Indeed Grace Will Be The Judge

Mar Isaac
St. Isaac of Nineveh (c. 613 – c. 700) ܡܪܝ ܐܝܣܚܩ ܕܢܝܢܘ

Who, then, understands this and faithfully discerns is not able to rejoice in works but only in the goodness of God. And the one who truly recognizes that God’s goodness is the cause of his joy, does not hold that his joy be only for himself but rejoices for all creatures. His joy comes to be more abundant than the sea, because it is the goodness of the God of the universe affording such joy, and all creation is a partaker in it, even sinners share in this.

So then, he is quick to rejoice even for sinners. He says in fact: ‘They are not far from mercy because of the goodness of the Lord of the universe by which righteousness has been given even to me without works.’ And again he says: ‘All like me share in this great good because God is good: He only requires a little will then He gives His grace abundantly and remits sins.’

This is the grace which strengthens the righteous, preserving them by its being near and removing their faults. It is also near to those who have perished, reducing their torments and in their punishment deals with compassion. In the world to come, indeed grace will be the judge, not justice. God reduces the length of time of sufferings, and by means of His grace, makes all worthy of His Kingdom. For there is no one even among the righteous who is able to conform his way of life to the Kingdom.

But if human realities are to be judged and examined according to justice, yet in listening to the word of Scripture one investigates according to exterior knowledge, not entering into the meaning- where is justice here? As it is said, He is merciful in all His works. However, even when He chastises here below or in the life beyond, it is not correct to consider this as justice, but rather fatherly wisdom.

Nor do I call ‘exacting punishment’ even those times when God visits one with a severe aspect, either here or in the life beyond, but rather ‘instruction,’ because they have a good end. On that account, as I said, no one is able to make his way of life resemble the Kingdom and that way of life which is granted only by mercy.

So then I have explained what was already said, that we inherit heaven by what is His and not by what is ours. And this grace is given every day, not just from time to time. If we all receive this grace, let us rejoice in Him who gives it and the greater will be our joy! Let us adore and give thanks for it, and an even greater gift will be given.

Whoever then has joy by reason of his way of life, this joy is false, or rather, his joy is wretched. And not only in his joy is he wretched but also in his understanding. Whoever rejoices because he has truly understood that God is good, is consoled with a consolation that does not pass away, and his joy is true joy. This is because, as was just said his soul has considered and perceived that truly the goodness of God is without measure.

St. Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Third Part,’ in Isaac the Syrian’s Spiritual Works, ed. and trans. by Mary T. Hansbury (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2016), 102-104.

If You Do Not Will, It Is Not Able to Enter

It has been some time since I have presented a translation of my own of a Syriac source here. To be honest, I had allowed my command of Syriac to become rusty through neglect, something I have begun trying to rectify. As part of this effort, I present here a translation of a Syriac scholia, or short selective commentary, on a passage from the book of Genesis. The author is Mar Jacob of Edessa, a prominent and productive Syriac Christian bishop and writer of the seventh century (A.D.). This text, while explicating a passage about Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, is really an examination of freedom of will and the mechanics of human wrong-doing, with the verse in question acting as a jumping-off place, and supporting evidence, for the centrality of human freedom in moral action.

*

 Behold! If you do good, I will accept you (Gen. 4:7a): And also, I am accepting of you if you do good. These are an evident indication that God wills the repentance of man, and receives his repentance. And He is longsuffering with him, and gives him also means that call him to this, because He wills his salvation.

But, if you do not do good—upon the door sin is crouching. You are turned towards it and it has mastery over you (Gen. 4:7b): These [words] point out that mastery of the house[1] and freedom of will belong to humans, and that one wills by his own will. One calls to sin that it come upon him and have mastery over his soul. If he does not will it, sin is not able to draw near to him. That is, it crouches upon the door of your mind, like a fierce animal outside of the gate of a house. If you turn towards this by your own will, and open up to it, it enters and has mastery upon you. And if you do not will, it is not able to enter against you.

By means of these you are clearly taught that Satan is not the sower of sin able to compel, or govern with force the rule of the house of the human mind, and sin is not the seed itself of evil. For this Cain was condemned, for he did not come to repentance of these things, though he opened the door to sin by his own will, and it entered and took mastery over him, as God said to him, and he murdered his transgression-less brother, from envy alone.

Mar Jacob of Edessa, Scholia on the Old Testament


[1] That is, mastery of the human body, or perhaps the soul: the exact meaning of the phrase, here literally translated, is a bit ambiguous.

On the Ravens and Elijah

The following is a translation of two short exegetical texts by Mar Jacob of Edessa, a Syriac Christian bishop, ascetic, and exegete who lived and wrote in the second half of the 600s. The texts are fairly self-explanatory: Mar Jacob is examining the story of Elijah and the ravens, found in 1 Kings 17. Jacob’s approach is two-fold: first, he looks at what was apparently a disputed question about the ‘literal’ or ‘fleshly’ meaning of the passage, namely, whether the food brought by the angels was from the ‘common’, pre-existing creation of God, or whether it was a new creation equivalent to God’s initial act of creation. A similar question was in play concerning the ram that replaces Isaac in the famous mountain-top sacrifice story. If I am remembering correctly, this was a question that occupied Jewish exegetes as well; I am not sure if similar issues show up in Islamic exegesis or not. The second question Mar Jacob is interested in is the ‘typological’ significance of the story, or, as he also phrases it, the spiritual or mystical meaning. If you will, this meaning lies ‘deeper’ in the text, connecting the story to the larger story of Christ. Typology runs throughout Mar Jacob’s exegesis, which of course is not unusual: typology is arguably the uniting theme in ancient and early medieval Christian exegesis, Syriac, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Ge’ez, and so on.

My translation here is more provisional than usual; my Syriac skills are not up to par with my Arabic, at least not yet, and a couple of lines here still leave me stumped as to their exact meaning. As with any text in any language, and exegetical texts particularly, full comprehension only comes through entering into the complex, multifaceted thought-worlds that inform even as short a text as this. I am still very much in the process of exploring those vast late antique and medieval thought-worlds that writers like Mar Jacob helped created and inhabit.

*

From the Fifteenth Scholium: On the Ravens Who Brought Sustenance to Elijah the Prophet

The ravens brought sustenance to Elijah the Prophet who was hiding before the Jordan- meat in the evening and bread in the morning. The [following] question precedes spiritual interpretations (ta’uria– from Gk. theoriaruhnita) that are manifest by these words, speaking the literal word on account of these, investigating the ineffable on account of this which people ask: whether it was a new creation commanded by God, namely, the bringing of sustenance to the Prophet who had fled and was persecuted: or whether it was from the pre-existing and common creation of God, Maker of all that is. And we say: that the bread and the meat, which were brought by the ravens, were from this common creation, created by Him who is creator of all. They were not a new creation that was created, each day, one by one, through a command of God, as is the surmise of [some] men. And these [the meat and bread] were from a man who feared God and the prophet. By the command of God he placed them before the ravens, so that they took them up and transported them to Elijah- in the morning bread made from grains baked and toasted by fire; and in the evening meat of animals that had been boiled with fire. These ravens were winged ceatures that ate meat, but were servants due to the command of God, who is powerful over all.  And they were not angels, as [some people] say foolishly. And the story is thus [known] from history.

Demonstration of the Depicted Likeness of the Ravens, the Bread, and the Meat Brought to the Prophet:

There is also spiritual significance that comes from these typological words. The meat that in cloudy times and in the evenings was brought to the prophet, is for us an announcement: the action [of bringing the meat] is a type of the sacrifice of animals, that was until then by means of the shadowing darkness of the law obscured, and that was given to the community hidden beyond the physical Jordan. The bread that was by morning given to the prophet hidden beyond the Jordan is depicted for us as a type of the heavenly, divine bread that is quickened in the dawn of the new creation: for the set-apart community of the Messiah, which has crossed over this and the spiritual Jordan. Ravens are impure beasts, yet are ministers [of God] which are appointed as symbols for us: of those priests of the Church of the Messiah, although from the [impure] nations, [are priests] of the Body and Blood the Messiah, a lamb with no spot, no sin: heavenly, vivifying bread. This is the significance of these words.

On Miracles and Wonder

“The miracle indeed of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby He made the water into wine, is not marvelous to those who know that it is God’s doing. For He who made wine on that day at the marriage feast, in those six-water pots, which He commanded to be filled with water, the self-same does this every year in vines. For even as that which the servants put into the water-pots was turned into wine by the doing of the Lord, so in like manner also is what the clouds pour forth changed into wine by the doing of the same Lord. But we do not wonder at the latter, because it happens every year: it has lost its marvelousness by its constant recurrence. And yet it suggests a greater consideration that that which was done in the water-pots. For who is there that considers the works of God, whereby this whole world is governed and regulated, who is not amazed and overwhelmed with miracles? If he considers the vigorous power of a single grain of any seed whatever, it is a mighty thing, it inspires him with awe. But since men, intent on a different matter, have lost consideration of the works of God, by which they should daily praise Him as Creator, God has, as it were, reserved to Himself the doing of certain extraordinary actions, that, by striking them with wonder, He might rouse men as from sleep to worship Him.”

St. Augustine, On the Gospel of John

How often do we become caught up in the day-to-day mendacity of our lives, as we shuttle back and forth in our closed-up automobiles to and from closed-up spaces filled with the hum and glow of our computers and televisions and whatever other gadgets we have? If it was easy in St. Augustine’s time for people to lose sight of the wonder of creation, of the natural (or, for St. Augustine, supernatural) world all about, how much easier it is, who live in a universe that is consistently stripped of wonder?

In the Syriac tradition, as exemplified by Sts. Ephrem, Jacob of Serugh, John of Apamea, Isaac the Syrian, and others, wonder- at creation, at God, at God’s special actions on behalf of our salvation- is one of the keys of true theology. For Jacob of Serugh especially, without wonder theology is pretty useless- it is dry and without real connection, without real penetration of the heart and mind. Only in love and wonder before the beauty of God, manifested in His creation and His divine economy in Christ, can we truly understand, can we truly live the life of Christ. That is one of the reasons that Christ calls us to be ‘as little children’- to re-open our eyes to the wonder of God, to the wonder of life. This is not an easy thing to do- it’s far easier to settle into comfortable cynicism and detachment, which are fair enough attitudes no doubt for many aspects of contemporary life (or any period’s life), but are destructive if extended to all of life. When we grow so detached, so numbed to the world beyond our reductive science, our electronic screens, and the mundane tasks that we tend to have to engage in, we are not merely losing connection with nature- we are losing connection with God, with reality, and with the possibility of true humanity.

This is not to disparage as sinful or only destructive things like science, technology, work, and so on- but rather to suggest that we must constantly be careful to draw back from those things at times, to have our hearts and eyes open to the wonder inherent in the world that is, for all our concrete and fiber optics, still around us and visible. If we stop to contemplate things as simple as trees- we discover there is nothing simple or reductive about them, but, as St. Augustine tells us, they are a cause for wonder and adoration towards God, as exemplars of His creative power and sustenance. From there we can begin to re-engage wonder at the mystery of salvation, of God’s divine economy in the world. I think that if taken from this tack we are less likely to reduce those mysteries to mere dictum, objects to be analyzed and mechanistically digested or accepted. Instead, we begin to realize, with Jacob and Ephrem and Augustine, the wonder of the Incarnation of Christ, of our Lady, of the Divine Liturgy and the mystery of prayer. From there we have greater hope of doing true theology, of truly delving into the divine mysteries with our hearts and minds, beholding God, not in detachment, but in loving wonder.