About a decade ago my co-author here, Chalcedon, introduced me to St. Isaac of Nineveh, or as he is often known, St Isaac the Syrian. Brought up as a pretty low church Anglican, I didn’t know much about saints (one of the sad things of that part of the tradition), but even when I discovered more, I found that St Isaac was not well-known. There are many reasons that is not surprising.
His works are not that easy to get hold of. The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac is long out of print and prohibitively expensive secondhand; the second part of his homilies is also difficult to get hold of, and although not as expensive as the first part, it is not cheap either. He is most easily accessible through Sebastian Brock’s The Wisdom of St. Isaac, and the quite splendid study by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev entitled The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian.
Why the obscurity? Well, St Isaac belongs to none of the main traditions of Christianity although all seem to recognise him as a Saint. He belonged to the Assyrian Church of the East, a church long accused (unjustly) of being Nestorian. He lived in what is now Qatar, on the Western Shore of the Persian Gulf in the seventh century. He was made Bishop of Nineveh at some point between 661 and 661, but resigned his See not long after taking it up. The real reason is likely to have been the doctrinal arguments going on at that time between different doctrinal factions within the church, but I like the reason one of St Isaac’s chroniclers gives, which is that when adjudicating a dispute, he referred to what the Gospels said, only for one of the litigants to say ‘Leave aside for the moment the teaching of the Gospel’, to which Isaac said: ‘If the Gospel is not to be present, what have I come here to do’. At which point he is said to have resigned.
A more accurate chronicle says ‘he abdicated his episcopacy for a reason which God knows’. He lived most of his life as an anchorite, either alone, or in the company of other holy men. We are told:
He was exceedingly well versed in the Divine Writings even to the point he lost his eyesight by reason of his reading and asceticism. He entered deeply into the divine mysteries.
The date of his death, as of his birth, is not known, but we do know that even during his lifetime he was venerated as a holy man. An eighth century writer called him ‘famous among the saints’. We owe our knowledge of his works, at least in the West, to the monks of Athos, who included some of his sayings in an anthology.
We do not know how much of his work was lost, but what is now called ‘the second part’ remained unknown until the 1980s, when the great Syriac scholar, Professor Sebastian Brock discovered it in an eleventh century manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The first part is what has made Mar Isaac, as the Syriac Church calls him, famous – and that is because everyone who reads his words recognises what his contemporaries did – that here is one who walked closely with God.