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

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