How do we approach the world and writings of St. Isaac the Syrian? For, Archimandrite Vasileios tells us, he "commands a territory which is difficult to describe. It is the mystery of the age to come, as it is lived out today by a saint who is mature, totally transfigured; who not only sees the strength of things uncreated and the beauty of things unseen, but has the power, in the likeness of God, to create new worlds, as he himself says. And although this is something so vast, it is not a dizzying vastness; on the contrary, it soothes you. It calms you down. Because he has attained to the mercy of God, the incomprehensible compassion which loves the whole creation." St. Isaac makes present to us, then, all that we can be and are meant to be by the grace of God. In him and in his writings we see what it is to live as a saint in the world and so also glimpse the glory of the Kingdom.
"He is above created things," Vasileios continues, "beyond all activity. And at the same time he cannot bear to see even the least of creatures suffering. This is why in the likeness of God he prays with tears for all creation, even to the very reptiles." St. Isaac though sharing in the life of God is not separated from creation; rather he shares in the very compassion of God that forever links him to every creature.
It is for this reason, Vasileios warns, "the text that dares to speak about the spiritual world of Abba Isaac cannot be organized systematically. It cannot be divided into sections; it cannot fence his teaching in." To do so would be to do violence to the man and to the saint, to do violence the mystery of God's ways.
Thus, Vasileios continues, such a work "will speak in a way that is general and fragmentary. It will leave place for those who approach this wonder to register their amazement." St. Isaac is a wonder; a wonder of God and His grace. His life itself becomes for us a revelation. It pulls back the veil and allows us to gaze upon the heavenly Mystery in which we find ourselves caught up. For this very reason any writing or discussion of Isaac will not fully give us simply the flavor of the man, but "inevitably reveal how this uncreated grace and sparkling radiance are reflected off the uneven surface of the writer's own disorderliness. Thus it both speaks the truth, and unavoidably distorts it. It helps towards an understanding of Abba Isaac and at the same times obscures it." What St. Isaac reveals to us is more than we can ever fully comprehend outside of sharing in his experience; outside of becoming saints. Every encounter with him radically humbles us.
And so Vasileios sets the path for us: "Nothing remains - this is a desire and a wish - but for each of us to cross himself, and quietly proceed to his own personal encounter with the Abba. Thus each of us will receive, secretly and silently, what he is looking for, what he can find nowhere else with such maturity, universality and completeness.
In the weeks to come we will seek to enter, with the help of Vasileios, into the world of St. Isaac and so be made "fellow guests at the eternal feast of his joy."
Abba Isaac is there.
He could have lived without every writing anything, and still nothing of his grace and richness would have been lost.
But because we lack the receivers to pick up all that radiates from him in silence, out of love he starts to write:
"My beloved, I have become foolish, and I cannot bear to guard the mystery in silence, but I am become a fool for the sake of the profit of my brethren."
The whole truth that the Church believes and lives, all that is set out in St. Gregory of Nyssa, the Areopagitic writings or St. Maximus the Confessor in a form which is intellectually difficult and dogmatically crystal clear, is to be found here - not reproduced verbatim, but verified through experience. His joy and his ethic stem from this nourishment and the way he has digested it.
He experienced the grace of the incarnation in his whole body.
He was taken up into the paradise of deification with his whole being.
In his life the grace of the Church exists in its entirety. And in his book you find the whole of his sanctified self.
He is a genuine person, shaped by momentous experiences. For long years he was battered by temptations from the right and from the left. And he received experience of "divine aid"; "Having been tempted over a great period of time in things from the right hand and from the left, . . . and having received countless blows from the adversary, and been deemed worthy of great and secret aid, I have gained experience from many long years, and through trial and by the grace of God I have learned these things."
He was tried in his entirety and saved in his entirety. This is why he is able to transmit salvation.
He passed through the ultimate crisis of darkness: "This hour is full of despair and fear; hope in God . . . is utterly effaced from his soul, and she is wholly and entirely filled with doubt and fear." "Many times we have experienced all these things."
He entered in his entirety into the paradise of future blessedness, where "a certain delight and gladness descends into the whole body." And "a certain sweetness constantly wells up from the heart, and draws the intellect altogether after it."
Thus he attained to the measure of the true "giants", as he calls the saints, those who "do not practice each virtue separately, but all the virtues at once, completely and comprehensively." This is why he was able to write this book.
And the writing of it was a convergence of experiences; a torrent of life passed right through him, testing his endurance and paralyzing his members and his heart: "Often when I was writing these things my fingers failed me in setting down everything on paper, and they were unable to endure the sweetness that descended on my heart and silenced my senses." His teaching flows like molten gold, pouring at this very moment from the furnace of his being.
A certain elder, as Abba Isaac relates, said of his writings: "These are . . . true deliberations that are stirred in me by nature. I write them down when they come to me, so that I might reflect on them in my periods of darkness, and they might deliver me from delusion."
That was how Abba Isaac wrote. His words wrote themselves in the hour of grace. This is why now, as you study them, they fill you with grace, the light and the holy stirring that engendered them. The writing and the study of his words are a participating in divine and eternal life "for remission of sins, for communion of the Holy Spirit and for boldness towards God."
As you study his holy writings, you truly live with Abba Isaac. And he lives in you. Your being functions in a way that is ecclesial, a liturgy. You receive and involuntarily you offer, and at the same time you feel gratitude: "These things I have written down as a reminder and source of profit for myself, and for everyone who comes upon this book . . . in order that they might be a help to me through the prayers of those who are profited by them. For I have taken no little trouble to set these things down."
He knows that by the way he has lived and the way he has written, he has enslaved us in freedom to his ethic. He has made us fellow guests at the eternal feast of his joy. And we all dwell there.
Historical scholars want to find out whom he was influenced by and whom he influenced (and this is a legitimate exercise). But in entering into that realm where he has entered, he has taken from all, both earlier and later, and gives to all. He lives in the realm of the Kingdom. And he influences everyone through the high dignity he has attained in his own being.
Abbot of Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos
Abba Isaac the Syrian
An Approach to His World