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The timeless voice of St. Isaac the Syrian

footprints in the middle of the desert

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Daniel Esparza - published on 02/01/24

To this day, his many writings continue to inspire and guide seekers of spiritual transformation – Pope Francis included.
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We don’t know much about the life of St. Isaac the Syrian. We know that he was born in the 7th century, in Qatar. We know that, following the tradition of Arabic and Northern African saints, his lifelong spiritual journey, deeply rooted in the teachings of Christ, led him to the heights of mystical insight. To this day, his many writings continue to inspire and guide seekers of spiritual transformation today – Pope Francis included.

Early life and monasticism

Christians had reached the area around the Persian Gulf (Eastern Arabia) already in the 4th century, dividing it in two main ecclesiastical regions: Beth Mazunaye (the southeast of the Arabic Peninsula) and Beth Qatraye (the northeast). Isaac was born into a Syriac-speaking family in Beth Qatraye, which includes today’s Qatar. From a young age, he showed a deep inclination towards spiritual matters, seeking solitude and introspection. At a tender age (some say he was only eight years old) he entered a monastery, where he devoted himself to rigorous ascetic practices, and to an intense study of the Bible and other spiritual texts.

After many years of monastic discipline, Isaac was ordained bishop of Nineveh – a position he held for only five months. His retiring nature and ascetic lifestyle were ill-suited to the administrative duties of a bishop, and he soon requested permission to resign, seeking solitude in the wilderness of Mount Matout, in today’s Kurdistan.

There, Isaac pursued a life of intense contemplation and spiritual growth. Hagiography claims that he ate sparingly, subsisting on only three loaves of bread a week and some raw vegetables. Some claim he did not live in the mountain for long, and soon joined the monastery of Shabar, in today’s northern Kurdistan. As is often the case with these charismatic figures, he attracted many seekers who came to him for guidance.

Spiritual teachings and influence

Isaac’s spiritual teachings are mostly homilies and discourses – namely, the noted ascetical homilies of Isaac the Syrian. Once divided into seven volumes, different editions of the homilies have been produced and passed on throughout history. The original division is now lost, and English translations often contain 77 homilies and two appendices. Other translations may differ in the number and arrangement of homilies, particularly with the West and East Syriac versions.

Despite these variations, the homilies consistently delve into various aspects of the Christian life – mainly, the distinction between virtue and vice, struggle, and faith. While primarily intended for Eastern Christian monks, the Ascetical Homilies also resonate with laypeople and non-monastic clergy alike.

Scholars like Kallistos Ware have highlighted the broad applicability of Isaac’s writings, stating that they

“speak not just to the desert but to the city; not just to monastics but to all the baptized.”

Indeed, St. Isaac emphasizes the process of noetic purification (that is, the purification of the intellect, a subject dear to most modern mystics from the 15th century on) through ascetic labors – particularly stillness, or hesychasm.

As most mystic writers would do, Isaac frequently draws upon Scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers to support his insights, but his practical experience as an anchorite in the desert grounds his teachings in lived reality rather than mere theoretical constructs.

Throughout history, the Qatari saint has been revered as a solid spiritual guide. The noted Britsh scholar Sebastian Brock said Isaac is “indubitably one of the most profound writers on spirituality produced by the Syriac Churches.” Donald Allchin goes further, hailing Isaac as “one of the greatest spiritual writers of the Christian East.” And Joseph the Hesychast asserts that Isaac’s writings could effectively replace all other Desert Fathers’ teachings on watchfulness and prayer.

MonksSpiritual LifeSpiritualitySyria
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