September 30, 2014

Abba Isaac the Syrian, the "Unjustly Accused" Saint (3 of 7)

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

3. Irreverent Chatter Regarding the Person of Saint Isaac

Let us now turn to the book by Alfeyev. "From Wensinck's preface and other works I learnt who Isaac was" writes Bishop Kallistos Ware in the Foreword. "I discovered that he belonged to the Church of the East, commonly called 'Nestorian'. But, so I gradually came to realize, this did not mean that either Isaac himself, or the ecclesiastical community to which he belonged, could justly be condemned as heretical." From the writings of Bishop Kallistos, as well as the entire book by Bishop Hilarion, it is immediately understood that they have eliminated from their consciousness the ecclesiastical tradition regarding the Life of Saint Isaac the Syrian, which they "learnt" from Wensinck and other works, saying that Abba Isaac was a Nestorian!

Western researchers studied the Nestorian "Book of Chastity" which refers to someone named Isaac who was born in Beit Qatraye on the western shore of the Persian Gulf and was ordained by the Nestorian Givargis as Bishop of Nineveh in around 660. After five months he resigned for unknown reasons and became an ascetic on Mount Matout. After he went to Shabur Monastery, where he died blind from much reading. He had written some books on the anchoretic life. After this awesome "discovery", the researchers concluded this was the Abba Isaac we are familiar with. With great ease Alfeyev despises all the existing elements of the Orthodox Life of Saint Isaac: a) his place of origin is Nineveh of Edessa in Mesopotamia and not Qatar, b) the time of his birth is estimated to be 100 years earlier, c) the narrative about what caused him to resign and his immediate departure he calls a "legend" rather than the narrative about the five months, d) the place of his asceticism was in a Skete and not Shabur Monastery. He creates myths about the reasons for his ordination and resignation from the episcopal office. For the most part Alfeyev considers the Nestorian historiography to be fully reliable, while the Orthodox information is fabulous and incomplete.

However, when comparing the two Lives it is evident that the Nestorian historical source that refers to an Isaac is a different person from our Saint. The fact that in the Syrian-Persian-Mesopotamian region Nestorianism was widespread does not mean that Orthodox did not exist there and Abba Isaac the Bishop of Nineveh should be identified as a Nestorian and not Orthodox.

Certainly for a long time problems have been created by identifying Orthodox Fathers with heretics. Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite writes about Saint Barsanuphios: "There were two named Barasanuphios, one our present Saint and most Orthodox Father, and another a heretic of the Monophysite referred to by the divine Sophronios, the patriarch of Jerusalem... That this divine Barsanuphios...was most Orthodox and accepted by the Church of Christ as a Saint, is confirmed by the Holy Patriarch Tarasios who was asked about this by Saint Theodore the Studite. This is confirmed by this Theodore the Studite in his Testament: 'Furthermore...I accept...all the divine Fathers, Teachers and Ascetics, their lives and writings. I say these things in regards to the deranged Pamphilus, who studied in the East and slandered the Venerable Ones, such as Mark, Isaiah, Barsanuphios, Dorotheos and Hesychios.'" Thus the criterion of the Orthodoxy of the Saints is the testimony paid to them from the Holy Fathers. Today many researchers and patrologists while researching will identify the two Barsanuphios' following the ways of the "deranged" Pamphilus.

We also have a fairly recent example. The well-known Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff insisted on characterizing Saint Savvas of Vatopaidi an anti-hesychast and anti-Palamite, although his Life is full of experiences in the Holy Spirit. He falsely identifies him with a certain anti-hesychast named Savvas Logaras, even though in a manuscript of the Sacred Monastery of Great Lavra it was revealed that the last name of the Saint was Tziskos! Did we really need this testimony to be convinced about the holiness of Saint Savvas of Vatopaidi, when we have his wondrous Life as a testimony written by Saint Philotheos?

Translated by John Sanidopoulos.