Abba Isaac.  I remained motionless.  I breathed in.  I took in paradise.  I was experiencing a marriage between my being and the beyond, what is over there and what is in us.  In the whole of my body I was delighting in my baptism into the uncreated and unapproachable.

"A gate opened.  I went into a different space.  Another spirit came and found me.  It was very light, enduring, a spirit of resurrection.  This was what counted in my life, and nothing else.

"I was enriched with other senses.  It was different ground that I trod.  I stood on different feet.  I saw all that was previously well-known and familiar to me with different eyes, and heard it with new ears.  And everything took on meaning.

"Suddenly all the same things exist in a different way.  A different light comes from within them and makes life shine.

"Then the value of each person and his beauty is revealed as something different  There is a different relationship between things and between people.

"You move about freely where previously you were stumbling.  You speak quite clearly where at first you could not say a word.

"You love everyone.  And you remain free, leaving them pure and whole.

"A sense of forgiveness and forbearance spreads everywhere.  You are grateful to God.  You forgive everyone.  You do not bother anyone.  No one touches you.  You do not look for human justification.

"Gladness comes from all sides.  From darkness light.  From poverty, wealth.  From jostling, stillness. From despair, calm and renewed hope.

"Going further into Abba Isaac, in my mortal body I was wedded to incorruption, making it my spouse.

"I vanished from the earth.

"The increase does not end.  Life is ours.  And death is ours.  We live in order to die: we live with the aim of being extended, of becoming capable of entering into a marriage with death, with dying, with the loss of everything.  And so we gain everything.  We find it.  We enjoy it.  We exist with and for these things, being absent, removed and nonexistent.

"Our struggle is to attain to the maturity of "non-existence" - to be found worthy of this crowning honor - to the freedom of traveling and being present everywhere through complete immobility and absence.

"We are confined within the prison of the present age, within the walls of appearances - 'no visible thing is good' (St. Ignatius of Antioch) - in the sterility of what is relative.  In the dumbness of mechanical motion and life.

"The music that is truly such wells up as we journey.  Movement is prayer.  The journey is vision.  The extension is gladness.  When we have gone beyond everything, this is expression, Word (Logos), Passover, Christ.

Archimandrite Vasileios
Abbot of Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos
Abba Issac the Syrian
An Approach to His Life