St. Isaac the Syrian’s homily 44 is one of his several very difficult homilies. It is difficult not because it is hard to understand. Exactly the opposite is the case. It is quite straight forward and easy to understand. I understand it, and I am offended by it. Homily 44 is a letter written to another monk who loves stillness exhorting him to guard that stillness by avoiding contact with others. St. Isaac says, “If a man does not despise honours and dishonours, and if for the sake of stillness, he does not patiently endure reproach, mocking, injury, and even blows and become a laughing-stock, considered by all who see him to be a fool and a half-wit, he cannot preserve in the good aim of stillness.” But this is not yet the offensive part, at least not to me.
It doesn’t surprise or offend me that anyone who seriously follows Christ, in the world or in the wilderness, would seem to others to be a half-wit or a fool. Anyone who seriously follows Christ will be laughed at by others—especially and most painfully by those who also claim to be following Christ themselves. He or she will endure reproach, mocking and even blows. All of this is what Jesus promised when He said, “In the world you will have tribulation” and what St. Paul tells us: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” No, the misunderstanding and ridicule are all a part of a normal Christian life.
What offends me in this homily is that St. Isaac exhorts that the pursuit and maintenance of stillness is more important than loving your neighbour “by means of familiarity.” For St. Isaac, “familiarity” seems to mean actually being with, comforting, talking to, or even seeing one’s neighbour. That is, for St. Isaac, stillness is more important than loving your neighbour by doing anything that might be construed as actually loving your neighbour. And just in case the recipient of this letter might misunderstand him, he makes it very clear by citing examples from the life of St. Arsenius and from the life of an unnamed “other saint.”
Abba Arsenius did not even greet those who came to him to receive his blessing:
Once one of the fathers went to see Abba Arsenius, and the elder, thinking he was the brother who served him, opened the door to him. Yet when the elder saw who it was, he threw himself upon his face; and although the other father greatly entreated him to stand up and merely to bless him and thus he would depart, the saint refused, saying, ‘I shall not get up until you have departed.’
And another time:
When the [Patriarch Theophilus and his entourage] entreated him [for a word, Arsenius] was silent for a moment and then said, ‘If I tell you something, will you observe it?’ And they consented, saying ‘Yes.’ Whereupon the elder said to them, ‘Wherever you hear that Arsenius is found, do not draw nigh to that place.”
And then there is the example of the unnamed monk:
We know of another saint whose brother after the flesh, a recluse in another cell, fell ill. During the whole period of his brother’s sickness he restrained his compassion and did not go forth to visit him. Now at the time of his departing from this life, his brother sent word to him, saying, ‘though you have not yet come to me, come even now, though it be during the night, and I shall be at peace.’ But that blessed man was not persuaded, not even at that hour when nature is wont to be compassionate to other men and to overstep the limit set by the will. He said, ‘If I go out, my heart will not be pure before God, because I have neglected to visit my spiritual brothers, whereas I would have honoured nature [biological kinship] above Christ.’ And his brother died and did not see him.
This St. Isaac presents as a good example.
St. Isaac goes on to explain that “Christ loves to see stillness honoured by holy men, even though they neglect His [God’s] children.” This is because it is only by loving God with all one’s heart, soul and mind—“more than the world, nature, and all that pertains thereto”— that one comes love his or her neighbor. This is because “the commandment to love that speaks of love of neighbor is included within the former.” That is, there are not two commandments, according to St. Isaac, but one: To love God completely (so that one even neglects God’s children) is to love your neighbour.
I told you this homily is offensive.
What do we do with this? My immediate response is to soften St. Isaac’s words. This is how I normally respond to words that seem too hard for me. I do this with the hard sayings of Jesus. I do this with hard words from my bishop or spiritual father: I soften them.
Now I am certain that some of my readers are offended—not only because of St. Isaac’s words, but also because of my inclination to soften his hard words. To tell the truth, I’m offended, offended at myself. Something inside me tells me that I should never dilute, never soften the hard words that come to me. But this loud voice that shouts inside my head “never soften, never dilute” may not be the Holy Spirit. It may be a proud spirit, a spirit that likes to think it should understand, a spirit that likes to think that holy words are either obeyed completely or not obeyed at all, a spirit that thinks it knows what obedience looks like, what it is and what it isn’t. It’s a spirit that shuns compromise; however, as I have shared elsewhere, compromise may be the way of humility. It may indeed be the only way I can begin to move from where I am to where God is calling me to be.
So let’s soften St. Isaac’s exhortation a little. First of all we must note that St. Isaac is a hermit writing to another hermit. St. Isaac is not writing to or for people who live in the world—or even to or for monks living in a cenobitic monastery. Now the proud spirit in me still rebels. It shouts in my head, “How can anyone claim to love his neighbour who refuses to see him?” The proud spirit wants the playing field to be level, wants the same rules to apply to everyone, wants there to be one and only one way to understand and interpret the Gospel commands—which, as it just so happens to be, is exactly the way I myself understand and interpret them right now. The proud spirit doesn’t want to admit that it only sees through a glass darkly and that others may see what I don’t see because they live in a context that requires them to see what would be not only unnecessary but perhaps harmful for me to see. The proud spirit wants spiritual understanding to be reasonable, to reasonably say the same thing to everyone.
But that I am not a hermit does not mean that I can or should lay aside St. Isaac’s words as thought they have no application in my life whatsoever. It seems to me that every Christian, regardless of their calling in this life, needs to cultivate some inner stillness. And as with everything valuable in this world, saying yes to one thing necessitates saying no to something else. If I’m going to cultivate any stillness, I will have to find quiet time, time when I am not engaging people—either face to face or electronically. For most us, saying no to others in order to say yes to God in order to cultivate some little bit of stillness does not require the drastic action of refusing to speak to anyone, ever, at all. For most of us it begins merely by turning off the electronics, going to bed early in order to get up while the house is still quiet, or working with our hands in the garden or shop. (I find it amazing how easy it is to get people to leave you alone in quiet if you tell them you are “doing” something. The garden or shop, if you are working alone, is an excellent place to cultivate inner stillness.)
Another point that softens St. Isaac’s exhortation is to note that when St. Arsenius opened his cell door to the Father seeking his blessing, he did so because he thought it was his cell attendant. Although St. Arsenius sought stillness by shunning contact with others, he was not absolutely without contact with others: he had a cell attendant, probably a disciple. St. Arsenius did have people—or at least a person—in his life that he interacted with, whom he could love in practical ways as neighbour. St. Isaac, like many of the saints and Jesus Himself, often uses hyperbole to make his point. The example of St. Arsenius’ “shunning of the association with men” must not be understood categorically—as our modern minds are want to do. It is a more or less sort of thing, not an either/or sort of thing. St. Arsenius shunned all men, except the men who were closest to him. And similarly, we in the world cannot practically love everyone we encounter. We have to focus on the neighbours who are actually near. For example, I may have to say no to the colleague who needs my help in order to say yes to my son or daughter or wife or husband who needs to know my love. It seems to me that love spread too thinly ceases to be love.
The last paragraph of homily 44 ends with a telling sentence. The paragraph begins with the words, “Do you wish to acquire in your soul the love or your neighbour according to the commandment of the Gospel? Separate yourself from him….” But then St. Isaac’s final words are, “See [your neighbours’] faces on fixed days only. Truly, experience is the teacher of all. Farewell.” Throughout this whole homily, I had been interpreting St. Isaac as exhorting solitaries never to see or interact with—to see the face of—their neighbours. That’s how my university-trained, categorically obsessed mind read him. ‘Don’t’ means ‘don’t.’ It means never. It means no exceptions. And yet here, at the end of the letter, St. Isaac tells his hermit reader to see the faces of his neighbours on “fixed days.” Perhaps all along St. Isaac was not saying absolutely never “see the face of your neighbour,” (as I had so easily and with offence understood him) but what he was rather concerned about was random visits, interruptions to one’s fixed daily rule of prayer. I don’t know. What does seem clear is that St. Isaac’s exhortation to shun one’s neighbour for the sake of inner stillness is not to be understood categorically as never seeing or interacting with at least some of one’s neighbours “on fixed days.”
I’ve already rambled too long, and I’m not sure if I have really made any point. Please forgive me.
I want to end by recommending an essay by Donald Sheehan called “Seed and Fruit: St. Isaac the Syrian’s Ascetical Homilies and René Girard’s Writings on Violence.” I found the essay in the book called “The Grace of Incorruption: The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan on Orthodox Faith and Poetics.” In this essay, Professor Sheehan wrestles with this very homily 44 of St. Isaac and comes up with an understanding and application very different from mine. Rather than softening St. Isaac’s words, Professor Sheehan understands his words as seeds that germinate and grow in the soil of our lives as we die to ourselves. At least that was my takeaway. The essay is actually quite difficult if you don’t already have a little background in philosophy, especially the concepts and categories of Rene Girard. I had to do a couple of hours of background reading before I could make sense of it.
So if you find my softening approach unhelpful or unsatisfying, I encourage you to read what Professor Sheehan has to say. You will probably find it much more helpful.