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 8, 2013

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


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." Last week we looked at what these degrees are and how they are manifested; this week we will examine their effects on the believer:

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THE THREE MODES OF KNOWLEDGE
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BEGIN TEXT -- These are the three modes of knowledge. From the time a man begins to distinguish good from evil, and until he leaves this world, the knowledge of his soul remains within these three degrees. The fullness of all wrong and impiety, and the fullness of righteousness, and the probing of all the depths of the mysteries of the spirit, all these are produced by one single knowledge in these three degrees; in it is contained every movement of the mind, whether it ascends or descends, in good, in evil, or in something between the two. These three degrees are called by the fathers: natural, contranatural and supranatural knowledge. They are the three directions along which the memory of a rational soul travels up and down, either when, as has been said, a man acts rightly from his own nature, or when by memory he is ravished on high, above his nature, in supranatural contemplation of God, or when he goes out to herd swine, having squandered the riches of good judgment, slaving with a multitude of demons.

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HOW DIFFERENT DEGREES OF KNOWLEDGE AFFECT THE SOUL
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-- The first degree of knowledge renders the soul cold towards efforts to walk according to God. The second warms the soul, hastening its progress towards that which is on the level of faith. The third is rest from activity, enjoying the mysteries of the future life, in a single striving of mind. But since our being is as yet unable entirely to transcend its state of lifelessness and the burden of the flesh, so, while a man lives in the body, he remains in a constant state of changing from one to another. Now, like a miserable beggar, his soul begins its service in the second, the middle degree of virtue; now, like those who have received the spirit of sonship in the mystery of liberation, he rejoices in the quality of spiritual grace which corresponds to its Giver; then again he returns to his humble works performed with the help of the body. For there is no perfect freedom in this imperfect life.

-- In the second degree, the work of knowledge consists in long- drawn exercise and labor. Work in the third degree is the doing of faith, performed not through actions, but through spiritual representations in the mind, in an activity which is purely of the soul, since it transcends the senses. By faith we mean not faith in relation to the distinctions of the Divine Hypostases we worship, or the miracle of dispensation through Incarnation in man's nature, although this faith is also very lofty; we mean that faith, which is kindled in the soul from the light of grace and which fortifies the heart by testimony of the mind, giving it the certainty of hope which is free from all doubt. This faith manifests itself not through increased hearing fo the ears, but thropugh spiritual eyes, which see the mysteries hidden in the soul, that invisible Divine treasure, which is hidden from the sight of sons of the flesh and is revealed by the Spirit to those who receive their food from Christ's table and learn His laws. As the Lord said: if ye keep my commandments, I will send you a Comforter, "even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive . . . he shall teach you all things" (John 14:17, 26). END TEXT

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 195 - 196