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)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

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


We will continue our study of 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.

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DIRECTIONS ON SPIRITUAL TRAINING
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BEGIN:

-- Always keep in mind the grievous afflictions of those stricken with sorrow and tribulations, that you may render due thanks for the small and insignificant adversities, which may happen to you, and be able to bear them with joy.

-- In times of cooling and laziness, imagine in your heart those past times when you were full of zeal and solicitude in all things, even the smallest; remember your past efforts and the energy with which you opposed those who wised to obstruct your progress. These recollections will reawaken your soul from its deep sleep, will invest it anew with the fire of zeal, will raise it, as it were, from the dead and will make it engage in an ardent struggle against the devil and sin, thus returning to its former rank.

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THE ACTIVITY OF BEARING ONE'S CROSS
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-- The activity of cross-bearing is of two kinds: one consists in enduring bodily afflictions (bodily privations, inevitable in struggling with passions), and is called activity proper; the other consists in subtle doing of the mind, meditation on God, abiding in prayer, and so on, and is called contemplation. The first purifies the passionate part of the soul, the other brings light to its mental part. Every man who, before perfecting his training in the first activity, passes to the second, being attracted to its delights, not to speak of his own laziness, becomes overtaken by wrath for not having first mortified his 'members which are upon the earth' (Colossians 3:5), that is, for not having overcome the impotence of thoughts by patient exercise in the activity of bearing the cross, and for presuming to let his mind dream of the cross's glory. This is the meaning of the saying of the saints of old that, if a man's mind conceives an intention to climb on to the cross, before his senses are cured of their sickness and have achieved a state of serenity, he is overtaken by the wrath of God. A man whose mind is defiled by shameful passions, who is quick to fill it with fantasies, has an interdiction set on his lips, because, without first purifying his mind by suffering, without conquering carnal lusts, he puts his trust on what his ear has heard and what is written in ink, and has forged ahead on a part shrouded in darkness, when his eyes are blind.

-- Imagine virtue as the body, contemplation as the soul, and the two together as forming one perfect man, whose two parts -- the senses and the mind -- are made one by the spirit. Just as it is impossible for a soul to manifest its being before the forming of the body, with its members, has been completed; so too is it impossible for a soul to reach contemplation without active work in virtue.

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WITHDRAWING FROM THE WORLD - THE 'WORLD' OF PASSIONS
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-- When you hear that it is necessary to withdraw from the world, to leave the world, to purify yourself from all that belongs to the world, you must first learn and understand the term 'world,' not in its everyday meaning, but in its purely inward significance. When you understand what it means and the different things that this term includes, you will be able to learn about your soul -- how far removed it is from the world and what is mixed with it that is of the world. 'World' is a collective name, embracing what are called passions. When we want to speak of passions collectively, we call them 'the world'; when we want to distinguish between them according to their different names, we call them passions.

-- When you have learned what the world means, then, by discerning all that is implied in this term, you will also learn what ties you to the world and in what you are freed from it. I will say, more briefly, that the world is carnal life and minding of the flesh. Therefore a man is seen to be free of the world inasmuch as he has wrenched himself free of this. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 186 - 187