Silence, the Beyond, and Isaac the Syrian

We have been pondering how each major religion points to “that which is Beyond,” each in its own language–we are not saying that all religions are pointing to the same Beyond, that is not for us or for anyone to say. Simply that the existential manifestation of those who strive in that context seems to exhibit very similar qualities, and when these folks put down their preconceptions they find a very deep fellowship among the world religions on this path. And this “Beyond” is not something that any language can grasp in its symbolism, like “heaven,” “paradise,” “kingdom of God,” etc.; but rather it is that which truly is beyond the grasp of any religious language. So, we shall continue on this road, but staying mostly in the Christian context with one of its greatest hermits, Isaac the Syrian. And strikingly enough we will be able to do this using very little narrowly explicit Christian language.

Now Isaac the Syrian is a very little known spiritual figure in Christian circles. In Catholic and Protestant milieus he is almost totally unknown except in monasteries, and even there I bet the majority of monks know little or nothing about him. Isaac fares better in Orthodox circles because they do love their hermits, but I think you will find most Orthodox lay people not really interested in him in spite of their “idealizations” of the “desert-dwellers.” Isaac, like the Tibetan Buddhist Milarepa, was a radical proponent of solitude, and with that of silence. Hardly “social values”! Their way is certainly not everyone’s “cup of tea”–even the Dalai Lama says that it’s not good to go into intense solitude as a way of life but only for a periodic retreat. And Christianity itself is a thoroughly communal religion emphasizing the interpersonal and social nature of humanity, placing a divine value on the reality of community.  However……each person must follow the way that unfolds in their heart; to ponder abstract ways of life is sometimes worthwhile, but totally useless in determining “the path I should follow.” And the hermit life is a powerful icon of that Beyond which is the true goal of every religionist; an unwavering symbol and pointer at that Beyond which is the true patrimony of every human being no matter their situation. And so the hermit life is an absolute essential within the Christian context.


Let us begin with a quote from Isaac the Syrian, Isaac at his most radical:

“Just as among ten thousand men scarcely one will be found who has fulfilled the commandments and what pertains to the Law with but a small deficiency, and who has attained to limpid purity of soul, so only one man among thousands will be found who after much vigilance has been accounted worthy to attain pure prayer, and to break through that boundary, and gain experience of that mystery. Indeed, the majority of men have in no wise been deemed worthy of pure prayer, but only a very few. But as to that mystery which is after pure prayer and lies beyond it, there is scarcely to be found a single man from generation to generation who by God’s grace has attained thereto.”   From Homily 23.

Now there are two very important things to point out in this remarkable statement. First, never mind the hyperbolic language here, the rhetorical exaggeration if you will, that Isaac uses to make his most profound observation. The “fewness” of the people who will achieve these special moments in the spiritual journey makes it sound like it’s a numbers game and exceptional work, effort and very special grace give one a slight chance to “win” this spiritual lottery. I think this is a mistaken impression that Isaac’s language gives. Yes, there are few who find this very special pearl, but not because of lack of access on the part of the many. It is more likely that people settle for a lower form of religiosity, one that keeps religion within the confines of controllable religious language and concepts–often this is so because of ignorance or lack of awareness, but it can also be that they want a clearly delineated religion that is so easily encapsulated in concepts and notions. Thus for many their religion is simply trying to “be good,” morally, and get their reward for this: “heaven.” Or maybe they are more pious and they engage in a kind of relationship with saints, angels, and of course Mary and Jesus, and this engages more of their life than just “keeping the commandments.” But it’s amazing how often all this religiosity is still, underneath it all, a way of keeping the ego fed and clothe with approval and getting some favorable treatment in terms which are more or less understandable. Generally people see themselves as no more than as members of some social reality, being “part of something” is reassuring, and as no more than caught up in this struggle to maximize the positives in one’s life and minimize the negatives; and religion then becomes part of the picture and the mechanism to make this happen. Ok, so Isaac (and the many other Desert Fathers and Christian mystics) are saying, wait, there’s a lot more to your identity than that. But Isaac is also a very down-to-earth realist and he realizes that only a few, a very few, grasp the epiphenomenal nature of our supposed identity and awaken to something way beyond that. But we must emphasize that Isaac’s language does not mean that the “Beyond” is only for a chosen few, an elite of sorts; no, it is the very foundation of everyone’s humanity wherever they are, whoever they are. But it does require a kind of “seeking” that few want to partake in.

So this brings us to the second important point of Isaac’s statement: the reference to “the beyond.” It is striking enough that he posits “pure prayer” as a true goal of Christian praxis–this in itself would make him a mystic in the Rahnerian sense. Important here to note that this term points to something that is called by different names by different spiritual teachers. Thus, for some this is termed “purity of heart,” for yet others as “continual prayer”; for others as “theoria” or the “vision of God”; for others as “quies” or stillness; and for some others, “the kingdom of heaven,” and so on. The appropriation of Biblical language for noting mystical experience is very interesting. Recall that Beatitude: Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God. Whatever be the original Gospel meaning of this statement, which probably had to do with an afterlife situation, like “going to heaven,” the monks and mystics of Christianity appropriated this language to speak of an awakening to the ever-present Divine Reality, to abide in the Divine Presence continually. And it is not in their imagination or in their thinking as another concept that this takes place; but it is as real as the ground under their feet. This kind of awakening should be the patrimony of every Christian, but as a matter of fact it is very rare.

Now an emphatic note: here we are still within a dualistic mysticism and vision: here I am and there is God (or the Risen Christ). Even if it be the depths of the heart where this God is found, still….there is me and there is God and there is this most profound and intimate relationship. So “pure prayer,” as mystical as it is, it still functions within a dualistic vision, which is in fact the signature vision of Christian spirituality. Except that there are these glimmers and occasional glimpses of something quite different–for example, in Eckhart, and of course here in Isaac. I am really struck by the plainness of his language here: “But as to that mystery which is after pure prayer and lies beyond it “…. So there is this “beyond” which lies beyond even “regular” mysticism–it is a “mystery,” not describable in theological or spiritual terms. Isaac is speechless; he merely points to that Beyond. And here we can rightfully and speculatively inquire whether this isn’t a reference to a kind of Christian advaita, that which Abhishiktananda struggled so much to express in Christian language from his own inestimable experience of that Beyond.

And just some more additional words by Isaac on this topic–again from Homily 23: “Even as the whole force of the laws and the commandments given by God to men terminates in the purity of heart”….   So here we see that normal religious observance is to reach the goal of this “purity of heart” which leads to the vision of God. Religious observance is not for its own sake; nor just a social structure and not meant to serve the neurotic needs of certain individuals!

Isaac continues: “…so all the modes and forms of prayer which men pray to God terminate in pure prayer. For sighs, prostrations, heartfelt supplications, sweet cries of lamentations, and all the other forms of prayer [emphasis mine] have…their boundary and the extent of their domain in pure prayer. But once the mind crosses this boundary, from the purity of prayer even to that which is within, it no longer possesses prayer or movement, or weeping, or dominion, or free will, or supplication, or desire, or fervent longing for things hoped for in this life or in the age to come.”   So here we see that Isaac holds that the whole purpose of true piety is to lead to this “pure prayer” and beyond. Piety, religious observance and practice, in fact the whole of one’s religious life are not ends in themselves but open up on something much more vast and incredible. But Isaac is only beginning to astonish us! There is much more. He has spoken of a “boundary” here, but now he is once more pushing us beyond this boundary to something that is unspeakable: “Therefore, there exists no prayer beyond pure prayer. Every movement and every form of prayer leads the mind this far by the authority of the free will; for this reason there is a struggle in prayer. But beyond this boundary there is awestruck wonder and not prayer. For what pertains to prayer has ceased, while a certain divine vision remains, and the mind does not pray a prayer.” So there is only this abiding within the Divine Reality and there is no more space between you and God; and it is an awakening like a lightning bolt, as Abhishiktananda said, and there is only the “Ah” of the Upanishads–the Christian version of advaita.


Isaac not only points to this Beyond, but he provides an existential picture of the quality of life lived by the person who has knowledge of this Beyond. For Isaac the chief characteristic of such a person could be summed up in this phrase: a merciful heart. To be sure this is not just some emotional state or a whim of good feeling or dependent on us having sufficient “willpower.” Rather it means a total transformation of the dynamics of one’s personal life and an awakening to a transcendent sense of identity. Do you want a better picture of this “merciful heart”? Isaac is quite obliging: “’And what is a merciful heart?’ It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and at the recollection and sight of them, the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy that grips his heart and from 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 prayers with tears continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who 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.” So, quite a statement! But what is most remarkable is how close this is to the Buddhist Bodhisattva theme; in fact you might want to say that this is the Bodhisattva in Christian terms. We are no longer locked in a narrow vision of “saving our souls,” but our concern is for all sentient beings!


Now for Isaac the gateway, so to speak, for his Beyond lies in silence and stillness. This means a lot more than just verbal silence, refraining from talking, etc., though of course that would be a good foundation. What Isaac is referring to is something very close to what Mahayana Buddhism seeks, both in its Tibetan and Zen forms–a stillness of the mind. And this is best illustrated by a well-known analogy. Consider being on the shoreline of a very great ocean, like the Pacific. There is a lot of turbulence on the surface and on the edge with large waves crashing and foaming, etc. But go down diving a few hundred feet and it will be eerily quiet and calm with serene fish swimming along. So it is with our consciousness. Along the “surface” we are constantly in motion with thoughts and feelings running along and “crashing” on the shores of the mind. But if you quiet this down; or if you go deeper into one’s own consciousness, there comes a deep calm. And the deeper you go the more calm it gets; and the more calm it gets, the deeper you go. This is the royal road to a profound awakening both in Buddhism and for Isaac–among others also.

Isaac: “True wisdom is gazing at God. Gazing at God is silence of the thoughts.”(Homily 64)

Isaac: “Love silence above all things, because it brings you near to fruit that the tongue cannot express. First let us force ourselves to be silent, and then from out of this silence something is born that leads us into silence itself. May God grant you to perceive some part of that which is born of silence!” (Homily 64)

Isaac: “Do not be surprised if sometimes when you are kneeling in prayer and your mind is concentrated upon it, your mind grows silent and desists from prayer.” (Homily 64)

Isaac: “It is impossible without stillness and estrangement from men to bring the senses into submission to the sovereignty of the soul. For the noetic soul is hypostatically united and conjoined with the senses and it is involuntarily carried away by her thoughts, unless a man is vigilant in secret prayer.” (Homily 65)

Isaac: “Silence is a mystery of the age to come, but words are instruments of this world.” (Homily 65)

The silence/stillness that Isaac points to is a deeply inner reality. Now Isaac has language about all this, but it is obfuscated for us by its antiquity and its mannerisms and its (strange to us) imagery. Isaac seems to recognize the limitations of his language and of all language to communicate his vision and his experience. Furthermore, in Christianity there is no methodology or practice that deals with this inner silence–that’s why Merton wanted to explore what Buddhism had to offer in this regard because, as he put it, they had gone further in this regard than we had. For most Christian contemplatives this silence is reached through various prayer forms, like in the midst of praying the psalms, or the mantra-like Jesus Prayer, or even lectio divina, the meditative reading of Scripture. I remember once writing in this blog how as a youngster I would observe my grandmother drift into a deep silence while praying the rosary. While at prayer, focusing their whole heart at it, a person could find themselves enveloped in a very deep stillness within. Some persons, however, do go directly into the quiet through silent meditation. Whatever be the case, then opens the gateway to an experiential knowledge of the Beyond; and as they say, you will never be the same again!