St Isaac of Nineveh and Syrian Mysticism Bishop Hilarion Alfevery

Posted by on Mar 12, 2018 in Library | Comments Off on St Isaac of Nineveh and Syrian Mysticism Bishop Hilarion Alfevery

In the history of Syrian mystical tradition the seventh and the eighth centuries can be regarded as the highest point: in this time such writers as Martyrius-Sahdona, Dadisho, Symeon the Graceful, Joseph Hazzaya and John of Dalyatha lived and worked. All of them were distinguished mystical writers. Little known outside the East Syrian tradition, they constituted what one may call ‘the golden age of Syrian Christian literature’. The only representative of this ‘golden age’ who was to become known throughout the world was Isaac of Nineveh. And it is on his mystical theology that we will be primarily concentrated.

St Isaac was born in Qatar on the Western shore of Persian Gulf. He was a member of the Church of the East, commonly known as ‘Nestorian’, though historically it had nothing to do with Nestorius. This Church followed a strongly diophysite Antiochene Christology and did not recognize the most important Christological Councils of the early Church: Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451). Isaac was ordained a Bishop of Nineveh some time between 660 and 680. After he had held this office for five months he resigned (‘by reasons known to God’, as one of the sources says) and ascended the mountain of Matout in the province of Huzistan (modern Iran). Then he moved to the monastery of Rabban Shabur. An anonymous West Syrian source of an uncertain date[1] specifies that in his old age Isaac became blind and because of that was called ‘second Didymos’, after Didymos the Great, a famous Alexandrian theologian of the 4th century. The exact dates of Isaac’s birth and death are not known.

Isaac’s literary legacy consists of many ascetical and mystical homilies written in Syriac. A large number of them were translated into Greek at the end of the 8th or the beginning of the 9th century in the Lavra of St Sabbas in Palestine. From the Greek this collection of Isaac’s writings was translated into Georgian (10th century), Slavonic (14th c.) and Latin (15th c.); from Latin, in its turn, into Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French and Italian (15th and 16th c.). Isaac’s name became widely known and appreciated throughout Christian East and West, especially in monastic circles. He was recognized as a saint in a number of local Orthodox Churches (which is quite a unique case, seeing that he was a ‘Nestorian’ Bishop).

In 1983 a new collection of Isaac’s writings (‘Second Part’) was discovered by the Oxford Syrian scholar Sebastian Brock. It consists of 41 chapters, of which one (chapter III) is divided, in turn, into 400 ‘Chapters on Knowledge’. The original text of chapters I-III still awaits publication, while chapters IV-XLI were published in 1995, with an English translation.

            In what follows, I will discuss Isaac’s key mystical themes, such as experience of tears, experience of abandonment, ‘spiritual prayer’ and the stillness of mind, contemplation-theoria, visions, revelations, insights, ‘overshadowing’ and ‘illumination’, spiritual wonder, ‘inebriation’ with the love of God. I shall begin with the analysis of the theme of God as love and shall finish with the investigation into Isaac’s teaching on universal salvation, which is entirely based on his notion of divine love. In conclusion, I shall say a few words on St Isaac’s significance for a modern Christian.


The idea of God as love is central and dominant in Isaac’s thought: it is the main source of his theological opinions, ascetical recommendations and mystical insights.

            Divine love is beyond human understanding and above all description in words. At the same time it is reflected in God’s actions with respect to the created world and humankind: ‘Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us’.[2] Both the creation of the world and God’s coming on earth in flesh had the only aim, ‘to reveal His boundless love to the world’.[3]

            Divine love was the main reason for the creation of the universe and is the main driving force behind the whole of creation. In the creation of the world divine love revealed itself in all its fullness:

What that invisible Being is like, who is without any beginning in His nature, unique in Himself, who is by nature beyond the knowledge, intellect and feel of created beings, who is beyond time and space, being the Creator of these… Let us consider how rich in its wealth is the ocean of His creative act, and how many created things belong to God, and how in His compassion He carries everything, acting providentially as He guides creation, and how with a love that cannot be measured He arrived at the establishment of the world and the beginning of creation; and how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickednesses, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men.[4]

            Divine love is a continuing realization of the creative potential of God, an endless revelation of the Divinity in His creative act. Divine love lies at the foundation of the universe, it governs the world, and it will lead the world to that glorious outcome when the latter will be entirely ‘consumed’ by the Godhead:

What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God’s! What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belong to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! What a mystery does the coming into being of the creation look towards! To what a state is our common nature invited! What love served to initiate the creation of the world!.. In love did He bring the world into existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.[5]

            The will of God, which is full of love, is the primal source of all that exists within the universe.[6] God is not only the Creator of the universe and its driving force: He is first of all ‘the true Father’, ‘who in His great and immeasurable love surpasses all in paternal affection’.[7] Thus His attitude to the created world is characterized by an unceasing providential care for all its inhabitants: for angels and demons, human beings and animals. God’s providence is universal and embraces all.[8] None of His creatures is excluded from the scope of the loving providence of God, but the love of the Creator is bestowed equally upon all: ‘…There is not a single nature who is in the first place or last place in creation in the Creator’s knowledge.., similarly there is no before or after in His love towards them: no greater or lesser amount of love is to be found with Him at all. Rather, just like the continual equality of His knowledge, so too is the continual equality of His love’.[9]

            All living creatures existed in God’s mind before their creation. And before they have been brought into being, they received their place in the hierarchical structure of the universe. This place is not taken away from anyone even if one falls away from God:

Everyone has a single place in His purpose in the ranking of love, corresponding to the form He beheld in them before He created them and all the rest of created beings, that is, at the time before the eternal purpose for the delineation of the world was put into effect… He has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen.[10]

            The providential care of God and His love extends to angels, who were the first product of God’s creative act, including those who had fallen away from God and had turned into demons. According to Isaac, the love of the Creator towards fallen angels does not diminish as a result of their fall, and it is not less than the fullness of love which He has towards other angels.[11]

It would be most odious and utterly blasphemous, Isaac claims, to think that hate and resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings; or to imagine any other weakness, or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious Nature. Rather, He acts towards us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief, whether they cause joy or grief, whether they are insignificant or glorious: all are directed towards the single eternal good…[12]

            To say that the love of God diminishes or vanishes because of a created being’s fall means ‘to reduce the glorious Nature of the Creator to weakness and change’.[13] For we know that ‘there is no change or any earlier or later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser place in His love, no before or after in His knowledge’.[14] Nothing that happens in creation may affect the nature of the Creator, Who is ‘exalted, lofty and glorious, perfect and complete in His knowledge, and complete in His love’.[15]

            This is why God loves equally the righteous and sinners, making no distinction between them. God knew man’s future sinful life before the latter’s creation, yet He created him.[16] God knew all people before their becoming righteous or sinners, and in His love He did not change because of the fact that they underwent change.[17] Even many blameworthy deeds are accepted by God with mercy, ‘and are forgiven their authors, without any blame, by the omniscient God to whom all things are revealed before they happen, and who was aware of the constraints of our nature before He created us. For God, who is good and compassionate, is not in the habit of judging the infirmities of human nature or actions brought about by necessity, even though they may be reprehensible’.[18]

            Even when God chastises one, He does this out of love and for the sake of one’s salvation rather than for the sake of retribution. God respects human free will and does not want to do anything against it.[19] Thus the image of God as Judge is completely overshadowed in Isaac by the image of God as Love (hubba) and Mercy (rahme). According to him, mercifulness (mrahmanuta) is incompatible with justice (k’inuta):

Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves… Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul. As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures.[20]

            Rejecting with such a decisiveness the idea of requital, Isaac shows that the Old Testament understanding of God as a chastiser of sinners, ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’,[21] does not correspond with the revelation that we have received through Christ in the New Testament. Though David in the Psalms called God ‘righteous and upright in His judgments’,[22] He is in fact good and merciful. Christ himself confirmed God’s ‘injustice’ in His parables, in particular in the Parables of the Workers in the Vineyard and of the Prodigal Son,[23] but even more so by His incarnation for the sake of sinners: ‘Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us?’[24]

            Thus, Isaac claims, one should not interpret literally those Old Testament texts where the terms wrath, anger, hatred and others are used of the Creator. If such anthropomorphic terms occur in Scripture, they are used in a figurative sense, for God never does anything out of wrath, anger or hatred: everything of that sort is far removed from His Nature. We should not read everything literally as it is written, but rather see within the bodily exterior of the Old Testament narratives the hidden providence and eternal knowledge of God.[25] ‘Fear God out of love for Him, and not for the reputation of austerity that has been attributed to Him’.[26]

            If God is love by His nature, everyone who has acquired perfect love and mercy towards all creation, becomes godlike: his perfect state of love towards creation is a mirror where he can see a true image and likeness of the Divine Essence.[27] All the saints ‘seek for themselves the sign of complete likeness to God: to be perfect in the love of the neighbour’.[28] Characteristic in this connection is Isaac’s famous text on the ‘merciful heart’, through which one can become like God:

And what is a merciful heart? – It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.[29]

            The ‘merciful heart’ in a person is, therefore, the image and likeness of God’s mercy, which embraces the whole of creation, people, animals, reptiles and demons. With God, there in no hatred towards anyone, but all-embracing love, which does not distinguish between righteous and sinner, between a friend of truth and an enemy of truth, between angel and demon. Every created being is precious in God’s eyes, He cares for every creature, and everyone finds in Him a loving Father. If we turn away from God, He does not turn away from us: ‘If we believe not, yet He abideth faithful, for He cannot deny Himself’.[30] Whatever may happen to humankind and to the whole of creation, however far it may be removed from God, He remains faithful to it in His love, which He cannot and will not deny.

[1]  Studia Syriaca I,33 (32-33).

[2] II/39,22.

[3] Gnost.Chapt.IV,79.

[4] II/10,18-19.

[5] II/38,1-2.

[6] II/10,24.

[7] I/52 (254) = PR 51 (361).

[8] I/7 (65) = PR 7 (103).

[9] II/38,3.

[10] II/40,3.

[11] II/40,2.

[12] II/39,3.

[13] II/38,4.

[14] II/38,5.

[15] II/10,23. Cf. II/40,1.

[16] II/5,11.

[17] II/38,3.

[18] II/14,15.

[19] I/48 (230) = PR 45 (323).

[20] I/51 (244) = PR 50 (345).

[21] Ex.20:5; Num.14:18.

[22] Ps.117:137.

[23] See Mt.20:13-15; Luke 15:20-22.

[24] I/51 (250-251) = PR 50 (357-358).

[25] II/39,19.

[26] I/51 (251) = PR 50 (358).

[27] I/64 (312) = PR 65 (455).

[28] I/71 (346) = PR 74 (510).

[29] I/71 (344-345) = PR 74 (507-508).

[30] 1 Tim.2,13.

St Isaac of Nineveh and Syrian Mysticism