ISAAC of NINEVAH
( = of SYRIA c. 630-c. 700)

Homily 28: and The Second Part (sel.)
 

 St. Isaac of Syria, Modern Icon


HOMILY 28: The Acetical Homilies of St. Isaac of Syria tr. based on  (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984).  "THE SECOND PART" tr. based on  Sebastian Brock, CSCO 225, Peters, 1995, pp. 1-4.


HOMILY 28:  Vision of incorporeals Love is All in the age to Come The Scourge of Love;
THE SECOND PART: Canonical and Contemplative Prayer;   Prayers 1-4


 HOMILY 28

 

HOMILY 28

 

 

 

 Vision of incorporeals;

QUESTION: In how many different ways is human nature able to receive vision of the nature of incorporeal beings?

 

ANSWER: The direct apprehension of every simple and subtle nature of spiritual bodies comes within the grasp of the sense faculty of human nature in three ways: in the density of substance, which is a non-essential manner; in the subtlety of substance, which is a non-essential manner; or in true theoria, which is essential vision. In the first, the senses hold sway; in the second, the soul sees superficially; in the third, the power of the mind’s nature operates. Further, of the last two, one is dominated by the will and mind, and one by the will and the light of the soul and what strengthens the same. Firstly, then, will is the cause; and these are offspring of the free will, even if the free will and the faculty of volition are quiet at the time of their employment, so long as the operation [of the modes of vision] is active and persists. But only one mode of visions manifests itself independently of the will and of true knowledge, because independently of the will the senses take in everything that comes to pass. The holy angelic powers employ all these three modes in their fellowship with us for our instruction and the establishment of our life.

The abominable demons, however, can only stir up in us the first two modes, as they draw nigh in order to destroy us and not to profit us. They cannot come to us by the third mode in order to lead us astray, because they have no power whatsoever to set in motion the natural thoughts of our intellect. For it is impossible for the sons of darkness to approach light. But the holy angels possess this ability: both to set the natural thoughts in motion and to enlighten them. The demons, however, are the lords and creators of false intuitions, the offspring of darkness. For from luminous beings light is received; from darksome beings, darkness.

 

QUESTION: For what reason was this given to the angels, but not to the demons?

 

ANSWER: Every one of these teachers [of men] must firstly see in himself the insight which he teaches; he must learn it, receive it, taste it, and then only can he offer it to his pupils. The first teachers, the angels, transmit the precise reality of things from their own sound knowledge, which they are able to gain by the swift comprehension of their exceedingly keen and pure intellect. But although the demons possess keenness, they lack light. Keenness is one thing, light another. The first without the second brings its possessor to destruction. The second reveals the truth, but the first, a phantoms of the truth. For light reveals the reality of things, and in proportion to the measure of a man’s way of life, it waxes and wanes.

The holy angels infuse into us that knowledge of the movements of things which they have first tasted and understood, for only then do they transmit it to us. Likewise the second teachers, the demons, set in motion within us conceptions about things according to the degree of their knowledge; for when they have not [received] permission to lead us astray, it is necessary for them to set in motion in us right thoughts about such things. Nevertheless be certain, as I said before, that even if we are capable of receiving true divine vision, they would be incapable of teaching it to us, though indeed they possessed it in the beginning. Further, each one of these teachers, the angels or their opponents, inspires his pupils in accord with Divine oeconomy, by which that teacher is governed.

 I hold as a truth, nevertheless, that our intellect, without the mediation of the holy angels, is able of itself to be moved toward the good uninstructed; however, our intellect cannot come to know evil or be incited by it without the mediation of the demons or the senses. The intellect cannot work evil of itself; for good is implanted in its nature, but not so, evil. Everything that is alien and comes in from without requires a mediator so that knowledge of it might be gained, but that which is implanted within unfolds itself in nature without instruction, be it but dimly. But although our nature is such that of itself it moves toward the good, its development and illumination cannot come to pass without the divine vision received from angels. They are our teachers, even as they are of one another; for the lower ones are taught by those who oversee them and possess more light, and so each order is illuminated from the one above even up to that one [order] which possesses the Holy Trinity as Teacher. And further, this very first order itself says openly that it is not instructed of itself, but it has Jesus the Mediator (Cf. 1 Tim. 2:5) as its Teacher, from Whom it receives and then transmits to those below it.

It is my opinion that our intellect does not have a natural power to be moved to the divine vision of Divinity. And in this one deficiency we are the peers of all the celestial natures, for without investigations and reasonings both in us and in them grace moves that which is alien by nature both to the human intellect and to the angelic. For divine vision concerning the Godhead is not to be numbered among the other kinds of divine vision. For we possess divine vision of the natures of things through participation in their twofold nature, because there is a portion of all things in us. But we do not have a portion of the nature of the [Divine] Essence, and so neither do we have [by nature ] divine vision of It.  Now this divine vision is not stirred by nature in the rational beings of the first and middle orders, but by grace it is set in motion in all intellects, both celestial and terrestrial; nature cannot comprehend this, as it does other things.

Before Christ’s incarnate coming, the theoria of the intellect and vision, whereby the order of the celestial beings is moved, was not within their power, so that they could penetrate into these mysteries. But when the Word was made flesh, in Jesus a door was opened unto them, as the Apostle says.(Cf. Col. 4) It is, however, my opinion‑and indeed it is true‑that although we, men, should purify and cleanse ourselves, yet without their mediation, our intellect will not be able to attain to the revelations and insights which lead to that eternal divine vision which is in very truth the revelation of mysteries. For our intellect does not have a capacity as great as that of the most sublime beings, who without mediation receive revelations and divine visions from the Eternal One. But even they [receive these revelations] from Him in a likeness and not nakedly; and in like manner our intellect also I and likewise the other orders, except that one which [receives them ]from Jesus Who holds the sceptre of the Kingdom. By means of transmission each order receives from anotherrevelation concerning the Divine governance and the discernment thereof, from the first to the second and so on until the mystery has passed through all the orders. There are, however, many mysteries which remain with the first order and do not pass on to the rest; for these cannot receive the magnitude of the mystery, but only the first order. Some mysteries proceed forth from the first order and are only revealed to the second, where they are kept in silence and remain unknown to the rest of the orders. And there are mysteries which proceed as far as the third and the fourth orders. There is also loftiness and meanness in in the revelations that are manifested to each of the orders of I the holy angels.

One order is enriched with revelations, and mysteries of a lofty degree are revealed to it, and it receives superabundant illumination. But another is inferior to the former and its intuitions are too weak for these mysteries. Thus in the reception of revelations there is abundance and scarcity, greatness and smallness among the spiritual orders. Except for that single and chief order which is the first of all the orders, the rest receive divine vision and indications concerning the whole of the Divine governance [ of things] from their fellows.] If, therefore, it is thus with the celestial orders, how much less should we be able to receive such mysteries without the angels and without mediation?

Whenever the perception of the revelation of a mystery descends into the intellects of the saints, this is also from the angels. When it is permitted by God, a mystery is revealed from a higher [angelic ] order to a lower one, even unto the lowest; and in the same manner, when it is permitted by the Divine nod that a mystery should come even to human nature, it is transmitted by those who are wholly worthy of it. For by their intermediary the saints receive the light of divine vision, [leading] even to the glorious Eternal Being, the mystery which cannot be taught; and the angels receive from one another, ‘for they are ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation’(Heb. 1:14) through the awareness of true intuitions that are proper to them.

Love is All in the age to Come

[ The Age to Come; the Scourge of Love ]

  In the future age, however, this order of things will be abolished. For then one will not receive from another the revelation of God’s glory unto the gladness and joy of his soul; but to each by himself the Master will give according to the measure of his excellence and his worthiness, and he will not receive the gift from his comrade as he does here. Then there will be no teacher and no pupil, nor one whose deficiency must be filled up by another. For one is the Giver there, Who gives without mediation to those who receive; and those who win joy, procure it from Him. For they do not perceive Him through diverse intellections, but by [direct] revelation of Him, without departing from Him through thoughts. 1 There the order of those who teach and those who learn ceases, and on One alone hangs the ardent love of all.

I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all

The power of love works in two ways:

[a] it torments sinners, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend;

[b] but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties.

[a] Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret.

[b] But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability.

Someone was asked, ‘When will a man know that he has received the remission of his sins?’ He answered, ‘When in his soul he becomes conscious that he has completely hated them with his whole heart, and when he governs himself in his external actions in a manner opposed to his former way of life. Such a man, as having already hated his sin, is confident that he has received remission of his sins by reason of the good witness of his conscience which he has acquired, after the saying of the Apostle, “A conscience uncondernned is a witness of itself.” (Cf. Rom. 2:15)And may we also gain remission of our sins by the grace and love for man of the unoriginate Father with His only‑begotten Son and the Holy Spirit, to Whom be glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.


 THE SECOND PART

 

THE SECOND PART, ch. 4-5

 

 

 

 Canonical and Contemplative Prayer

 CHAPTER 4: By the same Mar Isaac: other matters which were composed by him after the Chapters on Knowledge (to serve as) clarificatory indications of our honorable labour which is (performed) in stillness.

 

1. NOW that, through the grace of God’ our Saviour, we have completed these Chapters on Knowledge, wherein great power is stored up   seeing that it was clearly grace which set them in order, for my conscience bears witness to me that they contain an operative power which does not belong to our own human strength, seeing that we are so deficient in the ascetic life and lack a knowledge which would allow us to be raised up to such a height of the mysteries which are stored in this writing   having reached this point following those chapters which were written down with the help of our Lord, our intention is to set out the (forms of) the converse of hidden prayer, grouped separately under the different headings (designated by) the letters (of the alphabet).

 

2. This too you should realize, my brother, that a mind which has (once) been illumined has no need of the varied wording of (different) prayers: just the single door to prayer suffices to enfold the mind within prayer, allowing it to mingle with God.[1]

 

3. Varieties of (different) prayers indeed greatly help a mind which is harassed by distraction’: from them, and by means of the strength resulting from them, the mind feels compunction and (so) acquires sweet prayer, prolonged kneeling, intercession for creation, and extended supplications which are set into motion from within. This happens to him because, with each single word which he encounters in these (prayers), he is like someone who is awoken out of sleep: he encounters in them astounding insights3 all the time, seeing that these very words are the result of the gift of grace arid (so) possess a hidden power. Thus he is continually assisted through being occupied by them and through reading them.

 

4. During periods of grace when you enjoy this prayer of delight’ and those prolonged kneelings, there is no great necessity for you to stand by the canonical (Hours) or to worry yourself over the matter of the number of (prayers) that remain (to be recited), for such prayer has encompassed (within itself) prayers (which are recited) according to fixed number and it has made the canons (governing such prayers) subordinate to you. Is it not clear from the fact that you are lying prostrated on your face before the Cross for most of the day   (a form of prayer) which encompasses all partial prayer and the Office within itself   that (this prayer) has made the canons subordinate to you? `At the time of some great work, do not turn to one that is lesser.

 

5. The blessed Mark[2] said this with hidden intent, for he knew that not everyone attains to pure prayer, whereas those who do attain (to it) are instructed by its delight that there is no work greater than it. When it so happens that you are deprived of this, then it is a good thing that one does not neglect the canonical rule. If you partially possess it, then be concerned to keep the canonical rule for the other part, right down to the (matter of) breathing; for you will be illumined once again as a result of concern for the canonical rules, and you will progress to (the pure prayer) which is continuous.

 

6. Every son there is at first works in servitude to his father, but then (later) he is is given authority over his treasures   just as the blessed Paul said: “As long as the heir is a child, he is no different from the servants; he is under guardians and stewards until he reaches the time appointed by his father’’ (Eph. 4:3). Let the divine laws and the fair canons of your holy way of life be the guardians and stewards who guide you during the time of your (spiritual) childhood, for they will bring you to the measure of a perfect man in Christ.

 

7. For what advantage is there in laws and rules apart from the illumination which is born’ from them in the soul? Their purpose is so that someone can right himself with their help every time he finds himself in the dark and goes astray   that is, with (the help of) the appointed prayer of the Hours and of the Office. Just as when someone has lost his way he goes back to the beginning of the road and taking his start from there he continues on his journey to wherever he wants to go, so too rules and laws set on the right path the person who finds himself in the dark as he goes astray, but when that person approaches those rules again, they ~ set him back on the path from which he had strayed. Now what the law of children is which brings a person up in freedom and gives him light, and what is the law of servants which does not allow progress, and whereby a person is educated in a way befitting young children   all this we intend to show in the proper place.

 

8. We should also realize this: as long as someone has the times of the day divided up, in part for the Office, in part for reading (Scripture), in part for prayer, and in part for other works, once the time for paying dues has arrived, he is obliged of necessity to pay the dues to the time allocated: it is not possible for him to pass it over, leaving behind a debt to it, for it is necessary to fulfil the obligation to each of the canonical rules in its proper place and at its proper time.

 

9. In the case of someone who is clinging to God unceasingly in the continual outpouring that takes place in prayer, constantly stretched out on the ground in supplication to Him, his soul swallowed up with yearning as he lies fallen before the Cross, this person is not subject to any law or canonical rules, nor do times and specific appointed periods have any authority over him; rather, he is from that point on above them, being with God without any limitation.

 

 

10. But now let us leave off and draw to a conclusion. Let us approach (instead) and take delight in conversation with God, through meditating on the prayers’ which we are about to set down, for by these we shall receive the gift of sanctification and the heavenly power which reveals mysteries in the soul.

 

 

 Prayers 1-4

 CHAPTER 5: PREFACE & PRAYERS 1-4.

 

(PREFACE) The converse of hidden prayer, by Mar Isaac’, which he drew up, arranged and composed with words of feeling and supplication, making, out of limbs joined together, a single body which will be useful for the meditation of hidden prayer: a person can be occupied with these (words) while standing up or sitting down, while working or while walking inside his cell, while he is going to sleep, until the point when sleep takes over, while he is indoors or while he is travelling on a journey, secretly occupying himself with them within his heart; (likewise), while he is constantly kneeling on the ground, (or) wherever he happens to be standing, even if it is not in front of the Cross, and he will mingle the humility of his body with the stirrings of his prayer, for by these he will find benefit, as well as from those which he has laid down as (his) rule and (from) the place set aside, with the beneficial advantages which occur from it for him in the face of his changing state of mind and the (times of) peace and of vexations which come upon him. Thus, by making use of these (prayers) which have been appropriately composed so that he may find comfort, his soul will receive sanctification by them, and will be filled with the grace of the Spirit.

 

(PRAYERS)

 

1. As my soul bows down to the ground I offer to You with all my bones and with all my heart the worship that befits You. O glorious God who dwells in ineffable silence. You have built for my renewals a tabernacle of love on earth where it is Your good pleasure to rest, a temple (made) of flesh and fashioned with the most holy sanctuary oil. Then You filled it with Your holy presence so that all worship might be fulfilled in it, indicating the worship of the eternal persons of Your Trinity and revealing to the worlds which You had created in Your grace an ineffable mystery, a power which cannot be felt or grasped by any part of Your creation that has come into being. In wonder at it angelic beings are submerged in silences, awed at the dark cloud of this eternal mystery and at the flood of glory which issues from within this source of wonder, for it receives worship in the sphere of silence? from every intelligence that has been sanctified and made worthy of you.

 

2. I prostrate myself, Lord, at the footstool of Your feet and at Your holy right hand which has fashioned and made me a human being capable of becoming aware of You. But I have sinned and done wrong, both in myself and before you, for I have abandoned holy converse with You and given over my days to converse with the lusts. I beg of You, Lord, do not set up against me the sins of my youth, the ignorance of my old age and the frailty of my nature which is too strong for me and has caused me to sink into reflection on things that are hateful. Rather, turn my heart towards You, away from the troublesome distraction of the lusts; cause to dwell in me a hidden lights. Your acts of goodness towards me always anticipate any kind of volition on my part to do well and any readiness for virtue on the part of my heart. You have never held back Your care in order to test my freewill; rather, as with the care of a father towards his young son, so has Your care (for me) run after me; Your fatherly graciousness has visited my frailty and has had no intention of making test of my will, (for) You knew all the time that, even less than a child, I do not know whither I am travelling.

 

3. I beseech You, O God, send me help from Your highest heavens so that I may keep afar from my heart every evil intention and every carnal wish. Do not cast me, Lord, from Your protection lest my adversary find me and trample upon me just as he desires, destroying me utterly. It is You who grants repentance and a sorrowing heart’ to the sinner who repents; in this way You ease his heart of the weight of sin that is laid upon it, thanks to the comfort which comes from sorrowing and from the gift of tears.

 

4. At the door of Your compassion do I knock, Lord; send aid to (my) scattered impulses which are intoxicated with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness. You can see my sores (hidden) within me: stir up contrition though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed by the bitter pain from them. Assist my feeble stirrings (on the path) to true repentance, and may I find alleviation from the vehemence of sins through the contrition that comes of Your gift, for without the power of Your graces I am quite unable to enter within myself, become aware of my stains, and so, at the sight of them, be able to be still from great distraction.


[1] ‘allowing it to mingle with God’ compare V.18, X.16, XIV.48 where hlt is again used for mystical union with God (similarly Part 1, 414 etc.); likewise hultand at VII.3, XIX.6, XXXV title. Similar phraseology is already found in the Peshitta NT (Heb. 3:14, A.Thomas 231 (eucharistic context), Ephrem H. c.Haer. 32:8 (and often), and is encountered throughout Syriac tradition. In general, see G.G. BLUM, “Vereinigung and Venmischung. Zwei Grundmotive christlich orientalischer Mystik”, OC 63 (1979), 41 60. See also on V11.3.

[2] : Isaac is quoting from Mark the Monk, Spiritual Law (Add. 17192 154r; English Tr. in Philokalia 1, p.124 (no. 200).

 


 


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