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, May 5, 2013

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


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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Today's teachings from St. Isaac concern the "three degrees of knowledge." Today we will look at what these degrees are and how they are manifested, and next week we will examine their effects on the believer:

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.

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THE FIRST DEGREE OF KNOWLEDGE -- DESIRES OF THE FLESH
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-- The first degree of knowledge. When knowledge follows desires of the flesh, it embraces the following modes: wealth, vainglory, adornment, bodily comfort, care for book-learning, such as is suitable in the administration of this world and producing new things through inventions, arts and sciences, and all the other things which crown the body in this visible world. Because of these distinctive features knowledge becomes opposed to faith. It is called naked knowledge, for it excludes all concern for God, owing to the preponderance of the body, introduces into the mind an irrational impotence and limits all its concern to this world alone.

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.

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THE SECOND DEGREE OF KNOWLEDGE -- DESIRES OF THE SOUL 
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-- The second degree of knowledge: When a man renounces the first degree, he becomes occupied with thoughts and desires of the soul; then, in the light of the nature of his soul, he practices the following excellent deeds: fasting, prayer, alms, reading of the Divine Scriptures, virtuous life, struggle with passions and so on. For all the good deeds, all the excellent features seen in the soul and the wonderful means used for serving in the house of Christ in this second degree of knowledge are the work of the Holy Spirit, Who lends power to its action. At the same time this knowledge also shows to the heart the ways which lead us to faith, and collects in it what is useful for the journey into true life.

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.

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THE THIRD DEGREE OF KNOWLEDGE -- DESIRES OF THE SPIRIT 
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-- The third degree of knowledge is the degree of perfection. Hear now how a man becomes finer, acquires that which is of the spirit, and in his life comes to resemble the invisible powers, which perform their service not through sensory actions but through vigilance of mind. When knowledge soars above earthly things and the cares of earthly activities, when it begins to experience thoughts belonging to what is within and hidden from the eyes, when it surges upwards and follows faith in its solicitude for the life to come, in its desire for what was promised us, and in searching deeply into the mysteries that are hidden; then faith itself absorbs this knowledge, is transformed and begets it anew, so that this knowledge becomes all spirit.

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