Monday, April 14, 2008

Reflections on St Isaac the Syrian-Part IV

Thinking about St Isaac the Syrian and having read his works to great personal, pastoral and professional profit, I tend to view his work much like I do the questions I ask in therapy or confession. Much like a Zen koan, St Isaac's work is given to the Church by God to provoke reflection on the Gospel and our own personal and communal stance relative to God. And so I find myself agree with BH when he says that "Isaac's teaching on universal salvation evokes the following questions: what is the sense of the whole drama of human history, if both good and evil are ultimately to be found on an equal footing in the face of God's mercifulness? What is the sense of sufferings, ascetic labour and prayer, if sinners will be sooner or later equated with the righteous? Besides, how far do Isaac's opinions correspond to the Christian tradition and to the teaching of the Gospel, in particular, to the Parable of the Last Judgment, where the question concerns the separation of the 'sheep' and the 'goats'?"

What self-knowledge I have suggests to me the truth that I need to believe in a Hell populated with other people. Even if I rarely will admit that to myself, much less others, I recognize in me the bitterness, the anger, the desire for revenge that resonates deeply with a populated Hell. One of the good reasons I am as attracted to psychoanalytic thought is that it serves to remind me of just how hard real healing is—and theologically it is hard because, as a sinner, wholeness does not naturally attract me.

This division within myself is one that I replicate in my view of humanity. But St Isaac "in speaking about the absence of any middle realm between Gehenna and the Kingdom of heaven" is not denying "the reality of the separation of the sheep from the goats, . . . he even explicitly refers to it." No he is concerned, I would suggest, in imitating the God Who does not separate Himself from either the sheep or the goats, the repentant or the unrepentant, the saint or the sinner, the virtuous or the vicious. We should is the saint's view ponder daily the reality of the Last Judgment. But I asking us to do so, is to make clear to us that "the present life is a time when the separation actually takes place, and the Last Judgment will only reveal that spiritual state which was reached by a person during his life." Isaac's teaching is not, BH argues, "a dogmatic statement concerning the final destiny of the righteous and sinners, but as a prophetic warning against not having and manifesting love for one's fellow humans during one's earthly life."

I can immediately hear the objections that are raised. Let me simply say for myself, it does not speak well of me that I need the threat of Hell to love, much less that I believe that I think you do and that I am the appointed agent to deliver that stern warning.

For Isaac, God is primarily a householder making those who worked only one hour equal to those who have borne the burden of the whole day (Matt.20:1-15). A place in the Kingdom of heaven is given to a person not on the basis of his worthiness or unworthiness, but rather on the basis of God's mercy and love towards humankind. The Kingdom of heaven is not a reward, and Gehenna is not a requital: both are gifts of the merciful God 'Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Tim.2:4).

When I was in college one of the great Christological debates in academic theology centered on the self-awareness of Christ. What was it like for Jesus to be aware of Himself? Did He know Himself with His mind to be the Pre-Eternal Son of God? Oh how we all went round and round on these and other questions.

That is until the day we asked Fr Christopher Rabay, a pious Cistercian priest. After a moment's pause he said that having himself never been God become man, he had no frame of reference to even begin to answer the question. After all, he continued, he didn't even understand how the saints thought himself not being a saint. Likewise, I think it is good to keep in mind that "the theological system of Isaac the Syrian is based on the direct experience of the mystical union of an ascetic with the love of God." Whatever else this might mean existentially, St Isaac offers us an insight into an experience of God and His creation that "excludes any possibility of envy of other human beings, even to those who have reached a higher spiritual state and thus have a chance of receiving a higher place in the Kingdom of heaven." For the saint, and unlike me, the spiritual life bears fruit in an "experience of unity with God as love is so full of delight in itself that it is not for the sake of any future reward that a person prays, suffers and toils in ascetical labours: in this very suffering, in this very prayer and ascetical labour, the experience of encounter with God is concealed." For St Isaac, and unlike me, the "reason for prayer, bearing afflictions and keeping the commandments is, therefore, not one's striving to leave other human beings behind and to obtain a place in the age to come that is higher than theirs." Instead, he tells us that the only "reason for all ascetical toils is the experience of the grace of God which a person acquires through them. An encounter with God, a direct mystical experience of the divine love which one receives during one's lifetime is, for Isaac, the only justification for all struggles and efforts."

I would be the first to admit that, view from the vantage of systematic theology, St Isaac's teaching leaves something to be desired. But then view from the viewpoint of systematic theology, so does poetry and the text of Scripture. But this is not to pit systematic theology against mystical prayer any more that the deficiencies of physiology, psychology, sociology, to capture what it means for me to say to my wife, "I love you" means that these disciplines are of no value. What I am saying, I think, is this, let us be wary of St Isaac's teaching, but that wariness ought not to be born out of an indifference to the delight and joy his teaching can inspire in us.

St Isaac writes:

Be at peace with your own soul

then heaven & earth will be at peace with you.

Enter eagerly into the treasure

house that is within you,

And you will see the things that are in heaven,

for there is but one single entry to them both.

The ladder that leads to the Kingdom

is hidden within your soul...

Dive into yourself and in your soul

and you will discover the stairs

by which to ascend.

I cannot help but wonder how much of our concern about matters pertaining to the life to come reflect our being at peace within our own souls. Nor can I shake the feeling that, for all our theological erudition, if our objection to St Isaac of Syria and our defense of Hell and of divine justice trumping divine mercy, does not likewise reflect that lack of peace. Whatever else might be the case, if you are condemned for all eternity to Hell, I can easily think myself "absolved" of any responsibility for you. And yes I know, the universalist tendency allows for a similar neglect of my neighbor and of myself. But, again as St Isaac says:

Gratefulness on the part of the recipient spurs on the giver to bestow gifts larger than before. He who embezzles petty things is also false and fraudulent concerning things of importance.

The sick one who is acquainted with his sickness is easily to be cured; and he who confesses his pain is near to health. Many are the pains of the hard heart; and when the sick one resists the physician, his torments will be augmented.

There is no sin which cannot be pardoned except that one which lacks repentance, and there is no gift which is not augmented save that which remains without acknowledgement. For the portion of the fool is small in his eyes.

In my own experience, and again I am certainly no saint, generosity of spirit, a willingness to not reject or abandon another human being, is certainly harder, but eve so much more effective.

In Christ our True God, the Physician of our souls and body, the One heals our every disease and Who forgives us our every sin,

+Fr Gregory