St Isaac (23 August)

The feast of St Isaac of Monteluco (died c. 550) is celebrated on 23 August. He is often confused with St Isaac of Nineveh (died c. 700). Both are also known as St Isaac of Syria, but the first was originally from Syria, and died in Italy, while the second was from what is now known as Qatar, and died in Nineveh in Iraq. St Isaac of Nineveh was a great author, while the other saint did not write anything (so far as we know). From what I can see, there is presently no celebration of St Isaac of Nineveh in the Maronite Church. I think it is at least worth considering whether such a feast might not be added to our calendar, for his writing is truly profound and of great help in coming closer to God.

Why, then, do we remember St Isaac of Monteluco? Our sole source for his life is St Pope Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Book 3, chapter 14. It seems that St Gregory had not personally known him, but rather, had heard of him from the celebrated virgin Gregoria of Rome. In her youth, she had desired to become a nun, in opposition to the will of her friends, who wanted her to marry. It was Isaac who defended her, and saw her safely admitted to the life she sought.

St Gregory states that St Isaac was born in Syria, but fled to Italy (probably to escape Monophysite persecution). to the city of Spoleto. Why Spoleto? St Gregory does not tell us why, but we it was in central Italy, at the crossroads of commerce and travel, and was strongly defended. It sounds like a good destination for someone who is fleeing persecution, and seeks security, but wants to be mobile should there be a need.

St Isaac was chiefly known for the spirit of prophecy, his ability to read minds, and work miracles, but not only for that. He could spend days on end in prayer, and was also known as a formidable exorcist. He lived alone in a cottage, in almost complete poverty. However, he had a strongly marked sense of humour, and St Gregory criticises him for this. Gregory saw this as an example of God bestowing great gifts on someone, but leaving them small faults so that they might not be overproud (see St Paul 2 Corinthians 12:7, Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.)

Some historical context is available, although St Gregory does not mention it, and that is that St Isaac was part of a lengthy and sustained movement from the East into Italy. He was one of the many good people who enriched the Latin liturgy and tradition with their spiritual culture. There may even have been some sort of aura of exoticism around him, which made him stand out for his contemporaries.

What then, can we learn from St Isaac? I think the important point is exactly the one which St Gregory made, and which he stressed in his short biography: that no one is perfect or perfectly balanced. We have to take responsibility for our faults and for where we are unbalanced, and we have a moral responsibility to become more completely sane, more thoroughly humane, in a word, more holy.

I knew a man who, like St Isaac, had powers of prophecy. Interestingly, one of the odd things about those powers is that they are not complete: together with every gift of prophecy, there also comes ignorance. No prophet can foresee everything. And precisely because the person has prophetic powers, they are less aware of their ignorance. I also knew a woman who had almost supernatural powers of insight: she could look at you and see you as you were. I am also sure that she could, at times, see the invisible. But there were also things right in front of her which she did not see. I tend to think that it was exactly because she could perceive what few human beings ever could, that she was unable to appreciate that she might err in respect of what was before her face. With these two people, their blindness was very rare. But it was perhaps all the more dangerous to them for that very reason.

There are a certain numbers of examples of people such as the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who seem to have had certain powers, yet also have had equally marked deficiencies. I have heard anecdotes of his ability to read minds, and also of his desperate inability to read them when he really wanted. The fact that he had powers, if it was indeed a fact, is never a reason to blindly follow or believe in him or anything he had said.

It comes down to this: preternatural powers and faculties are not what we seek. If they come, well and good, but it would be an error to identify with them, and allow ourselves to be puffed up.

But we should seek to know our faults. From them can come humility and balance. From them can come true pride. And most importantly, from them can come holiness.

Joseph Azize, 22 August 2017 (Ramsho of St Isaac the Syrian)

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