St. Isaac of Syria
by Photios Kontoglou
Forsake not Isaac. Every day one page of Abba Isaac. Not more. Isaac is the mirror. There you will behold yourself. The mirror is so that we may see if we have any shortcoming, any smudge on our face, in order to remove it, to cleanse ourselves. If there is a smudge on your face or on your eyes, in the mirror you will detect it and will remove it. In Abba Isaac you will behold your thoughts, what they are thinking. Your feet, where they are going. Your eyes, if they have light and see. There you will find many sure and unerring ways, in order to be helped. One page of Isaac a day. In the morning or at night, whenever. Suffice it that you read a page.
— Elder Ieronymus of Aegina (+ 1966)
Taking Elder Ieronymos’ counsel, I’ve been trying to read a page a day of The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac of Syria. It’s easy to see why the Elder recommended small doses: the texts are remarkably intense and concentrated. Here’s a sample passage from the Second Homily:
Remember the fall of the mighty, and be humble in your virtues. Recollect the grievous transgressions of those who of old trespassed and repented, and the sublimity and honour of which afterwards they were deemed worthy, and take courage in your repentance. Be a persecutor of yourself, and your enemy will be driven from your proximity. Be peaceful within yourself, and heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Be diligent to enter into the treasury that is within you, and you will see the treasury of Heaven: for these are one and the same, and with one entry you will behold them both. The ladder of the Kingdom is within you, hidden in your soul. Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which you will be able to ascend.
Reading that, I’m tempted to think that a sentence, rather than a page, each day would be more suited to my poor understanding.
“Small doses, regularly taken”, seems to be a good rule of thumb for much of the spiritual life. In various places we’re also told about prayer and Scripture reading that five minutes every day is much better than an hour once a week. I’m reminded of this, from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
[Abba Poemen said:] The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God: it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.
The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, from Holy Transfiguration Monastery, used to be available only in a bulky scholarly edition packed with footnotes, introductory material and appendices. Recently they’ve produced a new edition much better suited to devotional reading: they’ve done a bit of revising of the text, eliminated many footnotes, taken out a lot of supportive material, and reduced the size of the book to something that that can be carried around in a book bag. Recommended. (If you want all the scholarly material, they still supply it in PDF form.)