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The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian

Author(s):   Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
Publisher:   Cistercian Publications (2009)
Format:   Paperback
Copies:   1 copy available
Product Info:   Hieromonk Alexander Golitzin: ‘The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian’ by Hilarion Alfeyev

Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian. Cistercian Studies Series, Number 175. Kalamazoo MI and Spencer MA: Cistercian Publications, 2000. Pp. 321 .
“At last,” writes Bishop Kallistos Ware in his foreword to this second book by Fr. Hilarion Alfeyev, “we have at our disposal a single book in English, offering us a balanced and comprehensive overview of St. Isaac’s life, background, and teaching” (11). The bishop’s exclamation is well taken. One of the extraordinary lacunae in the study of Eastern Christianity is the lack, up to now, of any major study of Isaac of Nineveh (+ ca. 700) in any Western language. Even articles are very, very few and far between. True, English speakers have at their disposal a couple of excellent translations: Dana Miller’s from the Greek (though with reference to the Syriac), published some years ago by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, and, more recently, Sebastian Brock’s translation of the Second Part of Isaac’s Discourses, never rendered into Greek, published recently in two volumes by the series, Corpus scriptorum christianorum orientalium . Both editions, Miller’s and Brock’s, come with extensive and very valuable introductions, but, up until Alfeyev, no one had set out to provide a synoptic overview or, as in the case of this book, virtually an anthology as well, of Isaac’s thought. This lacuna is all the more astonishing in view of Isaac’s importance for the subsequent history of Eastern Christian thought and mysticism, and of his popularity in the West after the fifteenth century. Yet, perhaps owing to the facts that he writes in a comparatively obscure language, Syriac, and that his version of Syriac is generally acknowledged as very difficult, the scholarly and even popular literature devoted to him is practically non-existent. It may be that Alfeyev’s book will prove to have broken the ice. The long citations from Isaac himself, which all together comprise nearly half the book’s three hundred pages, provide ample opportunity for the saint to work his magic on the reader. He surely worked it on me, who filled pages of notes and a couple score notecards (not for this review, but with an eye toward other projects) as I worked my way through the book, alternately edified and astonished from one end to the other.

The Spiritual World is not a scholarly monograph like Alfeyev’s recent book on Symeon the New Theologian (reviewed separately). Learned footnotes, disputations, extended professorial discussions and debate over influences and sources – all of this is kept to an absolute minimum. As Bishop Kallistos remarks, “Wisely, Fr Hilarion Alfeyev has allowed Isaac to speak for himself… [and his] true voice can be plainly heard” (12). Following thus an introduction which sets Isaac in his context in the East Syrian (“Nestorian”) Church by lightly sketching his life, writings, and sources (14-34), Alfeyev moves to the eight chapters comprising body of the book. The first (35-60) sets out the great lines of Isaac’s thought: the love of God, the structure of the created world (featuring Isaac’s admiration of the Dionysian hierarchies and concomitant portrait of the world as a temple), the Incarnation as revelation of the God who is love, and deification – a word Isaac does not use, but whose substance he (like Ephrem before him) conveys chiefly through, again, the language of temple and divine indwelling – as the intended goal of humanity. The following chapters work through the stages of the Christian life as Isaac lived and experienced it, that is, as a solitary monk, a hermit. Chapter two (61-89) thus lays out “The Way of the Solitary,” touching on the traditional, Syriac monastic terminology Isaac deploys – for example, ihidaya (single, solitary) and qeiama (covenant, vow) – together with his emphasis on silence (shelyuta ) and the ministry (teshmeshta ) of the monk’s life of prayer as participation in the angelic liturgy and anticipation of the eschaton. “Trials on the way to God” (91-109), chapter three, deals lightly with the struggle against passions and temptations. The cultivation of the virtues is summed up in chapter four, “Humility” (111-28), to which Isaac assigns an exalted place, indeed, as a truly supernatural gift, a likening to Christ, the very “raiment” of our Lord’s divinity – expressions that hark back through prior tradition to the kenosis of Philippians 2:6-11.

Humility appears to mark a kind of boundary-line for Isaac between human striving and divine grace. “Tears” (129-42), the subject of chapter five, likewise signal the “birth-pangs of the spiritual infant” (136-7) as at once indicating the recognition of sin and so bitter tears of repentance, on the one hand, and the transition to a life in grace (the sweet tears), on the other. Cultivation of that life is the subject of the book’s longest chapter, number six “On Prayer” (143-216), reflecting St Isaac’s own ruling focus on the “conversation with God.” Here we find extensive discussion (and insistence) on the outward forms of prayer (daily office, standing, prostrations, spiritual reading), a fascinating analysis with accompanying citations of Isaac’s theology of the Cross (163-73) both as icon and as link between heaven and earth, and between the Old Testament and the eschaton (with the latter pair framed by the vocabulary of the tabernacle and abiding within it of the Shekinah ), together with his stress on intercession in the fashion of the Eucharistic anaphora (205-7) and characterization of “true prayer” as a standing before God “in the dark cloud of his glory” like the angels (212). There is, however, for Isaac a step beyond “pure prayer”: the “wonder” of “The Life in God,” which forms the subject of chapter seven (217-268). Here we return to “silence,” the “dark cloud,” and the “sudden” visitation of God’s Presence, and, with these themes, to very frequent reminiscences of Dionysius Areopagites (218-23). Along the way, Alfeyev provides an introduction, accompanied by extensive quotations, to Isaac’s technical vocabulary for this highest, and very rare stage of Christian life: contemplation (te’oriya , borrowed from the Greek theoria ), visions (hezwe ), insights (sukkale ), and revelations (galyane ), together with overshadowing (magganuta ), wonder (temha , Isaac’s equivalent to the Greek ekstasis ), and the various stages of knowledge (id’ata ) which culminate in the knowing which is “unknowing,” recalling again Dionysius in Mystical Theology I.3.

The book’s concluding chapter, “The Life of the Age to Come” (269-97), returns to the opening discussion of Isaac’s insistence on God as love. Here attention is devoted, following a brief account (270-3) of the monk’s duty to meditate on the age to come, to Isaac’s belief in universal salvation. For him, God who is love cannot be overcome by sin, nor will the divine mercy prove powerless even for the demons. Like his contemporary, Maximus the Confessor, Isaac understands the divine love to be at once the joy of the blessed and the (for Isaac, though not for Maximus) temporary torment of the damned. All is God’s love, and hell is therefore a teaching device (283-91), “a kind of purgatory,” in Alfeyev’s words (290-1). Further, Isaac “resented the widespread opinion that the majority [of people]…will be punished in hell” (294). For him, this is “blasphemy.” Only the most hardened sinners will be obliged to enter the Gehenna of fire, and then only for a time. This does not, however, vitiate ascetical striving for Isaac. Separation from God is the only true suffering, a judgement begun in this life and only revealed (again temporarily) at the eschaton. The whole purpose of Christian living is to know and to love the loving God. Alfeyev concludes by observing that Isaac’s unusual – but not unheard of (cf. Origen, Gregory Nyssa, Diodore of Tarsus, and Theodore of Mopsuestia) – understanding of the last things derives from his deepest experiences, his knowledge of and encounter with God’s presence (293).

Only the most grace-proof could fail to be moved by this book. Isaac is himself cause for “wonder,” a note echoed at the beginning by Bishop Kallistos account of his own growing love for this desert hermit (9-12), and at book’s end by what I take to be an autobiographical account, phrased in the third person, of Alfeyev’s own love affair with the saint, which began during the author’s novitiate (299). It is hard not to love this old man of the desert. “He speaks,” wrote the Catholicos Yuhanna ibn Barsai, “the language of the heavenly ones” (28). Yet, in this admiring phrase from an eighth-century prelate of the “Nestorian” Church, we are in fact at the edges of a certain controversy around Isaac, one which we know little about, save that it was there. Likewise, and much more clearly, we know of controversies around – and even condemnations launched against – other remarkable figures in the spiritual literature of the East Syrians: Martyrius (or Sahdona), Joseph the Seer, and especially the luminous John of Dalyatha, three of whose homilies found a home in the Greek edition of Isaac under the latter’s name, and who so amazingly anticipates the fourteenth-century, Byzantine Hesychasts. All three came under censure, and the censure appears to have been related to their insistence on the possibility of deification, on its reality not just in the world to come, but even now, however partially and momentarily. They appear to have run up against the strict school theology begun by Theodore of Mopsuestia and carried on enthusiatically by Theodore’s admirers in the Church of the East. Alfeyev devotes some space to this question (54-9), seeing in Isaac’s traditional language of a “mingling” of God and man in Christ “a way of overcoming the extremes of dyophysitism,” of breaking down “the sharp boundaries between God and creation which are a characteristic of the strongly dyophysite position of the Church of the East” (58), but, were this book the sort of scholarly investigation that it does not pretend to be, the question could easily have been pursued further.

Obviously, too, St. Isaac poses questions for those of us whose inheritance lies on the other side of the line dividing Nestorius from Cyril of Alexandria. Isaac clearly appears to have stretched the possibilities of “Nestorian” Christology and soteriology, but even so, and just as clearly, he made them the vehicle of a spirituality – indeed, of a vibrant witness – that generations of “Orthodox,” whether Chalcedonian or non-Chalcedonian, have rejoiced in acknowledging as the substance of their own faith and hope. We both call him saint, and rightly so, and we venerate his image, seek his intercessions, ask his counsel, and learn from him, and we have both been doing so for over sixty generations. Does this not raise a little question over the nature and necessity of the Christological Controversy that wracked the whole Church in all the East for three hundred years, and that left behind it three separate communities of Nicene Christians continually at each others’ throats until the armies of Islam swept up and over them all? Is there not, on the other hand, some little hope of ultimate reconciliation in, say, the story of Fr Matta al Meskin, a devout Copt who retired to a desert cave around 1950 armed with an Arabic translation of the scriptures, the Kadloubovsky-Palmer selections from the Philokalia , and Wensinck’s eccentric English rendering of Isaac’s Discourses, and who, from that retreat and with those sources, emerged from his cave to lead the renewal of Coptic monasticism, and contribute to the vital renewal of the whole Egyptian Church, that are both still under way today? A revered “Monophysite” monk is shaped by Isaac, an equally revered abbot of Mt Athos (Archimandrite Vasseilios) sings Isaac’s praises to the point of near incoherence, and both thus, the “Monophysite” and the Orthodox, find in this seventh-century “Nestorian” the very wellsprings of the Faith. Nor is their discovery an illusion. They are right. Isaac is a voice of the great tradition, a witness of the living Voice, of the undying Flame, of the light and life of the Risen One handed down the generations by his Spirit. Yet what does this say in turn about our divisions, about the conciliar definitions and counter-definitions, the anathemas and counter-anathemas? I for one am certainly not prepared to say that the precisions in theological vocabulary resulting from the controversies of the fifth through seventh centuries are worthless, or meaningless, but I do wonder, given the “wonder” of Isaac, how absolute a value we are obliged to accord our terminological advances, particularly when we find in him an exemplar par excellence of “embodied theosis ,” which is to say, of that very possibility and promise which all those disputes – speaking from the Cyrillian side of the line – were intended to defend and preserve. Isaac is not only wonderful and holy. He is also disturbing. I have no answers to this puzzle, but I do cherish the suspicion that our Lord expects us to mull it over a bit. Perhaps he has left us this saint as a kind of gentle question mark placed over some of our certainties. Not over the essential ones, for Isaac himself is proof of those, but perhaps over others that we – and not God – have declared certain. May he grant that his Isaac disturb us all, and that we as a result grow in that Love which the saint never tired of praising. Grace and peace, too, to the author, who has made the holy man so much more available to us with this splendid book.

Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin)
St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 46, No 2-3, 2002, pp. 285-290