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Isaac the Syrian

ISAAC THE SYRIAN

ISAAC THE SYRIAN (d. 700 ce?), also known as Isaac of Nineveh, was a bishop in the ancient Nestorian church of Syria; a monk, recluse mystic, and creative writer whose discourses have had widespread influence on Christian and, some think, ūfī spirituality. The English world at first greeted his work, originally written in Syriac, with culture-bound coolness, but has eventually come to recognize him as one of the most sublime and original mystic writers of the Christian East.

Little is known about Isaac's life. Born in a region around the Persian Gulf, he became a monk and for a time the bishop of Nineveh (modern Mosul), an office he resigned after only five months. He then withdrew to one of the monasteries in the mountains of Huzistan (southwestern Iran), where he practiced strict solitude (hesychasm) as a way of pursuing unceasing communion with God. In order not to break the rule of solitude, as Isaac himself relates in a stirring personal account, he refused to go to the deathbed of his brother, a monk in another monastery. Toward the end of his life a burning love led Isaac to write a profusion of illuminating discourses on Christian perfectionthe fruit of his assiduous study of scripture, his reading of Christian authors, and his own experiences, about which he is discreetly modest.

Isaac's writings were translated into Greek, Coptic, and Arabic, and became influential from Byzantium to Ethiopia. Later Latin and Spanish translations made him known to the West. The Greek translation (ninth century) was printed in a partly critical edition by Nikēphoros Theotokēs (1770), and this edition was in turn the basis of a Russian translation by Feofan the Recluse (nineteenth century), excerpts of which were rendered into English by Eugénie Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer in Early Fathers from the Philokalia (1954). Earlier, A. J. Wensinck, working on Paul Bedjan's critical edition of the original Syriac discourses (1909), had published his English translation of Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh (1923), valuable but unfortunately inadequate in correctly rendering key patristic terminology derived from the Greek fathers. A new translation, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, based on the Greek and Syriac, is in preparation by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, Massachusetts.

Only the earnest student will be rewarded by reading Isaac's work in English; wide cultural differences, the sublimity of Isaac's thought, and the fact that it is addressed principally to other solitaries, not ordinary Christians, add to other problems of translation. Although he cites Evagrios of Pontus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and others who are in some respects suspect to orthodox theology, there is nothing specifically Nestorian about Isaac's Christology. Isaac strictly avoided dogmatic disputations and was completely grounded in the traditions of Eastern Christianity's piety and spirituality. He frequently quoted not only the Old and New Testaments but also the ascetics of Egypt and eminent church fathers such as Ephraem of Syria, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory the Theologian, and Chrysostom. Isaac was interested primarily not in mysticism but in God; his originality lies in his luminous descriptions of the deep stirrings of the Holy Spirit in the heart, the new birth, the gift of tears, and profound stages of prayer leading to ecstasy. For him the goal of Christian perfection is the love of God, of "the food of angels which is Jesus."

Bibliography

Bejan, Paul, ed. Mar Isaacus Ninivita de perfectione religiosa. Paris, 1909.

Kadloubovsky, Eugénie, and G. E. H. Palmer, trans. Early Fathers from the Philokalia. London, 1954.

Theotokēs, Nikēphoros. Isaak tou Syrou Eurethenta Asketika (1770). Reprint, Athens, n.d. (1960s).

Wensinck, A. J., trans. and ed. Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh. Amsterdam, 1923.

Theodore Stylianopoulos (1987)

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