Mercy and Justice in Isaac the Syrian  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Isaac was not only intoxicated with the love of God, he was intoxicated with the notion that God is love.  This even leads him at times to downplay God's justice, as contrasted to God's love.  Quotations illustrative of this are found on pp 40-43 of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev's magisterial The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Cistercian Publications/Liturgical Press 2000)


God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge--far be it!--but in seeking to make whole his image.  And he does not harbor wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself.  This is the aim of love.  Love's chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution...The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness.  Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!

Mercy is opposed to justice.  Justice is equality on the even scale, for it gives to each as it deserves...Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness...; 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.

As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God's use of justice cannot counterbalance his mercy.  Like 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.

And what is a merciful heart?  It is the heart burning for the sake of all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears.  By the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and by his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or see any injury or slight sorrow in creation.  For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those that harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.  And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.

Isaac the Syrian on Venerating the Cross  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Isaac the Syrian, also known as Isaac of Nineveh (ca-613-700), was a monk of the Church of the East, commonly known as "Nestorian".  He was born in the region of Qatar on the Persian Gulf.  That part of the Arabian Peninsula was heavily Christian prior to the advent of Islam.  Isaac spent years poring over the volumes in the monastery library and acquired a reputation for sanctity and ascetic expertise.  He came to the attention of the Catholicos, who consecrated him bishop of Nineveh in northern Mesopotamia.  However, Isaac, probably quite sensibly, resigned his see after only five months and retired to the remote monastery of Rabban Shabur where he lived as a hermit.  There he wrote the ascetic treatises upon which his reputation rests.  Although the Church of the East rejected the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon and adheres to a Christology at variance from that of Orthodoxy, Isaac's writings have become universally accepted by both Eastern and Western churches because they do not deal with such controversial Christological issues. 

Probably the best study of Isaac is The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church (Cistercian Publications, 2008).  Pp 163-174 deal with the role played by veneration of the cross in Isaac's ascetical regime.  Icons were not unknown by the Church of the East, but the cross occupied a much larger place in the piety of the faithful.  On Good Friday, hearing what Isaac has to say about the cross is especially appropriate.


For true believers the sign of the cross is no small thing, for all symbols are understood to be contained within it.  But whenever they raise their eyes and gaze on it, it is as though they were contemplating the face of Christ, and accordingly they are filled with reverence for it:  the sight of it is precious and fearsome to them, and at the same time, beloved...And whenever we approach the cross, it is as though we are brought close to the body of Christ:  this it what it seems to us to be in our faith in him.  And by drawing near to him, and gazing towards him, straightway we travel in our intellects to heaven, mystically.  As though at some sight that cannot be seen or sensed, and out of honor for our Lord's humanity, our hidden vision is swallowed up through a certain contemplation of the mystery of faith...

For the cross is Christ's garment just as the humanity of Christ is the garment of the Divinity.  Thus the cross today serves as a type, awaiting the time when the true prototype will be revealed:  then those things will not be required any longer.  For the Divinity dwells inseparably in the Humanity, without any end, and for ever; in other words, boundlessly.  For this reason we look on the cross as the place belonging to the Shekhina [divine presence] of the Most High, the Lord's sanctuary, the ocean of the symbols of God's economy. 

Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Pope Gregory I was born ca 540 and died on this date in 604; he occupied the papacy for the last fourteen years of his life.  Prior to a long career as an ecclesiastical administrator, he was a monk in the Roman monastery of St Andrew.  As pope he selected Augustine, prior of the same monastery, to undertake a mission to England.  Despite Augustine's misgivings, the mission took root and English Roman Catholics and Anglicans both look to these two saints as founders.  The Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People describes some of the interaction between Gregory and Augustine.

27. Augustine is made a bishop, tells Pope Gregory what has happened in Britain, and has his questions answered.

In the meantime, Augustine, the man of God, went to Arles [in Gaul] and as instructed by the holy Father Gregory was ordained Archbishop of the English by Aetherius, Archbishop of that city. Returning to Britain, he sent men to Rome to tell Pope Gregory that the English nation had received the faith of Christ, and that he was himself made their bishop. At the same time, he asked Gregory to answer some urgent questions. He soon received fitting answers to his questions, which I have reproduced here:
1. How should bishops relate to their clergy? How should the offerings of the faithful at the altar be apportioned? And how should the bishop act in Church?
Gregory answers: Holy Scripture, which you know well, explains this – particularly the Blessed Paul’s letters to Timothy. He tells him how he should act in the house of God, and it is the custom of the Apostolic See to apply these rules to bishops. All the money they are given should be divided in four: one for the bishop and his household, for hospitality to guests; another for the clergy; a third for the poor; and the fourth for the repair of churches. But you, my brother, have been instructed in monastic rules, so you must not live apart from your clergy in the Church of the English. You must live like our fathers in the primitive Church, none of whom considered his possessions his own, but shared all things common.
Any clerics who are not monks and who are not willing to stay celibate, should to take wives, and receive their income from outside the community, because it is written that the same forefathers I mentioned distributed goods to any who were in need. Watch over their pay and make sure they are provided for. They should be kept under church rules, live orderly lives, oversee the singing of psalms, and, by the help of God, preserve their hearts and tongues and bodies from all that is unlawful. As for those who live as a community, there is no need to say anything about assigning portions, being hospitable and showing mercy, since whatever they have left over is to be used for religious works, according to the teaching of him who is the Lord and Master of all: “Give charitably from what you have, and all things will be clean to you.”
2. Since the faith is one and the same, why are there different customs in different Churches? Why do the holy Roman Church and the Church of Gaul celebrate Mass in different ways?
Gregory answers: You know the customs of the Roman Church in which you remember that you were brought up, my brother. But if you have found anything which may be more acceptable to Almighty God, whether it is in the Roman church or in Gaul, or anywhere else, what I want you to do is to make a careful selection from them, and bring them together in the religion that you teach to the English Church which is still new in the faith. For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. So, pick from every Church those things that are pious and right, and when you have made them up into one package, let the English grow accustomed to it.

Gregory of Nyssa on Unlimited Perfection  

Posted by Joe Rawls

    Gregory of Nyssa (ca 330-395), the younger brother of Basil, was a monk in the monastery founded by the latter.  He later became bishop of Nyssa and took part in the Council of Constantinople where he vigorously defended the Nicene Creed.  He wrote extensively in theology (in particular elaborating the doctrine of the Trinity) and about ascetical practices.  One of his concepts was that growth in spiritual perfection continued after death and was neverending.  The Greek term for this is epektasis.  The following excerpt deals with this notion and is found in Gregory of Nyssa's Mystical Writings, translated and edited by Herbert Mursillo, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1979.  The great Apostle told the Corinthians of the wonderful visions he enjoyed during the time of his mystical initiation in paradise. It was a time when he even doubted his own nature, whether he was body or spirit - and he testifies: I do not count myself to have apprehended. But forgetting the things that are behind, I stretch myself forth to those that are before Philippians 3:13). And clearly this is meant to include even that third heaven that Paul alone saw; for even Moses told us nothing of it in his cosmogony. Yet even after listening in secret to the mysteries of heaven, Paul does not let the graces he has obtained become the limit of his desire, but he continues to go on and on, never ceasing his ascent. Thus he teaches us, I think, that in our constant participation in the blessed nature of the Good, the graces that we receive at every point are indeed great, but the path that lies beyond our immediate grasp is infinite. This will constantly happen to those who thus share in the divine Goodness, and they will always enjoy a greater and greater participation in grace throughout all eternity. […]

Thus though the new grace we may obtain is greater than what we had before, it does not put a limit on our final goal; rather, for those who are rising in perfection, the limit of the good that is attained becomes the beginning of the discovery of higher goods. Thus they never stop rising, moving from one new beginning to the next, and the beginning of ever greater graces is never limited of itself For the desire of those who thus rise never rests in what they can already understand; but by an ever greater and greater desire, the soul keeps rising constantly to another that lies ahead, and thus it makes its way through ever higher regions towards the Transcendent.


Wesleyan Sanctification and Theosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The Wesley brothers, commemorated today in the Episcopal calendar, taught a doctrine known as entire sanctification (for Charles this was largely expressed in his hymns).  It is often compared to the Orthodox concept of theosis.  Methodist theologian Michael J Christensen addresses this issue in his essay "John Wesley:  Christian Perfection as Faith Filled with the Energy of Love", pp 219-229 in Partakers of the Divine Nature:  the history and development of deification in the Christian traditions, Michael J Christensen and Jeffery A Wittung, eds, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2007.


Entire sanctification (holiness, perfection) in the Wesleyan tradition refers to John and Charles Wesley's doctrine of spiritual transformation and Christian perfection, which is available by grace through faith in this life.  It is understood by many Wesleyan theologians as as a religious experience and transformation occurring subsequent to justification, with the effect that the Holy Spirit takes full possession of the spirit, cleanses the soul, sanctifies the heart, and empowers the will so that one can love God and others perfectly and blamelessly in this life.  As creatures set apart for a holy purpose, the holiness of God (along with other divine attributes) is believed to be actually imparted and not just imputed to the believer's life on the basis of what Christ accomplished on the cross.  The power of sin in one's life is rendered inoperative as one participates in the higher life of the divine.

The doctrine of entire sanctification admits to at least two models of interpretation:  (1) instantaneous perfection, involving an "eradication" of sin and a "blameless" walk with God; and (2) progressive sanctification, or gradually "going on to perfection".  The ...more broadly defined doctrine of Christian perfection as full redemption from sin and mortality [was] through what John Wesley described as a heart "habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor".  This longing for perfect love is most beautifully embodied in the last verse of Charles Wesley's famous hymn "Love Divine All Loves Excelling" [number 657 in the Episcopal Church Hymnal 1982]:
Finish then, thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

John Cassian and the Prayer of Fire  

Posted by Joe Rawls

February 29 is the feast of St John Cassian (c.360–435). John is revered in both the Western and Eastern Churches for his mystical writings, for example:
“The Prayer of Fire is known to few. Soaring above every human sense, it is uttered not by the sound of the voice nor by the movement of the tongue nor by any formation of words. Filled and illumined with light from heaven, the mind does not utter this prayer in limited and human expressions, but with all its powers gathered together in unity it pours forth this prayer abundantly as from a most copious fountain and offers it up to God in a way beyond expression, telling Him so much in that brief moment of time that when we return to ourselves afterwards we are not able easily to state or even go over in our minds all that took place.”
John Cassian was drawn to the ascetic life and spent several years as a hermit in the Palestinian desert. Later he traveled to Egypt to visit the desert fathers and mothers there. With that experience, he founded the famous Abbey of St Victor, near Marseille, France. Like monasteries in the Celtic tradition, St Victor was a double monastery, in which monks and nuns had separate living quarters but came together for Mass and the daily offices.
Benedict of Nursia is often called the “father of western monasticism.” But he lived a century after John Cassian and looked to the Abbey of St Victor, and Cassian’s writings, for guidance in organizing the monasteries he founded in Italy. St John Cassian thus influenced the whole of western monasticism.
(Hat-tip to Jarek Kubacki).

Andrei Rublev's Trinity Icon  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Andrei Rublev (ca 1360-1430) is the most famous Russian iconographer and his most famous work by far is his depiction of the Trinity.  Art historian Alexander Boguslawski comments on some theological implications of this great icon. 


Very few artists before Rublev dared to eliminate all the narrative elements from the story, leaving only the three angels; usually those who did so had to deal with limited space. The results of their efforts did not find general acceptance or many copyists. Rublev was the first to make a conscious decision not to include in his composition the figures of Abraham and Sarah because he did not set out to illustrate the story of the hospitality of Abraham, as did many painters before him, but to convey through his image the idea of the unity and indivisibility of the three persons of the Trinity.  

The doctrine of the Trinity, difficult to explain logically, found various interpretations. Some thought that the Trinity consisted of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Others believed that it was just God and two angels. In the 14th and 15th-century Russia, in the period of many heretical movements, the idea of the Trinity was often questioned. The heretics in Novgorod claimed that it is not permissible to paint the Trinity on icons because Abraham did not see the Trinity but only God and two angels. Other heretics rejected the idea of the three hypostases of God altogether. The church fought the heresies with all the means it had -- usually with polemical treaties, but also with force, if necessary.  Russian icon painters before Rublev subscribed to the same point of view that Abraham was visited by God (in Christ's image) and two angels. Hence, Christ was represented in icons of the Trinity as the middle angel and was symbolically set apart either by a halo with a cross, by a considerable enlargement of his figure, by widely spread wings or by a scroll in His hand.
Trinity Icons. From left to right: Holy Trinity, a part of a quadripartite icon from Novgorod (first half of the 15th c.), Holy Trinity (Hospitality of Abraham), Novgorod School (middle of the 16th c.), Holy Trinity, Pskov School (15th c.).  

In Rublev's icon for the first time all the angels are equally important. Only this icon truly conforms to the Orthodox idea of the Trinity. But Rublev's genius allows the painter to go beyond the constraints of theological theme. His icon is a special kind of challenge to the antitrinitarians -- instead of forcing them to accept the dogma, Rublev softly and gently tries to bring them to the dogmatic understanding of the icon's meaning.  

All scholars agree that the three hypostases of the Trinity are represented in Rublev's icon. But there are greatly differing views as to which angel represents which hypostasis. Many see Christ in the middle angel and God the Father in the left. Others see God the Father in the middle angel, and Christ in the left one. The middle angel occupies a special place in the icon: it is set apart not only by its central position, but also by a "regal" turn of its head towards the left angel, and by pointing with its hand towards the cup on the table. Both the turn of the head and the gesture are important clues to the hidden meaning of the icon. Equal among equals, the middle angel has such expressive power that one hesitates not to see in it a symbolic representation of God the Father. On the other hand one cannot fail to notice that the left angel is also essential: two other angels lower their heads towards it and seem to address it. Therefore, if we assume that the left angel is God the Father, the middle angel, dressed in the clothes customarily used in compositions depicting the second person of the Trinity (a blue himation and a crimson tunic), should represent Christ. This amazing and perhaps purposeful encoding of these two persons of the Trinity by Rublev does not give us a clear clue for a single interpretation. Whatever the case, the icon shows a dialogue between two angels: The Father turns to His Son and explains the necessity of His sacrifice, and the Son answers by agreeing with His Father's wish.  

Neither of these interpretations impacts the interpretation of the Trinity as triune God and as a representation of the sacrament of the Eucharist. The cup on the table is an eucharistic symbol. In the cup we see the head of the calf which Abraham used for the feast. The church interprets this calf as a prototype of the New Testament Lamb, and thus the cup acquires its Eucharistic meaning. The left and the middle angels bless the cup: The Father blesses His Son on his Deed, on His death on the cross for the sake of man's salvation, and the Son, blessing the cup, expresses his readiness to sacrifice Himself. The third angel does not bless the cup and does not participate in the conversation, but is present as a Comforter, the undying, a symbol of eternal youth and the upcoming Resurrection.