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April 12, 2016

Saint Isaac the Syrian, Who Lived in Asceticism in Spoleto, Italy

On April 12th we commemorate Saint Isaac the Syrian, who had come to Spoleto in Italy and worked many miracles and established a monastery. St. Gregory the Dialogist writes about him in his Dialogues (Bk. 3, Ch. 14). This Saint Isaac the Syrian should not be confused with the Saint Isaac the Syrian who lived over a century later and was Bishop of Nineveh (Sept. 28). Below is the passage about Saint Isaac from the Dialogues of Saint Gregory.

Gregory: At such time as the Goths first invaded Italy, there was, near to the city of Spoleto, a virtuous and holy man called Isaac, who lived almost to the last days of the Goths, whom many did know, and especially the holy virgin Gregoria, who now dwells in this city, by the church of the blessed and ever Virgin Mary. This woman, in her younger years, desiring to live a nun's life, fled to the church from marriage, already agreed upon by her friends, and was by this man defended. And so, through God's providence, obtained to have that habit which so much she desired, and so, leaving her earthly spouse, she merited a spouse in heaven. Many things also I heard by the relation of the revered man Eleutherius, who was familiarly acquainted with him; and his virtuous life gives credit to his words.

This holy man Isaac was not born in Italy; and therefore I will only speak of such miracles as he did living here in our country. At his first coming out of Syria to the city of Spoleto, he went to the church, and requested the keepers that he might have free leave to pray there, and not to be enforced to depart when night came. And so he began his devotions, and spent all that day in prayer, and likewise the night following. The second day and night he did in the same manner, and remained there also the third day: which when one of the keepers of the church perceived this, who was a man of a proud spirit, he was scandalized, although he ought to have reaped great profit. For he began to say that he was a hypocrite and deceptive companion, who in the sight of the world remained at his prayers three days and three nights together. And forthwith running upon the man of God, he struck him, to make him by that means with shame to depart the church as a hypocrite, and one that desired to be reputed a holy man. But to revenge this injury, a wicked spirit did presently possess his body, who cast him down at the feet of the man of God, and began by his mouth to cry out: "Isaac can cast me forth, Isaac can cast me forth." For what name the strange man had, none at that time did know, but the wicked spirit told it, when he cried out that he had power to cast him out. Straightways the man of God laid himself upon his body, and the cursed devil that was entered in, departed in all haste.

News of this was spread over the whole city, and men and women, rich and poor, came running, every one striving to bring him home to their own house: some for the building of an monastery, did humbly offer him lands, others money, and some such other helps as they could. But the servant of almighty God, refusing to accept any of their offers, departed out of the city, and not far off he found a deserted place, where he built a little cottage for himself. Many who fled to him began by his example to be inflamed with the love of everlasting life, and so, under his discipline and government, gave themselves to the service of almighty God. And when his disciples would often humbly insinuate, that it were good for the necessity of the monastery to take such livings as were offered, he, very careful to keep poverty, told them constantly, saying: "A monk that seeks for livings upon earth is no monk," for so fearful he was to lose the secure state of his poverty, as covetous rich men are careful to preserve their corruptible wealth.

In that place, therefore, he became famous for the spirit of prophecy. And his life was renowned far and near, for the notable miracles which he wrought. For upon a day, towards evening, he caused his monks to lay a certain number of spades in the garden. The night following, when according to custom they rose up to their prayers, he commanded them, saying: "Go your ways, and make pottage for our workmen, that it may be ready very early in the morning." And when it was day, he had them bring the pottage which they had provided; and going with his monks into the garden, he found there so many men working as he had commanded them to lay spades: for it fell so out, that certain thieves were entered in to spoil and rob it; but God changing their minds, they took the spades which they found there, and so wrought from the time of their first entrance, until the man of God came unto them. And all such parts of the ground as before were not manured, they had dug up and made ready. When the man of God was come, he saluted them in this wise: "God save you, good brethren. You have labored long, wherefore now rest yourselves." Then he caused such provision as he had brought to be set before them, and so after their labor and pains refreshed them. When they had eaten that which was sufficient, he spake thus unto them: "Do not hereafter any more harm, but when you desire anything that is in the garden, come to the gate, quietly ask for it, and take it as God's blessing, but steal no more." And so bestowing upon them a good store, he sent them away. And by this means it happened that they which came into the garden to do harm, departed thence not doing any damage at all, and besides had the reward of their pains, and somewhat also of charity bestowed upon them.

At another time, there came unto him certain strange men begging, so torn and tattered, that they had scant any rags to cover them, humbly beseeching him to help them with some clothes. The man of God, hearing their demand, gave them no answer, but secretly calling for one of his monks, had him go into the woods, and in such a place in the woods to seek for a hollow tree, and to bring unto him that apparel which he found there. The monk went his way, and brought closely to his master that which he had found. Then the man of God called for those poor naked men, and gave them that apparel, saying: "Put on these clothes to cover your naked bodies." They, seeing their own garments, were wonderfully confounded, for thinking by cunning to get other men's apparel, with shame they received only their own.

Again, at another time, there was one who commended himself to his prayers, and sent him by his servant two baskets full of meat, one of the which, as he was in his journey, he took away, and hid in a bush till his return back again; and the other he presented to the man of God, telling him how his master had sent it for him, heartily commending himself to his prayers. The holy man took that which was sent very kindly, giving the messenger this good lesson: "I pray you, my friend, to thank your master, and take heed how you lay your hands upon the basket, for a snake is crept in, and therefore be careful, lest otherwise it will sting you." At these words the messenger was pitifully confounded, and though glad he was that by this means he escaped death, yet he was somewhat grieved that he was put to that shame. Coming back to the basket, he was very diligent and careful in touching it; for as the man of God had told him, a snake indeed had entered. This holy man, therefore, although he was incomparably adorned with the virtue of abstinence, contempt of worldly wealth, the spirit of prophecy, and perseverance in prayer: yet one thing there was in him which seemed reprehensible, to wit, that sometime he would so exceed in mirth, that if men had not known him to have been so full of virtue, none would ever have thought it.

PETER: What, I beseech you, shall we say to that? For did he willingly give himself sometime to such recreation, or else excelling in virtue, was he, contrary to his own mind, drawn sometime to present mirth?

GREGORY: God's providence, Peter, in bestowing of his gifts, is wonderful. For often it happens, that upon whom he grants the greater, he gives not the less, to the end that always they may have somewhat dislike in themselves: so that desiring to arrive unto perfection and yet cannot, and laboring about that which they have not obtained, and cannot prevail, by this means they become not proud of those gifts which they have received, but do thereby learn that they have not those greater graces of themselves, who of themselves cannot overcome small faults. And this was the cause that, when God had brought his people into the land of promise, and destroyed all their mighty and potent enemies, yet did he long time after reserve the Philistines and Caananites, that, as it is written, He might in them try Israel For sometime as has been said, upon whom He bestows great gifts, He leaves some small things that be blameworthy, that always they may have something to fight against, and not to be proud, though their great enemies be vanquished, seeing other adversaries in very small things do put them to great trouble. And therefore it happens strangely, that one and the self same man is excellent for virtue, and yet of infirmity sometime does offend, so that he may behold himself on the one side strong and well furnished, and on another open and not defended. That by the good thing which he seeks for, and is not able to procure, he may with humility preserve that virtue which already he has in possession. But what wonder is it that we speak this concerning man, when as heaven itself lost some of its citizens, and others continued sound in God's grace, that the elect Angels of God, seeing others through pride to fall from heaven, might stand so much the more steadfast, by how much with humility they preserved God's grace received? They, therefore, took profit by that loss which heaven then had, and were thereby made to persevere more constantly in God's service for all eternity. In like manner it is with each man's soul, which sometime for preserving of humility, by a little loss it attains to great spiritual perfection.

PETER: I am very well pleased with that you say.