It is clear enough that in the West the tide of Christian faith is ebbing – and equally clear that in Africa and Asia it is rising. But that does not mean that people in the West are only interested in materialism – as a quick tour of any book shop will show you. There are growing sections dealing with ‘spirituality’, and it is not only in Hollywood that Buddhism is fashionable; the vogue for ‘eastern mysticism’ or ‘new age spirituality’ shows little sign of waning. But how many of those who slake their appetites here really know much about the true aastern mysticism which has been engrafted in the West these many millennia? Christianity did not originate in the West. As Betjeman’s poem, ‘Christmas’ reminds us, no earthy pleasures ‘Can with this single Truth compare / That God was man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine’. Yet how many of us read the Christian mystics which are part of our tradition?
One of my own favourites, and I passed the taste on to Jessica is St. Isaac of Nineveh, (or the Syrian). A seventh century hermit who was briefly a bishop (and gave it up for the good reason he felt it took him further from God), his writings have survived and been translated by the great Syriac scholar, Sebastian Brock. But they are not readily available. The Russian Orthodox bishop and scholar, Hilarion Alfayev, has produced an excellent study, full of good quotations here: There is a good website here:
St. Isaac understood, as perhaps few have, the depths of what St. John meant when he wrote that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8):
If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe Himself in the body in order to bring the world back to His Father using gentleness and humility? And why was He stretched out on the Cross for the sake of sinners, handing over His sacred body to suffering on behalf of the world? I myself say that God did all this for no other reason, except to make known to the world the love that He has, His aim being that we, as a result of our greater love arising from an awareness of this, might be captivated by His love when He provided the occasion of this manifestation of the kingdom of heaven’s mighty power – which consists in love – by means of the death of His Son. http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/11/1/16.aspx
It is our response to this love which God seeks to draw forth. We come to Him because He loved us first, not because we fear Hell. As Mar Isaac reminds us: ‘Among all God’s actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us.’ [Part II, chapter xxxix, 22]
Mar Isaac come close to universalism, but stops short, simply saying that in the end we cannot be sure who will and who will not be saved, or, indeed, know that we will not all be in heaven, with the sinful experiencing it as hell – the burning that comes from being in God’s presence – and hating it because to them his perfect love is unbearable. They perceive all things in their image, and to their eyes, a God who is perfect love and mercy is not what they wanted from their God. It is an interesting speculation – and Mar Isaac claims no more for it than that. But he reminds us that there were all sorts of ways God could have redeemed us – but none which would have shown us how powerful his love was than by sacrificing his only Son for our sin. Love that immense should, and can, call from us a response of love.