Reflections on St Isaac the Syrian-Part II

Reading what I’ve written, I am put in mind of the many people I serve in my own ministry that has me standing more often than not in that gray area between spiritual direction and psychotherapy. So many of the people I encounter live lives ruled by shame, guilt, fear, dread, doubt and even a quiet, though no less real, sense of despair. More often than not, this is ground the person’s lack of a felt awareness that he or she “is a continuing realization of the creative potential of God, an endless revelation of the Divinity in His creative act.” It is this love that is not only the foundation of the person’s identity, it is also “at the foundation of the universe, it governs the world, and it will lead the world to that glorious outcome when the latter will be entirely ‘consumed’ by the Godhead: ‘What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God’s! What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belong to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! What a mystery does the coming into being of the creation look towards! To what a state is our common nature invited! What love served to initiate the creation of the world..! In love did He bring the world into existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised’ (II/38,1-2).”

Unfortunately, it is not simply that we fail to understand our identity, but we often work against who we are and are called to be by God. The standard for human life is not my own good, much less my own desires, but rather that of God Whose “attitude to the created world is characterized by an unceasing providential care for all its inhabitants: for angels and demons, human beings and animals. God’s providence is universal and embraces all (I/7, 65). None of His creatures is excluded from the scope of the loving providence of God, but the love of the Creator is bestowed equally upon all: ‘…There is not a single nature who is in the first place or last place in creation in the Creator’s knowledge.., similarly there is no before or after in His love towards them: no greater or lesser amount of love is to be found with Him at all. Rather, just like the continual equality of His knowledge, so too is the continual equality of His love’ (II/38,3).

St Isaac paints a picture of a God Who holds all creation in His “providential care.” That this care extends to angels and demons, the human beings and the organic and inorganic world is itself a certain type of universalism to be sure, but this is a universalism that sees all creation in a “hierarchical structure” and in which each creature is given his or her own place in the universe and this is place that cannot be “taken away from anyone even if one falls away from God.” As Isaac teaches: “Everyone has a single place in His purpose in the ranking of love, corresponding to the form He beheld in them before He created them and all the rest of created beings, that is, at the time before the eternal purpose for the delineation of the world was put into effect… He has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen” (II/40,3).

Scandalous no doubt to many—and not simply Western Christians—is St Isaac’s unwillingness to allow God’s justice to override His mercy.

Thus the image of God as Judge is completely overshadowed in Isaac by the image of God as Love (hubba) and Mercy (rahme). According to him, mercifulness (mrahmanuta) is incompatible with justice (k’inuta): ‘Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves… Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul’. Thus one cannot speak at all of God’s justice, but rather of mercy that surpasses all justice: ‘As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures’ (I/51, 244).

The goal here is not, as it might be a different context, to articulate divine justice, but rather any appeal to divine justice that has as its call the “decisiveness . . . of requital.” Rather, Isaac wants to make clear that

God loves equally the righteous and sinners, making no distinction between them. God knew man’s future sinful life before the latter’s creation, yet He created him (II/5,11). God knew all people before their becoming righteous or sinners, and in His love He did not change because of the fact that they underwent change (II/38,3). Even many blameworthy deeds are accepted by God with mercy, ‘and are forgiven their authors, without any blame, by the omniscient God to whom all things are revealed before they happen, and who was aware of the constraints of our nature before He created us. For God, who is good and compassionate, is not in the habit of judging the infirmities of human nature or actions brought about by necessity, even though they may be reprehensible (II/14,15).

For this reason, BH points out that even “when God chastises one, He does this out of love and for the sake of one’s salvation rather than for the sake of retribution.” There is in God, unlike fallen human beings, an absence of coercion. Rather, and somewhat scandalously to the mindset of the ancient world, “God respects human free will and does not want to do anything against it: ‘God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge… Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!’ (I/48, 230).

To be continued…

In Christ our True God, the Physician of our souls and body, the One heals our every disease and Who forgives us our every sin,

+Fr Gregory

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