St. Isaac the Syrian

24 04 2008

One of my favorite theologians and mystics has to be St. Isaac of Nineveh, also known as St. Isaac of Syria. A 7th century Christian who, as indicated by his name, become bishop of Nineveh. Despite is possible Nestorianism he is recognized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

What I love about St. Isaac are his deeply moving, passionate and powerful words on the love of God. He speaks so sublimely on love that he even manages to compel us to be filled with mercy even for the devils themselves. Writing,

“What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”

It was St. Isaac who ultimately gave me a new way of understanding the concept of Hell as something different as what I had been raised to understand it. For St. Isaac, and many other of the Eastern Fathers, Hell was not a place of torment distinct from the Paradise of Heaven, it was rather the state of existence of those who, having despised and loathed God and creation in this life, continue in their natural state of loathing. In this state, even though they exist in the same “place” as the Saints who have been beatified by the love and light of God, they experience the unrelenting love of God as torment. He writes,

“As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.

That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion: remorse. But love inebriates the souls of the sons and daughters of heaven by its delectability.”

Hell is not the punishment of God inflicted upon sinners, nor is it even the “eternal separation from God” of contemporary Western theological thought. For there is no place apart from the Presence of God, for even the Psalmist writes, “If I make my bed in sheol, You are there.” Heaven and Hell are two distinct experiences of the same stimuli: God’s all-pervading, never-ceasing, all-encompassing love.

How hopeful this is! The power of the possibilities of what might come at the end of all things, that perhaps St. Gregory of Nyssa is right when he speaks of Hell as a “purgatorial fire” that acts upon the soul as fire does upon gold–refining it, purifying it, burning away the dross, and leaving only the malleable, soft, pure thing of stunning beauty. That in love God will accomplish all that He has willed to accomplish since the beginning of all things: the beatification of all creation, all things through Christ in whom the whole of Creation has been united through His becoming flesh and sharing in our nature.

“In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.”

In love all things were born. In love all things will be consumed. The One who is Love will make this happen, in love He has made it happen. How deep, wide, high, and great is the love of God in Christ!

So I’ll leave this post with one last St. Isaac quote:

“Let us not be in doubt, O fellow humanity, concerning the hope of our salvation, seeing that the One who bore sufferings for our sakes is very concerned about our salvation; God’s mercifulness is far more extensive than we can conceive, God’s grace is greater than what we ask for.”