Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers. This week I’m featuring Abba Isaiah the Solitary.
“This much-longed-for Name of the sweetest Jesus Christ our God, is the inner essence of stillness and silence.”
“Prayer is union with God, and one who loves prayer soon becomes the son of God.”
“Brother, if someone causes you grief in any matter whatsoever, and it becomes necessary for you to reprove your brother, and you see that you are angry and agitated, do not speak to him at all, lest you become more upset; when you see that the two of you have calmed down, then speak to him, not chiding him, but reminding him of his error, in all humility.”
Not much is known about the early life of Abba Isaiah the Solitary. He is first seen in the desert of Scetis in Egypt and associated with others fathers such as Macarius the Great. He seemed to have lived a long life, possibly eclipsing 100 years of age. He resided on the mountain in Egypt around the year 370, later relocating to Palestine and living the life of a recluse near Gaza in the fifth century.
Abba Isaiah became the example of the Egyptian fathers of Scetis late into the fifth century to those living in and near Palestine. He was a well-known monastic in his day and earned the name Abba Isaiah the Solitary due to his desire to be alone with God.
Abba Isaiah collected the sayings of some of the influential mothers of the desert into a work called the Matericon. The book is an overview of the monastic life, including the teachings of Theodora, Syncletica, Sarah, Melania, and Pelagia. It is written as instructions to a woman who is starting out on the spiritual journey of monasticism.
Abba Isaiah taught that the soul consisted of three parts, the incensive,the intellectual, and the appetitve: “The godly wise Fathers say that our soul consists of three parts: the intellect, which is also called the power of the word; the incensive power; and the appetitive power of desire.” This echoes some teachings of modern Christianity, in that the soul consists of the mind, will, and emotions. What we call the mind, Isaiah calls the intellect; what we call the will, Isaiah calls the appetite; what we call the emotions, early Christians called the incensive power of the soul.
Abba Isaiah was an expert on the spiritual life. His teachings are at once deep and profound, and at the same time practical. From the daily rhythm of the spiritual life to understanding the inner mechanisms of the human heart, Abba Isaiah offers guidance that would benefit anyone who seeks out his teaching.
“He was asked what calumny (slander) is and he replied, ‘It is ignorance of the glory of God, and hatred of one’s neighbour.’”
To detach from worldly things and attach to God is the main goal of Abba Isaiah’s teachings. All discipline serves either one of those two ends. The spiritual life is all about the presence of God.
“The same Abba Isaiah, when someone asked him what avarice (greed) was, replied, ‘Not to believe that God cares for you, to despair of the promises of God and to love boasting.’”
The Spiritual Life
Abba Isaiah taught that the entire purpose of the spiritual life was the “remembrance of God.” Every movement from fasting, silence, submission, prayer, etc…was towards that end, the remembrace of Jesus in the heart: “He must, therefore, always repeat with attention the holy Name of Sweetest Jesus Christ our God, day and night, every hour and at every moment, until this divine phrase is imprinted into his heart: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me! Son of God, help me!” He goes on to say that this is the beginning and end of the spiritual life: “In a word, all the works of a monastic will be in vain without such hard labor and without the remembrance of God. This work is both the beginning and the end for one living in stillness, for the sake of the Lord. This much-longed-for Name is the inner essence of stillness and silence.” Without the presence of God any spiritual discipline is in vain.
The disciplines of the spiritual life are to aid in the remembrance of God, they are the “closing of the eyes to the pleasures and vanities of this life”: “Become thirsty for Christ, my good sister, so that He will quench your thirst with His love. Close your eyes to all the pleasures and vanities of life, so that the Lord of peace will reign in your heart.”
To Abba Isaiah, the predominant virtues that lead into depth of spirit are stillness, silence, and fasting: “Three virtues are the spiritual riches of a monastic: stillness, silence and fasting. If he does not have one of them, he will not succeed in the others.” He places such importance on these concepts that we will cover them in their own section later.
Maturity in the spiritual life is defined as: “…not to count yourself great; to withstand scoffing and insults; and to have your name mentioned nowhere in the world.” They will embrace a depth of humility that seeks to be exalted before God. Our response to scoffing and insults will be in direct proportion to the level of pride we harbour in our heart.
Abba Isaiah said, “Nothing is so useful to the beginner as insults. The beginner who bears insults is like a tree that is watered every day.” If insults reveal pride, then enduring insults is a the first step in purging pride and embracing radical humility.
The spiritual life revolves around the formation of the inner man: “…those who care for the correction of the inner man and cut off their wills will also receive the crown of the virtues.”
What is the practical method for growth? Considering your own sin: “Throughout your life, view yourself as a sinner so that you will always be justified.” This reflects the language of the publican that Jesus uses in Luke 18:13, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Remaining ignorant of sin, it’s effects and its causes keeps the heart callous. Often, our own self-rightouesness is insecurity masked as pride. If we are honest about the state of our heart and our present condition, we will see the grace and love of God with far greater clarity, that in spite of my present condition, Jesus chooses and loves me. He may have made me a saint, but only because I could not make myself one.
The purpose of being formed and growing is simple, that we might become more effective containers of God’s presence: “He wishes us to abide in Him in that which we do, in which case He abides in us through purity, namely, mystical vision. It is impossible, then, for the soul to enter into the rest of the Son of God, if it has not acquired the image of the King; for neither does the assayer weigh objects without value, nor does the King put such things in his treasury.” The more we look like him the more we contain him. If the pure at heart will see God (as Jesus stated in the beatitudes), the soul must acquire an image to become in order to be purified. As we gaze at the King (the mystical vision) we are transformed, “from glory to glory” as it were. When the soul continually sees the presence of Jesus within it does all it can to enlarge and retain that presence.
The Beginning of the Spiritual Life
Abba Isaiah offered helpful insight into steps the beginner can make in the spiritual life. “The beginning of our spiritual foundation in God is to impress upon the heart the memory of God’s great arrangement for the salvation of our souls.” The “memory of God’s great arrangement for the salvation of our souls” is simply to repeat short prayers calling out to Jesus for help. This impresses upon the mind the need for Jesus and stirs the heart to devotion. When the heart is stirred, God’s name has been impressed upon it. The prayer that Isaiah counsels beginner to pray is simple: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
He goes on to say: “Such remembrances are like a golden spike that wounds the heart, always urging it toward glorification (of God), humility, thanksgiving with contrition, zeal for pleasing God in stillness and every other virtue.” The remembrance of God has impact upon the heart. The goal is prayer of the heart. What begins in the mind can descend into the heart.
Following the direction of an elder was vitally important to Isaiah: “He also said to those who were making a good beginning by putting themselves under the direction of the holy Fathers, ‘As with purple dye, the first colouring is never lost.’ And, ‘Just as young shoots are easily trained back and bent, so it is with beginners who live in submission.’” The one you submit to at the origination of your walk is vitally important. What grows in you will be in part determined by who tended the garden of your spiritual youth.