His brother urged him more than once to return to the monastery, but he would not agree. However, when the fame of St Isaac's holy life had spread, he was made Bishop of Ninevah. Seeing the crude manners and disobedience of the inhabitants of the city, the saint felt that it was beyond his ability to guide them, and moreover, he yearned for solitude.
Once, two Christians came to him, asking him to settle a dispute. One man acknowledged that he owed money to the other, but asked for a short extension. The lender threatened to bring his debtor to court to force him to pay. St Isaac, citing the Gospel, asked him to be merciful and give the debtor more time to pay. The man said, "Leave your Gospel out of this!" St Isaac replied, "If you will not submit to Lord's commandments in the Gospel, then what remains for me to do here?" After only five months as bishop, St Isaac resigned his office and went into the mountains to live with the hermits. Later, he went to the monastery of Rabban Shabur, where he lived until his death, attaining a high degree of spiritual perfection.
From the early eighth century until the beginning of the eighteenth century, nothing was known about St Isaac of Syria in Europe except for his name and works. Only in 1719 was a biography of the saint published at Rome, compiled by an anonymous Arab author. In 1896, more information on St Isaac came to light. The learned French soteriologist Abbot Chabot published some eighth century works on Syrian history by Iezudena, bishop of Barsa, where the account of St Isaac the Syrian was found.
St. Paisios and St. Isaac
In the Greek Orthodox calendar there is no official feast day of St. Isaac the Syrian. Traditionally, however, he has been celebrated on January 28th together with the other great Syriac father of the Church, St. Ephraim the Syrian. The Slavic Churches celebrate St. Isaac officially on January 28th.
Not too many years ago Elder Paisios (+1993) sought to change this fact due to his great veneration for St. Isaac. He commissioned a Service to be written in his honor and chose to celebrate his feast on September 28th. The Service was written by the eminent hymnographer Fr. Gerasimos Mikragiannanites (+ 2002). Today the feast of St. Isaac is celebrated on Mount Athos on September 28th.
Furthermore, the first church dedicated to St. Isaac was built on Mount Athos, in the cell of a monk of the brotherhood of Elder Paisios in Kapsala.
Elder Paisios, who would read the Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac beneath the icon of the Saint, would say of St. Isaac: "If anyone went to a psychiatric hospital and read to the patients Abba Isaac, all those who believed in God would get well, because they would recognize the deeper meaning of life."
He also said:
"First you must read the Gerontikon, Philotheos History, and Evergetinos. All these books are practical not theoretical. Their simple patristic spirit and holiness will help you remove secular logic from your mind. Next, you should read Abba Isaac, and this way you will not see him as a philosopher, but as a man illumined by God."
It should also be noted that before the establishment of September 28th as the feast of St. Isaac by Elder Paisios, when he heard rumors that scholars accused St. Isaac of being a Nestorian, he prayed about this situation. Through divine revelation it was revealed to him that in fact St. Isaac was Orthodox and he wrote in his Menaion for January 28th the following words after the description of the feast of St. Ephraim the Syrian: "...and Isaac the Great Hesychast and much unjustly accused."
Below is the text of the Service in honor of St. Isaac commissioned by Elder Paisios. It is distributed by the Kalyva of the Resurrection of Christ in Kapsala on Mount Athos, where lived Fr. Isaac of Lebanon, a spiritual child of Elder Paisios. His ascetical tradition is maintained by Fr. Euthymios and his brotherhood.
Selected quotes of St. Isaac the Syrian
- What salt is for any food, humility is for every virtue. To acquire it, a man must always think of himself with contrition, self-belittlement and painful salf-judgment. But if we acquire it, it will make us sons of God.
- Let us love silence till the world is made to die in our hearts. Let us always remember death, and in this thought draw near to God in our heart--and the pleasures of this world will have our scorn.
- Walk before God in simplicity, and not in subtleties of the mind. Simplicity brings faith; but subtle and intricate speculations bring conceit; and conceit brings withdrawal from God.
- As a man whose head is under water cannot inhale pure air, so a man whose thoughts are plunged into the cares of this world cannot absorb the sensations of that new world.
- It is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins.
- Ease and idleness are the destruction of the soul and they can injure her more than the demons.
- The purpose of the advent of the Saviour, when He gave us His life-giving commandments as purifying remedies in our passionate state, was to cleanse the soul from the damage done by the first transgression and bring it back to its original state. What medicines are for a sick body, that the commandments are for the passionate soul.
- A life of spiritual endeavor is the mother of sanctity; from it is born the first experience of perception of the mysteries of Christ--which is called the first stage of spiritual knowledge.
- To bear a grudge and pray, means to sow seed on the sea and expect a harvest.
- A small but persistent discipline is a great force; for a soft drop tailing persistently, hollows out hard rock.
- The key to Divine gifts is given to the heart by love of neighbor, and, in proportion to the heart's freedom from the bonds of the flesh, the door of knowledge begins to open before it.
- Dispassion does not mean that a man feels no passions, but that he does not accept any of them.
- This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.(source)
Note: the full Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian has recently been republished in English by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, MA.