A SKETCH OF ISAAC’S MYSTICAL IDEAS
It will always be difficult to describe mystical ideas in a systematic form ; a mystical system can hardly be spoken of in Isaac’s case ; and we have already said, that his book is as unsystematic as any book can be. Still, the chief ideas of its author are expounded in it some repeatedly and sometimes very explicitly. This enables us to give a short characteristic of its contents.
There is a special reason why such a characteristic can be short. In the Introduction to the translation of Bar Hebraeus’s Book of the Dove the attempt has been made to give a survey of the mystical type to which Bar Hebraeus belongs ; from that it would appear that he is of a type with Isaac. So I may refer the reader in the first place to the Introduction mentioned. But there remain ideas enough which are Isaac’s peculiar property and which have to be discussed here for Isaac’s readers in particular. His relation to his predecessors and to Muslim mysticism will be treated in the following section.
Isaac devides the mystic way into three sections : repentance, purity or purification, and perfection (p. 507). This sequence is of a logical nature in the first place ; it will appear that it cannot be taken as a temporal distinction in the strict sense ; he that has reached the state of perfection will often want purification again, and even repentance. In this respect he is less systematic than Bar Hebraeus, who makes these states to coincide with the abode in the monastery, with that in the cell, and with the state of spiritual consolation.
We may keep Isaac’s division in describing his ideas. But beforehand it is necessary to say a few words concerning the general position of his mysticism.
Just as other mystics (The Book of the Dove, p. XXVII sqq.) he shrinks from divulging his most intimate experiences. As to the question of the cause of that other prayer (viz. pure or even spiritual prayer) and its duration without compulsion, it seems to me that it is not becoming for us to treat such things in detail, or to describe their nature in speech or writing, lest the reader, being unable to understand anything of it, should judge it to be something insipid; or, if he should be acquainted with these things, should despise him who is not able to cross the border of certain things (p. 129). - Isaac’s textbook, the use of which is prescribed to all those who walk the “way”, is the Bible . But he interprets it as well as the chief dogma ’s of Christianity in an allegorical way. Speaking of the thorns and thistles which the earth brings forth since Adam ’s fall, he says: “In reality the thorns are affections which grow in us from bodily seed” (p. 504).
Mysticism, though dualistic in its deep conscience of good and evil, body and soul, matter and spirit - is monistic in its highest view of God and the world. As a matter of fact the only real Being is God. So Isaac does not acknowledge Satan at His side as a kind of second God. Satan is the name of the deviation of the will from the truth, but it is not the designation of a natural being.
Equally the eschatological and cosmological scheme of Oriental positive religion is dissolved by allegorical interpretation. Fear is the paternal rod which guides us up to the spiritual Eden , when we are arrived there, it leaves us and returns. Eden is the divine love wherein is the paradise of all good, where the blessed Paul was sustained by supernatural food. The many mansions in the house of the Father denote the spiritual degrees of the inhabitants of that place. This means : the different gifts and the spiritual ranks in which they rejoice spiritually, and the variety of the classes of gifts. And the kingdom of heaven is spiritual contemplation.
Hell is equally of an intelligible nature. Speaking of those who do not enter the kingdom but go into the darkness, Isaac says with a variation on the well known word from the Gospel: There will be psychic weeping and grinding of teeth, which is a grief more hard than the fire. Now thou understandest, that to remain far from that elevation, means torturing hell’s. To the same purport are the words : If the apple of thy soul’s eye has not been purified, do not venture to look at the sun , lest thou be bereft of the usual visual power and thou be thrown into one of those intelligible places which are Tartarus and a type of hell, namely darkness without God, whither those who with the impulses of their mind leave nature, wander by the cognitive nature which they possess. Therefore he that ventured to go to the banquet in sordid garments, was ordered to be thrown out into that outer darkness. By the banquet is designated the sight of spiritual knowledge. The institutions in it are the manifold divine mysteries, full of joy and exultation and delight of the soul . The garment of the banquet he calls the mantle of purity ; the sordid garments the emotions of the affections which are defiled in the soul ; the outer darkness, the state without any delight of true knowledge and communion with God.
It is clear that Isaac simply uses the Bible and Christian dogmas as a means to support his own ideas by an outward authority. But it is again to be borne in mind that it was not only Isaac among the mystics, nor only the mystics among the intepreters of the Bible in early Christian times who followed such a method. Muslim mystics have submitted the Koran to a similar treatment. We may even ask: Was there any interpreter or school of interpreters of the Bible which did not in the first place seek after their own ideas in the holy writ?
These facts correspond with the mystics’ aversion to dogmatical schisms; they were not interested in them, because there was no place for dogmatics in their system. And it may be said that mysticism is an exponent of the unity of Hellenistic monotheism. This is the catchword which covers all these mystics of ‘Western Asia, the early Christian - John Climacus , Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Evagrius -, the later Christian ones - Stephen bar Sudaile, Dionysius the Areopagite , Isaac, Bar Hebraeus -, and the Muslims : Abu Talib al-Makki, al-Kushairi, al-Ghazali. And in this unity the Eastern Church in its chief representatives is remarkably different from the great Western Fathers.
One general point may still be mentioned in connection with the foregoing remarks. Mysticism is said to be essentially pantheistic everywhere. Of Eastern mysticism this is certainly true. Its highest aim, - the unification of God and the mystic - is pantheistic; and, as a matter of fact, they go far in asserting that, in the deepest sense, God is the only Being.
Still, the place of this thought and its prominence, is very different in the different authors. In Dionysius’ and Stephen bar Sudaile’s works the transition of man into God, is described at length and with delight. Bar Hebraeus quotes such passages, but scarcely. In Isaac’s works they occur very seldom. In this connection may be cited what Isaac says on p. 170: As the saints, in the world to come, do not pray, when the mind has been engulfed by the [divine] Spirit, but dwell in ecstasy in that delightful glory, so the mind, when it has been made worthy of perceiving the future blessedness, will forget itself and all that is here etc. In a similar way he speaks on p. 194: Now when the intellect withdraws itself from this and is exalted unto the unique Essence, by the contemplation of the properties of that good Nature. When the intellect descends again from that place and returns again to the worlds and their distinctions etc. Generally speaking, Isaac is much more concerned with the state of purification and illumination than with that of perfection and unification. In this respect he belongs rather to the early than to the later type of Oriental mystics.
These general remarks may be sufficient as an introduction to a description of Isaac’s way in its three stages.