Syrian Fathers

A reader has alerted me to the death of Dom André Louf, ocso. I hadn’t checked the website of the Order recently, but they only had a short death notice here, which was a bit surprising given his stature. He died on Monday and was buried on Wednesday in the abbey of  Mont des Cats in France. He was abbot of Mont des Cats for several decades, having become abbot in his thirties, and there are fascinating references in Thomas Merton’s journals about his correspondence with this young abbot. For decades he longed for the eremitical life, but his pleas to the General Chapter of the his Order to be allowed to step down as abbot in order to pursue this were consistently refused. Finally in the 1990s he was able to step down and retreat to a hermitage in the south of France where he applied himself to the Syrian Fathers, translating the second series of Saint Isaac’s treatises into French, among other things.

I reported on two conferences that he gave at a colloquium on the Syrian Fathers two years ago: a conference on Simeon of Taibouthèh and a presentation on the Liturgy of the Heart. This was the only time that I met him and although he didn’t seem particularly frail to me, people who had known him earlier commented that he had aged. Which, I suppose, he had every right to have done.

Dom André certainly had a great influence both within the Cistercian Order and beyond. He belonged to that generation of post-conciliar Catholic leaders who were involved in a genuine renewal and was also someone deeply influenced by Eastern Christianity. Several of his books have been translated into English, including  The Cistercian Way , Grace Can Do More: Spiritual Accompaniment & Spiritual Growth  and Teach Us to Pray . The most recent work of his that I read was a paper on humility, and the problems that contemporary westerners have with it, that he gave in Bose and that has been published as The Way of Humility . I don’t have it with me at the moment or else I would quote something from it – will do so again.

I was going to entitle this post “Rest in peace” and then realised that I had better get used to saying “Memory eternal.” I don’t know if there’s a theological difference, but it reminded me of the chapter that I have just read of Father Schmemann, and which I shall post on more fully soon, in which he speaks memory:

The remembrance of Christ is the entry into his love, making us brothers and neighbours, “brethren” in his ministry. His life and presence in us and “among” us is certified only by our love for each other and for all whom God has sent into, has included in our life, and this means above all in the remembrance of each other and in the commemoration of each other in Christ. Therefore, in bringing his sacrifice to the altar, we create the memory of each other, we identify each other as living in Christ and being united with him and in him.

In this commemoration there is no distinction between those who live and those who have fallen asleep, for God “is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mt 22:32). …

Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988) 130.

Update:  In a comment Martin has drawn attention to a more extensive obituary on the Bose website.

Forsake not Isaac. Every day one page of Abba Isaac. Not more. Isaac is the mirror. There you will behold yourself. The mirror is so that we may see if we have any shortcomings, any smudge on our face, in order to remove it, to cleanse ourselves. If there is a smudge on your face or on your eyes, in the mirror you will detect it and will remove it. In Abba Isaac you will behold your thoughts, what they are thinking. Your feet, where they are going. Your eyes, if they have light and see. There you will find many sure and unerring ways, in order to be helped. One page of Isaac a day. In the morning or at night, whatever. Suffice it that you read a page.

Elder Ieronymos, quoted in The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. ix.

I’m late mentioning this, but those interested in the Syrian Fathers may be pleased to know that Kevin Edgecomb of Biblicalia has a very helpful post outlining the various edition of Saint Isaac’s works.

For myself, I have picked up up the Ascetical Homilies again in the last couple of months. Although I may post extracts occasionally, don’t expect any particularly scholarly commentary. I am more or less following Elder Ieronymos’ advice above. I may put them aside again to read other things and then return to them again, alternating them with the Sayings of the Fathers or other early texts. For even if when I find myself arguing with Abba Isaac, his words do have a particular power.


For anyone interested in an introduction to Saint Isaac, this is a useful site.

Having (eventually!) completed my series of posts on the Syrian Fathers, I have created a new page that provides easy links to them. I will hopefully also use this for future series, or linking to posts on particular books once I have finished reading them.

By the way, I realised halfway through this series that I had been using the term “Syrian” rather than “Syriac”. I’m not sure that it’s an important distinction – perhaps it’s just that the latter sounds more “scholarly” – but by then it was too late to change it…

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.


This is my report of a public lecture given by Dom André Louf in Saint Andrew’s Orthodox Parish, Ghent, as part of the colloquium on the Syrian Fathers. Please note my earlier disclaimer on the accuracy of my reporting and translations, something that may particularly apply to my reporting of this talk as I was tired and my note taking somewhat uneven! I also have the impression that Dom André skipped over some sections due to time constraints. Once the text is published I may consider doing an English translation for publication somewhere.

Dom André Louf, ocso is abbot emeritus of the abbey of Mont des Cats in France and author of several books, including Teach us to Pray, The Cistercian Way and Grace can do more. He is now a hermit and translates Syrian texts. He was responsible for the French translation of the second series of St Isaac’s homilies.

The phrase “liturgy of the heart” is not found in Scripture but it finds its roots in the reference in 1 Peter 3, 4 in which Peter speaks of the “ho kruptos tès kardias anthropos” (“interior disposition of the heart”, NJB, or “inner self”, NRSV), literally the hidden human being of the heart.

This interior human heart is viewed by Scripture in rather ambiguous terms. It may be orientated to wicked schemes (Gen. 6, 5), it may be hard and even turned to stone (Ex. 7, 3) but it may also be softened and humbled (2 K 22, 19) and especially contrite (Ps 50, 17) and to be healed by God (Ps 147, 3). God reproaches the uncircumcised heart (Lv 26,41; Dt 10, 16; 30, 6; Jer. 9, 26). It is on the tablets of the heart that God will write a new law (Pr. 3,3; 7, 3). With the prophet Ezekiel God promises to change the heart of stone to a heart of flesh (11, 19; 36, 26). Solomon will plead for such a heart at the beginning of his reign (1 K. 3, 9) and advises his son David to watch over his heart, for from the heart come the wellsprings of life. (Pr. 4, 23)


For anyone interested in the Syrian Fathers, I have just found this rather useful Syriac Studies Encyclopedia, which you may find helpful.

The rest of my posts on the colloquium will take a few days to appear as writing them up has involved more work than I realised and time is limited, but I do intend to do them.


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.


This is my report of the second conference from the colloquium on the Syrian Fathers in Ghent last weekend. Please see my earlier disclaimer regarding the accuracy of my reporting and translations!

Dom André Louf, ocso is abbot emeritus of the abbey of Mont des Cats in France and author of several books, including Teach us to Pray, The Cistercian Way and Grace can do more. He is now a hermit and translates Syrian texts. He was responsible for the French translation of the second series of St Isaac’s homilies.

Our information concerning the life of Simeon comes from two Syrian chroniclers who lived several centuries later: Bar Hebraeus (+1286) and Abdisho Bar Brika (+1318). From these we learn that he had been a doctor before becoming a monk, that he lived during the episcopacy of Catholicus Henanisho (685-699), and that he wrote works on medicine, on monastic life and on the mystery of the cell. From these works we can also gather that he lived in the southeast of what is now Iraq, a region that at that time was undergoing a monastic growth and which was home to well known spiritual writers such as Dadisho Qatraya and Isaac of Nineveh. The latter was somewhat older than Simeon.

The designation “of Taibouthèh” refers not to a place, but means “of grace” and refers to one of his writings. Many manuscripts contain such a “Book of Grace” which had previously been ascribed to Isaac of Nineveh, but which recent critical scholarship believes to originate with Simeon. Simeon also refers to the crucial role of grace in his other works and is particularly concerned with the relationship between asceticism and grace.


Joris van Ael is an iconographer and author whose work I have mentioned before (here, here and here). He is one of the leading figures behind the Leerhuis van de Kerkvaders, and was one of the organisers of this colloquium.

This conference served as an introduction to the more specific papers that would follow and sought to provide an overview of important themes in the seventh and eighth century East Syrian Fathers, and a sort of framework in which to place the texts that we would be encountering.

Joris began by asking what the relevance is of these three seventh and eighth century Syrian hermit monks for us today. One of the goals of the Leerhuis van de Kerkvaders is to help us become more conscious of the true dimensions of what it means to be Christian. One of the gifts of our time is that the writings of the Syrian Fathers are now becoming available, for which we owe a debt of gratitude to the translators. These Fathers can help to break open our own Christian consciousness and to help us connect with a broader Christian tradition. They thus have an important ecumenical impact. They can help us in the discernment of our own traditions and in the return to the sources that the conciliar renewal encouraged.


I have returned from the colloquium on the Syrian Fathers in Ghent and will try and write up my notes for a series of posts, although it will probably take a few days before I have them all. It was a very good experience despite being very intense. The speakers were excellent and two of them were leading authorities on the subject who were also responsible for important translation work. The colloquium was jointly organised by the Leerhuis voor de kerkvaders which I mentioned before, the vicariate for formation of the Catholic diocese of Ghent, the Orthodox parish of St Andrew in Ghent and the Catholic National Council for Ecumenism. There were over 90 participants from all sorts of backgrounds. Despite the high scholarly qualtity of the content there was a pastoral concern and an emphasis on what the Syrian Fathers can mean for us today. On the Friday evening we all went to the Orthodox parish for a short prayer service followed by a public lecture by Dom André Louf on “The liturgy of the heart” followed by a reception.

The conferences that were given, and which I will try and post on, were:
  * An introduction to the Syrian Fathers by Joris van Ael
  * Simon of Taibouthèh by Dom André Louf
  * Isaac the Syrian by Br Sabino Chialà
  * The Liturgy of the Heart by Dom André Louf
  * John of Dalyatha by Br Benoît Standaert

There were also two sessions devoted to reading texts.

Please note that what I am posting here is based on my rather hurriedly scribbled notes and, while I have tried to accurately reflect what the speakers said, errors are always possible. Also note that, except in cases where I indicate otherwise (i.e. where I have access to English translations) quotations from the Fathers are my English translations from the Dutch, which are themselves usually translations from the French … thus a translation of a translation of a translation. This is hardly ideal, but I’m posting them nevertheless, partly because doing so provides me with a stimulus to further process what I heard, and also because I believe that the content is worth sharing with others.

The papers that were presented will be published in the next edition of the journal Heiliging, published by the Benedictines of Zevenkerken.

Update: in case anyone is interested, there are photos available here.

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