Metr. Hilarion (Alfeyev), “The Spiritual World of St. Isaac of Syria” (2002)


In 1987, a young man, fresh from military service, entered a small monastery, located in the center of a city on the Baltic Sea… In this monastery, long services were held every day and the Lives of Saints were read aloud at mealtime — in other words, there was every attribute of monastic life except one: there was no spiritual mentor to attend to the education of the monks and novices. It was therefore necessary to look for guidance in the books of the Holy Fathers and the ascetics of the ancient Church.
The young man read the works of St. Isaac of Syria every day and took notes. He decided to write several quotes that had particularly impressed him on the wall of his cell, so that he might always have them before his eyes. Gradually he added other quotes. Within one year, every wall of the cell was completely covered in fragments from St. Isaac. His words were the daily bread without which the novice could not get through a single day.

Metr. Hilarion, indirectly describing himself (273)

Today, February 10th (January 28th according to the Julian calendar), the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of St. Isaac of Syria, a revered ascetic writer and philosopher from the 7th century. In all of this time, his writings have only grown in stature, serving as a spiritual manual for generations of priests, monks and laymen — an unlikely journey for the legendary Middle Eastern recluse, who valued his solitude so much that he fled to the desert after being offered a bishopric, and who certainly never imagined that world in distant 2020 where, improbably, there is still a grateful audience for him.

St. Isaac lived on the periphery of the Christian world. All that we know about his biography comes from “‘The Book of Chastity’ by the 9th-century eastern Syrian historian Isho’dnah, Bishop of Basra, which contains brief vitae of famous ascetics of the Persian Church, and a western Syrian source whose time and place of writing are unknown.” (Hilarion, 19). However, the entirety of what Isho’dnah had to say about St. Isaac fits into a single page — most of what we can get out of it is that St. Isaac lived on the territory of present-day Iraq and Iran, and, by cross-referencing the name of the patriarch who unsuccessfully ordained him Bishop of Nineveh, we can also narrow down the time frame to the end of the 7th century. By then, this region had been cut off from the rest of the Christian world, and its political and intellectual centers in Rome and Constantinople, as a result of the Muslim conquest of Persia. In fact, formally, St. Isaac never belonged to the Orthodox Church. His denomination, which is now commonly called the “Church of the East,” had already drifted away from Byzantine influence as early as the 5th century.

peshittaThe twelve apostles, as illustrated in a Syrian Bible
used by the Church of the East.

The early history of Christianity, up to the 8th century, can also be seen as the history of heresy. It is a chronicle of an arduous effort by many generations of theologians to develop some sort of coherent, internally consistent explanation of who Jesus Christ really was, and by extension, of the nature of God Himself; along the way, many otherwise pious and well-intentioned men fell away from the faith or (in the case of those who went too far into Platonism) lost it entirely. In a way, such an effort is intrinsically impossible to complete, because eventually it has to face those aspects of God that cannot be explained — and, in fact, that was exactly the conclusion that it reached. For example, according to Orthodox dogma in its final form, Jesus Christ is simultaneously human and Divine (fully human and at the same time fully Divine), and, according to the 4th Ecumenical Council held in 451 AD in Chalcedon, these two natures are present in Him “without mixture, without change, without division, without separation.” This formulation is very precise and at once completely contradictory: Christ’s humanity is not separated from His Divinity, but also not combined with it, and all that we can say about it for certain is what it is not, and not what it is. In a certain sense, this assertion admits the impossibility of understanding the nature of God through purely rational instruments. But that is also exactly why it was adopted as dogma — in order to truly believe, one must first freely accept the limitations of reason, and true dogma should something that can never be proved logically.

All of the great heresies can be seen as attempts to solve these fundamentally irreconcilable logical contradictions using simple, neat rational constructs. The first such heresy was Arianism (3rd century AD), which held that the Son of God was created by God, and therefore is not fully Divine; such an assertion is far easier to grasp than the complicated Chalcedonian formulation, but, unfortunately, also leaves no place for God’s love and self-sacrifice, which it delegates to a subordinate being. (Peculiarly, present-day “spiritual seekers,” who prefer to see Jesus as “a great spiritual teacher” without any divine authority, have come full circle to a vulgarized form of Arianism.) As the years went on, the heresies also became more sophisticated; in particular, the Church of the East took the side of one Nestorius, who at one point was Patriarch of Constantinople, but who was condemned at the 3rd Ecumenical Council for offering an overly dualistic interpretation of Christ, i.e., that the human and Divine natures of Christ existed separately (the Chalcedonian phrases “without division, without separation” were intended as a repudiation of Nestorianism).


Perhaps this seems like very fine hair-splitting (and, very likely, political concerns had just as much to do with the break between Churches as theological ones), but it goes to show St. Isaac’s unique position among Orthodox saints. As Metr. Hilarion’s book shows, St. Isaac never openly dissented from the official stance of his church, although “it seems to us that nothing explicitly Nestorian can be found in his Christology [either]” (Hilarion, 48). In his writings, St. Isaac frequently cites non-Chalcedonian thinkers such as Theodore of Mopsuestia (a major influence on Nestorius) and Evagrius the Solitary (anathematized in 553 AD), although the content of these particular citations is for the most part non-Nestorian and uncontroversial. The medieval monks who translated St. Isaac into Greek came up with an elegant work-around for this issue: they kept most of these quotes, but simply re-attributed them to various Orthodox Fathers, such as St. Gregory the Theologian. In other words, Byzantine clergy strongly rejected Nestorianism and many major thinkers associated with it, and yet for some reason gave St. Isaac the exact opposite reception, going to great pains to scrub all references to Nestorianism from his work in order to free him from this association.

The work in question is classified into two “volumes.” The first volume has a long history, having been translated into Greek in the 9th or 10th century; this Greek text was then translated into Latin and subsequently various European languages. It was hugely influential on Orthodox monastic thinking; Metr. Hilarion notes that St. Isaac “is one of the most-read authors at Holy Mt. Athos” (273), and he was also greatly revered in Russia. He is referenced twice in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, both times in a very striking way:

When, two weeks later, the baby died of illness, Grigory placed his body in the little coffin himself, looked upon it with deep grief, and when they were filling the shallow little grave with earth, he stood on his knees and deeply bowed before it. Since then, for many years he never once mentioned his child…[his wife] noticed that, from that time, he occupied himself mainly with ‘the divine,’ read the Menaion, mainly alone and in silence, each time wearing his large round silver eyeglasses. He rarely read out loud, maybe during Great Lent. He loved the Book of Job, and obtained from somewhere a collection of texts and sermons by ‘our God-bearing father Isaac of Syria,’ read it persistently for many years, understood almost nothing in it, but perhaps for that reason valued and loved this book above all others.

from The Brothers Karamazov (Book 3, Chapter I)

‘You were so daring then, ‘all is permitted,’ so you said, and now you are so frightened!’ Smerdyakov babbled in surprise. ‘Maybe you’d like some lemonade, I can ask for it. It can be so refreshing. But we should probably cover this first.’ And he again nodded at the packs [of money]. He moved to stand up…but, looking for something with which to cover the money…took from the table the sole book that had been lying on it, the thick yellow one that Ivan had noticed when he came in, and placed it on top of the money. The title of the book was: ‘The words of our Holy Father Isaac of Syria.’ Ivan had time to mechanically read the heading.”

from The Brothers Karamazov (Book 11, Chapter VIII)

(Anyone who has read The Brothers Karamazov remembers the latter scene. It will soon become clear why Dostoevsky chose to mention St. Isaac of Syria specifically.)

estrangelaPages from Bodleian MS syr. e. 7.
(Photograph in the 2nd ed. of Metr. Hilarion’s book.)

The second volume, on the other hand, was largely unknown to the Orthodox world until very recently. “Scholars knew that the second volume existed since the time of [Paul] Bedjan [A Catholic scholar and historian working around the turn of the 20th century. -FL], who published fragments from it based on a manuscript, later lost (in 1918). However, in 1983, Prof. Sebastian Brock discovered, in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, another manuscript that contained the full text of the second volume and could be dated around the 10th or 11th century.” (Hilarion, 37) The manuscript in question, designated as “Bodleian MS syr. e. 7” in the Oxford archives, “originates from the monastery of mar Abdisho and belonged to rabban Isho from the village of Beth. The manuscript is written in eastern Syrian Estrangela…[and] was acquired by the Bodleian Library at Oxford in 1898…[it] has been preserved almost entirely, except for the first and last leaves (the text in the beginning and ending of the manuscript has been damaged). The final page has an inscription which begins with the words: ‘With the help of God and thanks to the grace of Jesus Christ, the second volume of mar Isaac, bishop of Nineveh, is finished. It has been copied by a man sinful and insignificant, who was devoid of righteousness and succeeded only in evil, named Markos…'” (37-38n) The sensational practice of “finding” long-lost medieval manuscripts is quite dubious, but, to be fair, they often take the form of collections of disjoint texts that happened to have been accessible to the scribe at the time, rather than individual published “books.” Many such objects were acquired in bulk, simply assigned a catalog number and left to gather dust in university archives; there may be no detailed understanding of what is actually in them for many years, until a dedicated scholar comes along. In any case, however, the Bodleian manuscript is not the sole source for St. Isaac’s second volume. Metr. Hilarion lists (39n) nine such sources:

  1. Bodleian [MS] syr. e. 7 (see above).
  2. Paris syr. 298. A manuscript dated around the 12-13th centuries, written in Estrangela, consisting of 115 leaves, although a significant portion of the leaves has been lost. The surviving leaves contain fragments of the ‘Chapters of Knowledge’ and Conversations 10.30-39.10 from the 2nd volume. The manuscript is kept in the National Library of France.
  3. Harvard syr. 57. This manuscript, consisting of 59 damaged leaves, is missing the beginning and ending. What survives is a fragment of the ‘Chapters of Knowledge’ and parts of Conversations 3-20 from the 2nd volume. The manuscript is kept at Harvard University.
  4. Tehran, Issayi collection, MS 4. This manuscript, written in eastern Syrian script, contains virtually the entire text of the 2nd volume. As the inscription on the final leaf indicates, the manuscript had been copied at the end of the 19th century…and is a precise copy [of Bodleian MS syr. e. 7]. Until recently, the manuscript was kept in the library of the Chaldean Archbishop of Tehran, mar Yuhannan Issayi, and we were able to see it and make a photocopy in 1997, shortly before his death. At the present time, the location of this manuscript is unknown.
  5. Baghdad, Chaldean monastery, syr. 680. The manuscript, dated to the 13th century and originating from the monastery of rabban Hormizd (not far from Alqosh), contains Conversations 7, 9, 34, 18 (partially), 35, 36, 37 and 15 (partially) from the 2nd volume. The manuscript is kept in the Chaldean monastery of the Most Holy Theotokos in Iraq.
  6. Vatican syr. 509. The manuscript is a copy of the aforementioned manuscript no. 5, dated 1928 and located in the Vatican library.
  7. Birmingham, Selly Oak Colleges Library, Minghana syr. 601. The manuscript is a copy of the aforementioned manuscript no. 5, dated 1932 and kept by the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham in their collection of Syrian manuscripts (A. Minghana collection).
  8. Birmingham, Selly Oak Colleges Library, Minghana syr. 86. An anthology of monastic texts, written around the 13th century, containing fragments of Conversations 14 and 20, as well as Conversations 25 and 26 from the 2nd volume. The manuscript is kept [in the same place as no. 7.]
  9. Tehran, Issayi collection, MS 5. This manuscript, completed around 1900, contains 133 pages written in eastern Syrian script. The title of the text and the inscription at the end both indicate that the manuscript contains ‘the third volume of mar Isaac.’ Among the seventeen Conversations ascribed to Isaac by it, the only ones that are already known are Conversations 14-15 (corresponding to Homilies 22 and 40 from the 1st volume) and 17 (corresponding to Conversation 26 from the 2nd volume). Thus, this is the only known manuscript containing the ‘third volume’ by St. Isaac of Syria. Until recently, the manuscript was kept in the library of the Chaldean Archbishop of Tehran, mar Yuhannan Issayi, but after his death its location is no longer known. A photocopy of the manuscript is in our possession.

scriptorumBrock’s translation of the 2nd volume.

Looking at this, you can see what it is like to study early Christian history, how little is actually known or can be verified about it, and how fragmentary the sources can be. In fact, even though there are multiple sources for this text, this alone does not prove that it was truly written by St. Isaac, and we will see later that there are some doubts in this regard; but, even if all of the sources are genuine, it doesn’t mean that you may freely go and study them. Indeed, even if Sebastian Brock just happened to stumble across a nearly-complete copy of St. Isaac’s elusive second volume, this happened nearly 40 years ago, and to this day it is not that easy to actually access Brock’s translation of this text, to say nothing of the original manuscript that he studied. The most complete version of St. Isaac’s second volume (in English) was published in 1995 by the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, vols. 554-555) and has to be specially ordered from their printing office for 40 euros a copy, but even this publication only includes about half of the extant text, namely Conversations 4-41; according to Metr. Hilarion, “Among 41 Conversations included in the 2nd volume, approximately half of the length is taken up by Conversation 3, which in turn contains 400 chapters under the heading ‘Chapters of Knowledge.'” (43) The first three Conversations were instead translated into Italian by a different scholar and, for some reason, only published in that language. Due to the obscurity and incompleteness of these publications, the Western Christian world has basically had no opportunity to seriously study them or discuss their significance.


Which brings us to Metr. Hilarion’s own book, and its author. Hilarion (Alfeyev), now one of the most influential hierarchs in the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church, was part of the new generation of monastics that took the tonsure in the late 1980s and found themselves at the forefront of the Orthodox revival in Russia in the early 1990s. He earned a Ph.D. in theology at Oxford in 1995, where he worked with Sebastian Brock and had first-hand access to the aforementioned manuscript — perhaps that was his main reason to go to Oxford in the first place. He translated a significant portion of the second volume into Russian, which has now been made publicly available to Russian readers. Around the same time, he wrote The Spiritual World of St. Isaac of Syria, which provides a much more concise introduction to St. Isaac’s thought and summarizes the state of scholarship on the topic. In 2013, he organized an international conference in Moscow, with published proceedings, on the subject of “St. Isaac of Syria and his spiritual legacy,” where Brock was an invited speaker. Overall, it is fair to call Metr. Hilarion a leading expert on St. Isaac — apparently he even photocopied some mysterious “third volume,” which is otherwise virtually unknown. (The conference proceedings, which came out later, do mention that it has now been translated into Italian.)

But then, we’re not archaeologists; we’re just trying to understand what this is all about.

SONY DSCFirst page of St. Isaac’s first volume.
14th-century Russian manuscript.

Aspiring monks throughout the ages loved St. Isaac for his rigorous asceticism. His thoughts on this subject are quite similar to those of other Desert Fathers, especially St. John Climacus; many parts of St. Isaac’s first volume recall The Ladder of Divine Ascent, for example this passage on the importance of fasting:

Just as all evil begins with the gratification of the belly and with the relaxation of sleep, which kindles the lust for fornication — so does the holy way of God begin with fasting, the foundation of all virtues. Service to God consists of wakefulness and vigil, of the crucifixion of the body all day and all night, of opposition to the sweetness of sleep. Fasting is the protection of all virtue, the beginning of ascetic feats, the crown of sanctity, the light of chastity, the beginning of the Christian way, the mother of prayer, the source of chastity and wisdom, the teacher of silence, the precursor of all good works. Just as healthy eyes desire light, so does the fast, when kept judiciously, bring about the desire for prayer.

first volume, Homily 21

Also highly reminiscent of St. John Climacus is the following classification (first volume, Homily 4) of the subtle movements of the mind — thoughts that seemingly appear out of nowhere:

The movement of thought in the human mind arises from four causes: first, from the fleshly lust of our nature; second, from sensuous images of worldly objects, which one sees and hears about; third, from existing preconceptions and impressions, and from the inclinations of the soul that one keeps in one’s mind; fourth, from the actions of demons, who make war against us, drawing us into the passions… That is why all men, as long as they live in the flesh, even up to the moment of death, cannot avoid temptation and struggle.”

first volume, Homily 4

At the same time, St. Isaac’s psychological analysis does not have the same exacting precision, or the same level of detail, as St. John’s. It makes sense: the Ladder is intended in large part for monastic mentors (the last chapter is explicitly addressed to a “pastor”), who must be able to discern their spiritual children’s movements of soul, often based on unclear or contradictory outward appearances, and identify their underlying causes. But St. Isaac was a hermit writing for other hermits; he clearly viewed communal monastic living as being inferior to solitary prayer, and openly exhorted his readers (who, he believed, would be monks) to seek silence and flee from all contact with other human beings. Both the first and second volume are quite consistent in that regard:

How evil it is for the silent [monk] to see other people and converse with them! …As the powerful ice dries and destroys the tree buds when it suddenly covers them, so does any encounter with people, even if it is only momentary and intended (so it seems) for some good purpose, desiccate the flowers of virtue, which have just begun to blossom under the quiet wind of silence, and which tenderly and abundantly cover the tree of one’s soul, planted ‘by the rivers of water’ of repentance. And just as the powerful frost covers and scorches the plants that have just sprouted from the earth, so does conversation with others scorch the roots of the mind, from which the stems of virtue have just begun to sprout. And if it is harmful to speak with those who are temperate in some ways, and have only minor flaws, then it is much more harmful to converse with those who are ignorant and foolish.”

first volume, Homily 69 (Hilarion, 86)


Anyone who has…obtained the pursuit of God, upon having [become a monk], should not remain in a [monastic] community for long, nor spend much time with others. But as soon as he obtains knowledge of life among the brothers, of the monastic mantle and the humility proper to it, let him separate himself and remain alone in his cell, so as not to become accustomed to many people, and so that the simplicity of his initial condition does not turn into hypocrisy due to constant interaction with those wanton brothers that can be found among us. For I have seen many who were pure, at the beginning of their withdrawal from the world, when they first came to a monastery; but, over time, because of their long sojourn in the community, they became hypocritical and wily, and that simplicity was no longer in them. Thus, speak only with your elder, one who has proved himself with good conduct and knowledge of silence, and only converse with him, be instructed by him, learn from him the way of silent life.”

second volume, “Chapters of Knowledge” (Hilarion, 84)

St. Isaac’s understanding of “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life” is very literal. At one point (first volume, Homily 23) he explicitly says, “The commandment to love your neighbor is contained in [silence]. Do you wish to follow the commandment of the Gospel by acquiring love for your neighbor in your soul? Separate yourself from him, and then the flame of love for him will be kindled in you, and you will rejoice when you see him, as if you had seen an Angel of light.” He places solitude and prayer above any tangible works; to him, charity “is the work of laymen, and if it is the work of monks, then imperfect ones, who do not remain in silence” (first volume, Homily 13). For the true monk, life should consist only of repentance, tears, and prayer for the world.

Learn to love silence above all else, because it brings you closer to the fruit [of your labors]. Words are powerless to describe it. First let us compel ourselves to be silent, and then silence will give birth to something within us that will bring us to silence itself…As we practice this work, over time a certain sweetness is born and compels the body to remain in silence. And many tears issue from us in this life, and in wondrous contemplation the heart perceives different things in them — sometimes with difficulty, and other times with surprise, because the heart is reduced, becomes as an infant, and when it begins its prayer, tears come forth. Great is the man who, through the patience of his body, has acquired this wondrous ability within his soul. When you place all the works of [monastic] life on one side, and silence on the other, you will find that it outweighs everything else on the scale.”

first volume, Homily 41

stsephraimandisaacSts. Ephraim and Isaac of Syria
(commemorated on the same day).

The experience of tears is a central theme in St. Isaac’s writing. In Homily 21 of the first volume, he is asked, “What are the precise indications and close signs, by which one might feel that one has begun to see the [spiritual] fruit, hidden in his soul?” (In other words, “How can I know that I am making progress?”) St. Isaac replies, “When one is honored with the blessing of many tears, which flow without compulsion, because tears serve as a certain boundary between bodily and spiritual things, between the passionate condition and purity. Until one accepts this gift, all his works still take place only in the outward man, and he has felt nothing of the potency of the mysteries of the spiritual man. For, as soon as one begins to abandon the body of the present age, and finds oneself having crossed the boundary of what is contained in our nature, then one soon attains this blessing of tears. And these tears…lead one up to the perfection of God’s love.” (Hilarion, 140) Sometimes, tears are a kind of reward, bringing joy to the monk: “When the memory of God has arisen in [the monk’s] mind, then his heart immediately stirs with love for God, and his eyes abundantly issue tears. For it is proper for love to shed tears through the memory of what it loves.” (142) But, often, tears are a reflection of the monk’s sorrow and feelings of abandonment. According to St. Isaac, an inevitable and especially difficult challenge of monastic life is the feeling of being abandoned by God:

At all times and at all steps of ascetic life, help and weakness are alternately present in [one’s mind]. It can be that, on the inside, storms gather and rage against chastity; it can be that joy is replaced by despondency. At times, one experiences luminous and joyful states, but suddenly storm clouds and darkness appear again… Such are the changes experienced by one who remains in service to God. Sometimes he feels that he is being helped by Divine power, which suddenly appears in his mind; other times, he experiences the opposite feeling, the purpose of which is to make him understand the weakness of his nature, how weak it is, how powerless, how unwise and infantile…

second volume, Conversation 9 (Hilarion, 112-113)

Perhaps this is where St. Isaac’s psychological understanding reaches its greatest depth. Instead of studying the subtle influence of sin on the human mind (as does St. John Climacus), he prefers to focus on the emotional state of the monk who is sincerely doing his best, but for whom God still seems to be out of reach. Indeed, he writes (first volume, Homily 45), “Not all passions make their attack in the form of tempting thoughts. For there are also passions that show only sorrows to the soul: sloth, despair, grief do not attack with tempting thoughts and delights, but only impose a heavy burden on the soul.” To the person suffering from these sorrows, St. Isaac speaks with understanding and reassurance, promising that it will not last long and offering practical advice: “During such times of temptation, when one’s mind is so clouded, he should fall upon his face in prayer, and not stand up until strength and light come to his aid from Heaven, supporting his heart in undoubted faith.” (Hilarion, 116) If that fails —

If you lack the strength to control yourself and fall upon your face in prayer, then cover your head with your mantle and sleep, until this dark hour passes for you; only do not leave your cell. This temptation often befalls those who wish to live the life of the mind and seek the comfort of faith in their progress. That is why this hour torments and exhausts them most of all with its doubts; often it is followed by blasphemy, and sometimes one is beset by doubts in the Resurrection and other things that we should not even speak of… Blessed is he who overcomes this without going out the door. For after this, as the Fathers say, he will reach great peace and strength.

first volume, Homily 88 (Hilarion, 117)

isaacsirin1802Illustration for the first volume, 1802 edition.

Perhaps, in all of St. Isaac’s writing, his words of encouragement and advice during “clouded” times were what resonated the most with Orthodox monks across thirteen centuries. Yet, he was not only a source of emotional support and spiritual comfort, but also a religious thinker. He did not present his philosophy systematically — both the first and second volume freely jump between topics, so that one Homily or Conversation might discuss fasting, while the next might praise seclusion and the one after that might contemplate the nature of God — but his thinking was sharply original in many ways. One of the best-known examples is the following passage, which delineates a striking, unexpected contrast between mercy and justice:

Mercy and justice in one soul is like a man who worships both God and idols in the same place. Mercy is the opposite of justice. Justice is the equalization of a precise measure, because it gives to everyone what he deserves, and in this retribution does not allow any imbalance on either side, nor any partiality. Whereas mercy is the sorrow that arises from grace, and is compassionately inclined toward all: one who deserves evil does not receive evil, and one who deserves good is made overflowing. And just as in mercy there is a portion of fairness, so in justice there is a portion of malice. As straw and fire cannot bear to be present in the same house, so it is with justice and mercy in one soul. As a grain of sand cannot withstand being balanced against a greater weight of gold, so the demands of God’s justice do not withstand balance when compared to God’s mercy.
The sins of all flesh are as a handful of sand thrown into the sea, when compared to Providence and God’s mercy. And just as a bountiful source of water cannot be blocked by a mere handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator cannot be defeated by the sins of His creatures. Being vindictive while praying is the same as sowing in the sea and expecting a harvest. Just as there is no barrier to the light of fire, that could keep it from rising high, so there is nothing that can keep the prayers of the merciful from rising to Heaven. As water flows downhill, such is the power of irritability when it enters our mind. One who has acquired humility in his heart has become dead to the world, and one who has died to the world has died to the passions.”

first volume, Homily 89

This is an unconventional way of looking at things. Justice is viewed as a fundamental moral concept in most cultures, including ours. It is the standard by which we evaluate societies and political systems. In ancient Greece, justice was the central problem of philosophy (the question “what is justice?” is the starting point of Plato’s “Republic”); from there it made its way into Roman Catholic theology as one of the “cardinal virtues.” Most Christians of any denomination would probably agree with the statement that “God is just,” and in fact, the idea of God’s absolute justice is for many people one of the most attractive aspects of the idea of God. But St. Isaac rejects it as a moral value. According to him, “in justice there is a portion of malice,” and that necessarily makes it a quality that God does not possess. In God’s eyes, justice is inferior to “mercy,” which outweighs any sin that could be imagined.

stsjohnandisaacAnd here he is together with St. John Damascene,
in an Orthodox church somewhere in France.

Mercy, according to St. Isaac, comes from love. He is a true spiritual successor to St. John the Theologian in professing love as the essence of God — he takes this belief further than any other ecclesiastical writer in Christian history. To him, God’s love is truly infinite and given as a gift to all of creation, regardless of who “deserves” it more. In the second volume he asserts: “Just as, in the mind of the Creator, there is no created nature that might be ‘earlier’ or ‘later’ than another, but rather in His mind everything that He has brought into being exists eternally — and not so that He knows one thing before or after another, but all of them equally without any one coming earlier or later, by even one second — so there is no one ahead or behind in His love: with Him there is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in principle. On the contrary, just as there is equality and stability in His mind, so there is equality and stability in His love.” (Hilarion, 57) But long before this material came to light, he was famous for his poetic evocations of love and mercy, as they appear in the heart of the monk who gradually comes closer to God:

And what is the merciful heart? …[It is when] a man’s heart burns for all creation — people, birds, animals, demons and all creatures. Remembering them, and seeing them, his eyes shed tears from a great and powerful compassion that envelops the heart. And from this great suffering his heart is reduced, and it cannot bear to hear or see any harm or small sorrow befall any creature. And so such a one will pray tearfully every hour for the wordless ones, and for the enemies of truth, and for those that seek to harm him, so that all these may be preserved and purified; and also he prays for the nature of all lowly things, with the great compassion that is stirred within his heart until he attains in this a resemblance to God.

first volume, Homily 48 (Hilarion, 61)

According to St. Isaac, Christ’s death on the Cross should be understood purely as an expression of God’s love. In the second volume, he writes, “I say that God did all of this for no other reason but to show the world the love that He possesses. His purpose was to make love grow within us, once we have understood this, so that we would become captives of His love, for by the death of His Son He brought forth this manifestation of the great power of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is called love. The death of our Lord was not for our redemption from sin or for any other purpose but to make the world know the love that God has for all creatures.” Here St. Isaac is challenging the “legalistic” interpretation of redemption, according to which Christ carefully designed his sacrifice because it would only be “valid” enough to appease God’s sense of justice (would have “enough” value to serve as “ransom” for humanity) if every part of it were to proceed in a certain specific way. Having already rejected the idea of justice as the central principle of Divine nature, St. Isaac cannot accept such an interpretation; he even seems to poke a bit of fun at it as he continues: “If all of these amazing works had been intended only to redeem us from sin, it would have been sufficient to redeem us in some other way. What arguments could be made if He had done all this through an ordinary death? But He died in this highly unusual manner so that you might understand the meaning of the sacrament: He tasted death in the terrible suffering of the Cross.” (73-74) There is no specific “mechanism” of redemption that God could be required to follow; He chose this particular form only because it served as the clearest expression of His love.

stisaacofsyria2Here he is somewhere in the Middle East.

One might say that St. Isaac’s belief in God’s love constituted the entirety of his philosophy. Most likely, he did not have the same kind of formal education in logic and rhetoric as, for example, St. John Chrysostom or St. Gregory the Theologian. He expresses himself in sharp, poetic insights that can only be granted to a “merciful heart,” steeped in the conviction that “with love He brought the world into being; with love He guides it, in its current temporary form of existence; with love He will bring it to that wondrous transformation, and love will overwhelm it in this great mystery of Him Who worked all of this; in love, the entire history of creation is completed.” (55) This conviction leads him to increasingly unconventional, radical conclusions, such as his legendary vision of hell:

And I say that those who are tormented in hell are struck by the scourge of love! And how bitter and cruel is this torment of love! For those who feel that they have sinned against love, experience a torment far worse than any torment that can cause fear; the grief that strikes the heart over sins against love is more fearsome than any possible punishment. Let no one think that sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love… But the power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners, as even among us one friend may bring suffering to another, and it brings joy to those who fulfilled their duty. And so, my thinking is that the torment of hell is remorse. But the souls of the sons of heaven are indulged by the comforts of love.”

(Hilarion, 258)

I am sure that Dostoevsky read this fragment and was deeply moved by it. This is why, in The Brothers Karamazov, none other than St. Isaac appears on Smerdyakov’s table. Smerdyakov committed murder for money. Maybe he didn’t really believe Ivan’s speech that “all is permitted” (that was just a convenient excuse), but he clearly didn’t experience any moral qualms about it, and fully planned to use the money to start a new life. And yet:

Smerdyakov uncovered the packs [of money] and set Isaac of Syria aside.
‘Take this money with you when you go,’ Smerdyakov sighed.
‘Of course I will! But why are you giving it to me, if you killed for it?’ Ivan looked at him with great surprise.
‘I don’t want it at all,’ Smerdyakov said in a quavering voice, waving his hand. ‘I used to have an idea that with this money I could start living, in Moscow or even better abroad, I had a dream like that, and mostly because “all is permitted.” That is truly what you taught me, because you said many things like that to me: because if there is no infinite God, then there is no virtue, and even no need for it at all. That was you, truly. So I decided.’
‘All by yourself?’ Ivan gave a crooked sneer.
‘With your guidance.’
‘So now you started believing in God again, if you’re giving back the money?’
‘No, I haven’t,’ Smerdyakov whispered.
‘Then why give it back?’
‘Leave me alone…that’s enough,’ Smerdyakov waved his hand. ‘You, yourself, used to say all the time that all is permitted, then now why are you so alarmed? You even want to go and testify against yourself… Only it won’t happen! You won’t go!’ Smerdyakov decided firmly and with great conviction.

from The Brothers Karamazov (Book 11, Chapter VIII)

Smerdyakov feels no guilt, but his crime has crushed him all the same, and the money has become meaningless. This is exactly St. Isaac’s vision of hell: God’s goodness torments sinners who have deprived themselves of the comfort of believing in Him, and are left alone with their own evil. If Smerdyakov could have brought himself to believe that God existed and was punishing him, he might have found it more bearable.

And yet…St. Isaac cannot simply abandon these wretched sinners to their fate. He repeatedly returns to the problem of hell. He never once doubts that it exists, that it inflicts unimaginable torment, or that sinners deserve to go there, but he cannot reconcile this with his profound belief in the primacy of mercy over justice. His most radical views on this are expressed in the second volume — for which reason its authenticity has been disputed — but even in the first volume he repeatedly asserts the powerlessness of hell:

Let us never think of such iniquity as calling God unmerciful: the nature of God does not change…and God does not acquire what He does not have; He does not lose what He has; He does not grow as do the creatures. What God had from the beginning, this He always has and will have forever, as blessed Cyril [of Alexandria] said in his commentary on the book of Genesis: fear Him (so he says) because of love, not because of the cruel name that has been falsely given to Him. Love Him, as you must love Him, and not for what He will give you in the future, but for what we have received in the present world, which has been created for us. For who could ever repay Him? Where is His retribution for our [evil] deeds? …O, how wondrous is the mercy of God! How amazing is the grace of God, our Creator! What power prevails over all! What endless goodness, by which He brings the nature of us, sinners, to restoration! …He restores [even] criminals and blasphemers, renews the unwise hand, makes it wise and articulate; He makes the scattered and insensitive mind, with its wasted feelings, into nature that is wise and worthy of Divine thought! No sinner could ever imagine the grace of His resurrection. Where is the hell that could grieve us? Where is that torment, which variously terrifies us and aims to defeat the joy of His love? And what is hell when compared to the grace of His resurrection, when He will restore us from hell and make it so that ‘this corruptible shall have put on incorruption,‘ and restore in glory those who have fallen into hell?

first volume, Homily 90

Elsewhere in the first volume — but this time, in a homily that was left out of the medieval Greek translation — St. Isaac grows bolder:

God leaves no room for sin, hell and death to exist, because all these are actions, not essences. [In other words, because an action requires an actor, it cannot have an independent existence of the sort proposed for Platonic ideas. -FL] Sin is the product of free will. There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist. Hell is the product of sin. At one time it received its beginning; as for its end, it is unknown. Death, however, is the manifestation of the Creator’s mercy. It will rule over nature only for a short time; after that, it will be fully abolished.”

(Hilarion, 259)

stisaacofsyria4Illustration from a 14th-century Russian manuscript.

Although it remains “unknown” whether hell has an end, the idea seems to be rather clearly suggested. So, perhaps it is not surprising that, by the end of the long-lost second volume, St. Isaac has finally decided to embrace the full implications of his thinking and state them explicitly:

God will not let go of a single part of creation in preparing for that higher Kingdom which has been prepared for all worlds. Because of the goodness of His nature, through which He brought the entire universe into existence, and continues to support and guide it, and cares for all worlds and creatures in His limitless compassion, He decided to arrange the Kingdom of Heaven for all sentient beings, although a certain period of transition has been left to ensure that all [are worthy]. This opinion of ours agrees with the teachings of Scripture. Nonetheless [hell] is terrifying, even if it were to be limited in duration: who could bear it? For this reason the angels in Heaven rejoice ‘over one sinner that repenteth.’
…According to the design of grace, the majority of people will enter the Kingdom of Heaven without the experience of hell. But not those who, due to the hardness of their hearts and their deviation into evil, do not suffer and lament their errors and sins, because they had never received any punishment. Because the holy Nature is so good and merciful that it always looks for even the smallest reason to exculpate us and to forgive all men their sins — as in the case of the publican, who was vindicated because of his lamenting prayer, or the case of the two motes, or the one who was forgiven on the cross. For He seeks our salvation, rather than reasons to torment us.”

second volume, Conversation 39 (Hilarion, 267-268)

As Metr. Hilarion summarizes, “The belief that most of humanity will suffer in the fires of hell, while only a small handful of the elect will rejoice in the Kingdom of Heaven, was deeply alien to St. Isaac. He is convinced that, on the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the Kingdom of God and only a small number of evildoers and sinners will go to hell — and even then, only for as long as is necessary for them to obtain forgiveness for their sins.” (268) Even though St. Isaac may not always unequivocally insist on it, clearly his hope is that all of humanity will eventually be forgiven, that hell will not last forever, but be “abolished.”

Needless to say, this conception contradicts the eschatological teaching of the Orthodox Church, and really any Christian church. The standard moral objection to the belief in universal salvation is that it equates good and evil — the goodness of the righteous is essentially deprived of value since one can now be saved without making the least effort to be good. One could also say that, in this way, free will is denied, since certain sinners may simply refuse to be with God, preferring to remain in hell with their hatred and pride even when given the choice to go to Heaven; perhaps that is the one objection that St. Isaac, full of love for God, could never have imagined. In Christian history, belief in universal salvation or apocatastasis usually came hand in hand with many other deviations from Church doctrine, most notably in the person of the 3rd-century neo-Platonist philosopher Origen, whose teaching was condemned by the 5th Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, 553 AD).

In light of this, it seems bizarre that one of the preeminent Holy Fathers might have sympathized with (or even wholeheartedly embraced) such a doctrine. For this reason, there has been some controversy regarding the authenticity of St. Isaac’s second volume, whose “miraculous” discovery in the late 20th century is, admittedly, not very reassuring. The best and most convincing arguments in this regard have been made by Hieromonk Nikon (Skarga), a resident of Optina Monastery in Russia, who conducted a detailed linguistic analysis of the second volume and concluded that Conversations 38-41, in which universal salvation is clearly asserted, as well as the entirety of the “Chapters of Knowledge” (which, indeed, are organized in a completely different way from the rest of the text, making them appear very much out of place), are a forgery that had been deliberately inserted into a collection of genuine writing by St. Isaac. In other words, Fr. Nikon acknowledges the authenticity of a large part of the manuscript, but reproaches Metr. Hilarion’s uncritical (in his view) acceptance of the entire thing.

stgregoryofnyssaSt. Gregory of Nyssa (11th-century mosaic).

Yet, St. Isaac was not the only Orthodox saint to have believed in universal salvation. The 4th-century Orthodox philosopher St. Gregory of Nyssa, younger brother of St. Basil the Great, who worked and interacted with some of the greatest luminaries of Christian thought — thinkers who helped establish all of the fundamental Church dogmata — and who certainly had no association with Nestorianism (which did not exist in his time) or any other such system, at one point wrote the following:

But sin is not so mighty as to overcome goodness, and the mutability of our nature is unsteady even in evil. And it is always the case that something movable, if it moves toward goodness, will never cease its forward motion and will find no end, due to the infiniteness of what it seeks; and if it moves in the opposite direction, then, once it traverses the way of sin and reaches the greatest extreme of evil, it will necessarily turn its movement [back] toward goodness. Because, just as sin does not extend indefinitely, but is confined within necessary bounds, so for the same reason good will always succeed beyond the limits of evil; and thus, according to what we have said, the usual movability of our nature again finally returns to the way of goodness, being chastised by the memory of its past misfortunes against falling once more into the prison of such suffering…

St. Gregory of Nyssa, ch. 21 of On the Making of Man

Essentially this argument is the same as St. Isaac’s: only God is infinite, and God did not create sin, therefore sin is finite and will at some point cease to exist. If anything, St. Gregory’s version has more Ancient Greek influence since it has a very Aristotelian emphasis on “motion,” whereas St. Isaac has a much more purely evangelical basis in God’s love and mercy. Notwithstanding, there has never been any question in the Church regarding St. Gregory’s sainthood; as Metr. Hilarion explains, “On the contrary, the 6th Ecumenical Council included his name among the ‘holy and blessed fathers,’ and the 7th Ecumenical Council called him ‘the father of fathers.’ As for the Council of Constantinople in 543 AD and the 5th Ecumenical Council, which condemned Origenism, it is quite instructive to observe that, although St. Gregory’s teaching of universal salvation was well-known to the Fathers of both Councils, it was not equated with Origenism. The Fathers of the Councils understood that there is a heretical understanding of universal salvation…but there is also an Orthodox understanding of it based on 1 Corinthians 15:24-28.” (271n)

The last statement, of course, is also controversial. In fact, the overall historical consensus in the Church is that St. Gregory was in error with regard to universal salvation. But, if he and St. Isaac were in error, it was an error born of their overzealous vision of universal Christian love. St. Isaac, in particular, shows much less Platonic influence than even St. Gregory, much less Origen. He occasionally skirts close to Platonic hierarchical imagery (which he most likely absorbed indirectly through the Areopagitic corpus, rather than through any actual Platonic text), but it is difficult to imagine or express a more anti-Platonic view of the universe than the following:

“…In the world to come, such [a hierarchical] order will be abolished, because one will no longer receive from another the revelation of the glory of God, to the glorification and joy of his soul, but rather, each will receive directly from God what he is due according to his deeds and his dignity; and he will not receive this gift from another, as he would here. For there will be no pupils and no masters, and none who is in need of making up his deficiency through another. There will be one Giver, who directly gives to those able to receive, and from Him they will receive heavenly joy. The ranks of masters and pupils will end, and the swiftness of every wish will be aimed at the One.

first volume, Homily 18 (Hilarion, 255)

I imagine Plato listening to this with cold, contemptuous impatience. No ranks, no masters — then what’s the point?! To a Platonist, the superiority of the world beyond physical reality follows precisely from its more perfect hierarchy. But to St. Isaac, the infiniteness of God will overrule any distinctions between human beings: one might say that hierarchy is a defect of the universe, a consequence of original sin and not a reflection of God’s intent. The radical egalitarianism of this view at least has a Christian origin.

Metr. Hilarion concludes (emphasis in the original), “Perhaps, in his theological search, St. Isaac went further than traditional Christian dogmata allow, and peered at something that was meant to be inaccessible to human reason… The eschatological views of St. Isaac of Syria, St. Gregory of Nyssa and other Church Fathers belong to the realm of private theological opinions and cannot be perceived as an expression of the dogmatic teaching of the Church. At the same time, they should not be equated with the heretical Origenism that the Church had condemned. Neither St. Isaac of Syria, nor St. Gregory of Nyssa, despite the radical tone of some of their statements on eschatological subjects, believed that the question of universal salvation had been settled. They simply expressed the hope, which, perhaps, is shared by many Christians — the hope that, in spite of justice, each person will have the possibility of salvation by the mercy of God.” (271-272)

All I can add is that this question, if viewed in isolation, has little bearing on the reasons why St. Isaac is loved and revered in the Orthodox Church. I doubt that anyone who ever decided to venerate or pray to St. Isaac did so specifically because of his views on universal salvation. But even if he held those views, and even if they were wrong, nonetheless they were driven by his profound love for all creation — the same quality that is so valued by the faithful, and that led the Byzantines to bring St. Isaac’s writing into the heart of Orthodox monasticism even as they rejected his theological authorities. And surely he knew how his statements on salvation would be received…and perhaps he, too, had doubts as to whether God would look upon them favorably. Perhaps, in his insistence that everyone would go to Heaven, he was like St. Anthony’s shoemaker —

Once, Abba Anthony [The founder of Christian monasticism. -FL] was praying in his cell, and he heard a voice say: ‘Anthony, you have not yet reached the spiritual heights of such-and-such a shoemaker, who lives in Alexandria.’
In the morning, the elder stood up, took his palm staff and went to see this shoemaker. Upon arrival, he greeted him, and then sat down beside him and spoke: ‘Tell me, brother, about your works.’
And the shoemaker answered: ‘Abba, I don’t know that I have ever done any good works. But when I get up each morning, to sit down to my labor, each time I say to myself that everyone in this entire city, great and small, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven for their righteousness, while I alone will be cast into hell for my sins.’

Evergetinos, Chapter 45

— and isn’t that enough, for one lifetime?

isaacsirinuspenskyFresco of St. Isaac (early 16th century).
Cathedral of the Dormition, Moscow.

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