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St. Isaac of Nineveh

St. Isaac of Nineveh by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Artist Narrative:

God the Lord surrendered his own Son to death on the cross for the fervent love of creation… Yet this was not because he could not redeem us in another way, but so that his surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of his Only-begotten Son he made us near to himself. Yea, if he had had anything more precious, he would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be his own.”

“As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance his mercy. Like a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of his creatures.”

“You have given your entire treasure to the world: if you gave the only-begotten from your bosom and from the throne of your Being for the benefit of all, what further do you have which you have not given to your creation? The world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one!”

The inscriptions on either side of the head of St. Isaac in this icon are in ancient Syriac, while that beneath his feet is in modern Arabic, both of which languages are used by the Christians of Iraq, the land where he lived and died.

His feast day is January 28.

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Saint Isaac the Syrian, Bishop of Ninevah, lived during the sixth century. He and his brother entered the monastery of Mar Matthew near Ninevah and received the monastic tonsure. His learning, virtue, and ascetic manner of life attracted the notice of the brethren, and they proposed that he head the monastery. Saint Issac did not want this burden, preferring a life of silence, so he left the monastery to live alone in the desert.

His brother urged him more than once to return to the monastery, but he would not agree. However, when the fame of Saint 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. Saint 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!” Saint 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, Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint Isaac the Syrian was found.

—Excerpts from St. Isaac the Syrian the Bishop of Nineveh, Orthodox Church in America