St. Isaac the Syrian: Solitude and Asceticism
+ 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. Solitude and Asceticism 1. Introduction: The Way of an Ascetic A. Key themes: • The role of solitude in the spiritual life • Stillness as a condition for peace of mind • The struggle against the passions 2. Solitude and Renunciation of the World A. Solitude • Solitude is inner collectiveness - “Solitude is the internal experience of living within oneself, of withdrawal into one’s inner person – a necessary action for uniting oneself with God” (Alfeyev 63). • Solitude is a state of union with God - “Most people find loneliness burdensome, taking it as a fully negative experience of isolation, abandonment…For Isaac, on the contrary, loneliness is an experience of the presence of God, who is closer to him than any friend” (St. Isaac 62). B. Renunciation and Detachment • Freedom from Attachment - “Liberation from the material things precedes the bond of God” (St. Isaac 63). - “No one can draw nigh to God save the man who has separated himself from the world. But I call separation not the departure from the body, but departure from the world’s affairs” (St. Isaac 63). - “The soul that loves God finds rest only in God. First detach yourself from all external bonds and then you may strive to bind your heart to God, because unification with God is preceded by detachment from matter” (St. Isaac 63). • Correspondence between detachment of the world and attachment to God - “The more the mind takes leave of care for the visible and is concerned with the hope of future things…the more it is refined and becomes translucent in prayer” (St. Isaac 64). • Our first goal: inner purification - “One can bring more profit to others when one is spiritually strong and has acquired experience of the inner life. External activity is no substitute for inner depth” (Alfeyev 69). C. On Acts of Mercy • God rewards those who show mercy - “What mercy is greater than this, that when a man is moved with compassion for a fellow man and becomes a partaker in his suffering? Our Lord delivers his soul from the gloom of darkness – which is the noetic Gehenna – and brings her into the light of life” (72). • The Present At Hand - “When it is in your power to deliver the iniquitous man from evil, do not neglect to do so. I do not mean that if the affair is far removed from you, you should go and throw yourself into the work…If, however, the affair is placed directly into your hands and is within your power…then take heed to yourself” (St. Isaac 72). • Acts of mercy cleanse our soul - “A merciful man is the physician of his own soul, for as with a violent wind he drives the darkness of passion out of his inner self” (St. Isaac 73). • Three Steps to Being Able to Love Others (St. Isaac 73). - 1# - “A person withdraws himself from his neighbour for the sake of life in solitude and stillness” - 2# - “Through this he acquires an ardent love of God” - 3# - “This love gives birth in him to the ‘luminous love’ (hubba šapya) of humanity” 3. Stillness and Silence A. Stillness (šelya) • “It is standing unceasingly, silently, and prayerfully before God. It is withdrawal from every activity of word and thought in order to attain to stillness and peace of mind” (Alfeyev 77). B. Stillness is the beginning of purification • Freedom from distractions - “Stillness, as Saint Basil says, is the beginning of the soul’s purification. For when the outward members cease from their outward activity and from the distraction caused thereby, then the mind turns away from distractions and wandering thoughts that are outside its realm and abides quietly within itself, and the heart awakens for the searching out of deliberations that are within the soul” (St. Isaac 80). • Avoid the distractions and the heart is free to search for God 4. Asceticism
A. Taking up the Cross • “The path of God is a daily cross. No one has ascended into heaven by means of ease…’O struggler, taste within yourself Christ’s suffering, that you may be deemed worthy of tasting his glory. For if we suffer with him, then we are glorified with him. The intellect is not glorified with Jesus, if the body does not suffer together with Jesus” (St. Isaac 84). B. Disciplining the Body • Vigilance and Prayer - “Fasting, vigil and wakefulness in God’s service, renouncing the sweetness of sleep by crucifying the body throughout the day and night, are God’s holy pathway and the foundation of every virtue” (85). • Fasting - “Fasting is the champion of every virtue, the beginning of the struggle, the crown of the abstinent, the beauty of virginity and sanctity, the resplendence of chastity, the commencement of the path of Christianity, the mother of prayer, the well-spring of sobriety and prudence, the teacher of stillness, and the precursor of all good works” (St. Isaac 85). 5. The Movement Towards Theosis • From outward asceticism to inward contemplation of God, from silence of mouth to stillness of intellect; from solitude to union with God; from outward activity for the sake of people to the ‘luminous love of humanity’” (Alfeyev 89).