A fifth-century anchorite whose spiritual advice to other monks greatly influenced the Eastern churches (feast day: 11 Abib). Of all the Isaiahs mentioned in Egyptian monastic sources of the fourth and fifth centuries, the most renowned is the author of the ascetic treatises that had a wide vogue in the Christian Orient. Unfortunately, we do not find in these treatises much in the way of autobiographical information. We learn merely that Isaiah had begun his life as a monk in Egypt, probably at SCETIS, where he was in contact with several personalities mentioned in the APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM: John, Anub, Poemen, Paphnutius, Amun, Peter, Lot, Agathon, Abraham, Sisoes, Or, and Athraeus. Had he perhaps been a disciple of Ammoes and of Achillas? When he, in turn, had become an old man, he was surrounded by numerous disciples, among whom there stands out one called Peter, who carefully collected Isaiah’s teachings to pass them on to his own disciples. From Egypt, where he still was in 431, Isaiah went to live in Palestine and died a recluse in a monastery near Gaza on 11 August 491, without ever having adhered to the Council of CHALCEDON. Such at least is the thesis put forward in 1899 by G. Krüger and commonly accepted today, despite the objections put forward by R. Draguet.
Isaiah’s writings occur in sections or chapters entitled logoi, the number, and order of which greatly vary in the different manuscripts and editions. Often, too, the content of each logos differs from one collection to another. This is attributable to the fact that most of the logoi are compilations of disparate pieces in which maxims, apothegms, oral exhortations, or letters sent to a disciple or a group of monks can be recognized. Logos VI of the Syriac Asceticon is simply a collection of apothegms that has subsequently been used by the compiler of the large alphabetical collection. The probability is that the Isaianic corpus as we now have it was collected and arranged by Peter at the end of his master’s life or after his death.
Draguet had noted in Isaiah’s work numerous Copticisms, but if some of the master’s sayings were made in Coptic, it is almost certain that the writings as an entirety were compiled in Greek. In any event, the Coptic Asceticon we know was certainly translated from the Greek just as the Syriac Asceticon was.
Closely linked with the apothegmatic literature and related to it, Isaiah’s work is interesting in the first place for the faithful echo it transmits to us of the teaching of the great Egyptian monks, but with a more didactic and synthetic character. Through the various recommendations of the old man, we can constantly discern, like filigree work, the motif that inspires them and the fundamental preoccupation of the desert anchorite. How is hesychia, that blissful quietude essential for the monk, to be found and constantly maintained? The struggle against one’s thoughts, reading and meditation from the Scriptures, manual labor and austerities, all the observances and tasks prescribed, are so regulated and measured out as to guarantee to the recluse the most favorable conditions for the true freedom of the heart.
Isaiah does not disdain to enter into the most minute details of everyday life, but neither is he afraid to tackle the deepest realities of the spiritual life. He is constantly stressing interior frames of mind: everything has to be done “with knowledge,” that is, with discernment, with rectitude, and with the pureness of intention. Humility, the prime virtue, is mentioned fairly frequently, but more often is indicated by its effects, in particular by “counting oneself as of no reputation” and by circumscribing one’s own will. All this was already there in the teaching of the desert fathers, but we find it again in Isaiah in an original form and with a personal accent that reveal a faithful disciple who in his turn has become an eminent master of spirituality. In particular, we admire his discretion and his balance, whether in the relations between the physical and the spiritual, or in the respective demands of solitude and the communal life.
Finally we may note the central place of Christ in asceticism regarded as the faithful imitation of Jesus in his life, his Passion, and his death. The theme of the “ascent of the Cross”—seemingly Isaiah’s brainchild, for before him we find it nowhere—is tied up with Paul’s teaching on baptism, which identifies us with the crucified Christ. All asceticism led to a liberation from the passion that in Isaiah has nothing of the Stoic about it, for it is simply the full blossoming of the life of the Spirit in one who loves the Lord Jesus “with a total love.”
Isaiah’s work is the fruit of rich meditation on the Scriptures with frequent resort to allegorical interpretations. In addition to the predominant influence of the desert fathers, we may note also that of EVAGRIUS, which cannot be denied. Isaiah had a great influence in all the churches of the Orient. He had friends among Chalcedonians as well as non-Chalcedonians. For all Christians, he remains a master of genuine spirituality.
- Augoustinos Monachos Iordanites. TOU OSIOU PATROS HMWN ABBA HSAIOU LOGOI KQ. Jerusalem, 1911; 2nd ed., Soterios N. Schoinas, Volo, 1962.
- Chitty, D. J. “Abba Isaiah.” The Journal of Theological Studies 22 (1971):47-72.
- Draguet, R. Les cinq recensions de l’Asceticon syriaque d’abba Isaie. CSCO 289-290, 293-294. Louvain, 1968.
- Grébaut, S., ed. Synaxaire éthiopien. PO 7, p. 310. Paris, 1907. Guillaumont, A. L’Asceticon copte de l’abbé Isaie. Fragments
- sahidiques édités et traduits. Bibliothèque d’Etudes coptes 5. Cairo, 1956.
- Kruger, G. “Wer war der Pseudo-Dionysios.” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 8 (1899):302-305.
- Regnault, L. “Isaie de Scété ou de Gaza.” In Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, Vol. 7, pp. 2083-95. Paris, 1932-.