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The significance of Isaac of Syria (of Nineveh)


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#1 Daniel Smith

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Posted 02 October 2009 - 05:38 AM

This Saint, Isaac of Syria (Or Nineveh) has been of immense interest to me lately, as has the Persian Church in general. My question is roughly This: The Romans claim this saint, The Orthodox claim this saint, the Monophysites claim this saint, and the Assyrians claim this saint. In each church he is a canonical saint. What does this portend ecclesiologically?

Are only people heretics and not whole churches? Christ did say his church was built on the apostles, that is, each of them...including whatever flavor each apostle brought with them? I do not want to be a proponent for the branch theory here, but the more I listen to people speaking for themselves the less different our christologies seem...Although I know it would take some stretching to get a copt and iranian to agree as to the nature of the Hypostatic union...lol.

Can not our theological differences exist within bounds? Nestorius wasn't nearly as Nestorian as Cyril Extrapolated, and Cyril was not nearly as Monophysite (or Mia for the sensitive ones) as figures like Eutyches, DIoscorus, Severus, Peter , etc... would have US believe. Truly, The Orthodox stand in the midst of all this and pave the middle road of balance...but even so, we have been taught to guard with zeal what has been handed down to us. Can we fault whole churches, who, five minutes prior to an act of excommunication were part of the same church and Led by the same Spirit? Are there really schisms from GOD or only among men? And if only among men...what are we doing? Can a schism based on misunderstanding be a real schism spiritually?

What does St. Isaac mean for all this?

Add to this the fact that the earliest monastic saints of the Georgian Orthodox CHurch, in full communion with the main Autocephalous Orthodx CHurches , were monophysites from Armenia and Syria! But they are Venerated in an Orthodox Church! It's not that I object, it's that if this is so what have we been objecting to all along? Does this not indicate that we simply prefer a certain language about God when it is often unsafe to speculate about or say too much? Or are we simply not Orthodox? Or is this simply toleration of Georgias monophysite past?

a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump...

Edited by Daniel Smith, 02 October 2009 - 05:44 AM.
added thought


#2 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 03 October 2009 - 03:01 PM

Daniel Smith wrote:

This Saint, Isaac of Syria (Or Nineveh) has been of immense interest to me lately, as has the Persian Church in general. My question is roughly This: The Romans claim this saint, The Orthodox claim this saint, the Monophysites claim this saint, and the Assyrians claim this saint. In each church he is a canonical saint. What does this portend ecclesiologically?



I think that this is because St Isaac lived to such a degree in the eschaton; ie towards that mystery of culminating reality.

This does not mean that he lived beyond the Church though. On the contrary it means that he lived in that culminating reality where all is Church.

The only other saint I can think of right now with a similar nature is St Dionysios the Areopagite.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#3 Ryan

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Posted 03 October 2009 - 03:17 PM

Check out this thread:

http://monachos.net/...read.php?t=3103

I think the discussion is about as thorough as it can be.

I think the Church can recognize saints outside of her defined earthly bounds, who are really a part of her even though they are technically outsiders. This doesn't mean that the other churches are true churches, but, by God's grace, certain holy individuals within them can attain to a mystic unity with the Orthodox Church.

#4 Daniel Smith

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Posted 03 October 2009 - 08:26 PM

But each church can say that he was "Mystically" united to their particular church; And each church does believe he lived the fullness of their tradition. Can there not be some position between the "Branch Theory" (minus Anglicans) and the traditional reductionist unity of the individual churches?

Men can err in their passion. Men can separate themselves from others who do not substantially differ. Are these schisms/excommunications that may be based on terminology real spiritual rifts? Or are they only temporal? Can a false schism really be, in the end, no schism at all?

#5 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 03 October 2009 - 08:31 PM

But each church can say that he was "Mystically" united to their particular church; And each church does believe he lived the fullness of their tradition. Can there not be some position between the "Branch Theory" (minus Anglicans) and the traditional reductionist unity of the individual churches?

Men can err in their passion. Men can separate themselves from others who do not substantially differ. Are these schisms/excommunications that may be based on terminology real spiritual rifts? Or are they only temporal? Can a false schism really be, in the end, no schism at all?


I would say that each person then is moving beyond the limitations of their church and thus approaches the reality of the Church.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#6 Christophoros

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Posted 04 October 2009 - 01:30 AM

In the January volume of The Great Synaxaristes (the English version from Holy Apostles Convent; his life is missing from the Greek edition), it is explained that during the time of St. Isaac, different factions existed in the Persian Church, some of which were Orthodox in their Christology. It was also in material/political isolation at the time from the Byzantine Church, and while the Persians did take in Nestorian refugees, it would be quite improper to label them as Nestorian at the time. It appears quite complicated (see his life on pages 1122-1139 in the January volume) and beyond my skills at summarization.

#7 Father David Moser

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Posted 04 October 2009 - 03:00 AM

In the January volume of The Great Synaxaristes (the English version from Holy Apostles Convent; his life is missing from the Greek edition), it is explained that during the time of St. Isaac, different factions existed in the Persian Church, some of which were Orthodox in their Christology. It was also in material/political isolation at the time from the Byzantine Church, and while the Persians did take in Nestorian refugees, it would be quite improper to label them as Nestorian at the time. It appears quite complicated (see his life on pages 1122-1139 in the January volume) and beyond my skills at summarization.


For more on the historical context of the different factions of the Syrian Church, I would also recommend Archbishop Ilarion (Alfeyev)'s The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Cistercian Publications; ISBN 0 87907 775 X).

Fr David Moser

#8 Daniel Smith

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Posted 04 October 2009 - 03:41 AM

Father Raphael, does the church know limitation? I don't understand. IF the Holy Catholic Orthodox Church is the One True church where do its limitations lie? I do not mean to be beating a dead horse, i just never stopped to think of the church as limited...what does that mean?

#9 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 04 October 2009 - 01:43 PM

Father Raphael, does the church know limitation? I don't understand. IF the Holy Catholic Orthodox Church is the One True church where do its limitations lie? I do not mean to be beating a dead horse, i just never stopped to think of the church as limited...what does that mean?


Dear Daniel,

I am saying that other Christians begin to break through the limitation of what they are part of as they move towards the Church.

After all, the Church is a reality- or better, it is Reality- that is the culmination of all things. So that at the End all will be the Church which all will either accept or reject.

So even now some begin to touch and break through to this reality- eg St Isaac.

And this is what those within our church who themselves also touched this reality- the monastics- recognized in the writings of St Isaac when they encountered them. So this is why they included him as a saint.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#10 Daniel Smith

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Posted 04 October 2009 - 09:23 PM

BUt if what you say is true, that the Church is moving towards a realization it does not now possess, that implies a process of perfection. Now, if we Orthodox admit that our church is imperfect, yet moving toward perfection because of our mystical liturgy, prayer, etc., why do we not admit that other churches perhaps less perfect than ours are also on this journey of perfection? And if we are on the same journey, out we not to help one another regardless of our individual "rightness"? It would be better to at least traverse this road together than to isolate ourselves because of our disagreement over mysteries, no?

Speculating...

#11 Christophoros

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Posted 04 October 2009 - 09:42 PM

I don't think it's necessary to get into mystical theories on how St. Isaac the Syrian can be considered Orthodox while, strictly speaking, he lived outside the apparent boundaries of the Church at the time. He lived many centuries ago in a community isolated from the Byzantine Empire (and by extension, the Greek Church), that at one time was in full communion with the local churches of Orthodoxy, but through historical circumstances, and the lack of accurate (or any) communication in a desert region, became materially separated from it. He maintained an Orthodox confession of faith - as did others in this same community at the time - under, what I imagine, was very difficult circumstances, and climbed as high as any mortal has on the ladder of spiritual perfection.

#12 Daniel Smith

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Posted 05 October 2009 - 12:29 AM

It is not really so much about st. isaac as it is about what place legitimate apostolic churches posses who are in "schism" (whether actual or apparent) possess. If we do not possess the full reality of the church, then that implies something enormous: An Ideal spiritual church.

If these other separated apostolic churches are seeking this ideal, why do we alienate ourselves and drive them away? We may disagree with one another, but ultimately can we not leave the hard questions to God and travel together on the road to perfection?

Let me add to all this that the truth is objective, and can be known. Truth is not subjective, but it is a subject: The incarnate Word.

#13 Christophoros

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Posted 05 October 2009 - 11:09 AM

You say all truth is objective, and then say it can be known. The totality of truth is not capable of being known by man. We have only been given "what we can bear," just as the apostles were at the Holy Transfiguration. Your words - "... legitimate apostolic churches ..." - is foreign to the Fathers, unless you consider each Local Church of Orthodoxy as a separate body. Orthodoxy testifies there is one Church, that does indeed possess "the full reality of the [C]hurch". We have no need to fantisize about an "ideal spiritual church"; and to do so leads only to confusion. To apply human - and fallen - standards of reasoning and logic to the Body of Christ is to start down a path to heresy. We are called to accept what we have received, and preserve it. If there are members of the Church that are not apparent to us, they are apparent to God. We shouldn't try to deduce the mind of God in this matter.

In any event, as I stated previously, given the circumstances in the case of St. Isaac, and I don't believe there is a need to engage in speculative theology to rationalize his veneration by the Church.

#14 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 05 October 2009 - 02:25 PM

I don't think it's necessary to get into mystical theories on how St. Isaac the Syrian can be considered Orthodox while, strictly speaking, he lived outside the apparent boundaries of the Church at the time. He lived many centuries ago in a community isolated from the Byzantine Empire (and by extension, the Greek Church), that at one time was in full communion with the local churches of Orthodoxy, but through historical circumstances, and the lack of accurate (or any) communication in a desert region, became materially separated from it. He maintained an Orthodox confession of faith - as did others in this same community at the time - under, what I imagine, was very difficult circumstances, and climbed as high as any mortal has on the ladder of spiritual perfection.


I'm not sure that we need to work from the principle of apparent ignorance concerning the Church of that time. After all there was widespread understanding concerning Antiochene theology by the Byzantine world and of how the Persian church was influenced by this. True, the evidence shows that Byzantine understanding was not so clear cut in regards to the Persians as to whether they were heretical or not. But the Persian church did stand apart from many of the strands that had led to Byzantine Orthodox theological expression and this separateness in itself was expressed through the general lack of communion between Byzantine Orthodoxy & the Persians. This can for example be seen in several of St Isaac's Christological statements which reflect the Antiochene manner of expression.

That is why I believe that it was precisely for mystical reasons that he was accepted within Orthodoxy. The evidence after all shows that within our church St Isaac was taken in mainly by the monastics. And what they saw in him and continue to see is someone who in a particularly intense way lived in the angelic eschaton.

This does not mean that his being part of the Persian church did not matter. I'm not sure that his Antiochene manner of expression was simply ignored. Nor do I think that the Byzantines tried to separate some perceived heretical chaff from St Isaac's Christological statements to leave an imaginary original intent. Rather I believe that from within the overall spiritual context of how St Isaac was seen then by implication his theological expression could not have been heretical.

Rather than making this insight the basis of an overly logical formula we should rather acknowledge that the Church inherently has an economical aspect to its life so that all life is moving towards it. We should simply see how St Isaac's life is so entirely consistent with this principle of Church life.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#15 Grace Singh

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Posted 16 February 2010 - 05:45 AM

I don't think it's necessary to get into mystical theories on how St. Isaac the Syrian can be considered Orthodox while, strictly speaking, he lived outside the apparent boundaries of the Church at the time. He lived many centuries ago in a community isolated from the Byzantine Empire (and by extension, the Greek Church), that at one time was in full communion with the local churches of Orthodoxy, but through historical circumstances, and the lack of accurate (or any) communication in a desert region, became materially separated from it. He maintained an Orthodox confession of faith - as did others in this same community at the time - under, what I imagine, was very difficult circumstances, and climbed as high as any mortal has on the ladder of spiritual perfection.


might it be said then that while he may have lived within a church influenced by heresy (if not heretical in itself), that his personal theology and relationship to the Christ was orthodox in its character, profession, and nature?

from what i have read, it would seem that the Persian / Assyrian Church (what we now know as the Assyiran Church of the East) began with apostilic roots and its own orthodox beliefs and traditions, and later was influenced by the adoption of Nestorian Christians into its fold.

so it could be said that even a person in that church could be orthodox in his beliefs and worship, knowing Christ primarily, yet within the context of an un-Orthodox church?

#16 Herman Blaydoe

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Posted 16 February 2010 - 05:09 PM

Certainly such a thing is possible, but it would not be responsible for the Church to tell people anything other than the best place to be Orthodox is within, not outside, the Orthodox Church. We can't always know where the Spirit is not, and so the Church can only witness to what has been revealed, not what is guessed at or simply individually desired.

#17 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 17 February 2010 - 02:05 PM

Since I wrote the above post I have read Bp Hilarion's book on St Isaac. For the first time I was able to read St Isaac's Christological statements and they are definitely at one with the tradition of the Persian church and of the greater Antiochian tradition. However it is quite possible to read and understand this Persian tradition in an Orthodoxy way although its manner of expression is different from what we are used to. One thing that we should keep in mind is that although the later ecumenical councils were not synodically ratified by the Persians, still their many themes would have been known of and debated by the Persians. In this way it is quite likely that over time the unbalanced side to the Antiochian tradition of Christology was brought closer to our own understanding.

However I do not believe that the above considerations were greatly at work in how St Isaac's writings were accepted by our church. Up to and including our times many of us still consider the Persian church to be Nestorian. I really then still do think that St Isaac was accepted because of the unique spirituality of his writings; that due to his own spiritual state he lived in a sense far beyond earthly boundaries. For this reason in a way really quite rare in spiritual literature, he conveys a heavenly reality in a way that transcends his own local world and that thus can be grasped by anyone else of right mind and intent. As a sign of this perceiving beyond the boundaries his assertion that God's mercy is greater than justice met with the strong disagreement of some of his own people.

In Christ- Fr Raphael




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