Dostoevsky twice mentions St. Isaac the Syrian in The Brother Karamazov and Christopher Columbus’ son took a translation of his homilies when traveling with his father as a companion. Outside of Orthodox Church circles, few know of him or his writings on Stillness and the spiritual life. A friend of mine, a modern hermit and great spiritual and intellectual mind, has inspired me to work through the new translation from Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, MA which arrived last week. Three of us are reading it. Each is a different kind of Hermit in modern versions. It is an expensive book, but its red and black ink and cloth binding are well worth the cost. It is a physically lovely book – wonderful to hold. It is heavy, beautifully bound and the paper is soft and cottony.
Its more than 70 homilies written in the 7th century will take more than a year to read at one page per day and even one page can be demanding from this hermit. He writes to encourage the solitary but he seems able to anticipate that the solitary life takes many forms.
I have never before now made such a distinction between stillness and other similar spiritual disciplines. I know that my friends with children roll their eyes at the notion that stillness is possible, and that my evangelical friends quietly question if stillness is the lazy alternative to saving souls. I used to think silence was a form of stillness, or meditation, or thinking, or prayer. Abba Isaac is teaching me that stillness is a gift we give to God and its results a gift God returns to us many fold. Stillness, in our culture is a sacrifice. It means giving up the morsel of entertainment or productivity which are our modern addictions – that which distracts us from our inner life and anesthetizes us from our insecurities, pain and fear.
Stillness, I am slowly learning, is like turning up the wick in a lantern so that one may see the room in which one is. It is a fluffed cushion for Jesus who would sit with us and whisper how lovely we are and how much God likes us. Stillness is the unrolling of a map. Once our map is unrolled in stillness; we sit with it. As we roll it back up to move into the activity of the day, there is a twinge of Twilight-Zone-like spookiness as we realize that the map has been added to by a divine pen, the holder of which wants us to find things hidden in God’s game of our becoming God’s hope.