Isaac the Syrian’s Asceticism

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Patrick Hagman, “The Asceticism of Isaac of Nineveh” (Oxford Early Christian Studies) [OUP, 2010]
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“The ascetic tracts of 7th century writer Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian) provide a wealth of material to better understand early Christian asceticism. By focusing on the role of the body in various ascetic techniques, such as fasting, vigils and prayer, as well as on the way the ascetic relates to the society a picture of asceticism as political activity emerges. For Isaac, the ascetic was to function as something like an icon, an image that showed the world the reality of God’s Kingdom already in this life, by clearly indicating the difference between God’s ways and men’s.

Patrick Hagman reviews the scholarly discussion on asceticism of the last three decades, and then proceeds to analyse the texts of Isaac to reveal an emphasis on asceticism as a practice that is at the same time performative, transformative and bodily. This contrasts with the long-established conception of asceticism as based on a negative view of the body. Isaac displays a profound understanding of the way body and soul are related, demonstrating how the body can be used to transform the personality of the ascetic, and to communicate the change to the world, without the use words.

The writings of Isaac offer a rare example of an extensive discussion of asceticism by a person who lived a radical ascetic life himself. Hagman’s new study brings Isaac’s fresh perspective to bear on an important, yet often overlooked, aspect of the Christian tradition.”

Bishop of Nineveh Isaac (Author), Mary Hansbury (Translator) “St Isaac of Nineveh on Ascetical Life” [St Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1989]
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“Isaac of Nineveh was a native of Bet Qatraye near present-day Bahrain on the Persian Gulf. A teacher and monk, he was consecrated bishop (ca. 660-680), but preferred to live out his live as an anchorite. A Scriptural scholar, he studies Scripture so much that he became blind and had to dictate his writings. He died at an advance age and was buried in Rabban Shabur, where he spent most of his monastic life. St Isaac’s monastic anthropology has a major influence on all of Byzantine spiritual literature. The way toward God, in his writing, was threefold: the way of the body, the way of the soul, and the way of the spirit. In the first stage, the person begins with a total preoccupation with the passions and moves toward God by means of bodily works: fasting, vigils, and psalmody. The next stage involves a struggle against thoughts foreign to the nature of the soul, turning from created objects to the contemplation of God’s wisdom and a transformation within. As the person arrives at a total openness of the soul to the future hope, he proceeds to the final stage of unified knowledge, which is an attitude of wonder and praise in continual prayer to God, leading to the freedom of immortal life that is given after the resurrection. This translation, by Mary Hansbury, of St Isaac of Nineveh’s work “On the Ascetical Life” is based on the Syriac text edited by P. Bedjan in “Mar Isaacus Ninivita, De Perfectione Religiosa”.
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“On Ascetical Life” is part of the Popular Patristics Series.”

Hilarion Alfeyev (Author), Bishop Kallistos Ware of Diokleia (Foreword) “The Spiritual World Of Isaac The Syrian” [Cistercian Studies, 2000]
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“Isaac the Syrian, also called Isaac of Nineveh, lived and wrote during “the golden age of Syriac Christian literature” in the seventh century. Cut off by language and politics from the Churches of the Roman Empire and branded “Nestorian,” the Church of the East produced in isolation a rich theological literature which is only now becoming known to outsiders. Yet over the centuries and in all parts of Christendom, Isaac’s works have been read and recommended as unquestionably orthodox.

Now, at last, to my great delight, we have at our disposal a single book in English, offering us a balanced and comprehensive overview of Isaac’s life, background and teaching. Wisely, Fr. Hilarion Alfeyev has allowed Isaac to speak for himself. The book is full of well-chosen quotations, in which Isaac’s true voice can be heard.
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Saint Isaac of Syria was an ascetic, a mountain solitary, but his writings are universal in scope. They are addressed not just to the desert but to the city, not just to monastics but to all the baptized. With sharp vividness he speaks about themes relevant to every Christian: about repentance and humility, about prayer in its many forms, both outer and inner, about solitude and community, about silence, wonder, and ecstasy. Along with the emphasis that he places upon “luminous love”—to use his own phrase—two things above all mark his spiritual theology: his sense of God as living mystery; and his warm devotion to the Saviour Christ.” From the Foreword by Kallistos Ware, Bishop of Diokleia

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