The Point of Mystical Writing

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian

Now because the Holy Spirit speaks through Isaac’s mouth, the words of this thrice-blessed saint are matchless in their beauty and are fired with a divine spark. That is why, even though he writes so much, he makes a holy silence come to rest within our spirit, just as if there were no one speaking, but we only heard the distant echoing of a sea hidden from our sight.

—Photios Kontoglou’s Encomium for Isaac the Syrian,

in The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian

The above quotation is found on page 46 of a 604-page book, so needless to say I have barely begun to read this anthology of Abba Isaac’s sermons — and the homilies themselves don’t show up until page 113, meaning I’m not even halfway through the front matter of this tome. So for now, I don’t really have anything much to say about Isaac himself, other than to note his towering reputation as one of the great ascetical theologians of the first millennium, praised by many from Maggie Ross to my own Orthodox priest friend, Father Cyprian. I’m looking forward to the homilies and I imagine I’ll have something to say about them once I get into them.

But for now, I simply have to pass on this amazing paragraph from Photios Kontoglou, whose Encomium is nestled in amongst the introductory essays of the book. For it seems to me that what Kontoglou has to say about Isaac really points to the point behind all mystical writing. A true contemplative writes not for his or her own aggrandizement or glory, but rather to get out of the way, so to speak, and allow the words to subvert themselves, to collapse into silence while pointing toward the Mystery. This is why paradox, hyperbole, passion, irony and even humor show up again and again in mystical texts. A friend of mine once spoke approvingly of the police station at a local campus, noting that it was in a trailer (like what the foreman uses at a construction site). “Shouldn’t the cops always have only a temporary structure for their operations? After all, shouldn’t we all be working together to create a just and orderly society where police are no longer necessary?” she mused. Okay, she was expressing youthful naiveté about law enforcement, to be sure! But I think mystical writing really should have the same kind of trajectory. A mystic or a contemplative writes not so that his or her words may be enshrined, but only that they may be offered to the glory of God, that they may be immolated in the fires of the Divine Radiance. The words of a mystic point beyond themselves, and therefore need to “fall away,” like the prayer word of centering prayer during moments of profoundly infused silence. And then, all that is left, is merely the echo of what sounds like a vast ocean, hidden from our sight.

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