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.
BEGIN TEXT -- There are three modes by which knowledge ascends and descends. These modes are: body, soul, spirit. Knowledge is the gift of God to the nature of rational beings and was bestowed on them at their very creation. In its nature it is as simple and indivisible as sunlight, but corresponding to its application it undergoes changes and divisions. Listen to the order of this application.
This is how this knowledge conceives itself: as if it were a mental power, which secretly governs man, a kind of divine management, which watches over man and takes perfect care of him. Therefore this knowledge does not ascribe the control of the world to God's Providence; on the contrary, all that is good in man, all that saves him from harm, al that naturally protects him from difficulties and the many adversities which accompany our nature, both secretly and openly, all this appears to this knowledge to be the result of its own care and its own methods.
Such is the opinion this blasphemous knowledge has of itself. It imagines that all things happen through its own providence; and in this it is in agreement with those who asse4rt that nothing rules this world. All the same it cannot exist without constant cares and without fears for the body, and is, therefore, a prey to faintheartedness, sorrow, despair and fears: fears that come from demons, fears that come from men, rumors about robbers, rumors about murders, worries brought by sickness, by want and lack of the necessities of life, fear of death, fear of sufferings and wild beasts, and of other similar things -- all of which make this knowledge like a turbulent sea, on which sailors spend day and night, with no respite from attacks and buffetings by waves from every side.
Since this knowledge is incapable of placing all care of itself on God, through faith and trust in Him, it is constantly occupied in evolving and inventing various contrivances concerned with itself. But when these contrivances happen to fail in some case, it does not see in this the mysterious hand of Providence, and begins to quarrel with people, who resist or oppose it. In this respect, there is implanted in this knowledge the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree which uproots love. Its qualities are pride and arrogance. It is puffed up, while yet it walks in darkness, it values what it has by earthly standards, and does not know that there is something better than itself.
But even here knowledge is still material and multiple. It contains only the way which leads and speeds us towards faith. There is yet a higher degree of knowledge. Should a man achieve success in his work, with Christ's help it will be possible for him to be raised to that third degree, if he has laid the foundation of his activity on silent withdrawal from people, reading the Scriptures, prayer and other good works, by which are achieved all that relates to the second knowledge. It is by this knowledge that all that is most beautiful is performed; indeed it is called the knowledge of actions, because by sensory actions, through the sense of the body, it does its work on the external level.
Then it can soar on wings to the realms of the incorporeal and touch the depths of the intangible sea, representing to the mind the wondrous workings of the Divine rule in the natures of incorporeal and sensory creatures; (it can) search out the spiritual mysteries, accessible to a fine and simple mind. Then the inner senses awake for spiritual doing, according to the order which will prevail in the immortal and incorruptible life; for then it has, as it were, undergone a spiritual resurrection even in this world, as a true token of the general resurrection. END TEXT.
from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 192 - 19