By Archimandrite Cherubim Karambelas
According to the Holy Fathers, all ascetic labors, whether bodily or spiritual, have one lofty and holy end: purity of heart. Fasting, all-night vigils, mourning, suffering, rules of prayer, the services, the reading of spiritual books, prayer, and other ascetic struggles help the monastic to rise high and live a pure and holy life. This end was attained in the life of the praiseworthy monk of Dionysiou - Isaac.
Climbing the ladder of the virtues, he perfected himself in meekness, innocence, and simplicity. This last virtue, according to St. John Climacus, "leads to the highest humility," and: "You will never see simplicity bereft of humility."
Deep humility opens the path to another summit of virtue: dispassion. Our good mountaineer and soldier of Christ conquered this peak also. Dispassion is a very lofty summit, and there are few who reach it. "This requires time and much longing for God.... When you see or hear that someone has in a few years acquired the most sublime dispassion, then conclude that he travelled by no other way than by this blessed shortcut - of humility" (St. John Climacus).
The fathers who knew him well, like Fr. Leontius who lived with him in several metochia, have told us of the high level of dispassion that adorned the life of the Elder.
"For Elder Isaac," Fr. Leontius said, "there was no difference or change of feelings when he conversed or associated with lay people."
"What do you mean by that, Father?" Fr. Lazarus asked him.
"I mean that Elder Isaac spoke with women just like he spoke with men."
When the need arose, therefore, he would associate and converse with everyone, but always on a higher level. This is called in Patristic language dispassion. Truly Elder Isaac, although living at the Monastery's Metochia in the midst of the world, was always a dispassionate monk, "an iron-clad warrior," "warring, but not warred against." He was dead to the world; only Christ lived within him. "He who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of passionlessness knows no difference between his own people and strangers, or between believer and infidel, between bond and free, or even between male and female...." (St. Maximus the Confessor).
As long as the mailman of Dionysiou,* this excellent courier of God, continued to follow this path, he would finish his course on the pinnacle of virtue, which is perfect love.
He reached the point where he sympathized with all manner of people, with the whole world, with all of creation, animate and inanimate, as his patron saint wrote somewhere on the nature of perfect love.** He loved and sympathized with all.
Across from the Monastery at the Kathisma of the Holy Apostles lived Elder Isaac together with Fr. Lazarus. The one, being older, looked after the garden with its lemon and orange trees, while the other took care of Elder Modestos who was suffering from hemiplegia. The latter had the cell next to the church, and the former two lived on the upper floor.
"After Compline," Fr. Lazarus remarked as we were parting, "no more that half an hour would pass before Fr. Isaac would be praying with tears and wailing. His face was awash with tears, tears falling from his soul and heart. After hearing him on several occasions, I decided to ask him why he wept every night. Going downstairs, therefore, I drew near and heard him saying: 'Have mercy on the poor people, O Lord. Have mercy on the unfortunate ones. Have mercy on the hungry. Give them Thy blessing, O Lord, have mercy....'
Not understanding for whom he was imploring, however, I asked him: 'Fr. Isaac, for whom are you crying and pleading to Christ for so long? Who are those poor and unfortunate ones?'
He replied: 'My child, don't you remember the tenant-farmers we had at the Metochia who worked all day long. Such hard work, yet they barely managed to live. How could they meet their families' expenses? How could they marry off their daughters? How could they teach their children to read? Where would they find clothes to wear? How can I not pity them when I think of them, especially when they loved and respected us so much? They were obedient to us like bought slaves. Why should I not weep and entreat Christ for them?'
Silently I left him to weep and supplicate Christ, marvelling at his great compassion."
In this picture of his life at the Kathisma of the Holy Apostles, we can perceive the attitude of a true Athonite monk towards his fellow men. It is revealed in two ways: Love towards a bed-ridden invalid, manifested by sacrifice, patience, night watches, labor, and self-denial; and love towards the tenant-farmers, manifested by warm tears and disturbance of soul. We see this attitude revealed all over the Holy Mountain.
Our minds wonder at these images of Elder Isaac's life at the Kathisma of the Holy Apostles - whether we see him on the ground floor, praying fervently; or on the upper floor, nursing the invalid. In these two scenes we see realized the Master's words in that historic upper room in Jerusalem: "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another."
Here is the genuine social work of monastic: prayer for their fellow men and for all the world; self-sacrificing care for the sick, unceasing hospitality, true teaching by example. A work which is not blazed abroad has for this reason its own measureless worth.
The grace of God found firm abode in the soul of Elder Isaac. His prayers were compunctionate; he had received the God-given grace of tears, as we saw above in the example of his sympathy and love for those in want and sorrow.
"You cannot show," says St. Symeon the New Theologian, "that without tears and continual contrition anyone has been purified, or become holy, or received the Holy Spirit, or seen God, or completely received Him as a dweller in his heart."
Especially towards the end of his life, his eyes squinted from his perpetual tears. Many times the fathers noticed that his eyes were swollen and red from weeping; passing by his cell, they would hear him say the Jesus Prayer from the depths of his heart.
All day long, and especially at night, he communicated with Heaven. He tried to find as much time as possible to devote to prayer. During the silence of the nights, wakeful, beyond the world and everything earthly, he would pray for hours, pouring forth rivers of tears in his great compunction and divine love.
Fr. Lazarus once asked him: "How many hours should I sleep, Fr. Isaac?"
"For one as young as you, five hours are sufficient - three at night and two in the daytime. For older monks, however, three to four hours in the whole day are enough."
Indeed, Fr. Isaac slept for one hour during the day and two hours at night. The rest of the time was spent with Him for Whom his soul insatiably thirsted.
"When we were at the Kathisma of the Holy Apostles," Fr. Lazarus related, "the two of us would do the service with our prayer ropes for two-and-a-half hours.*** Fr. Isaac would do the first and second prayer ropes in a quiet voice: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.' On the third, his heart would grow warmer; he could not restrain himself to speak softly, but would cry each word with flaming zeal ... I would hear him and marvel at his heart's love for Christ."
One night Fr. Lazarus arose in order to go from the Kathisma of the Holy Apostles to Karyes. (Fr. Modestos, who was sick, needed something.) It was July and very warm: the night was moonlit. When he had left the Kalyva and gone a little way, beside the road he saw a singular sight. Someone was kneeling, praying with uplifted hands amidst the infinite silence of the night and peaceful nature. It was Fr. Isaac.
Fr. Lazarus stopped and changed direction. He thought it a sacrilege to pass him and disrupt that awe-inspiring scene.
Who knows what divine joy, what heavenly grace shone that evening on the Elder's bright face? Who knows what those holy raised hands were seeking from heaven? Who knows how many tears watered the ground of the Kathisma of the Holy Apostles? What tears he shed "from the pouring forth of divine light and heaven opening upon him...."
* Elder Isaac's obedience at Dionysiou was the difficult job of being a mailman, which even in the harsh winters he fulfilled and nearly cost him his life. Read Two Wondrous Miracles of St. John the Forerunner in the Life of Elder Isaac of Dionysiou.
** St. Isaac the Syrian wrote: "And what is the merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for all of creation, for men, for birds, for animals and even for demons. At the remembrance and at the sight of them, the merciful man’s eyes fill with tears which arise from the great compassion that urges his heart. It grows tender and cannot endure hearing or seeing any injury or slight sorrow to anything in creation. Because of this, such a man continually offers tearful prayer even for irrational animals and for the enemies of truth and for all who harm it, that they may be guarded and forgiven."
*** Monks, ascetics or hesychasts who are away from their monastery, or do not have service books, or are illiterate, or out of obedience to attain a deeper form of prayer, etc., substitute attending services with a corresponding number of Jesus Prayers. For example, a Midnight Service and Matins can be substituted for thirty-three hundred prayers.
From Contemporary Ascetics of Mount Athos (vol. 1) by Archimandrite Cherubim, pp. 344-347 and 359-361.