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St. Isaac the Syrian: Mirrors of Compassion

+ Spirituality from the Desert: St. Isaac the Syrian +

“Treasure of all good things: Grant Thou me perfect repentance and a fervent heart that I may wholeheartedly come forth to seek Thee. Without Thee, I will become estranged from all good things. Therefore, grant Thou me Thy Grace, O Good One. May the Father Who didst beget Thee from His bosom recreate in me the image of Thine icon. I have abandoned Thee; do not forsake me. I have separated myself from Thee; come forth to find me. And when Thou findest me, lead me into Thy pastures, and number me amongst the sheep of Thy select flock, and nurture me with Thy divine mysteries, which dwell within a pure heart, wherein the brilliance of Thy revelations are made manifest.”

I. God, the Universe, and Humankind

  • Cosmic compassion:

  • “What is a compassionate 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.”

  • The Syrian Orthodox Church

  • Rejected Council of Ephesus (431AD)

  • Considered Theodore of Mopsuestia its main theologian

  • Christian communities since 1st century

  • Isolated with little contact with Roman

  • Semitic cultural and linguistic influences

  • Rejected Chalecedon

  • Council: affirmed Jesus has two natures in one person

  • Why rejected: semantic (translations of “nature”) and political reasons (Persia was outside Roman empire)

  • Vanished world: “By the end of the seventh century, political circumstances effectively cut the Church of the East off from the byzantine world” (Alfeyev 25).

  • Life of Isaac the Syrian

  • Comes from 2 syriac sources: “The Book of Chastity” and a west-syrian source of uncertain date and origin.

  • Born in Beit Qatraye, Qatar province (western shore of Persian Gulf)

  • Short period as Bishop

  • First day after his elevation, sitting in residence.

  • Two men came with an argument. St. Isaac gave advice from the scriptures. The man answered: “Leave aside for the moment the teachings of the Gospel.”

  • Abdicated to become a hermit in a mountain

  • Ascended mountain of Matout (Beit Huzaye region) lived in stillness with other hermits.

  • “He ate only three loaves a week with some vegetables, and he did not taste any food that was cooked” (west-syrian source).

  • Later moved to monastery of Rabban Shabur

  • Lost eyesight by reading and asceticism

  • Likely revered as saint during his life

  • Deemed an Orthodox Church Father

  • Several manuscripts have been translated since the first millennium and spread throughout Christendom.

  • Greek and Persian classics

  • Theodore of Mopsuestia

  • Diodore of Tarsus

  • His “orthodoxy”

  • “Isaac lived in harmony with his Church, combining full freedom of thought with adherence to the Church’s tradition…From age to age Christians have found in him a great teacher whose spiritual experience speaks to ever new generations” (Alfeyev 34).

Chapter 1. God, the Universe and Humankind

  1. Core of theology: God’s absolute love

  • Every act of God is love

  • “Among all his actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love, and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of his dealings with us” (36).

  • Aim of creation is incarnation

  • “In love did he bring the world into existence; in love is he going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised” (37).

  • God has equal love for all creation, righteous and unrighteous

  • “He has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and he has a single concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen” (39).

  1. A Merciful Heart

  • God’s Mercy Surpasses Justice

  • “As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance his mercy. Like a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God” (41).

  • God’s wrath portrayed in the Old Testament

  • Not literal

  • A Merciful Heart

  • “What is a merciful heart? It is the heart burning for the sake of all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing…for this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts” (43).

  • Our Goal: to acquire a merciful heart that mirror’s God’s heart

  1. The Created World

  • Two worlds: invisible and visible

  • Angels: “Invisible beings, whose task it is to be stirred by praises of God …so that, by these praises, they may be raised up in contemplation to the glorious Nature of the Trinity, and remain in wonder at the vision” (46).

  • Demons: “The demons will to ruin and destroy a human being; yet they cannot do any harm to him unless they have permission from God” (46).

  • Demons’ only have power over those given to sin.

  • “If we are attached to sin, God gives the order to one of the demons to ‘flog us harshly’, not out of revenge, but so that ‘by one means or another we will not become lost far away from God’ (Alfeyev 46).

  • Human Nature: “Human nature…is created with the potential of accommodating the fullness of the Divinity. Human nature has also the potential for endless existence, in the likeness of God” (47).

  • Fallen passions are unnatural – result of sin

  1. The Incarnation: Center of the Gospel

  • The only possibility for the Blessed State

  • “After the fall, humanity’s only means of turning away from the passionate towards the original blessed state comes through the Incarnation of the Word of God” ~ Alfeyev

  • Incarnation opened the door of contemplation

  • “Creation could not look upon him unless he took part of it to himself and thus conversed with it” (50).

  • Jesus’ Incarnation and Crucifixion: Purpose to reveal God’s love

  • “Solely in order that the world might become aware of the love which God has for his creation” (53).

  • God wanted humans to turn to Him as their father

  • God opened humanity to the possibility of ascending to divinity

  • “The world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one” (58).

  • The Incarnation in Prayer

  • A prayer by St. Isaac:

  • “O Christ who are covered with light as though with 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. O Christ, upon you the many-eyed Cherubim are unable to look because of the glory of your countenance, yet out of your love you received spit upon your face: remove the shame from my face and grant an open face before you at the time of prayer” (59).

  • Our Process of Salvation

  • “The salvation of a human person is nothing else than an ascent to the divine light and love; it is a following of Christ, who was a human being, but was raised up to the level of the Divinity, and by this deified human nature” (60).

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