ST. ISAAC THE SYRIAN AND BREAKFAST BREAD
St. Isaac the Syrian of Nineveh was born c. 613 in Beth Quatraye, near the Persian Gulf. He was a learned theologian, spiritual writer, and ascetic monk who served briefly as the Bishop of Nineveh. He died c. 700 in Nineveh, located in the ancient Assyrian Empire, now part of Iraq. He is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Church of the East, Eastern Catholic Church, as well as in Oriental Orthodoxy (including the Syrian Church) on January 28. The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates his feast on September 28.
Although his feast day is not listed on Western Church calendars, many churches and individuals honor St. Isaac the Syrian. For example, St. Isaac’s Retreat House in New Zealand is run by both Anglicans and Catholics. Here’s what’s known of his life story:
Isaac entered a monastery at a young age, spent most of his time studying in the attached library, and became a widely-respected theologian.
Years later, he was chosen to be ordained the Bishop of Nineveh. Either because the people were not happy with a bishop that was constantly referring to scripture or he didn’t like the administrative duties, he abdicated after only five months of service.
Isaac then became a solitary ascetic near Mount Matout, a refuge for anchorites. He lived on his own in the wilderness for many years, eating only small portions of raw vegetables and plain bread.
Old age and blindness caused him to retire to the Assyrian Monastery of Shabar in Mesopotamia where he died a peaceful death and was buried around the year 700.
It seems to me that his blindness was caused by lack of nutrients in his diet, but many believe it was his intense theological study and writing that eventually caused his blindness. Either way, Isaac left behind a treasury of divine expressions.
Isaac’s writings were guidelines for monks living the ascetic life. It’s amazing, however, how much of his interpretations and advice can be applied to everyone, including laity.
I read THE SPIRITUAL WORLD OF ISAAC THE SYRIAN, by Hilarion Alfeyev.
I recommend it for anyone wanting to dig deeper into St. Isaac teachings. However, it didn’t flow easily because the author grouped Isaac’s ideas into categories and the text had many typos, so I wonder about the copyediting. If I were to do it over again, maybe I’d read a simple translation of Isaac’s books. On the other hand, I probably needed Mr. Alfeyev more than I realized to help me understand Isaac’s perspective.
Isaac’s writings are considered Gnostic as they focus on esoteric mystical knowledge of God. I first learned about the mystical aspect of Christianity when I studied St. Mary Magdalene. Other Christian mystics I’ve studied about are St. Bernadette of Lourdes, Margery Kempe, St. Julian of Norwich, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Joan of Arc. Visions and messages from God are right fascinating. But they don’t just happen. We have to pray our way to them, like learning the ways of yeast before we can make a decent loaf of bread.
You know what? I’m going to go ahead and write his advice as if it were a recipe:
Understand that God is Love. He loves everyone all the time. Heaven is oneness with Love. Hell is bitter regret of having hurt Love or choosing to ignore or hide from Love.
If we believe not, yet He abideth faithful, for He cannot deny himself. — Page 43
Understand that Angels are invisible beings whose task it is to be stirred by praises of God in that great stillness which is spread over their world.
Angels are fiery in their movements, acute in intellect, wondrous in knowledge, and resembling God insofar as that is possible. — Page 45
Understand that God sent Himself to us in Jesus so we could understand Him and His compassion for us.
And by the death of His only-begotten son He made us near to Himself. Because of His great love for us it was His pleasure not to do violence to our freedom, although He is able to do so, but He chose that we should draw near to Him by the love of our understanding. — Page 49
Take care of your own spiritual and physical needs as a mark of faith.
Instead of audible words, let his excellent manner of life serve as an education, and instead of the sounds of his mouth, let his deeds teach others, and when he keeps his soul healthy, let him profit others and heal them by his own good health. — Page 70
Embark on a spiritual journey that never ends.
The limit of this journey is so truly unattainable that even the saints are found wanting with respect to the perfection of wisdom, because there is no end to wisdom’s journey. Wisdom ascends even till this: until she unites with God who follows after her. And this is the sign that the insights of wisdom have no limit; that wisdom is God himself. — Page 82
Prepare for temptations and challenges along with way.
For God’s marvelous Love of man is made known to him when he is in the midst of circumstances that cut off his hope; herein God shows his power by saving him. — Page 94
Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, for this knowledge becomes for him the foundation, the root, the beginning of all goodness. When a man knows that he is in need of divine help, he offers up many prayers. And by as much as he multiplies them to his heart humbled, for there is no man who will not be humbled when he is offering supplication and entreaty. Any heart that is broken and humbled, God will not despise. — Page 122
Ask for forgiveness.
Repentance is given to man as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration of God. That of which we have received in earnest baptism, we receive as a gift by means of repentance. Repentance is the door of mercy, open to those who seek it. By this door, we enter into the mercy of God, and apart from this entrance, we shall not find mercy. Repentance is the second grace. — Page 132
Release your tears.
For tears are established for the mind as a kind of boundary between what is physical and what is spiritual and between passionateness and purity. Until a man receives this gift, the activity of his work is still in the outer man and he has not yet perceived at all the activity of the hidden things of the spiritual man. — Page 136
No one, therefore, accurately knows the help that comes of weeping, save only those who have surrendered their souls to the work. All the saints strive to reach this entryway, because by means of tears the door is opened for them to enter the land of consolation, where the footsteps of the love of God are imprinted through revelations. — Page 139
Pray with full attention, humility, and focus upon God. Pray as if every recited, memorized prayer are your own words. Pray with trust, faith, deep affection, and tears.
Prayer is the mind’s freedom and rest from everything of this world and a heart that has completely turned its gaze toward the fervent desire belonging to the hope of future things.
So also at the time of Prayer were all visions and revelations made manifest to the saints. For what other time is so holy, and by its sanctity so apt for the reception of gifts, as the time of prayer, wherein a man converses with God. — Page 145
Tears during prayer is a sign that the soul has been deemed worthy of God’s mercy in her repentance, and that her repentance has been accepted. Page 147
Pray all the time and everywhere.
A person can be occupied at this while standing up or sitting down, while working or while walking, while he is going to sleep, until the point when sleep takes over, while he is indoors or while he is traveling on a journey, secretly occupying himself with them within his heart; likewise, while he is constantly kneeling on the ground, or whenever he happens to be standing, even if it is not in front of the cross. — Page 162
Pray like this:
May those who suffer from dire and grievous illness of the body also be remembered before you; send to them an angel of compassion and assuage their souls, which are grievously tormented by their bodies’ terrible afflictions. Have pity, too, Lord, on those who are subjected to the hands of evil, wicked, and godless men; send to them speedily an angel of compassion, and save them from their plight! Oh, my Lord and my God, send comfort to all those who are constrained by whatever kind of hardship. — Page 205
Read scripture and the writings of great teachers in the church.
These two kinds of reading are useful for the man of spirit. Without reading, the intellect has no means of drawing near to God: Scripture draws the mind up and sets it at every moment in the direction of God; it baptizes it from the corporeal world with its insights and causes it to be above the body continually. There is no other toil by which someone can make better progress. — Page 175
And by remembering the lives of the saints which his intellect conceives through recalling their histories, and by musing upon them, his despondency forthwith vanishes, sloth is put to flight, his limbs are strengthened, sleep is driven from his eyelids, and ineffable joy arises in the soul. — Page 191
Understand that ardent prayer will lead to contemplation and visions of God.
When by the in-working of divine grace there suddenly arises within us great thought and astonishment at the intellect’s contemplations, which are more lofty than nature, and when, as Saint Evagrius says, the holy angels draw nigh to us, filling us with spiritual vision, then all things that appose us retreat and there is peace and ineffable tranquility for as long a time as we remain in these things. — Page 227
While he is fully in the mode of life of the soul, every now and then it happens that some stirrings of the spirit arise indistinctly in him, and he begins to perceive in his soul a hidden joy and consolation: like flashes of lightning particular mystical insights arise and are set in motion in his mind. But even though insights into mysteries momentarily passes through his mind and then departs, nevertheless the outburst of joy at the experience lasts a long time, and then after it goes, serenity resulting from it is poured over the mind for a considerable period. — Page 234
Relax into God’s Love. Love of God cannot be stirred up in someone solely as a result of knowledge of the scripture; nor can anyone love God by forcing himself. What is possible is for the mind to receive from the reading and recounting of scripture and knowledge of it, a sense of reverence which stems from a recollection of the majesty of God. Not even as a result of the law, or commandment which he gives concerning love, is it possible to love God; from the law, there comes a sense of awe, but not one of desire. For until a person receives the spirit of revelation and his soul, with its impulses, is united to that wisdom which is above the world and he becomes aware in his own person of God’s lofty attributes, it is not possible for him to come close to this glorious savior of love. — Page 249
Rejoice! When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor or toil. The heavenly bread is Christ who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of the angels. Page 255
And so, to honor St. Isaac of Syria and the people of his homeland, let’s bake:
SYRIAN BREAKFAST BREAD
(More photos below.)
½ cup hot water, between 100-110 degrees F
1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
½ cup room-temperature water
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt
Extra olive oil and flour for shaping
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons marjoram
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups crumbled feta cheese
1 medium sweet onion, grated
Heat water until it reaches 100 to 105 degrees F. Pour into liquid measuring cup. Stir in yeast and sugar. Wait 10 minutes for thick foam to develop on top.
Add ½ cup room-temperature water and olive oil.
Combine flour and salt in large bowl. Pour in yeast mixture. Using clean hands, mix gradually until all the liquid is absorbed. Wash and dry hands.
Sprinkle flour onto a clean, flat surface and the sticky ball of dough. Knead dough for 7 minutes, then shape into a ball. Place dough ball in a large glass or oven-safe bowl coated with olive oil. Roll ball around to coat. Cover bowl with damp towel.
Heat oven to “warm,” place bowl in oven, then TURN OVEN OFF. Proof until dough has doubled in size, about 1 ½ hours.
“Wash” hands in olive oil, then gently punch dough down to remove air. Shape dough into 12 balls and place on clean and floured tray or counter. Cover dough balls with a piece of lightly-oiled plastic wrap and let rest for ½ hour.
“Wash” hands in flour and lightly sprinkle flour onto work surface. Shape each dough ball into a flat round disk about 1/8-inch thick. Place on parchment paper-covered cookie sheet. With fingers, create a higher outer edge by flattening the center.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Combine topping ingredients. Spread topping mixture evenly over flattened center of each disk.
Bake for 15 minutes or until edges turn light brown. Serve hot.