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, May 1, 2013

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


In this issue, 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 continue to these texts over the next several issues.

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DIRECTIONS ON SPIRITUAL TRAINING
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With Great Lent now underway, we will take a close look at St. Isaac's teachings on fasting and bodily discipline as the path to spiritual growth. The Desert Fathers and the Church have enjoined all of us to fast during the period leading up to the Feast of the Resurrection, but not necessarily to the same degree for all people. St. Isaac teaches us today the basis for fasting and why it is important for all Christians, but especially for monks:

BEGIN:

-- The practices of a monk are the following: freedom from things of the flesh, labor of the body in prayers and constant memory of God in the heart.

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PRAYER AND CONTEMPLATION
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-- Prayer is one thing, and contemplation in prayer is another, although prayer and contemplation mutually engender one another. Prayer is sowing, contemplation the reaping of the harvest, when the reaper is filled with wonder at the ineffable sight of the beautiful ears of corn, which have sprung up before him from the little naked seeds that he sowed.

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THE ULTIMATE WEAPON -- FASTING
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-- The Savior began the work of our salvation with fasting. In the same way all those, who follow in the footsteps of the Savior, build on this foundation the beginning of their endeavor, since fasting is a weapon established by God. Who will escape blame if he neglects this? If the Lawgiver Himself fasts, how can any of those, who have to obey the law, be exempt from fasting? This is why the human race knew no victory before fasting, and the devil was never defeated by our nature as it is: but this weapon has indeed deprived the devil of strength from the outset. Our Lord was the Leader and the first example of this victory, in order to place the first crown of victory on the head of our nature. As soon as the devil sees some one possessed of this weapon, fear straightway falls on this adversary and tormentor of ours, who remembers and thinks of his defeat by the Savior in the wilderness; his strength is at once destroyed and the sight of the weapon, given us by our Supreme Leader, burns him up. A man armed with the weapon of fasting is always afire with zeal. He who remains therein, keeps his mind steadfast and ready to meet and repel all violent passions.

-- Works and deeds gain passionlessness for the soul, mortify the "members which are upon the earth" (Colossians 3:5) and give quietness from thoughts, when we acquire silence, and when the turmoil produced by impressions from the outer senses ceases in the soul. Otherwise success in this is not possible. For, if a tree is watered every day, can its root ever wither? Does water ever get less in a vessel if more is added daily? But when a man gains silence, his soul readily discerns passions, and the inner man, roused to spiritual work, overcomes them and, from day to day, lifts the soul nearer to purity.

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THE ATTAINMENT OF PURITY
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-- How can one say that a man has attained purity? When he sees all men as being good, and when none appears to him to be unclean and defiled, then he is indeed pure in heart.

-- Blessed are the pure in heart, for there is no time when they do not rejoice in the sweetness of tears -- in which too they see the Lord at all times. While tears are still wet in their eyes, they are granted a sight of His revelations at the height of their prayer; and no prayer of theirs is without tears. This is the meaning of the Lord's saying: "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). For if, with the help of tears, a monk has succeeded in crossing the realm of passions and entering the plain of purity of soul, he meets with the comfort which God grants for their purity to those that mourn. To mourn and shed tears is a gift of the passionless. If the tears of a man, who for a time weeps and mourns, can not only lead him to passionlessness, but even completely free and cleanse his mind of all memory of passions, what can be said of those who day and night exercise themselves in this doing with knowledge?

-- One of the saints said that a body is greatly burdened by the sufferings of silence, endures privations and want, and comes near to losing its life, it is natural for it to implore you and say: "Give me a little freedom to live decently; I now walk righteously, for I have been tried by all kinds of bitter sufferings." But as soon as you take pity on it and give it some small rest from sufferings it begins little by little to cajole you (and its cajolings are very powerful) by whispering: "We can live as we should even close to the world, by following the same rules which guide us now, since we have been well tried. Put me to the test, and if I am not as you wish, we can always go back. The wilderness will not run away." Do not trust it, however hard it implores you and whatever promises it makes. It will not do as it says. If you grant its request it will cast you into great downfalls, and you will not be able to rise up from them again. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 188 - 191