Book review: The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac The Syrian

The Ascetical Homilies
of Saint Isaac The Syrian

567 pages

Translated from the Greek and Syriac by the monks of
Holy Transfiguration Monastery

Published  by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in  1984/2011
First written in the 7th century

ascetical homilies

MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK

rating system

Some books are so precious and demand such scholarship that you have to wait for a while to be able to have access to them. This is the case for The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac The Syrian, out of print for many years, and finally reedited and republished in 2011.

I had read some of his homilies a few years ago, in a binder, and in a monastery. I patiently waited for the re-edition and spent most of 2012 in reading them all.

I have to admit that even though they are presented by the publisher as being for monks and lay people alike, there are some passages that clearly went, not over my head, as I was able to intellectually understand them, but over my nous [mind-spirit-heart]: I am well aware that I would have been able to understand them some years back in the solitude of a monastery, but that now as I am living “in the world”, too busy with mundane things, I can no longer reach to the depth of  some spiritual meanings.

But whatever I could grasp was definitely worth the wait and the effort. I’m not going to present here St Isaac’s theology, that would be too long. Let me just say that we often refer to his teaching on love and mercy. One of the modern scholars on St Isasac is Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. If you are curious, you could peruse his excellent and very accessible 20 pages paper presenting St Isaac as a Theologian of Love and Mercy.

One point that I noticed, is how St Isaac stresses humility as a way of imitating Christ: he stresses the humility of the Son of God becoming man, and in that sense, being humble as He is, we will be united with Him.
Some fathers insist more on Christ’s love, some more on HIS humility.

I prefer just to share with you the quotations that most struck me during my reading:

  • Persevere in the illumined word of those straight and holy paths, even that word which in the spirit the psalmist named a lamp. Hom 1.1 p. 113
  • If the mind only floats on the surface of the waters, that is, of the sea of the divine scriptures, and its perceptions cannot fathom the great depth so as to be able to grasp all the treasures in its deep, yet even this practice in itself, by the power of its fervent love, will suffice the mind firmly to pinion its thoughts by a single thought of wonder, and to prevent them from running to the body’s nature. Hom 1.6 p.116
  • There is no other path toward spiritual love, which forms the invisible image, except by first beginning to show compassion in proportion to the Father’s perfection, as our Lord said. Hom 1.8 p.118
  • Thirst for Jesus, that He may make you drunk with His love. Hom 3.24 p.136
  • Do not imagine that merely the possession of gold and silver is possessiveness; rather, it is the acquisition of anything whatever which your will clings to. Hom 4.30 p.142
  • As long as the heart is not humbled, it cannot cease from wandering; for humility collects the heart. Hom 8  p. 185
  • A wrathful heart is entirely devoid of the mysteries of God, but the meek and humble man is a well-spring of the mysteries of the new age. Hom 15 p.202
  • Let the Father, Who hath timelessly and everlastingly brought Thee forth from His bosom, renew in me the features of Thine image. Hom 16 p.212
  • The cell of the solitary is the cleft in the rock where God spoke with Moses. Hom 25 p.249
  • No one can conquer the wandering of the mind except by the study of spiritual knowledge. Hom 35 p.283 – how true!!
  • When a man sees all men as good and none appears to him to be unclean and defiled, then in very truth his heart is pure. Hom 37 p.305. This is really at the heart of St Isaac’s teaching.
  • In proportion to your humility you are given patience in your woes;
    and in proportion to your patience the burden of your afflictions is made lighter and you will find consolation;
    in proportion to your consolation, your love of God increases;
    and in proportion to your love, your joy in the Holy Spirit is magnified. Hom 42 p.345
  • You have not been appointed to decree vengeance upon men’s deeds and works, but rather to ask for mercy for the world,to keep vigil for the salvation of all,and to partake in every man’s suffering,

    both the just and the sinners…

    Instead of an avenger, be a deliverer.

    Instead of a faultfinder, be a soother.

    Instead of a betrayer, be a martyr.

    Instead of a chider, be a defender.

    Beseech God in behalf of sinners that they receive mercy,

    and pray to Him for the righteous that they be preserved. Hom 64 p.457. How powerful!

  • What is purity? It is a heart that shows mercy to all created nature. Hom 71 p.491

WHAT IS IT ABOUT

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian are sublime treatises on the life of prayer and stillness—hesychasm—and have been treasured by monastics and layman alike. The book includes among other things an introduction discussing what we know of the Saint’s life and the manuscripts of the homilies and the various translations of them, with maps, and Appendices with homilies by Saint Isaac only in the Syriac, a Glossary of special terms, and more. Includes all the homilies by Saint Isaac in the first edition plus two newly translated from the Syriac that were omitted from the first edition. A major work of scholarship. [from the publisher]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saint Isaac of Syria

Our venerable father Isaac of Nineveh, also known as Isaac of Syria, is a 7th century saint known for his strict asceticism and ascetic writings.

St. Isaac was born in the region of Qatar on the western shore of the Persian Gulf. When still quite young, he entered a monastery with his brother. His fame grew as a holy man and teacher. He was subsequently ordained bishop of Nineveh, the former capital of Assyria to the north, but requested to abdicate after only five months. He then went south to the wilderness of Mount Matout, a refuge for anchorites. There he lived in solitude for many years studying the Scripture, but eventually blindness and old age forced him to retire to the monastery of Rabban Shabur, where he reposed and was buried. His feast day is January 28.

Read more about him.

HAVE YOU READ ANY OF HIS HOMILIES?
DOES ANYTHING STRIKE YOU IN HIS TEACHING
DO YOU FEEL LIKE READING THIS BOOK?
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS  IN A COMMENT PLEASE

6 thoughts on “Book review: The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac The Syrian

  1. I’ve been reading him on and off for the last few years, very slowly and with breaks because I can’t take it all in, and then I feel that I need to start again at the beginning! Perhaps it’s time to pick this up again… Thanks for writing this Emma!

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    • I was going to tell you that the homilies are not connected and it’s ok to read them separately, not as a whole entity, BUT I remember now often asking me what the order was between them. and I do believe there’s an order between them. Could it broadly follow the themes of the Ladder? Though as I said, the top of the ladder is not love but humility. If you can read a few minutes a day, that’s worth it.

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