Thursday, August 2, 2012

St Isaac of Nineveh

Saint Mar Isaac of Nineveh “the Syrian” represents one of the last explicit points of mutual recognition shared by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Church of the East, and indeed his person summarizes much of the point of this blog. Unlike the schisms with the Oriental Orthodox Church and the Roman Patriarchate which were explicit mutual excommunications levied at the same time as charges of heresy and theological dispute, the rupture with the Church of the East was more subtle. We are dealing with two Churches—Eastern Orthodox and Church of the East--who have fallen out of communion over a long period of increasingly strained communication that has resulted in more of a mutual isolation from each other than an explicit mutual excommunication. Saint Isaac is the tender and iconic emblem of one of the last moments when we communicated in a meaningful way. Mar Isaac of Nineveh poses the question: was he a member of the Church and if so does that mean that the church of which he was part was Orthodox in AD 700, when he reposed?

From the Synaxarion of the Orthodox Church, a life of Mar Isaac:
The great luminary of the life of stillness, Saint Isaac, was born in the early seventh century in Eastern Arabia, the present-day Qatar on the Persian Gulf. He became a monk at a young age, and at some time left Arabia to dwell with monks in Persia. He was consecrated Bishop of Nineveh (and is therefore sometimes called "Saint Isaac of Nineveh"), but after five months received permission to return to solitude; he spent many years far south of Nineveh in the mountainous regions of Beit Huzaye, and lastly at the Monastery of Rabban Shabur. He wrote his renowned and God-inspired Ascetical Homilies toward the end of his long life of monastic struggle, about the end of the seventh century. The fame of his Homilies grew quickly, and about one hundred years after their composition they were translated from Syriac into Greek by two monks of the Monastery of Mar Sabbas in Palestine, from which they spread throughout the monasteries of the Roman Empire and became a guide to the hesychasts of all generations thereafter. (

He is an unquestionable father of ascetics and visionary of the grace of God, venerated from East to West. When we venerate someone as a saint and icon of salvation in the Church, it is clear that we express our trust that the person proved faithful to the Christ through his Body, the Church. Do we acknowledge that the Church of Saint Isaac was indeed part of the Church Universal when we pray “Holy Venerable Father Isaac pray for, a sinner?” If he can be spoken of as clearly and undoubtedly one who has found the well-spring of life, can he possibly do so outside of the Church? Perhaps, his veneration is a sign that in AD 700 the Church of the East was indeed considered Orthodox.
When we consider Mar Isaac within the scope and aim of this blog his person and how we venerate him in Orthodoxy and the Church of the East poses a striking question: Where do we, as Orthodox Christians, put the chronological dividing line between the saints we venerate and those we do not venerate of those who come from the Church of the East? If Saint Isaac is a saint of the Orthodox Church are all those recognized as saints by the Church of the East prior to him, also saints? If we apply the logic we use to recognize western saints such as St Genevieve of Paris or St Edward the Martyr-King, then might we also accept as holy fathers of the Church: Mar Narsai, Mar Bawai, Mar Awa the Great, and Mar Abraham the Great of Kashkar?
Saint Isaac leaves us wondering when did the heretical period begin? Well, there is nothing after AD 700 to mark a radical change in the beliefs of the Church of the East that would conflict with Orthodoxy. He just marks the last time we were clearly in some level of mutual recognition as “The Church”.

Simply, there was a period of ever strained communication from the fifth century through the seventh. Add to this that during this period Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Church of the East were all cementing their Christological language (how we describe Christ) and their impressions of what the other groups believed. Next time, let us get Saint Ephraim and some other Syrians to help us define our terms so we can endeavor to answer some of the questions Saint Isaac’s place in history makes us ask.

For a great read on Saint Isaac of Nineveh check out The Spiritual World of Saint Isaac the Syrian, written by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev: 

Or, just read him in his own words:

1 comment:

  1. He lived even after Alopen. Could Alopen possibly be considered a saint? It'd certainly be worth considering as his confession of faith was as orthodox as you could hope for, and he was the first known missionary to China.

    It's also worth pointing out that Orientals (miaphysites) venerate Isaac as well. The ecclesiological plot thickens further....