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

Brother Benoît Standaert, osb, is a monk of Saint Andrew’s Abbey, Zevenkerken, in Bruges, and author of several books which have been translated into French and Italian, but I am not aware of any English translations.

John of Dalyatha or John “Saba,” which means “the elder,” lived in the eighth century in Dalyatha, a mountainous region where modern Turkey, Iran and Iraq meet.

His life

John lived between 690 and 780 and was thus younger than Isaac of Nineveh whom he quotes. He began his novitiate around the year 710 in the monastery of Mar Yuzadaq and after seven years of formation was allowed to begin his eremitical life in the mountains of Dalyatha where he lived for the greatest part of his life. He had two brothers who were also monks. Towards the end of his life he returned to the region of Qardu in the southeast of modern Turkey. Together with other monks he rebuilt the deserted monastery of Mar Ya’kub where John became abbot. He died at a ripe old age surrounded by his brothers, and before he died he entrusted them with a rule of life.

After his death he was condemned by a synod presided over by Catholikos Timotheos I, together with two other monastic writers, John of Apamea and Joseph Hassaya. This occurred in 786 or 787 and he was accused of Messalianism and Sabellianism. After Timotheos’ death in 823 his successor rehabilitated John of Dalyatha, John of Apamea and Joseph Hassaya, but it is possible that they were once more condemned by another Catholikos.

His writings

The oldest manuscripts that we possess date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and are attributed to “the elder” or to “Mar John the elder”. In the fifteenth century he receives a more specific identification as either John of Dalyatha, or else possibly a certain John Bar Penkayé from the seventh century. The critical work of Robert Beulay and of Brian Colless has confirmed the former identity.

John’s writings include 29 homilies, 51 letters, some centuries (there are eight attributed to him) and some other writings. Of the letters, two can be attributed to Joseph Hassaya and two of the homilies attributed to Isaac are thought to be by John. Of the centuries attributed to John, it appears that only one and a half are from him while the rest should be attributed to Joseph Hassaya. Thus we see that, probably partly as a result of the condemnation, the writings of John, Joseph and Isaac have been confused.

The two main genres that we find in John, namely letters and homilies, are often very close to each other. The tenth homily and the eighteenth letter are the same and comprise a sort of rule for beginners, probably the rule that according to his biographers John left behind for his monastic disciples. In fact the letters include all genres, including prayers, homiletic explanations, monastic advice, the witness from his own experience or that of others. The homilies are both more and less than homilies as they are full of advice, digressions, mystical contemplations and prayers. The word “homilies” was chosen in the translation because of the similarity of genre with the homilies of Pseudo-Macarius.

At least one of John’s correspondents is a real soul friend and the letters reflect this friendship and tell of their visits with each other. They are thus real letters. One of the correspondents may have been one of his own brothers.

John is not concerned with building a theoretical system, unlike Evagrius and Joseph Hazzaya. He speaks from his own experience that he seeks to convey as accurately as possible, away of the limitation of words to convey the reality about which they speak.

Someone who speaks from experience

John speaks from his own experience and his words vibrate with what he has seen and grasped and which he attempts to formulate, fully aware that his words are inadequate to pass on the intensity of his experience. In his writings one encounters his own mood changes and his humour in reporting these. He writes: 

You ask me how I am. I don’t know what to answer considering the ups and downs that I experience. Sometimes I am full of Life and sometimes death seems to rage against me in all my members. Sometimes I kill life and sometimes it is the dead who bring me down. Sometimes I am cut off from everything through union with the Lord and sometimes I am a mixture of everything. It is a wonder for me that the Spirit of Life so lends Himself to alienation that the dead can so exercise power. But He allows this to happen in order to warn us, so that we should not breath in the odour of the dead with any longing. (Letter 37, 1)

 Someone who is anchored in a tradition

 John speaks from within a tradition, which provides him with a language in which to speak. We can name three major influences.

  • Evagrius, or Mar Evagrius as the Syrians call him, the fourth century master who provided a valuable grammar of spiritual life. He describes an ascent through which one’s heart is purified from the passions and thanks to a complete apatheia may enter into the light of the Spirit. From there, one learns to contemplate the light in all beings and eventually also the light of the Holy Trinity. The Syrian tradition took this further and distinguished a further stage beyond purity of heart, namely, serenity or transparency.
  • Pseudo-Macarius, who through his homilies (which had been translated into Syrian), inspired John through his use of the imagery of the heart and of fire.
  • Pseudo-Dionysius and his use of paradox in speaking of the ultimate in which knowledge becomes unknowing provides inspiration for John and a freedom with language that is directly loaned from Dionysius’ writings.

A formed reader

John stands within a tradition and certainly didn’t find everything out for himself. He read the biblical texts and digested them according to a tradition that had long existed in the Syrian Church, especially influenced by Theodore of Mopsuesta.

We can identify the texts that he most often cites to illuminate the different stages of spiritual life. In these, the apostle Paul plays an important role.

  • Mt 5, 8: Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God in their hearts (John adds his own correction)
  • Lk 17, 21: The Kingdom of God is within you
  • Jn 7, 38: From his heart shall flow streams of living water
  • Rm 8, 9: The Spirit of God lives in you
  • 1 Cor 3, 16: You are God’s temple
  • 2 Cor 3, 18: And all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord who is the Spirit.
  • 2 Cor 4, 6: It is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ that has shone into our hearts to enlighten them with the knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the face of Christ.
  • Ep 1, 18: May He enlighten the eyes of your heart…
  • 2 Pet 1, 19: The morning star arises in your hearts.

John places great emphasis on “the place of God” (Ex 24, 10 and Is 24, 16 in the LXX) which he interprets as being in the heart of the monk. He sees the spiritual life as being a way of transformation in which Christ is formed in us and we are renewed according to His image and likeness. This spiritual growth moves from the hidden to the visible. Even now our life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3, 1-3) and will be fully revealed “when He appears” (1 Jn 3, 1 and Col 3, 4).

John does not often cite entire biblical texts, but his thought patterns circle around certain key passages which he alludes to in different ways in order to express his insights.


John is fond of aphorisms and enjoys piling up blessings or rhetorical questions in order to suggest something beyond what we can grasp with words and with reason. He plays with antithesis and paradox, although it sometimes sounds rather forced. We reach a limit and it can be difficult to determine what is purely a matter of style and what is simply his own witness to his experience.

The genre of encouragement

John is a friend and a brother who wants to encourage others and offers his brothers an orientation and points of recognition on their common path of solitary eremitical life. He is also sometimes someone who pours his own heart out to a friend and acknowledges his own weakness, recommending himself to the prayers of the other.

In one text he appears as a “novice master” (Letter 18 which is the same as homily 10) and summarises a series of elementary principles for beginners in monastic life. This text was greatly appreciated and included in the writings of Isaac of Nineveh. Closer inspection reveals that it draws strongly on the writings of Isaiah of Scetis.

Where does he want to bring his readers?

John wants to bring his readers to “the light without form,” an expression that derives from Evagrius and is often used by the Syrian Fathers. By this he understands the contemplation of the Holy Trinity. Commentators have noted that while Evagrius constantly alluded to this, he hardly ever speaks of it directly. The eighth century Syrian Fathers, by contrast, speak of it far more extensively, using a series of biblical images such as the dark cloud and the paradoxical language that they had inherited from Pseudo-Dionysius.

This path begins with radical detachment which expresses itself for the monk in life in his cell, cut off from the rest of the world. In this solitude the struggle with the passions begins in which austerity and watchfulness give birth to purity of heart which is the fruit of this struggle. According to the Syrian translation of the Beatitudes, the pure of heart will see God “in their hearts” and John situates this whole process of spiritual growth within the heart. Nadira Khayyat writes: 

The entire mystical advance occurs for John of Dalyatha according to a way of interiorisation on the objective interior path: through deepening the vision of the soul that contemplates itself, one initially achieves the contemplation of God’s light in the sensibly observable creatures, thereafter on the face of Christ and eventually in the Cloud. And each time the progress occurs not by going without but by entering further inwards, for the sensibly observable things are in the soul through the mystical knowledge, the angels are on the inside of the sensibly observable things, Christ is inside the angels, and the Father is inside Christ.

Here the Syrian tradition identifies a stage beyond that of purity of heart, which is variously translated as transparency, serenity, limpidity and realisation. It would appear that in the first stage, that of purity of heart, one still tastes something of one’s effort, while in the second passivity dominates and everything is “light without form”.

John uses biblical imagery in order to illuminate this. Thus the spirit climbs the mountain, enters into the cave, is overwhelmed by the Cloud and sees the Sea. He uses language of wonder and amazement in which, in the highest stage, everything becomes still. The fire has consumed everything, even our ability to remember it.

John emphasises that if we wish to discover the working of God’s Spirit in us, then we need to die to all images, thoughts and feelings. The more radical this death, the greater the freedom that God’s Spirit has in order to transport us to the most inner temple, where we shall be able to contemplate the glory of the Holy Trinity, the Light without form. John is, moreover, particularly sensitive to that which we cannot utter, and avoids all indiscretion in his speech about God. Amazement is followed by silence, as the most appropriate way of relating to God.