By: Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev
Already in his lifetime Isaac was respected and venerated as a spiritual teacher. After his death his glory increased as his writings spread. Joseph Hazzaya, who lived in the eighth century, called him ‘famous among the saints’. Another Syrian writer calls him ‘the master and teacher of all monks and the haven of salvation for the whole world’.
By the eleventh century, due to the Greek translation of his writings, Isaac became widely known in the Greek-speaking East: in the famous anthology of ascetical texts, the Evergetinon, the passages from ‘abba Isaac the Syrian’ stand on the same footing as those from the classics of early Byzantine spirituality. This is how a modest ‘Nestorian’ Bishop from a remote province of Persia became a Holy Father of the Orthodox Church of Chalcedonian orientation – a rather exceptional phenomenon in the history of Eastern Christianity.
St Isaac has exerted a considerable influence on Russian spirituality. His ascetical homilies, translated into Slavonic in the XIVth century, made a deep impression on St Nil of Sora, one of the most important monastic writers of the XVIth century. In the XIXth century major theologians, such as Philaret of Moscow and Theophane the Recluse, as well as famous secular writers, such as I.Kireyevsky and F.Dostoyevsky, were among his admirers. Dostoyevsky was deeply influenced by Isaac’s homilies and used some of them as a source material for ‘the writings of Elder Zosima’ in ‘The Brothers Karamazoff’.
The word of St Isaac has crossed not only the boundaries of time, but also confessional barriers. As early as in the ninth century, he was read by the Byzantine and Syrian Orthodox, as well as the Church of the East, each group having provided its own recension of his writings. In the fifteenth century Isaac breaks into the Catholic world, being at the same time one of the most popular ascetical writers of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In our time his writings draw the attention of Christians who belong to different denominations and follow different traditions, but share a common faith in Jesus and the ultimate quest for salvation. I remember how during one scholarly conference, where I delivered a paper on the practice of prayer in St Isaac, three people came to me, one after another: a Cistercian nun, a protestant layman, and a Buddhist monk. All three were wondering at how much Isaac’s teaching of prayer, which I expounded, is in line with their own traditions. Then a Franciscan friar came to inform me of the existence of St Isaac of Nineveh’s retreat house in New Zealand: the house is run by both Catholics and Anglicans.
One of the secrets of this ecumenical reception of Isaac lies in his own universal vision: his writings, which were initially addressed to a very narrow circle of his contemporary monastics, have proved to be aproppriate for so many people in different epochs even down to our time. Every Christian who now reads Isaac can find something appropriate for himself, in spite of the fact that the entire context of Isaac’s life was so strikingly different from our own.
Another secret of Isaac’s wide reception lies in the fact that he is always speaking of God’s love, which has no boundaries, which is beyond any concept of justice or requital, which was crucified for the salvation of the whole world and which leads all created beings to salvation. In every epoch, the Christian world needs to be reminded of this universal love of God for His creation because in every epoch there is a strong tendency within Christianity to replace the religion of love and freedom that was brought about by Jesus with the religion of slavery and fear. Isaac reminds us that it is not out of fear of punishment or out of hope of future reward that we are to keep God’s commandments, but out of our love for God. Our vocation is not to be slaves, but to attain to the freedom of the sons of God and to become ‘a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation.