Little is known about the life of Isaac the Syrian, the 7th century hermit and saint born in what is now Qatar. The spiritual writings he left behind, however, are of such beauty and power that he is still known and beloved across much of the Christian East.
In the West, he is less well-known. Vatican News spoke with Sebastian Brock, a leading scholar of St Isaac, about this under-appreciated holy man, the power of his writings, his views on the 'mystery of hell', his significance for ecumenism, and the importance of poetry to theology.
Who was Saint Isaac the Syrian?
He was a monk of the Church of the East. We actually know extremely little about his life, but we do know that he belongs to the second half of the seventh century, and that he came from the region of Qatar, Beth Qatraye in Syriac, the coastal area of the Gulf.
He was brought to Mesopotamia by the Patriarch of the Church of the East, probably in 676, and he was appointed Bishop of Mosul. The very short biographical note that we have says that after a few months he resigned and retired into the desert. We don't know why - the biography says God only knows the reason, and that's probably true.
He retired to what is today southwestern Iran. He was basically a hermit, but attached to a monastery. So he would probably turn up in the monastery for the weekend for the liturgy, the vigil on Saturday and the Sunday liturgy and then disappear again. This was a common practice in the Church of the East at that time, and we have quite a lot of documentation about it.
He is a well-known figure in the Christian East, but very little known in the West. I had the good fortune of finding some more writings of his in the Bodleian Library in Oxford in the late 1980s.
Why should we read St Isaac today?
In my experience, he's the one monastic writer who is able to speak over the centuries, and although he's writing for a monastic audience, a lot of what he says is very relevant for any Christian layperson as well.
There's a very nice passage which I might read, if I may, from an Athonite novice monk who is given some Isaac to read:
"I find something true, heroic, spiritual in him; something which transcends space and time. I feel that here, for the first time, is a voice which resonates in the deepest parts of my being, hitherto closed and unknown to me. Although he is so far removed from me in time and space, he has come right into the house of my soul. In a moment of quiet, he has spoken to me, sat down beside me. Although I have read so many other things, although I have met so many other people, and though today there are others living around me, no one else has been so discerning. To no one else have I opened the door of my soul in this way. Or to put it better, no one else has shown me in such a brotherly, friendly way that, within myself, within human nature, there is such a door, a door which opens onto a space which is open and unlimited. And no one else has told me this unexpected and ineffable truth, that the whole of this inner world belongs to human person."
Pope Francis has recently made headlines for saying that he likes to think of hell as being empty. I believe this is a subject that Saint Isaac touches on as well. Could you explain his position?
Yes. Isaac doesn't speak of hell as being empty, but the hope of it being empty. In the early Church, there are a number of Fathers, and this goes back to St Paul, who imply that at the eschaton 'all will be all' in God. That presupposes that Gehenna, hell, is not eternal. There's been a lot of argument about what the New Testament term 'eternal' means - does it mean eternity in time, or does it mean something else?
Isaac is not particularly interested in what eternity is, but he is interested in the immensity of divine love. This divine love must have a purpose. So, right at the end of the Second Part, there are a number of chapters which deal directly and indirectly with what he calls the 'mystery' of Gehenna. He says that this divine love must have a purpose, and the purpose of creation certainly was not to be defeated by human evil. What that purpose is, he doesn't say, of course, because he has no idea, it's a mystery. But the implication is that divine love will overcome, somehow, Gehenna.
I would guess that Pope Francis probably has read Isaac. He's anticipated that final end, because of course, if there is some divine end to Gehenna, hell will be emptied at that point. I think that that's how I would understand Pope Francis -- I suspect he may have read Isaac.
What is important to emphasize is that universal salvation, in the history of Christianity, is often linked with positions about protology, what happened right at the beginning, and, especially, the origin of souls. There were a number of positions which were actively condemned by the Church, but it was the protology that was got into trouble. Isaac is not interested in protology -- he says nothing about it. He is totally independent of that tradition.
You'll find his position in Gregory of Nyssa, and a few other writers, including Western writers, like Julian of Norwich, and many of the mystics too. So it's nothing completely new, but the way Isaac approaches it is individual to him.
Saint Isaac has a particularly interesting role in ecumenism; he's read and appreciated in many different Churches. Could you say something about that?
Monastic literature in general is very ecumenical - it's the one kind of literature that crosses ecumenical borders very easily. And Isaac belongs to the Church of the East, which has historically been called Nestorian -- although that's a very unsatisfactory term, as I frequently try to point out -- and so from certain very conservative points of view in the Chalcedonian tradition, he would be seen as heretical.
But what he says is of interest to monks everywhere, laypeople everywhere. So his writings got into Greek, quite a large body of them. This is how Isaac really cuts across, already in antiquity, the main Christological barriers, and in modern times even more so, because he's read in translation all over the Christian world. I know people from many different Churches who find him very helpful. He's someone who cuts through ecumenical barriers in a wonderful way.