INTRODUCTION TO SYRIAC MYSTICISM
Brian E. Colless
The Syriac East, or the Syrian Orient, as distinct from the Latin West (Roman Catholic) and the Hellenic East (Greek Orthodox), is where the Syriac language is used in liturgy and literature. Syriac is the Christian dialect of Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke in Galilee. Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew, and both are found together at various points in the Bible (Genesis 31:47, for example, and in the books of Daniel and Ezra), and also in the Jewish Talmud. Aramaic was the native tongue of the wandering Arameans, who settled in what is now Syria, with Damascus as their capital city. Their language became the international means of diplomatic exchange between nations in the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, right into the Christian era. The Roman Empire used Greek for this purpose, and so the literati of the Syriac world were exposed to Greek influence, and they knew both languages. The Syriac Christians were divided into two ecclesiastical groups: West Syrians (Syrian Orthodox Church) and East Syrians (Church of the East, known to outsiders as “the Nestorian church”, and they now call themselves “Assyrian Christians”). They were sojourners in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia, the lands now bearing the names Syria, Iraq, and Iran; but their hermitages, monasteries, and churches were also located in southeastern Turkey, Arabia, India, Central Asia, and China. The notable cities of this area are Edessa (Urhai, now Urfa in Turkey) and Nisibis, both between the rivers Euphrates and the Tigris in northern Mesopotamia; other towns attached to the names of some of the monks and bishops are Mabbug and Apamea in Syria, and Nineveh (now Mosul in Iraq) on the Tigris. The period covered here is from the fourth century to the eighth century of the Christian era.1
There are various definitions of mysticism, but in my book on Syriac mysticism, entitled The Wisdom of the Pearlers (Colless 2008), I failed to define the term (though it was explained in the glossary at the end). This time, so that we will know from the outset what we are talking about (or not talking about, see below) here is a definition: mysticism refers to religious experience involving a non-rational encounter with ultimate divine reality, which imparts a sense of unity. Some mystics (Buddhist monks, for example) might omit the word “divine,” and others (such as Christian spiritual adepts) would include “love” in the mixture, but all would probably speak of “bliss” and “ecstasy.” For Christian mystics it involves the “imitation of Christ,” the True Living Way (John 14:6), and the term “the way of Christ” (attested in Syriac literature) is applicable to the path that will be described here.
The Way of Christ
How do we start? Do I throw the whole mass of the names of the Syriac mystics at the reader (who then stops reading, and moves on to the next chapter)? Or do I deliver a complete mess of technical terms such as “impassibility,” “eschatology,” “apophaticism,” and “ineffability” (and the eyes glaze over or panic sets in)? Well, the word “ineffable” is routinely applied to mystical experience, and we certainly need to know that it means “unutterable, too sublime to be described in speech”; and also “inexpressible, too mysterious to be expressed in words”; and sometimes it implies prohibition of utterance, to keep the secret knowledge away from the eyes and ears of the uninitiated.
Accordingly, it seems that we should hold our tongue and be silent since the monks we are meeting here enjoin silence, stillness, and solitude on us. The great Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373), revered in Western and Eastern Christendom alike, exclaimed, before falling silent, “I became lost in you, and speechless; glory to you, hidden Being” (Hymns on Faith 32)2.
Paradoxically, the ecstatic person might break the silence and burst into intimate conversation with the Beloved, and cry out in excitement. The eighth-century monk John of Dalyatha heard a monastic brother (though he may be referring modestly to himself) babbling and bubbling in a state of intoxication with Christ’s love; as the divine glory shone forth in his heart, he exclaimed: “O my God, how thy love inflames,” and “O thine unspeakable beauty,” and “other things of an outspoken kind that should not be passed on in writing, or else I will come under censure from the initiated for daring to reveal the unwritten mysteries, while being considered by the weak to be raving mad” (Discourse On Charity and Love)3. Here the divine beauty is said to be ineffable and indescribable, while the revealed mysteries are not to be published outside the circle of the initiated. Elsewhere, John of Dalyatha declares, with reference to the ineffable “sweetness” of communion with God, that “those who have not experienced it can never have it communicated to them through words” (Letter 7.2); and he mentions “mysteries, revelations, intellections about the Divine Essence” as “things one is not permitted to reveal” (Letter 4.5).
Another reason for keeping such writings under wraps was to prevent heresy-hunting bishops from scrutinizing them. John’s essays were in fact published by his brother, and they were banned because of some suspect ideas found in them; but they continued to circulate widely, though not under his name, and they were translated into many languages; a few of his discourses penetrated Europe, embedded in the works of Isaac the Syrian (Isaac of Nineveh).
A concise summary of how the mystic approaches God, and what God does in response, is provided by the seventh-century monk Sahdona, alias Martyrios (his Syriac and Greek names both mean “witness”) in his Book of Perfection (2.8.19-20).4 He tells us that prayer should be an interior offering of the heart, after the heart has been purified of passions; it must be an oblation pleasing to God, without blemish, accompanied by attentiveness and tears; in return God will send “the fire of his Spirit” to consume our sacrifice, and raise our minds to heaven in the flames. “Then we shall behold the Lord, to our delight and not to our destruction, as the stillness of his revelation falls upon us, and the hidden things of the knowledge of him are portrayed in us; our hearts will be given spiritual joy, together with hidden mysteries which I am unable to disclose in words to the simple” (2.8.20). An analysis of this sublime utterance will carry us further towards an understanding of the mystical path, the way of Christ. In presenting the features of the system, we will concentrate on its basis in the Bible, as the Syriac writers certainly do. The path commences with repentance, passes through reformation to revelation, and ultimately to resurrection; but the “eternal life” of the post-resurrection existence may be enjoyed mystically by a purified person who is in this world but not of this world.
When the heart has been purified of passions, we shall behold the Lord, Martyrios declares. The scriptural reference is patent, pointing us to the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8), and elsewhere in the Book of Perfection he actually quotes it (2.8.47). At this point the reader should be fully awake and attentive to the statement I am about to make: On this foundation the whole of Syriac Christian mysticism is built. We see it first in fourth-century exponents of Eastern spirituality.
Purification and Perception
Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373), in his commentary on the Diatessaron (harmony of the four Gospels), in the section on the Beatitudes (6.1a) quotes it thus: “Blessed are those who are pure in their heart for they shall see God”; then he refers to the “prophet” (or psalmist) praying, “Create in me a pure heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10); he adds that those whose heart is pure shall see God as Moses did; he does not elaborate on this, but presumably he means beholding “the form of the Lord” (Numbers 12:8) or his “back” but not his “face” (Exodus 33:20), though Moses was said to be permitted to talk with God “face to face”, as with a friend (Exodus 33:11). Ephrem concludes, “As a pure (or clean) eye is able to look at the rays of the sun, so a pure soul may receive a vision of its Lord”.5 Likewise, Aphrahat the Persian Sage (d. c. 345), a monk and bishop in Iran, says in his Demonstrations (6.1): “Let us purify our heart of iniquity, so that we may see the Lofty One in his glory”, and “behold the King in his beauty” (Isaiah 33:17).6
This beatitude of purification (Matthew 5:8) occurs frequently in an anonymous collection of thirty sermons on Christian perfection, conventionally known as The Book of Steps; it dates from the fourth century, the time of Adelphios of Edessa (who met Saint Antony the Great and other monks of the Egyptian desert), and it was possibly authored by him, as it contains some of the things for which Adelphios was declared to be heretical: emphasis on perfection, and necessity of fervent prayer for exorcising one’s indwelling demons and for achieving “impassibility” (Syriac “non-passionateness”, Greek apatheia, not apathy but passionlessness, being without concupiscence, like Adam before he sinned).7 In one instance (Discourse 12:7) the purity beatitude is brought together with the Psalmist’s affirmation that the person who has “clean hands and a pure heart” will ascend the mountain of the Lord and stand in his holy place (Psalm 24:3-5); for that preacher, this sacred place is the celestial church which is open to those who have fought against Satan and defeated him. Thus, mysticism goes with asceticism, that is, “exercises” for spiritual benefit, involving austerity, abstinence, self-discipline, battling against evil demons, and resisting the passions and temptations they arouse.
Philoxenos of Mabbug (d. 523), a West Syrian bishop, was a critic of Adelphios as being extreme and deluded, and the inventor of the heresy of the Messallians (“the praying”), sectarians who emphasized intense prayer as the only way to expel demons from one’s soul. Philoxenos tells the story of Adelphios to his inquirer Patriq (or Patrikios or Patricius), who is looking for a short and painless route to the beatific vision; Philoxenos insists that Patriq can not bypass all the ascetic practices, and can not avoid keeping the commandments virtuously, if he wishes to attain “spiritual contemplation” (theoria). “In one of the beatitudes he has given us, which are also commandments, he has told us this: Blessed are those who are pure in their heart, for they shall see God”; and “purity of heart brings a person to vision of God”; but “he has not allowed us to ask for it” (Letter to Patriq, 108-110, 122).8 His passing remark that the beatitudes are also commandments is striking.
The most illustrious and yet the most humble of the Syriac mystics, was John of Dalyatha, who lived in the eighth century; but his name is not usually found in manuscripts of his work, as his writings were banned by the East Syrian Patriarch Timothy I (780-823) for alleged Messallianism and for statements he made about beholding God, together with the writings of Joseph Hazzaya (alias Abdisho Hazzaya) and John of Apamea (who became John the Solitary). If the excommunicated Adelphios had been the author of The Book of Steps (which contains ideas associated with the Messallians) his name would have been deleted for a similar reason, so that his valuable work could be preserved. Be that as it may, John “the holy old man” (saba qadisha) makes frequent use of the purity beatitude, though he had his own wording for it: “Blessed are those who are pure in their heart, for in their heart they shall see God” (Letter 19:7). To a brother he said: “If you are determined to advance along the way of humility of your Lord … and with him and through him draw near to his Father (John 14:6), that is, see the glory of his Greatness in your soul for its delight, then walk according to the example he has shown you… He has said, I am the Way (John 14:6)”. Moreover, with the backing of Evagrios Pontikos (d. 399), John declares that it is necessary to engage in combat with Satan and the demons, as Christ did in the wilderness, in order to “acquire the purity that beholds God” (Letter on humility, 1-2; Hansbury 2006, 259).
In Sahdona’s Book of Perfection, after quoting the purity beatitude he added: “Let us incline our ear towards him, and purify our hearts with his words, so that we may hear his living voice with the ears of our minds, and behold his great beauty with the eyes of our hearts” (2.8.47). The emphasized phrase is important, as the vision of Divinity is not supposed to be with the physical eyes. As John of Dalyatha and others have said, the soul or the heart is a mirror which must be cleaned of all dross, that is, purified, or polished (copper mirrors needed cleaning to reflect images more clearly) so that God’s glory may be reflected in it: “He does indeed reveal himself to the few who firmly fix their gaze within themselves, those who make themselves a mirror in which the Unseen One is seen ... according to the testimony of the Word of God: Blessed are the pure, for in their heart they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8, but not an exact quotation) (Letter 14.2). “Purify your mirror and in it the singular light will be shown to you triunely without division” (Letter 28.2). “Happy the soul that knows it is a mirror, gazing into itself and seeing the splendour of the One who is hidden from all. He who said on the mountain, No man shall see me and live (Exodus 33:20), is seen in that place, and those who see him live for ever.” (Letter 7.3). Remember what Sahdona-Martyrios said: “we shall behold the Lord, to our delight and not to our destruction”.
The origin of this mirror imagery is with the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 13:12), as The Book of Steps (18.2-3) demonstrates. The writer says that when we have cleared away our external sins and are doing good deeds, it is time to struggle against “the sin that dwells within us”. This is an obvious reference to Paul’s conflict with himself (Romans 7:17, “the sin dwelling in me”), but this kind of talk was regarded as Messallian by the bishops, from the fourth century onwards, especially when it is associated with claims of being perfect and sinless, and with the idea that prayer alone (not the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist) can release a person from bondage to indwelling sin, or to Satan. “We must strive to be without sins, and entreat our Lord to save us from sin” (18.2). We need to pray as Jesus did, with much groaning and many tears, for “he was heard and made perfect” (see Hebrews 5:7-9), and he set an example for us. Of course, one of his commandments in the Sermon on the Mount is “Be perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The vision of God in the pure heart and the mirror are combined thus (18.3): “As it is written: Blessed are those who are pure in their heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8); in this world, as Paul said, we see our Lord with the eyes of our heart as in a mirror, but in that world, face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The best-known division of the mystical path, recognized in both eastern and western Christendom, is based on the principle of purification enabling perception: it is the doctrine of “the three ways,” namely purgation, illumination, and unification; this pattern is found in a set of spiritual treatises published under the name of Dionysios the Areopagite.9 Although this system is obviously related to the purity beatitude (Matthew 5:8), this defining utterance is never quoted. The author was a pseudo-Dionysios, not really the Areopagite converted by Paul in Athens (Acts 17:34). He was a West Syrian mystic who wrote in Greek, and his work was translated into Syriac. He lived in the time of Severos of Antioch (d. 538), who was possibly but not probably the author; he was presumably a monk; he was certainly a Neoplatonist theologian. In his view, the universe was hierarchical (hence his discourses on The Celestial Hierarchy and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy) and also triadic; accordingly, his mystical scheme was an ascent, and divided into three sections, which we may list under an alternative designation: (1) Purification, (2) Illumination, (3) Union.
Stages and States
The brief tract entitled The Mystical Theology gives an outline of the Pseudo-Dionysian system (but without specifically mentioning the three ways). He begins with a prayer, and its first word is triadic: “Trinity!” He then addresses his “friend” Timothy, and this is presumably meant to be the same Timothy who received two epistles from Paul, in which God is described as “dwelling in light unapproachable, whom no one has seen, nor can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). This is mentioned at the beginning of his Letter 5 (to Dorotheos the deacon): “The divine darkness is that unapproachable light in which God is said to dwell”. Again, in his paradoxical manner, he asserts that when the soul is divinized (deification through union with Divinity), the perception of the rays of “unapproachable light” is sightless and unknowing (Divine Names 4.11). His advice for achieving mystical experience is to leave everything, abandon self, and strive upwards to union with the one who is beyond all being and knowledge (Mystical Theology 1.1).
Timothy is urged to ensure that none of this teaching is revealed to the uninitiated, who are wrapped up in themselves and in the things of the world (1.2). This is an example of secretiveness; and, with regard to “apophaticism”, Dionysios also speaks of negations and affirmations, referring to the apophatic way, as opposed to the cataphatic way. In negative or apophatic theology, every name must be eliminated, as all human concepts and images are inadequate for describing God. Incidentally, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c.215) was an early exponent of apophatic theology (Miscellanies, Book 5), and so he may be “the philosopher Clement” that Dionysios mentions (Divine Names 5.9).
The first step is purification (or purgation), but Dionysios does not invoke the beatitude of the pure heart; instead he uses the story of Moses on the mountain (Exodus 19-20) to illustrate the ascent of the soul. Moses sanctifies himself (purgation) and separates himself from the people. The next step (illumination) is when he hears trumpets and sees lightning. The final state (perfect union) is attained in the cloud on the mountain top, and involves plunging into “the darkness of unknowing” (the proverbial “cloud of unknowing”), and by renouncing all the mind’s conceptions one is supremely united through non-knowledge, knowing nothing. Paradoxical indeed.
Pseudo-Dionysios also has a tripartite division of the spiritual life, correlating with the three stages of mystical ascent: (1) novitiate (beginners, novices, catechumens), purification stage; (2) intermediate, experiencing illumination; (3) perfection, the perfect in divine union (Ecclesiastical Hierarchy Ch. 5-6).
Another system of three levels or orders (taxis) was propounded by John the Solitary10, or John of Apamea (in Syria), in the fifth century: (1) The somatical (or corporeal) aspect relates to the body; (2) the psychical concerns the soul, the psyche; (3) the pneumatical (or spiritual) is about the spirit. This corresponds to the tripartite division of a person found in a benediction of the Apostle Paul: “May your spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). This paradigm also resembles Paul’s three classes of Christians in 1 Corinthians: “fleshly” (sarkikos, carnal, 3:3), “soulish” (psukhikos, natural, sensual, 2:14); “spiritual” (pneumatikos, 2:15), but the correspondence is not exact.
Each stage has a characteristic state. The somatical state is impurity, the natural human condition, but a person may rise above this by repentance and “corporeal practice”, which is asceticism for taming the body, involving fasting, vigil, and detachment from the world. Next comes the internal struggle against the passions, in solitude and quietness, with tears and prayers; through these practices the monk achieves a state of “purity” (dakhyutha), and eventually another kind of purity (shaphyutha), which encompasses serenity, limpidity, luminosity, and transparency. The person in the pneumatical stage will engage in contemplation and pure continual prayer, and pass on into perfection, but not in this life. His illustration of the process is a pilgrim traveling to a city, over rough ground (the ascetic exercises) then across a plain (the state of serenity) to the magnificent city (which represents perfection, in the celestial realm).
A short treatise On the spiritual order (taxis) of the soul contains the teaching of John of Apamea, though it is attributed in the manuscript tradition to John of Lykopolis (one of the Desert Fathers) or to John the Seer (Hazzaya).11 It describes the heights of mystical experience in the spiritual stage and state, beyond the corporeal and psychical; and its various facets will be presented here in summary.
In the spiritual state, the soul has achieved purity, and has the original pure sight it possessed before it transgressed the commandment; freed from all passions and demons it experiences serenity; it attains contemplation of the Holy Trinity in quietude; and pure prayer is the soul standing serenely with nothing from the world disturbing it. Two signs of humility in the soul are: meditating on the Passion of Christ leads to imitation of Christ in not seeking vengeance on enemies; and gazing at the greatness and incomprehensibility of God makes it so humble that it wishes to be placed beneath the whole of creation, on account of its wonder and amazement over his unspeakable majesty. With regard to spiritual hunger, the food of the soul is the sight of God and contemplation of things that are above the physical senses; the fasting of the soul means weaning itself off all evil passions and impure desires. The joy of the soul is like a child rejoicing with tears of gladness when it sees its mother approaching; the soul that is in spiritual serenity exults and weeps with sweet delight at the sight of the Bridegroom Christ; and like a virgin bride it shows modesty in his presence. The love of the soul is about being absorbed and bound in the love and affection of God; as the rising of the sun draws back the veil of darkness covering the creation and reveals its beauty, so when the love and light of Christ dawns in the soul the hidden things in it now become visible. At this point John of Apamea introduces an image that recurs in Eastern and Western mysticism, namely the union of iron and fire: when iron is placed in the fire it is united with it and assumes its likeness and colour, and when the living fire of Christ enters the soul, it burns away the thorns of sin, and the soul becomes new and alive and the likeness of its nature is changed into the likeness of God; and as Christ in his love sacrificed himself on the cross of Golgotha, the soul becomes absorbed in love for all humankind and would gladly die if they could be saved by its death. Finally, all the things of this world are contrary to the Way of Christ. An infant in the womb is not able to see the world, and the true light of the Way of Christ is concealed from the mind when it is bound by the things of this world; when a babe emerges from the womb it sees the world through the light of the sun and grows in knowledge; similarly, when a person is born from the physical realm into the spiritual realm he sees spiritual things, while growing in spiritual knowledge.
The tripartite schema of John of Apamea (in the fifth century) was taken up by later mystics, and used in various ways. The important point to keep in mind is that for John the corporeal (somatic) order is not part of the mystical path, but it is the normal human state; an alternative doctrine made it a stage that had to be entered.
Isaac of Nineveh (the seventh-century East Syrian monk and bishop, whose writings were translated into Greek and published under the name Isaac the Syrian, to cover his Nestorian connection) combines the Johannine framework (body, soul, spirit) with the Pseudo-Dionysian categories. For example, in a treatise on faith and knowledge (Discourse 51, On the three degrees of knowledge), the first stage of knowledge is concerned with love for the body; the second or intermediate degree involves psychical love; the third is the degree of perfection and spirituality. He also speaks of the states of purity and serenity (including clarity and luminosity of vision) as the goals of ascetic labours.12
John of Dalyatha did not use the Apamean categories systematically, but he followed the Pseudo-Dionysian paradigm (purification, illumination, union), together with the separation of beginners (novices), intermediates, and perfect; the cloud of light and unknowing also feature prominently in his writings. However, the technical terms for “purity” and “serenity” occur often enough. In his discourse “On the visitations bestowed on monks”, he has three stages of the blessings imparted by Grace, and the description of each is given a title (though these may have been added by an editor, and there are variants in the manuscripts): (1) Visitation of the first stage (that is, of beginners); (2) The middle stage (that is, psychicity); (3) On the stage of perfection. Here the Dionysian classification of monks is seen: beginners, intermediates, and perfect. The Apamean categories are represented by “psychicity” in the second title, and “serenity” is mentioned in the third section, and also the idea of being “perfected”.13
Joseph Hazzaya (the Visionary), an East Syrian monk of the eighth century, elaborated this scheme in a letter on the three degrees.14 He describes the monastic and mystic path by citing aspects of the experience of the Israelites under Moses and Joshua: in the exodus from Egypt, the entry into Canaan, the conquest of the Canaanites, and the settlement in the promised land. The exodus corresponds to the renunciation of the world, after repentance, and entry into a monastery. The novice is tempted by a demon, who sets before him all the advantages of life in the world, and here it is like the murmuring of the Israelites against Moses, as they hankered for the food they had eaten in Egypt; the cure for the affliction caused by the serpent-demon’s insinuations is gazing at the crucified Christ, as the people looked at the bronze serpent to obtain healing from snake-bite. This is the somatical stage, which is characterized by humility and obedience (as Christ humbled himself and was obedient, in suffering death on the cross), poverty, self-denial, vigils, silence, and being mindful of God. The Israelites were living under the Ten Commandments; and the novice obeys the monastic rule. He will experience tears, sometimes from sadness, sometimes from joy. The fruit of the exercises in the corporeal stage in the monastery is the state of purity.
Joseph Hazzaya now takes us into the psychical stage: the act of leaving the monastery and taking up residence in a private cell corresponds to crossing the Jordan and settling in the promised land. In solitude and silence the monk reads the Scriptures and writings of the Fathers. Manual work is not obligatory but voluntary; it can relieve boredom, as Saint Antony learned; it can make the monk more self-sufficient, and thus avoid having to leave the sanctuary of his cell and go into the village, connecting with people, thereby disrupting his solitude. There are visitations of divine grace, as with John of Dalyatha. However, as the Israelites were confronted by the seven nations already inhabiting Canaan, the solitary is assailed by various demons, each of which is associated with a particular passion or weakness. These include the eight evil thoughts (logismoi) promulgated in the Egyptian desert by the monk named Evagrios Pontikos (died 399): (1) gluttony (gastrimargia), (2) fornication (porneia), (3) avarice (philarguria, love of money), (4) sorrow (lupê), (5) anger (orgê), (6) discouragement (akêdia, listlessness), (7) vainglory (kenodoxia, vanity), (8) pride (huperêphania). This collection of vices is the source of the Seven Deadly Sins propagated by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century (sorrow makes way for envy, and vanity is included in pride).
The ascetical and spiritual teachings of Evagrios had a great influence on the Syriac mystics. In his Admonitions on prayer he lays down the complete path to “the perfect state”: repentance, humility, embarking on labours of virtue, praying constantly, reciting psalms, fighting against pleasurable passions and unclean thoughts, battling with demons until they are afraid to attack (“Respond to your adversary Satan with anger, until he is defeated”); and he harks back to the purification beatitude (Matthew 5:8) when he says that the Spirit of God will love you and live in you, and “if your heart is pure you will see him”.15
In describing the phenomena of the psychical stage, Joseph Hazzaya speaks of being purified of the passions of the body (purity) and of the soul (serenity), and the illuminated eye of the intellect being washed clean of every carnal and intellectual stain; then the person sees himself in the glorious light of the One who is dwelling in him. Then come the contemplation of the corporeal and the incorporeal, and the contemplation of judgement and providence. Again he is following Evagrios, reproducing his “five contemplations”, the first of which is contemplation of the light of the Holy Trinity (here Joseph speaks of the glorious light of the One). Joseph says that when the intellect is in this situation the person is inebriated with love for all humans, in spite of their weaknesses and faults, and in the light of the judgement and providence of God he sees them in the glorious form they will assume after the resurrection of the dead.
In the pneumatical stage, according to Joseph Hazzaya, the spiritual beings are observed and the sounds of their glorification are heard, that is, the “Holy, Holy, Holy” of the kerubim and seraphim in the vision of the prophet Isaiah, when he cried out, “Woe! ... my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:1-5). Incidentally, another source for the Syriac mystics was the experience of Saint Paul, being caught up into Paradise, whether in the body or out of the body he did not know, receiving visions and revelations, and hearing things that cannot be told or uttered (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Notice that the Apostle attributes this to “a man in Christ” with whom he was acquainted, and this suggests that when our writers refer to “a certain brother” they mean it is their own self who had the experience.
Moving on from his Exodus and Conquest analogy, Joseph Hazzaya introduces King David enthroned in Sion and ruling over all his enemies, as a parallel to the attainment of perfection and impassibility, and the cessation of warfare with the demons. Regarding impassibility, impassible here does not mean incapable of feeling emotion, or pain, but liberated from passions, and resistant to temptations, a state achieved through ascetic labours. Here he congratulates any monk who has reached this height, and who has seen the vision of Jesus Christ enthroned in glory, revealed at the time of prayer, in the state of serenity.
Looking back to the beginning in the fourth century, we might suppose that the manual of spirituality entitled The Book of Steps would have a ladder or staircase for the soul to climb, but what we find is three ecclesiastical levels: (1) the visible public church provides baptism in water for the remission of sins for the ordinary upright Christians, who perform good deeds; (2) the invisible church of the heart is for those who are baptized in fire and in the Spirit and are seeking perfection; (3) the celestial church on high, in which Christ officiates as the great high priest, is entered after the resurrection, but the perfect Christians can participate in its liturgy in this life. The motifs of fire and resurrection will reappear in the next two sections.
Fire and Fervour
In the formula for mystical prayer stated by Sahdona-Martyrios (quoted above from his Book of Perfection, 2.8.20), when we make an unblemished prayer-offering from a purified heart, “God will send the fire of his Spirit to consume our sacrifice, and raise our minds to heaven in the flames”. His scriptural basis for this is Paul’s injunction to present our bodies as a sacrifice pleasing to God (Romans 12.1). As we have just noted, in The Book of Steps the church of the heart is for those who are baptized in fire and in the Spirit.
Isaac of Nineveh says that when knowledge is united to faith a soul is clothed in fiery impulses, and it glows spiritually, it acquires the wings of impassibility, and it is lifted up from the service of earthly things to the place of its creator (Discourse 51). Conversely, John of Dalyatha warns that the fiery impulses emanating from God vanish from the heart of the solitary who likes worldly society and business (Discourse 1). However, speaking of the divine visitations to a solitary in the middle stage, he affirms that grace stirs up hot fiery impulses in his heart in the love of Christ, and his soul is set on fire, his limbs are paralysed, and he falls on his face (Discourse 6b).
Joseph Hazzaya has the image of fire at the various stages of the spiritual journey. At the outset, a guardian angel causes the seeker to burn with a fire of love for their creator, and the desire to dispose of all their possessions, renounce the world, and go out into the desert. When the person has begun their regimen of monastic exercises, and has had a period of tears and desolation, divine grace causes a fire of love to burn in their heart, allowing them to enjoy fasting and continual prostration before the cross; but the fervour of their love must not pass over into lewd desires, if the demon of lechery conjures up images of women to their mind. In the second stage, in the private cell, the guardian angel provokes an interest in the marvelous works of their creator, and a fire burns in their heart day and night, as they contemplate these with wonder and speechless joy. Joseph congratulates the solitary in whose soul this divine fire is not extinguished, and to whom the beatific vision is revealed.
All this talk of fire and fiery impulses has its origin in the Spiritual Homilies of Pseudo-Makarios, which is a fourth-century Messallian work published under the name of Makarios, one of the great monks of the Egyptian desert; it is written in Greek but is also extant in an abridged Syriac translation. This manual of fervent spirituality was gladly accepted by the monks of the Eastern Orthodox churches, and it was also appreciated by the Methodist John Wesley (1703-1791). Makarios invokes the fire of God in several places; for example, he refers to “the divine and heavenly fire” that the Lord came to send upon the earth (Luke 12.49), the fire of the love of Christ (9.9).16 In the same vein, John of Dalyatha (Letter 15.8-9) urges his reader to add fuel to this blaze so that the purity of their soul may be kindled in it, and he who is the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25) will be manifested in it; this is the mystery of “the anticipated resurrection”, he declares, as revealed by Paul (Ephesians 2:6, “he has raised us up with him”).
We are now in the realm of eschatology (as portended at the outset); and this is “realized eschatology”; the anticipated resurrection simply means that (as we saw with the celestial church in the Book of Steps) the perfect can participate in the worship of the angels in the here and now, before they pass through death and resurrection. John of Dalyatha (Letter 47.4) paints this ecstatic picture: “They are resurrected with Christ, by anticipation, by the glory of his Father, as the Apostle declared (Romans 6:3-11).” “They are no longer in the world, but in God. ... Their mind is not thinking about the world, but all their impulses are emanating from God in silence and great wonderment ... and they are contemplating God at all times”.
Resurrection and Deification
Moreover, in anticipation of the resurrection, they have received deification or divinization. Whenever Pseudo-Makarios mentions this deification he quotes the second Epistle of Peter (1:4): “partakers of the divine nature”. Pseudo-Dionysios certainly has the concept, but not this proof-text. John of Dalyatha (Letter 47.4) affirms it thus: “Instead of being human they have become divine, in accordance with the foolish desire of their physical forefather (Genesis 3:5)”.
Finally, here is the consummation in mystical union, as depicted by John of Dalyatha (Letter 42.4); the mystical path begins with repentance, which is here personified as a maternal guardian and guide, a psychopomp, conducting the soul to its destination): “She stands at the door of the heavenly bridegroom; and he himself welcomes any one who enters with her; in her hands are laid the nuptial crowns, and whoever bows before her is allowed to recline in the bridal chamber”.17
1 For a masterly introduction to Syriac Christianity in general and Syriac mysticism in particular (and also a map), go to Brock (1987), x-xliii, and 1-363 for translated extracts from the mystics. For a survey of the Syriac mystics, including those not mentioned here (Stephen Bar Sudaili, Gregorios the Hermit, Simon Taibutheh, Dadisho of Qatar, Abraham bar Dashandad, Gregory Bar Hebraeus) see Colless, Wisdom (2008), 1-105, with translated excerpts (109-180), mostly involving the metaphor of the pearl, beginning with the Hymn of the Pearl; provides an extensive bibliography and a glossary-index. Note that in that book and in this essay all translations from Syriac and other languages are my own.
2 Ephrem the Syrian (Saint Ephraim): Colless, Wisdom (2008), 46-49, 118-120, 198; Brock (1987), 30-40. For the Hymns on faith, see Beck (1955).
3 John of Dalyatha (Saba, the Venerable): Colless, Wisdom (2008), 96-99, 149-170, 208-209; Brock (1987), 328-338; Beulay (1987), 112-116, 214-215, 229-231; Beulay (1990); Khayyat (2007); Hansbury (2006) for the letters. For this particular discourse, see Colless, Wisdom, 159: LXXIV.
4 Sahdona (Martyrios): Colless, Wisdom (2008), 83-86, 128-129, 203; Brock (1987), 198-239; Beulay (1987), 110-112, 199-201; de Halleux (1960-1965).
5 Ephrem’s commentary on the Diatessaron: Leloir (1990), 56-57.
6 Aphrahat the Persian Sage: Colless, Wisdom (2008), 40-46, 116-117, 197; Brock (1987), 2-28; and Parisot for the Demonstrations (Syriac and Latin).
7 Adelphios of Edessa and The Book of Steps, or The Book of Degrees: Colless, Wisdom (2008), 50-68, 121, 198-199; Brock (1987), 42-61; Kmosko (1926); Kitchen (2004).
8 Philoxenos of Mabbug, see Colless, Wisdom (2008), 50-68, 126, 201-202; Brock (1987), 101-133. For the letter to Patriq (Syriac and French), see Lavenant (1963).
9 On Pseudo-Dionysios: Colless, Wisdom (2008), 36-39; Beulay (1987), 158-180; Luibheid and Rorem (1987); and Chapter 12 above.
10 John the Solitary of Apamea: Colless, Wisdom (2008), 68-74, 122-125, 200-201; Brock (1987), 78-100; 188-196; Beulay (1987), 95-125.
11 John of Apamea on the spiritual state: Wensinck (1923), 98-112.
12 Isaac of Nineveh: Colless, Wisdom (2008), 88-92, 134-138, 204-205; Brock (1987), 242-301; Beulay (1987), 105-108, 206-210; Miller (1984).
13 John of Dalyatha and John of Apamea: Beulay, Lumière (1987), 112-116.
14 Joseph Hazzaya (the Visionary): Colless, Wisdom (2008), 93-96, 141-148, 206-208; Brock (1987), 314-325; 180-185 (anonymous, but a summary of Evagrian teachings, apparently by Joseph Hazzaya); Beulay (1987), 108-110, 215-217; Harb (1992) for the letter on the three stages.
15 Evagrios Pontikos: Colless, Wisdom (2008), 22-24; Brock (1987), 64-75 (Admonition on prayer).
16 Pseudo-Makarios: Colless, Wisdom (2008), 25-36 (27-29 on “fire”), 196-197 (bibliography); Mason (1921) for a translation of 50 homilies; Stewart (1991) for an analysis.
17 On the bridal chamber, see also Book of Steps 20.14.
Beck, F. Des heiligen Ephraem des Syrers Hymnen de Fide [Saint Ephrem the Syrian’s Hymns on Faith]. Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 154-155 (1955).
Beulay, Robert. La Lumière sans forme. Introduction à l.étude de la mystique chrétienne syro-orientale [The light without form. Introduction to the study of East Syrian Christian mystics]. Chevetogne, Belgique: Éditions de Chevetogne, 1987.
Beulay, Robert, L’enseignement spirituel de Jean de Dalyatha, mystique syro-oriental du VIIIe siécle [The spiritual teaching of John of Dalyatha, East Syrian mystic of the 8th century]. Paris: Beauchesne, 1990.
Brock, Sebastian. The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1987.
Colless, Brian E. The Wisdom of the Pearlers. An Anthology of Syriac Christian Mysticism. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2008.
Colless, Brian Edric. The Mysticism of John Saba (2 vols). Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1969.
Halleux, A. de (Ed.). Martyrius (Sahdona), Oeuvres spirituelles. Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 200-201 (1960), 214-215 (1961), 252-255 (1965).
Hansbury, Mary T. The Letters of John of Dalyatha. Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2006.
Harb, Paul, François Graffin, Micheline Albert (Eds). Jausep Hazzaya, Lettre sur les trois étapes de la vie monastique [Joseph Hazzaya. Letter on the three stages of the monastic life] Patrologia Orientalis 45, 2 (1992).
Khayyat, Nadira. Jean de Dalyatha, Les Homélies I-XV. Sources Syriaques 2. Lebanon: CERO, 2007.
Kitchen, Robert A. and Parmentier, Martien F.G. The Book of Steps. The Syriac Liber Graduum. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2004.
Kmosko, Michael (Ed.). Liber Graduum [Book of Degrees]. Patrologia Syriaca 3. Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1926.
Lavenant, R. La lettre à Patricius de Philoxène de Mabbug [The letter to Patriq of Philoxenos of Mabbug]. Patrologia Orientalis 30, 5 (1963).
Leloir, Louis (Ed.). Saint Éphrem, Commentaire de l’Évangile Concordant. [Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels}. Leuven: Peeters Press, 1990.
Luibheid, Colm and Rorem, Paul (Eds). Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works (The Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, The Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, The Letters). New York: Paulist Press, 1987.
Mason A.J. (translator). Fifty Spiritual Homilies of of St. Macarius the Egyptian..London: 1921; republished in 1974 by Eastern Orthodox Books.
Miller, D. The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984.
Parisot, J. (Ed.). Aphraatis Sapientis Persiae Demonstrationes [The Demonstrations of Aphrahat the Sage of Persia].Patrologia Syriaca 1.2. Paris, 1894, 1907.
Stewart, Columba. ’Working the Earth of the Heart’. The Messalian Controversy in History, Texts, and Language to AD 431. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991
Wensinck, A.J. “New data concerning Syriac mystical literature”. Mededeelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschapen, Afdeeling Letterkunde, Deel 55, 1923: 77-112.
Brian Edric Colless MA PhD ThD (born 1936) is a graduate of Sydney University and Melbourne University; from 1970 till 2001 he taught religious studies at Massey University (NZ); publications include The Wisdom of the Pearlers (2008), The Maharajas of the Isles (2007, with Roy Jordaan).
Brian E. Colless, Syriac Mysticism, The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, edited by Julia A. Lamm (2013) 177-189 (Chapter 12)
The mystics of the eastern churches which use Syriac for their liturgy and literature are either East Syrians (belonging to the Church of the East, who are known in the West as Nestorians, but who call themselves Assyrian Christians) or West Syrians (members of the Syrian Orthodox Church).
More details are provided in:
The Wisdom of the Pearlers (2008).