Here is the third conference from the colloquium in Ghent. Please see my previous disclaimer concering the accuracy of my reporting and translations!

Brother Sabino Chialà is a monk of Bose monastery in Italy, the ecumenically orientated monastic community founded by Enzo Bianchi. He is responsible for the Italian translation of the third series (and parts of the first two series) of Saint Isaac’s homilies.

After Ephraim, Isaac of Nineveh, also known as Isaac the Syrian, is the most well known and best loved of the Syrian writers and his works have been translated into many languages. He has been known principally through his writings and his own history has remained rather vague, although there have been speculations that have identified him as a Coptic monk in Scetis, a Byzantine monk in Syria and a hermit in Italy! The vagueness was perhaps not entirely accidental, for it remains a paradox that such an influential spiritual writer, whose orthodoxy and holiness have been universally recognised, was in fact a member (and for a short time even a bishop) of a Church that the rest of the Christian world considered heretical.

Critical studies into Isaac’s work and background began towards the end of the nineteenth century with the work of J.B. Chabot. From such studies, it has become clear that Isaac was an East Syrian monk (and for some months a bishop) who was born in Bet Qatraye (present day Qatar) in the first half of the seventh century where he probably began his monastic life. The catholikos named him as bishop of Nineveh in the north of Mesopotamia, close to present day Mosul, between 676 and 680. After only some months he resigned as bishop and returned to his life as a hermit, this time in Bet Hazaye in what is today southwest Iran in or near the monastery of Rabban Shabur where he composed a number of homilies for his disciples. The date of his death is unknown but we are told that he died blind as a result of all his reading.

His literary and spiritual legacy

Isaac’s oeuvre is immense. Although the sources are not unanimous about what exactly he wrote, we can identify the following works that have reached us.

  • The first collection of 82 homilies, which were always known and were translated very early on into Greek, Arabic, Georgian, Slavonic, Ethiopian, Latin, Romanian, and Russian and from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries into Italian, French, Portuguese and Catalan.
  • The second collection of 41 homilies, including four series of centuries. This collection was discovered by Sebastian Brock in 1983 and translated into French by Dom André Louf. [I asked Brother Sabino about the English translation: this was done by Sebastian Brock, but it only contains half the homilies].
  • The third collection of seventeen homilies or instructions, of which three are found in earlier collections. This collection was found in a manuscript in Teheran. [Brother Sabino has published the Italian translation of this and Sebastian Brock will translate it into English].
  • There are also various fragments from other collections which require further study.

Isaac deals with virtually everything concerning the spiritual life, but in a rather unsystematic fashion. It is remarkable how much influence he has had on later generations. He wrote for monks or hermits and yet his works have been appreciated in the most diverse religious milieus. One finds him quoted by Dostoevsky, by anonymous Ethiopian monks, on Mount Athos where he has a privileged place, and in the texts used in the formation of fifteenth century Italian canons regular. Bernardo Boil, a companion of Christopher Columbus, translated him into Catalan and probably took him to the new world. And he was most probably also read by Islamic mystics in Mesopotamia.

It is nothing short of a miracle that he is appreciated by so many diverse people. This is probably because he speaks about a common human reality and his writings relate to the lived experience of each person. His writings have had a universal impact because they are rooted in the depths of human experience.

Brother Sabino quoted the words of the Elder Joseph of Mount Athos: 

If all the writings of the desert fathers which teach us concerning watchfulness and prayer were lost and the writings of Abba Isaac the Syrian alone survived, they would suffice to teach one from beginning to end concerning the life of stillness and prayer. [quoted in The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984, ix]

 A witness to the mercy of God

 As already mentioned Isaac’s writings are not systematic, largely because they were composed as responses to the concrete questions of his disciples. Apart from the theme of prayer, which occupies a central place in his writings, his central concerns are mercy and humility. One of his earliest readers wrote of him: 

He insisted on preaching on the love of mercy, it is the foundation of all worship. And humility, which is the protecting wall for the virtues.

This emphasis on mercy and humility recalls the apophtegmata of the Desert Fathers who teach that mercy and humility are the only two aspects of the ascetical life that the demons are incapable of imitating. For Isaac this led too an emphasis on the endless mercy of God for all that exists and a challenge to us to follow in this way. It is an emphasis that is specific to Isaac but which also led to incomprehension and rejection among those who found that his vision of God was too merciful.

Love, the feeling of God                                                                         

Isaac tells us that we cannot know God as He is but only through the economy, through salvation history, and this economy is nothing other than love. God’s entire activity in the past, the present and the future is motivated by only one feeling, namely love. Even when Scripture speaks of God’s wrath we need to understand this correctly. Even when God allows us to suffer, He still acts out of love and never out of wrath or justice but rather out of fatherly wisdom. Even the last judgement must be understood as a purification and as an act of love.

It is only this love that can account for the Cross of Christ: 

Why did Christ stretch himself out on the cross for sinners and why did He give His holy body over to suffering for the sake of the world? I suggest that God did this for only one reason: to make His love known to the world, so that our ability to love, increased by such a discovery, would be the prisoner of His love. As such, the exceptional power of the Kingdom of Heaven, which consists of love, found an opportunity to express itself in the death of His Son. Our Lord did not die in order to redeem us from sin, or for any other reason, but purely and only so that the world would see and perceive the love of God for His creation. If this wonderful act was only in order to forgive sins, then another means could have been found to realise it. (Cent IV, 78)

Isaac does not deny the redemptive power of the cross as he makes clear in other texts, but he sees it as above all God’s way of making His love visible and giving us access to the mystery of that love. He says: “There is nothing that can so ably give us access to love as the discovery of His love for us.” (III, 1, 16)

From fear to love

Isaac is aware that the tradition speaks of the fear of God. He acknowledges this but sees it as a first step on the way that leads to love. We are called to move from fear to love. He sees three levels of religiosity in which we move from being a “slave” to being a “son,” a distinction also found in Clement of Alexandria and Basil. 

The carnal man fears [death] like a beast fears slaughter. The rational man fears the judgement of God. But the man who has become a son is adorned by love and is not taught by the rod of fear; he says, ‘But I and my father’s house will serve the Lord.’ [I, 62 from The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984, 297]

From justice to mercy

Along with this transformation from fear to love comes another transformation that we are called to make, namely the transformation from justice to mercy. Justice, doing what is right, is only a first step. The Gospel challenges us to a justice that is more than that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5, 20). It is God who shows us what this greater justice is, something that is unjust in human eyes. This is the heart of the Gospel. 

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, he says, ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or is thine eye evil because I am good?’ How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us! [I, 51 from The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 250-251]

Thus God appears to us to be unjust but this is an injustice that is to our advantage. Isaac reaches this conclusion not from philosophical reflection but rather through his own experience. And the Christian is called to learn this “injustice” of God and to live according to it.

Do not judge

A consequence of this is that one refrains from all judgement of others. The absence of judgement is the most convincing sign of that one has achieved purity of heart. Indeed he tells us that those who judge others are themselves sick. The Christian is called to plead for mercy, and not for judgement. In various places Isaac tells us that God has no need of followers who would call down wrath upon sinners – indeed if God wished to destroy sinners He is quite capable of doing so himself. The Christian’s calling is to be as Christ was: 

Be persecuted but persecute not; be crucified, but crucify not; be wronged, but wrong not; be slandered, but slander not. Have clemency, not zeal, with respect to evil. Justince does not belong to the Christian way of life and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teaching. Rejoice with the joyous and weep with those who weep; for this is the sign of limpid purity. Suffer with those who are ill and mourn with sinners; with those who repent, rejoice. Be every man’s friend, but in your mind remain alone. Be a partaker in the sufferings of all men, but keep your body distant from all. Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even men who live very wickedly. Spread your cloak over the man who is falling and cover him. And if you cannot take upon yourself his sins and receive his chastisement in his stead, then at least patiently suffer his shame and do not disgrace him. [I, 51 from The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984, 246-247]

Here we arrive at the heart of Isaac’s teaching which is also the heart of Christ’s teaching. This does not imply that there is no place for mutual correction, but when this occurs it should fulfil three criteria. It should be motivated by a desire to save the other and not to judge him or her. It should be an act of love and not of anger. And the one who corrects should be prepared to suffer with the one who is corrected in such a way the evangelical spirit of the correction is apparent. He writes: 

Be on your guard that you are not governed by the passion of those who become sick through their desire to instruct others and who set themselves up as the moral instructors and correctors of the faults of their equals. We are concerned here with an exceptionally stubborn passion. It would be better for you to contemplate an act of unchastity and even to fall into such a sin, than to be infected by this sickness. [Cent. II, 39]

 The service of compassion

Each person, each Christian and each monk is called to compassion and all ascetical works are aimed at enabling us to participate in such compassion. The monk chooses solitude in order to transform it into an ever-greater space in which God and all creatures can be received. 

‘And what is a merciful heart?’ ‘It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of the merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. [I, 71 from The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. 344-345]

This is a compassion that no longer makes any distinction between good and evil, saints and sinners, orthodox and heretics. Compassion must include “enemies of the truth” and elsewhere he also includes the Jews. This is something exceptional in his historical context. He even says that those who fight on behalf of the truth have not known the truth, for had they known it they would not be fighting over it.

God is able to love his creation in such a way because He is able to see the secret heart of each person in which they stand in the truth and which no sin is able to completely erase. He encourages us to see sinners in the first place as victims of their own sins. And nobody can make a definitive judgement over the fate of sinners, for they remain in God’s hands and with God everything is possible.

The service of hope

This brings us to what Isaac sees as the task of every Christian, and in particular of the monk, namely, to hope for the salvation for all creation. This is no superficial optimism or romantic hope, but a call to enter into God’s own hope and to discover His own longings. Isaac basis this on two arguments. Firstly, God has loved all creatures since before they were created and nothing, not even the evil spirits, can counter this love of God. Secondly, Scripture says that God does not desire the death of the sinner and Isaac asks what there is that is stronger than the will of God. He dares to hope that God will be able to find a way to enable the whole of creation to enter into his Kingdom.

This raises the question of apokatastasis, which was condemned in Origen, Evagrius and Theodore of Mopsuestia but not in Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor and Isaac. Isaac’s ideas on this do not contain anything contrary to the Gospel. Firstly, his perspective is not based on a return to an original state, but is rather orientated to the future. Secondly, it remains within the realm of hope rather than of dogmatic pronouncements and he speaks out of his own experience of God’s mercy.

There is one last objection to this hope and this was an objection that Isaac had already met in his own lifetime, namely, what is the place of ethics in such a perspective? If God is so good, then why should we act ethically? Isaac’s answer returns to the three levels of religiosity, of the slave, the servant and the son. There are people for whom it is necessary to believe as slaves and who need threats in order to act rightly. But Isaac expects more of his monks. He wants them to love God as sons. 

Fear God out of love for Him, and not for the reputation of austerity that has been attributed to Him. Love Him as you ought to love Him; not only for what He will give you in the future, but also for what we have received. [I, 51 from The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (I, 71), translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. 251]

Thus the root of all our actions should be the consciousness of what God has given us, what He continues to give us, and what He will give us. The consciousness of this love should give rise to a deeper ethic than one based on fear. Thus the proclamation of the mercy of God is no encouragement to sin, but rather an encouragement to a deeper struggle against sin.