Philokalia

Philokalia

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