Saint Isaac the Syrian, Bishop of Nineveh
A Homily from Made Perfect in Faith (Ch. 30)
by Father James Thornton
Saint Isaac the Syrian was born in
Bet-Qatraje, on the western side of the Persian Gulf, near modern Bahrain and Qatar.
He lived in the latter half of the seventh century. Very little is known of
the details of his life. We know nothing, for example, of his family and know
neither the year of his
birth nor the year of his death. We know from his
extant writings that he was an educated man, and that he became a monk at some early
period of his life.
It is recorded that the region's Hierarch,
Catholicos George I, visited Bet-Qatraje in the year 676, met Saint Isaac there,
and was sufficiently impressed by his learning and spiritual gifts that he Consecrated
him Bishop and sent him north to Nineveh (modern Mosul, Iraq). However, after
only five months, the Saint resigned as Bishop. The reason for his resignation
is obscure, but it is possible that, as a man dedicated to the ascetical life, Episcopal
duties, in which one must interact to some large extent with worldly matters and
with sometimes coarse and recalcitrant people, became unpalatable to him.
Whatever the reason, Saint Isaac fled Nineveh and intensified his ascetical efforts.
For some years, he lived as a hermit, allowing himself only a little bread and uncooked
vegetables each day, and spending all of his time in prayer and reading spiritual
works. After some time, as he grew older, his eyesight began to fail him,
and so he retired to the Monastery of Rabban-Shapur, where he devoted the remainder
of his life to the writing of spiritual and ascetical works, so that he could share his fruitful experiences with his brethren in Christ.
Saint Nicholas of Ohrid and Žiča says
of Saint Isaac that, "He was without equal as a writer and guide in the spiritual
Indeed, how true that is! The great Holy Father's wise counsels, sayings,
and observations run all through that excellent manual of Orthodox spirituality,
The Philokalia. For example, we read these words: "Strive to
enter the shrine within you and you will see the shrine of heaven, for the
one is the same as the other and a single entrance permits you to contemplate both.
The ladder leading to that kingdom is hidden within you, that is, within your soul:
cleanse yourself from sin and there you will find the steps by which you ascend."2
Let us recall, with regard to these
words, that the Orthodox way of life does not aim itself, like the
ways of life of the sectarians, at mere good conduct, good citizenship, and conventional ethicality.
To be sure, we are required to conduct ourselves morally, to obey the laws of our
country when they conform to Christian teaching, and to be honest and just in our
dealings with others. Yet that is only the first step, a "baby step," so to
speak. Orthodox Christianity is not a religion of "baby steps." It is
rather a science, a science of spiritual purification.
Medical science teaches us that to
remain physically healthy, we must wash our hands and bathe our bodies frequently,
avoid contact with objects that are contaminated with harmful bacteria, and eat
only that which is clean, fresh, and suitably prepared. No sane person would
think, for example, of cleaning up after pets or barnyard animals and then of preparing
food or eating without having first washed thoroughly; and no one would think of
eating uncooked chicken, of eating fish that has been left at room temperature for
several days, or of eating vegetables that have spoiled. To do any of these
things would be to put our physical bodies at extreme risk. Modern medical
science instructs us about the importance of physical cleanliness, and the potentially
lethal results of our inattention to its teachings. Orthodoxy is similar to medical
science; however it is a science of the soul, a science of spiritual good health.
It also teaches us what “spiritual bacteria" must be avoided, what must be cleansed
away by spiritual washing, and what is safe spiritually to ingest. Just as
most people are rigorous in their attention to physical cleanliness and the wholesomeness
of what they consume, so too must Orthodox Christians be rigorous in their spiritual
life. That is because Orthodoxy, like medical science, instructs us about
health, but, in this case, spiritual health and the spiritually lethal results of
our inattention thereto.
Christ Himself commands, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."3 He refers to the struggle
for spiritual perfection or perfect spiritual cleanliness. We all remember,
from our studies of the New Testament, that the Pharisees were outwardly holy and
ethical. One could say that they were "good citizens" par excellence.
But Christ Jesus condemned them because they were inwardly imperfect and unclean.
The Evil One assures us that perfection is impossible; by contrast, Christ, who
understands and is merciful towards fallen men, states that spiritual perfection
and cleanliness are within our grasp. Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, in the aforementioned
passage, that we must search for the steps to the Kingdom of Heaven within us, and
this we do, firstly, by cleansing ourselves of sin. If we choose not to strive
for perfection; if we choose not to search for the steps to Heaven; if we choose
not to cleanse ourselves, then we are simply lost, and good citizenship and elementary
good ethics will not save us. How do we cleanse ourselves?
All of us here already know the answer
to that question. To cleanse ourselves, we obey the Ten Commandments; we obey
the Two Commandments of Christ; we pray with compunction; we fast in accordance
with Church requirements; we fill our minds with the beauty of Holy Scripture and
other Orthodox spiritual works; we foster virtue, especially humility, in our lives;
we confess to a Priest and receive the Holy Mysteries frequently; and we say "no"
to temptations, that is, we form the habit of turning away from spiritually unhealthy
thoughts the moment they present themselves to our minds. Saint Isaac writes,
"Dispassion does not mean that a man feels no passions, but that he does not accept
any of them."4 In other words, even the great Saints and ascetics
are tempted—obviously the Evil One never relents—, but the great Saints and ascetics
refuse, by carefully nurtured habit, to receive, or to accept, or to entertain in
the least, such temptations.
Saint Isaac writes elsewhere: "The
purpose of the advent of the Saviour, when He gave us His life-giving commandments
as purifying remedies in our passionate state, was to cleanse the soul from the
damage done by the first transgression and bring it back to its original state.
What medicines are for a sick body, that the commandments are for the passionate
Here, we see that Saint Isaac also
draws upon the comparison between physical health and spiritual health, and upon
the comparison between medicines for a sick body and medicines for a sick soul.
Because of Adam's transgression, our bodies became weak and prone to disease and
our souls became "passionate" and prone to the disease of sin. Yet we have
it within our power, assisted by God's Grace, to annihilate the effects of Adam's
transgression; not the effects on our bodies, which will someday die, but on our
souls, which are made to live eternally.
Saint Isaac tell us, "This life has
been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits."6
What does that mean for those of us who live in the world? It means that while
all of us in the world have duties to our spouses, to our children, to other of
our kinsmen, to our neighbors, to our professions or occupations, to our neighborhoods,
communities, and nations, and so forth, nevertheless, we have our duties also to
God and to achieve the salvation of our souls. Worldly duties are significant,
but those to God are primary; they must come first. To put the world first
is pure vanity, since that which is worldly assures, or tries to assure, a pleasant
passage of time in this life, while that which is Godly guarantees us everlasting
Saint Isaac the Syrian gave the last
years of his life, years in which he was nearly blind, to the recording of his spiritual
experiences, and this he did for us, so that we and all Christians might gain from
his hard labors. Let us listen with attention to this great Holy Father that
we may recover that spiritual health that was an attribute of man when he was first
created by God and that can become his attribute again through the spiritual science
that is Orthodoxy.
- Bishop [St.] Nikolai Velimirović The Prologue from Ochrid: Lives of the Saints
and Homilies for Every Day of the Year, trans. Mother Maria. Prologue, Vol.
I, January, February, March (Birmingham, U.K.: Lazarica Press, 1985), p. 106.
- The Philokalia: The Complete Text, comp. St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, trans. and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and [Bishop] Kallistos Ware, Vol. IV (London, U.K.: Faber & Faber, 1995), p. 202.
- St. Matthew 5:48.
- The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984), p. 364.
From Made Perfect in Faith (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2006), pp. 180-185. This
superb book of homilies is highly recommended! Posted on 29 Sep, 2006 (n.s.).