The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

ST. ISAAC OF SYRIA - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part I

In this issue, we will begin a new study on the teachings of St. Isaac of Syria who left us with extensive teachings on the spiritual life. St. Isaac was born in Nineveh. We know nothing of his childhood except that he and his brother took up the monastic life early on, entering the Monastery of St. Matthew. St. Isaac soon developed a desire for the solitary life, departing the monastery and settling far away from his monastic community in a lonely cell where he was able to devote himself fully to God. St. Isaac's brother, who had since become abbot of the monastery, begged him to return to the communal life, but Isaac refused even to make a short visit.

St. Isaac was soon called by God to rule over the Church in Nineveh. Although he ruled well as a bishop, affairs in the church there soon convinced him that he could not serve as a bishop. He retired again to his blessed solitude where he remained for the rest of his life. The writings St. Isaac produced in his solitary life have served the Church and the faithful well for some fourteen centuries (he died at the end of the sixth century), certainly a greater service to the faithful than he would have provided had he remained in the world as a bishop. He wrote from experience and guided those who came to him on the basis of his own activity. St. Isaac taught from practice, not from theory.

These teachings came down to us in Syriac and Arabic. About half of them have been translated into Greek and then into Russian. We will study some of these texts over the next several issues.


-- Fear of God is the beginning of virtue; it is the offspring of faith and is sown in the heart, when the mind is withdrawn from worldly distractions in order to collect its wandering thoughts into meditation about the future restoration.

-- The beginning of the path of life is always to be instructing one's mind in the Words of God and to spend one's life in poverty. Filling oneself with the one helps to gain perfection in the other. If you fill yourself with study of the Words of God, this helps toward progress in poverty; and progress in non- acquisitiveness gives you leisure to make progress in study of the Words of God. So the two combine to help the speedy building of the whole edifice of virtues.

-- No one can approach God without withdrawing from the world. By withdrawal I do not mean change of physical dwelling place, but withdrawal from worldly affairs. The virtue of withdrawal from the world consists in not occupying your mind with the world.


-- To drive away the wrong tendencies previously acquired by the soul, nothing is more helpful than immersing oneself in love of studying the Divine Scriptures, and understanding the depths of the thoughts they contain. When thoughts become immersed in the delight of fathoming the hidden wisdom of the words, a man leaves the world behind and forgets all that is therein, in proportion to the enlightenment he draws from the words. But even when the mind floats only on the surface of the waters of the Divine Scriptures and cannot penetrate to the very depths of the thoughts contained therein, even then the very fact that he is occupied with zeal to understand the Scriptures is enough firmly to pinion his thoughts in ideas of the miraculous alone, and to prevent them from seeking after the material and the carnal.

-- In everything you meet with in the Scriptures, strive to find the purpose of the word, to penetrate into the depth of the thought of the saints and to understand it more exactly. Those whose life is guided by Divine grace towards enlightenment, always feel as though some inner ray of light travels over the written lines and allows the mind to discern from the bare words what is said with great thought for the instruction of the soul.

-- If a man reads lines of great meaning without going deeply into them, his heart remains poor (it gets no food); and the holy force which, through wondrous understanding of the soul, gives most sweet food to the heart, grows dim in him.

-- Each thing is usually attracted to its like. So the soul, being endowed with the spirit, ardently attracts to itself the content of a saying, as soon as it hears words which contain hidden spiritual force. Not every man is moved to wonder by what is said spiritually and possesses great spiritual force concealed in it. Words which speak of virtue require a heart not occupied with the earth; and in a man whose mind is burdened with temporal cares, virtue does not awake thought to love it and seek to possess it.

-- Do you wish to commune with God in your mind? Strive to be merciful. To the spiritual love which imprints the invisible image (of God in oneself), there is no other path than that a man should first of all begin to be merciful in the measure that our heavenly Father is merciful, as the Lord said (Luke 6:36). END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 183 - 185