January 28, 2014

Saint Isaac the Syrian as a Model for our Lives

St. Isaac the Syrian (Feast Day - Janaury 28 and September 28)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

The venerable Isaac lived in the sixth century. He was from Syria, specifically from the city of Nineveh. We do not have any information about his parents. What we do know is that the Saint received a good education and at a young age he withdrew from the world and entered a Coenobitic Monastery. Later, he withdrew into the desert, where he reaped the sweet fruits of hesychasm and then, in obedience to the Church, he was ordained Bishop of Nineveh.

On the day of his ordination, while in the episcopal residence, there appeared in his office two people, one who demanded money that he had loaned and another who did not refuse to pay what he owed but asked for one more day. The Saint told the lender that according to the teachings of the sacred Gospel, he should not require back what he loaned, and that he should be patient one more day. Then the lender said that he did not care what the Gospel said, and he pressed the borrower to return the borrowed money at that moment, otherwise he would make a complaint to the judge. The Saint became upset and said: "If these people aren't obedient to the orders of the Lord, then what did I come here to do?" The above incident, and the various distractions that inevitably were created by the administration of the Diocese, forced the Saint to return back to his beloved desert.

His ascetic discourses that he wrote exude the scent of the desert, namely the neptic and hesychastic tradition. They come from a true theologian, a visionary of God, who did not simply study, but he saw and experienced what he wrote. Moreover, in his twenty-third discourse he says, among other things, that he who has not seen the sun with his eyes, cannot tell someone what sunlight is, relying only on what they have heard, because they have not felt this light exactly as it is. It is likewise for those who have not tasted in their soul the sweetness of spiritual work. Therefore, what he teaches is the fruit of spiritual knowledge and experience.

The venerable Isaac the Syrian was "perfected in peace" at the age of 75.

We will now cite some passages from his discourses, which are always relevant, instructive and beneficial.

- "The commandments of God are above all the treasures of the world. Those who are established in them find God."

The commandments of God are not legal provisions, but spiritual signposts that indicate the life of a particular lifestyle, which lead to union and communion with God. When you are obedient to the divine commandments, then you gradually ascend in the knowledge of God, which is not cerebral, but an empirical knowledge of the heart. Within the commandments of God there are the uncreated energies of God, and this is why the venerable Isaac says that in them we find God. He calls them more valuable than all the treasures of the world, because there is nothing more valuable from God.

- "Let your mouth continually administer blessing, and you will not be reviled. Reviling begets reviling, and blessing begets blessing."

Venerable Isaac urges us to always say good things about others and to never badmouth anyone. Anyone who badmouths will be badmouthed in their turn, for everything gives birth to its kind, as it also happens with living organisms. So badmouthing gives birth to badmouthing and blessing gives birth to blessing. Of course, many times the passions prevent a person from saying good things about others, even if deep down they want to. But one must insist and struggle to defeat the passions. Even if a person has difficulty in saying a good word about another, at least don't badmouth them.

- "Go with reverence to your friends. And when you do this, you will bring benefit to yourself and them."

Communication between a person and their friends should be done in a climate of familiarity, but also courtesy and respect, because familiarity should not negate courtesy and respect. When friendship is based on respect for the personality and uniqueness of the other, then any misunderstandings and frictions are avoided, and friends gain great benefit by communicating, as love and peace are maintained.

- "Nothing can bring the heart so near to God as almsgiving, and nothing brings such serenity to the mind as voluntary poverty."

Almsgiving, which is associated with love, brings a person closer to God, or rather God dwells in the heart of the merciful and then the heart is changed into Paradise.

When one loves poverty and with their voluntary will makes it their estate, then the mind and heart are serene, since they are filled with the Grace of God. And surely there is no greater good than inner peace and serenity.

We see, especially nowadays that there is the so-called financial crisis, many of those who have worldly power and authority, showing their interest and care for the poor and weak, at the same time in which they have a lot of money and estates and live comfortably. Anyone who really wants to help those in need, should also live poorly. In this way they will help the poor by their example, but they would also be benefitted, since after they will feel inner peace and fulfillment.

The study of the words of the venerable Isaac the Syrian creates the inspiration and mood for prayer. It also reignites our longing for God and softens the heart, which, when it is purified of the passions, becomes a "habitation of the Trinity".

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Όσιος Ισαάκ Ο Σύρος", January 2010. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.