Words from St. Isaac of Syria

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St. Isaac stretches love and mercy to it’s farthest limits, occasionally beyond the bounds of canonical understanding. He remains a saint of the Church and his words are very important to hear.

Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others.

Be crucified, but do not crucify others.

Se slandered, but do not slander others.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity.

Suffer with the sick.

Be afflicted with sinners.

Exult with those who repent.

Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone.

Be a partaker of the sufferings of all, but keep your body distant from all.

Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly.

Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them.

And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place, do not destroy their character.

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.

The person who is genuinely charitable not only gives charity out of his own possessions, but gladly tolerates injustice from others and forgives them. Whoever lays down his soul for his brother acts generously, rather than the person who demonstrates his generosity by his gifts.

God is not One who requites evil, but who sets evil right.

Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness.

The person who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God, and while yet in this world, even now breathes the air of the resurrection.

In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.

Question: When is a person sure of having arrived at purity?

Answer: When that person considers all human beings are good, and no created thing appears impure or defiled. Then a person is truly pure in heart.

Love is sweeter than life.

Sweeter still, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb is the awareness of God whence love is born.

Love is not loath to accept the hardest of deaths for those it loves.

Love is the child of knowledge.

Lord, fill my heart with eternal life.

As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.

That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion: remorse. But love inebriates the souls of the sons and daughters of heaven by its delectability.

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?

Sin is the fruit of free will. There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist.

God’s recompense to sinners is that, instead of a just recompense, God rewards them with resurrection.

O wonder! The Creator clothed in a human being enters the house of tax collectors and prostitutes. Thus the entire universe, through the beauty of the sight of him, was drawn by his love to the single confession of God, the Lord of all.

“Will God, if I ask, forgive me these things by which I am pained and by whose memory I am tormented, things by which, though I abhor them, I go on backsliding? Yet after they have taken place the pain they give me is even greater than that of a scorpion’s sting. Though I abhor them, I am still in the middle of them, and when I repent of them with suffering I wretchedly return to them again.”

This is how many God-fearing people think, people who foster virtue and are pricked with the suffering of compunction, who mourn over their sin; They live between sin and repentance all the time. Let us not be in doubt, O fellow humanity, concerning the hope of our salvation, seeing that the One who bore sufferings for our sakes is very concerned about our salvation; God’s mercifulness is far more extensive than we can conceive, God’s grace is greater than what we ask for.

When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of angels. The person who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and every hour and is thereby made immortal. …When we hear Jesus say, “Ye shall eat and drink at the table of my kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love, rather than food and drink, is sufficient to nourish a person. This is the wine “which maketh glad the heart.” Blessed is the one who partakes of this wine! Licentious people have drunk this wine and become chaste; sinners have drunk it and have forgotten the pathways of stumbling; drunkards have drunk this wine and become fasters; the rich have drunk it and desired poverty, the poor have drunk it and been enriched with hope; the sick have drunk it and become strong; the unlearned have taken it and become wise.

Repentance is given us as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God. That of which we have received an earnest by baptism, we receive as a gift by means of repentance. Repentance is the door of mercy, opened to those who seek it. By this door we enter into the mercy of God, and apart from this entrance we shall not find mercy.

Blessed is God who uses corporeal objects continually to draw us close in a symbolic way to a knowledge of God’s invisible nature. O name of Jesus, key to all gifts, open up for me the great door to your treasure-house, that I may enter and praise you with the praise that comes from the heart.

O my Hope, pour into my heart the inebriation that consists in the hope of you. O Jesus Christ, the resurrection and light of all worlds, place upon my soul’s head the crown of knowledge of you; open before me all of a sudden the door of mercies, cause the rays of your grace to shine out in my heart.

O Christ, who are covered with light as though with a garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which you caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May your Divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with you.

I give praise to your holy Nature, Lord, for you have made my nature a sanctuary for your hiddenness and a tabernacle for your holy mysteries, a place where you can dwell, and a holy temple for your Divinity.

Adapted from Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev’s The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Cistercian Studies 175), Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2000.

 

43 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing. I have trouble finding free online access to the words and writings of orthodox/eastern saints. Catholic saints and other renowned believers of the Western traditions are much easier to find. Could you expound on what he means here?
    “Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone.
    Be a partaker of the sufferings of all, but keep your body distant from all.”
    Thank you

  2. Father, what do you mean St. Isaac stretches the bounds of love and mercy beyond the bounds of canonical understanding. Although I am far from realizing the teaching embodied in what you have published it seems to make perfect sense to me. I know that mercy heals–every wound. Most wounds are the result, at least in my life, of my failure to be merciful.

  3. Father, this was and is such an edifying and helpful article. Thank you!

    These words pop out to me:
    If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?

    I often think zeal is the key to doing good. But it is indeed gentleness and humility that is the Way of Jesus Christ. May God grant us all such a heart, the image and likeness of Christ.

  4. I am rereading this book right now. St. Isaac has been a favorite of mine for years and I use his prayers and read from him every day. Thank you for posting this and I encourage all to read this book and be richly blessed.

  5. I tip my metaphorical hat to you, Father Stephen, for posting these pearls from my patron! Just what I needed as I feel a certain excess of zealousness with little mercy threatening to consume me. I’ve always been the kind of guy to push boundaries myself so perhaps that also explains my attraction (kindred-spiritedness?) to St. Isaac.

    I too am wondering about your take on what St. Isaac means with “Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone. Be a partaker of the sufferings of all, but keep your body distant from all.” My current gloss of that would be something along the lines of “love all, but be attached to nothing and no one [except God]”. And even the word “attachment” bears some elucidation…my romantic travails have taught me the folly of holding on a little too tight to one’s beloved, for example. (Yet perhaps there is a healthy form of “attachment” to others, which is not what St. Isaac is countermanding…? The more one learns, the less one knows it seems…)

  6. Hugh,
    St. Isaac is certainly an “outlier” on that topic. I would say that I’ve yet to meet anyone whom I thought was ready or spiritual able to engage in such love – so, I’ll leave it to saints such as St. Isaac. And I would give it no further thought, other than to note that the mercy of God is beyond our comprehension.

  7. Michelle,
    The simplest way to take these admonitions is to hear the balance in them – friend/alone, partaker/distant. In modern parlance, I would suggest that this speaks of healthy boundaries. Friendship should not consume us (as in a codependency). Partaker of others sufferings should not make us sick, etc.

  8. Thomas Jefferson once wrote that only a virtuous people deserved freedom. It seems to me that the level of humility St. Isaac teaches or at least the patient striving for it is the foundation of freedom. All passions will be eaten up by repentance

    His quote about zeal is particularly important for me to hear. Especially zeal for righteousness.

    May our virtuous Lord forgive my zeal and teach me patience and long suffering faith.

  9. Michael,
    Forgive me, by I think Jefferson knew very little about freedom, and less about virtue. Be that as it may, the only freedom we need concern ourselves with is freedom from sin. Every other form of “freedom” apart from that is just a delusion.

    I do not think America’s founding fathers and the whole mythological narrative of America are beside the point of the Christian faith – and are, at best, a distraction.

  10. The spiritual significance of St. Isaac really hit home for me while reading the biography of Saint Paisios in which he says he spent five whole years with the single volume of Saint Isaac’s homilies. That kind of stopped me in my tracks!

  11. Hugh – in regards to loving even the demons, I found this excerpt which might help shed some light on the subject…

    Monks do not only pray for the living and the dead but even for the most miserable creatures, the demons, who, unfortunately, even though thousands of years have passed, have become worse and have progressed in their evilness.

    Once a monk* felt much pain [of heart] and, while he was kneeling at prayer, he said the following: “You are God and, if You want, You can find a way to save these miserable demons who first enjoyed such great glory, but now are full of all the evilness and cunning of the world. Without Your protection, they would have devoured all human beings.” While he was saying these words, praying with pain [of heart], he saw a dog’s head next to him sticking out his tongue and mocking him. It seems that God allowed for this to happen in order to inform the monk that He is ready to accept the demons provided they repent, but they themselves do not want their salvation.

    One realizes from this incident not only the great love of monks, which they receive as a type of boundless love that is of God, but also the love of God, which is ready to save the demons as well, in spite of the billions of crimes they have committed, if only they would repent.

    *The monk mentioned above is Saint Paisios himself and the incident is recounted in a collection of his *Epistles* to his spiritual children.

    Christ calls us to love our enemies, and demons are certainly our enemies, but as Father Stephen says, this kind of love is beyond the comprehension of all but a few souls here on earth and is, itself, a gift of grace from God. For most of us, we have our hands full simply trying to love the person standing in front of us in this moment.

  12. I recently read Saint Paisios the Athonite, which was the first time I have heard about the Saint Isaac the Syrian and his Ascetical Homilies. Saint Paisios said that reading one sentence a day had much teaching in it.
    Saint Joseph the Hesychast also recommends the reading of the Ascetical Homilies. He said it was the alpha and omega of prayer and stillness.

  13. Father, you are correct about Jefferson for sure. But what he wrote still strikes me as true nonetheless if one understands correctly. Just not in his context at all and having nothing to do with his meaning. Real virtue and real freedom go together even if it means the virtue and freedom of living for God alone.

    There has never been a virtuous politics.

    Repentance is the way to true freedom as well as true virtue both of which will be shocking to me if, by Grace, I get there.
    St. Isaac points the way.

    Still because of the attraction of the passions, we need some kind of external government. Even the best such government will still be full of concupiscence.

    The delusion that the political fathers of our nation operated was deep. We are suffering the consequences.

  14. Fr. Stephen,
    St. Isaac speaks of having a merciful heart, even towards the demons. Such a merciful heart and the ability to see things in this way is a great gift from God.
    Would I be on the right lines in thinking that to take St. Isaac literally and without having God’s grace, to cultivate compassion for the demons would be a dangerous endeavour?

  15. Andrew,
    I’m no expert in these matters, but I’d say yes, cultivating compassion for the demons could be rather dangerous. But cultivating compassion for your fellow human can be dangerous, in this world. In this world.

  16. Andrew,
    Yes – you are correct. I want to add a further word of caution. For a variety of reasons, there’s been a lot of discussion, etc., going around on the topic of angels and demons. My own opinion is that people are speaking largely in a speculative manner with little to no experience of what they are discussing. As such, it is interesting, but mostly speculative.

    When it comes to angels and demons – we know almost nothing. There is the tiniest of points where their life touches ours – and they are significant in certain key moments of salvation history. But, in truth, almost everything about them is unknown to us, and, as far as I can tell, is at present none of our business. I don’t think about them, as a rule.

    I worship with them and sing with them – that’s part of the Liturgy. I have a guardian angel (as do we all) and I occasionally ask favors of him, and am grateful for his watchful ministry. But, I’ve seen people get into various kinds of trouble related to the topic.

    I think it is always safe to live within one’s ignorance, and to seek knowledge of those things that are given to us and towards which we have a commandment.

    So, I look at St. Isaac’s statement and say, “That’s interesting.” And I leave it there. My writ doesn’t run that far.

  17. Stephen,
    you’re quite right about having compassion for our neighbour could be dangerous. I try to keep in mind; ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.’

  18. Yes, Father, that’s certainly what I was thinking about. That, and even more ‘every day’ compassion, in a culture where having compassion for anyone but yourself and your own bottom line is considered foolish at best.

  19. Thank you Fr. Stephen, for your wise advice. Endeavouring to cultivate a repentant heart is more than enough to be getting on with.

  20. Michael,
    my wife and I were having that very conversation earlier. I remember talking to a woman some years ago who was a reiki practitioner and she told me that she had seen angels. She was very anti Christian. I was left wondering if she actually saw demons?

  21. Angels became quite popular in the 90’s and later, as a sort of “spiritual but not religious” thing. It was all quite “nice” but, pretty delusional as well. I do not leap to conclusions and say, “It was demons!” in that I am far more prone to think “it was nothing!”

    My 3 years among the charismatics, as a young man, taught me that many people who say things like, “God spoke to me,” or even, “I had a vision,” are actually describing imagined experiences – as “I pictured in my mind…I heard in my mind…” I became quite determined not to use objective language for subjective experiences. I’ve encountered the same thing, from time to time, elsewhere, including within Orthodoxy, though not as commonly. It is delusional, at best, and has its own inherent dangers. It’s important, again, to speak carefully about spiritual things.

  22. Michael,

    When Fr. Stephen talks about this saint stretching love and mercy to its limits, I agree with him. My explanation for this would be that we live in a world that’s sooo swimming in anger, justice and bitterness that even those among us striving to practice kindness and true Christianity would often come off as clumsy and cruel. I believe St. Isaac was given great insight into this aspect of God. He was the same person who said, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.”

    We are the evil parents who are addressed in Matthew 7:11 and barely know how to give good gifts to our children. Therefore when we dole out mercy, we do so to our best ability – and yet we are embarrassed whenever we have occasion to see just how merciful God is. Therefore descriptions like the saint’s above really push our boundaries.

    I agree that all we can do at times like this is stare in awe and wonder – and worship our Lord and King.

  23. Father, the angel fixation goes back further. The 70’s New Age focused on them quite a bit. Yet they exist, not in some insubstantial fairy world of magic but in a realm that is truly incorporeal yet substantial-not fallen. Difficult for us to perceive truly, I think. The fruit of any such “experience” is crucial. Does it puff me up and lead me to think highly of myself and/or create confusion or does it turn me to Jesus in thanksgiving and repentance?

    In the 60’s movie Bedazzled, the devil is shown creating small irritations for people do that they would get angry and curse God. I have always felt that as a real possibility. What is to say angels do not work in a similar manner in little things that help us get through our day more easily leading us to give Glory to God? Helping us find lost things, navigate a confusing road, reminding us of something that needs doing. Bringing a moment of compassion into our lives through an unexpected encounter with a person in need or for our need. Surely they are a part of the “everywhere present, filling all things”. Ubiquitous. Not theatrical with fireworks.

  24. Fr. Stephen,
    what you say about jumping to conclusions about demons, when it could delusion is sensible. I am not sure if what you said was in response to what I had posted? I will reiterate that I did say, I was left wondering if the woman had seen demons and not that she had actually seen demons.

  25. Thank you, Father.

    As many commenters have said, there is so much in the stories and doings of the Saints that could be misinterpreted if not seen through the eyes of the Church. There are stories of prayer for demons, covering for a monk sinning with a woman, placing seemingly impossible demands on a spiritual child, overthrowing money changers’ tables in anger…!

    My understanding, at least what I tell myself, is that I may consider doing these things when I become a Saint! I am to imitate the Saints, but not always literally because I do not have the discernment to fully understand the circumstances. So I have to take the simple and basic lessons. Love, non-judgment, obedience, and hatred of my sin, as prescribed by the Church.

  26. My current understanding is that the world is truly enchanted, and that part of the modern project has been to belittle occurrences such as encounters or noetic communication with angels (of either stripe, pure or fallen) as superstitious. While it’s true we should not seek out such encounters (or at least ask God with extreme caution, for we know how cunning the fallen spirits are), the fact is they happened to the saints and to so many others, and do still occur. Indeed, if the position put forward by Frs. Damick and De Young on a sister podcast from Ancient Faith (“Lord of Spirits”, which I highly recommend), such encounters were considered quite commonplace in the ancient world.

  27. James,
    Well, this is not my first rodeo. Some of my reflections viz. a healthy sobriety regarding angels, demons, etc., comes from having been in contexts where all of that was deeply and terribly abused. By the same token, I think it easily becomes a distraction in our modern age because of the “disenchantment” of our time. I take for granted that the world is as permeated by the presence of angels and demons as I do that it is permeated by cosmic rays, and neutrinos, etc (though I’ve never seen a cosmic ray or a neutrino). I do not care to share any details of my own angelic experiences in that I do not think it would be helpful. I know of plenty of authentic such encounters – and – again, I take them for granted.

    On the other hand, because we dwell in such a twisted culture, I think it is of the greatest importance to learn to live in a spiritually sober manner and to cultivate meekness, humility, and the love of enemies (and some other virtues).

    Fr. Damick and De Young are sort of doing a new venture, as it were. Some of it (as in Fr. DeYoung’s book), I have some scholarly questions for, and will raise them in the right time and place. As for the stuff on the demons, etc., I will let time see what kind of fruit that it bears. I have yet to see strong interest in angels and demons produce good fruit in the spiritual life. That’s not a comment on their reality – but a comment on our inner life.

    I’ve been writing on the dis-enchantment stuff for about 15 years. There’s ever-so-much more to the story than simply the waning of certain supernatural beliefs. The return of supernatural beliefs, by the same token, will not be a correction. The disease is in our heart – not our head. All of the ancient heretics believed in a supernatural world. Mind you, I will continue to write on the problems of modernity. I pray that it will be useful as well.

  28. Here’s a fun story:

    When I was in seminary (Episcopal), I was taking a class on spiritual direction. After several seminars, I noticed a complete lack of any mention of demons or exorcisms. So, I asked a question about the topic and was assigned to present a research paper to the seminar (I think it was sort of revenge for raising the question). I did my homework, wrote the paper, and felt prepared for the class. I did not feel prepared for what I assumed would be lots of raised eyebrows, quiet smirks, and more disdain from my fellow students.

    As I went into the seminar room, there seated at the table, was a classmate, Marvin Red Elk, a Lakota Sioux, who was an Anglican Deacon, and a student. He had this reindeer antler thing (large) in his hand, with a large bead-worked hoop on it. I couldn’t begin my presentation without asking him about it.

    “What’s that, Marvin?” I asked.
    “That’s a demon-catcher,” he said. I realized that what popular marketing called a “dream catcher,” Marvin, in all seriousness, called a “demon catcher.” I loved Marvin. He was a true One-Storey kind of guy. The seminar went forward, and nobody laughed, made unkind remarks, or ridiculed the subject of demons, much less the importance of exorcism. I think Marvin’s catcher did a really good job that day. 🙂

  29. Drewster,
    God’s mercy in beyond human comprehension, it just is. All we can do is step into it if we are led “beside the still waters”. That is part of what Mt 5 is talking about: Resist not evil…

    Mercy is God’s answer to evil it seems. That clear from The Cross.

    In fact most of what has passed for “resisting evil” in history has only led to more and more evil. That is the legacy of our culture.

    Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  30. I’ll add one more angel story:

    A seminary professor whom I worked with in a local mission church said to me that he didn’t believe in angels. I asked him why. He said that he couldn’t think of anything that angels do that the Holy Spirit couldn’t do without them. That sounded like some of the dumbest theological reasoning I’d ever heard. That night we were in a prayer group together down at the mission parish. In the group, during our sharing, I “outed” him, and said that “Fr. Bob says he doesn’t believe in angels.” He then shared his reasoning with the prayer group.

    What followed was about an hour-and-a-half of unbidden angel stories from person after person in the group. Some would bring you to tears. I recall a woman talking about standing at the crib of a daughter who had died, inconsolable, when an angel appeared, and gave her comfort. And on and on the stories came. At the end of the night, the professor gladly accepted what he’d heard. He became enthusiastic about angels ever after.

    I have heard many, many authentic angelic stories through the years. Mostly, I think people don’t share them because they’re afraid of disapproval. Many of the stories that have been shared with me begin with, “You’re not going to believe this but…” Generally, I say, “Yes, I will…”

    Angels exist to minister to us – most of what they do is unobserved and unobservable. Believing in them is not how we “see” them. The key, I think, is the pursuit of a pure heart and to seek God above all else. The woman to whom the angel appeared at her daughter’s crib was one of the kindest and most devout women I’ve known through the years. She was in her 80’s at the time she told that story – a very steady, faithful presence in the parish.

  31. Thank you for expounding as you have, Father…as usual you get to the heart of the matter. 🙂 Sobriety, humility, and love are what count the most.

    I think it is so beautiful how what you say is true, that angels do most of their work in ways we neither observe nor render them thanks for…and yet I am sure they do it quite joyfully and willingly. May we attain unto even a modicum of such humility and love!

  32. Such wonderful stories and comments concerning angels! Perhaps a post might be in order at some point, Father?

    I am more and more realizing that being “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” is so much more than just thinking in terms of a few Saints here and there. The more and more real realization of a (I don’t like to say “my” for whatever reason) guardian angel in the life I’ve been given is slowly becoming known to me. I tend to wonder how this will continue….

  33. Byron, trouble with a formal post about angels is that it would be quite difficult. Because they are incorporeal and we are not any explanation tends to vanish as it is grasped. I like Father’s original statement which if I paraphrase: They are real, they are of God, they are here to minister to us, sometimes we become conscious of them as they minister in and through the Mercy of God. Most of the time we are not conscious of them. Nevertheless we should not be shy asking for their help.

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