September 29, 2017

An Offering of Praise to Holy Abba Isaac the Syrian (Photios Kontoglou)

Sketch of St. Isaac the Syrian by the hand of Photios Kontoglou


An Offering of Praise to Holy Abba Isaac the Syrian,
Inadequate for the Sublimity of Its Subject,
but Written With Much Love

Photios Kontoglou

Athens, 1944

'The man to whom wisdom has been given knows 
the inward essences of immaterial things and what 
is the origin and consummation of the world.'
- Thalassios the Lybian
(Century 1:47)

He who wishes to praise the holy Isaac should hold an Archangel's trumpet, and not this sinful pen I have here in my hand.

Who will weave an unfading garland for his head? With what melodious praise could any human being laud this man who is hymned by the very angels? With the harmonious art of the tongue, come now, let us extol this humble wildflower of Syria, this gold-spangled fountain of immortality, this salt of the earth, this honeybee of virtue, this gold-stringed lute which ravishes the heart, this divinely-fashioned intellect, this glory of the Orient, this tremendous ocean, this enchanted light shining to unfathomed depths, this blessed child of God, and whatever else our tongue may call him, accustomed as it is to speak of trivialities.

But better yet by far, let us approach with reverence and ardour, and let us come together, like some spiritual troupe, around this precious gift which the Lord has sent us.

And the muse who will inspire us is gratefulness, that we are able to take delight in that which is really true, and not in shadows and illusions, 'mockeries of magic art', as Solomon calls them.

Let us weep with joy, and let us call all those who would slake their thirst at this exquisite spring. Then our inner being will burst into flower, soaked with vivifying water, while before we lay all fallow, full of burrs and thorns.

Like a four-leafed clover in a pasture, that is what Saint Isaac is among men, and harder yet to find.

He is truly so hard to find because he arrayed himself in the splendour of humility, and wrote his holy words not to be glorified himself, but so that his Lord might be glorified. Some blessed men found them where they were written down, and they joyfully gathered them up like pearls from some unheard-of, unearthly sea; and God preserved them till our own evil days. Let no one, however, off-handedly approach this priceless ark, but with fear and trembling, because it would not be right for anyone who has ruined his palate with the foul and poisonous liquors of this world to refresh himself here.

Saint Isaac, you might say, had wisdom sit like a golden bee on his mouth. Not the futile and bewildered wisdom of the clever, but the unfading wisdom, the source of incorruption, which truly liberates the man who possesses it. This is the wisdom which Solomon preferred to a sceptre and to royal thrones. He likens it to a priceless jewel, because all the gold on earth is like a handful of dust before it, like mire compared to silver. Solomon says that he loved it more than health and beauty, and he chose it as a lamp to light his paths, because its radiance is never quenched. Through it he was made worthy of possessing all goods at once, of receiving countless riches, and of enjoying all things, because all things come from wisdom, and she gives birth to all; she was standing next to God even when God formed the world.

Now because the Holy Spirit speaks through Isaac’s mouth, the words of this thrice-blessed saint are matchless in their beauty and are fired with a divine spark. That is why, even though he writes so much, he makes a holy silence come to rest within our spirit, just as if there were no one speaking, but we only heard the distant echoing of a sea hidden from our sight.

Peace covers him like a bishop's mantle; in his hand, for a staff, he carries the wand of humility, which is a token of the great authority whereof those who love the truth are deemed worthy.

Could it be that he is the formidable Enoch - Adam's grandson, who is found with his body in eternity - and that he has appeared on the ancient soil of the East to instruct us in awesome mysteries?

His eye scans the sun and remains undazzled. He is like some incomparable eagle who rises up above the clouds and soars untroubled over the dark mountains, viewing the great gulf from afar, while we, who are sitting inside a narrow well-shaft, cry out to him to have mercy on us.

The sun comes up from the East; from that region too this saint arose, from there this dove has flown, holding the olive branch in his beak, and bringing it to all who are shut up in the narrow ark. He dwelt like a lone tree, far away from mankind, in the desert regions of the blessed land of Mesopotamia. Eventually his holiness and his purity of life become known; and they ordained him, against his will, bishop of Nineveh. But he did not sit very long on the throne of the Christian Babylon, because the evils of the world, its impure spirits and its passions, embittered him, and he turned right around, back to the desert, to his beloved refuge.

Bewinged with love for God, he lived for many years in solitude. The Lord blessed him and held him by the hand, so that he could climb up Jacob's ladder. He made him a chalice and paten of wisdom, the mentor of ascetics, the initiator into the lofty mysteries of Christianity. This hallowed live-oak spreads out its branches and covers all who long to relax in its shade. How fortunate the man who has turned to this true seer and heard the oracles of salvation!

Most people would say that those hermits and ascetics who used to torment their bodies were just a bunch of simple, ignorant, bigoted fellows who lived in their caves out of superstitiousness, or went up on pillars out of vanity. For most people the wisdom of God is foolishness, as Paul says, whose tongue was golden. Such proud persons, and the experts who have taught them, cannot even imagine what the soul of those holy men held inside, and what they were judged worthy of understanding and seeing. 'Many are the children of the desolate', as Scripture says, 'more than of her who has a husband.' The children, then, of the desert are not only more numerous than those of the cities, but they are more marvellous too, and they are more worthy of our reverence.

The God-inspired sayings which this non-fleshly hand has chiselled out were written in the Syriac language. From this alone I would suppose that this language reached great perfection, because it could express such unattainable thoughts, as subtle and as hard to grasp as light.

Nevertheless, most of the educated are only going to admire from the outside the masterful way these sayings are turned, the odd glints they give off, a few of the soaring high points and paradoxes; they will not be able, however, to see the inner riches and the mother-of-pearl depths of this entrancing abyss; they will remain strangers, unable to taste that blissful delight. The key to this prolific mind and his deep soul is given to the humble man, and to the man who searches by the light of faith, but not to the expert. To all but these this spiritual paradise is locked, and all who are confident of entering by their knowledge remain sitting outside the gate, like Adam.

It is obvious that the ascetical homilies which Saint Isaac wrote must, in the Syriac language, be something out of this world. You would say that this marvellous Elder did not dip his quill in ink, but in something immortal.

I have not come across anything written about Saint Isaac in any book from Europe. We have left him to be forgotten like a light hidden under a bushel. But there was an Orthodox fellow, a Russian, Dostoyevsky, who wrote about him in one of his books; I thought of it the other day when this book was being printed. No theologians remembered him, just this sinful fellow, a no-gooder, a gambler, a soul curried like leather from agony, the prodigal son. But for him they killed the fatted calf: ‘The publicans and the harlots go before you into the Kingdom of the Heavens.’

Come, then, quench your thirst at an immortal spring. All have been invited to this radiant drinking-assembly. The table is set with bread from Heaven. Let us put the light on the lampstand and scatter the darkness around us.

On the boards of this book someone should write: ακος ψυχης, the words written over the ancient library of Ozymandias, the king of Egypt, and which mean, The Soul's Cure. Come, then, all who are ill, and receive healing. Do not, however, come loaded down with the heavy chains of sophisticatedness and pride. Come, rather, with compunction and with a pure heart, because these will show you the path that brings a man to the mystical garden.

Just as a woman gives birth with labour pains, so every man suffers pains who wishes to strip himself of the old man. But after this his eyes will be opened to a new kind of light, and like a man who has been raised from the dead, he will rejoice and be continually astonished. He will see another world, and he will hear another harmony which heretofore his calloused heart did not even suspect.

Then the words which the golden-tongued Paul wrote to the Galatians, 'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace', will not be a mere saying, like any saying, but cool, brimming fountains. Then, together with Sirach, he will say, 'There are yet hid greater things than these, for we have seen but a few of His works."

Even the earth and the creatures of this world, which all of us see, will then take on an indescribable appearance and an unfading beauty, made resplendent by a joyous ray. His tormented soul, worn out by barren systems of knowledge will skip with delight, and will make sail like a clipper, whose canvas swells with a sweet fresh breeze, who keeps her course, exulting on that see which is beyond the oceans and beyond the isles of this earth.

O Lord, merciful Father, with these writings of mine make someone, even just one lone man, turn to Thy holy will. Grant that he may see the unwaning light, even if he is one of those souls which wallow in sin with no hope, which are voluntarily condemned by their own selves. According to Thy word, there is great joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents. Open the doors that are shut, and make us worthy to see Thy mysteries. Give our spirit wings so that we can fly up to Thy majesty.

A drop looks like more before the ocean, and a speck of sand is bigger in front of the Himalayas, than man is before Thee. But even so, Thine own love raises him up and makes him grow, so that he can become a partaker of Thy glory, and become the honoured child of Thy greatness.

Blessed is he alone who has loved Thee! For Thou art the untrackable Source of life, the great River, the unwinking Eye, and everything else our feeble tongue can say, and everything which cannot be uttered, either by angels or by men. Thy name is not a word for our mouth.

From The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated from the Greek and Syriac by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachusetts, 1984, pp. lvii-lxi.