Tag Archive: Abba Isaac


Thy Will Be Done

[Abba Isaac said:] “To pray, ‘Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven’ is to pray that men may be like angels, that as angels fulfil God’s will in heaven, men may fulfil his will instead of their own, on earth. No one can say this sincerely except one who believes that every circumstance, favourable or unfavourable, is designed by God’s providence for his good, and that he thinks and cares more for the good of his people and their salvation than we do for ourselves. It may be understood thus: the will of God is the salvation of all men, according to that text of St Paul: ‘who willeth all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ [1 Timothy 2:4].”

~ Conferences of St. John Cassian, 9.20

The acceptance of all things as God’s will is one of the most common and most difficult teachings of the fathers. In particular, the part where Abba Isaac makes clear this includes “every circumstance, favourable or unfavourable,” is especially hard to swallow. What might we make of this? What good does it do? How does it affect our spiritual practice? Continue reading

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The Art of Eternal Life

[Abba Isaac said:] “St. Antony … uttered this heavenly, inspired, saying on the end of prayer: ‘That prayer is not perfect in which the monk understands himself and the words which he is praying.'”

~ Conferences of Cassian, 9.31

In all our striving for the right method of spiritual progress, sayings like this one can be both comforting and conflicting. Continue reading

Seeing God Become Man

This Christmas, I have a rather long story from the Conferences of St. John Cassian to share. I’ll add a comment or two afterward.

A minor, historical note: The whole Church, which was undivided at this time, was referred to as the Catholic Church and its Orthodox members sometimes as Catholics. The term in English has come to mean “Roman Catholic,” but reading this into the text would be anachronistic. “Catholic” means universal (literally “through the whole”) and describes both: 1) the fact that no one is barred from being a Christian by ethnicity, class, gender, or anything else accidental to the image of God within us; and 2) the fact that all across the world, the Orthodox faith is the same and the Church is the same, despite different regional traditions and customs. Thus, the Orthodox Church today, of which I am a member, is also called the Catholic Church. Nor do I mind being called a Catholic. I am just not a Roman Catholic. Hopefully, some day these distinctions will be unnecessary again.

But back to the note on different regional customs—that brings me to our story:

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An old man said: “I never wanted a work to be useful to me while causing loss to my brother: for I have this hope, that what helps my brother will bring fruit to me.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 17.24

According to Abba Isaac, intercession is the third of four forms of prayer, after supplications and vows and before thanksgiving. Intercession corresponds to the affective state of longing, which differs, in ancient Christian terminology, from desire (epithemia) in its ends. Longing is a wish for what is holy and virtuous. Intercession, similarly, is a request on behalf of another for his/her good. While Christians do not seek the good of others purely out of self-interest well understood, nevertheless the saying of this old man is true that “what helps my brother will bring fruit to me.” Continue reading

Abba Antony said: “Now I do not fear God, but I love him: for love casteth out fear” [cf. 1 John 4:18]

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 17.1

St. Antony’s saying, like much ancient Christian wisdom, is both simple and profound. He does not operate, like some do today, under a defeatist mentality when it comes to the spiritual life. Many today, I know, repeat to themselves the destructive mantra: “I am a sinner, and that is never going to change in this life.” Such a perspective, I fear, portrays the Gospel as the worst good news anyone could ever hear. Continue reading

430px-David_(Kirillo-Belozersk)Syncletice of holy memory said: “Men endure sore travail and conflict when they are first converted to the Lord, but later they have joy unspeakable. They are like men trying to light a fire, the smoke gets into their eyes, their eyes begin to drop tears—but they succeed in what they want. It is written: ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ [cf. Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:24, 9:3; Hebrews 12:29]: and so we must kindle the fire of God with tears and trouble.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 3.16

Continuing my series on the four forms of prayer, I come to supplication. As I mentioned in my first post, according to Abba Isaac, supplication is “particularly suitable to beginners, who are still smarting under the recollection of their sins.” In the course of exploring what supplication looks like, I would also like to examine contrition, since that is the affective state that corresponds to it. I find Amma Syncletice’s statement to be a helpful counterbalance to Abba Isaac. After all, spiritual wisdom is often aimed at the concrete. The principles apply in typical cases, not absolutely. In this case, I find a reciprocal relationship between contrition and supplication. Supplication is the appropriate response to contrition, Abba Isaac is correct, but it also helps to cultivate contrition in those to whom it does not come so easily. Continue reading

Praying[Abba Isaac said:] Whether the prayer is expressing repentance, or is pledging the heart in the confident trust of a pure conscience, or is expressing the intercessions which spring from a charitable heart, or is rendering thanks in the sight of the great and loving gifts of God—we have known prayers dart up like sparks from a fire. It is therefore clear that all men need to use all four kinds. The same person according to his diversity of affective states will use prayers of repentance or offering or intercession or thanksgiving.

The first kind seems particularly suitable to beginners, who are still smarting under the recollection of their sins. The second kind seems particularly suitable to people who have already attained a certain progress towards goodness. Intercession seems particularly suitable to people who are fulfilling the pledges of self-offering which they made, see the frailty of others, and are moved by charity to intercede for them. Thanksgiving seems particularly suitable for those who have torn out of their hearts the sins which pricked their conscience and are at last free from fear of falling again: and then, recollecting the generosity and the mercy of the Lord, past or present or future, are rapt away into that spark-like prayer which no mortal can understand or describe.

~ Conferences of Cassian, 9.15

I have written in the past about the destructive cycle of passions that so often leads to tragedy in our lives here. And I have reflected on this particular passage with regards to thanksgiving here. However, I would like to focus a little more closely on this passage and see the connection that Abba Isaac draws between different forms of prayer and virtuous passions that typically follow a particular order—how the way out of the vicious cycle of death is a virtuous progression of life. Continue reading