« Isaacus, Donatist Martyr Isaacus, Egyptian solitary Isaacus Senior, disciple of Ephraim the Syrian »

Isaacus, Egyptian solitary

Isaacus (28). Several eminent solitaries of the Egyptian deserts in the 4th cent. bore this name. The references are scattered up and down in the Vitae Patrum, and it is not always clear which Isaac is intended. The following seem to be distinct persons.

(i) Abbat Isaacus, presbyter of the anchorites in the Scetic desert (ἡ Σκῆτις, Copt. Schiêt), S.W. of Lake Mareotis. At 7 years of age he withdrew from the world, a.d. 358, and attached himself to Macarius of Alexandria, the disciple of St. Anthony. Palladius relates of abbat Isaac that he knew the Scriptures by heart, lived in utter purity, and could handle deadly serpents (κεράσται) without harm. He lived in solitude for 50 years, his followers numbering 3150. Certain anecdotes in the Apophthegmata Patrum appear to belong to him. "Abbat Isaac was wont to say to the brethren, Our fathers and abbat Pambo wore old bepatched raiment and palm husks (σεβένια); nowadays ye wear costly clothing. Hence! It was ye who desolated the district." (Scetis was overrun, c. 395, by the Mazices, a horde of merciless savages.)

Cassianus, who was in Scetis a.d. 398, conversed with Isaacus, to whom he assigns the 9th and 10th of his Conferences (Collationes), which treat of prayer. In the former Isaacus distinguishes four kinds of prayer, according to I. Tim. ii. 1 (Collat. 9, cc. 9–14). Then he expounds at length the Lord's Prayer (cc. 18–23). The highest type, however, is prayer "unuttered, unexpressed," like that of Christ on the mountain or in the garden (c. 25, de qualitate sublimioris orationis). In c. 36 he advises short and frequent petitions ("frequenter quidem sed breviter"), lest, while we linger, the foe suggest some evil thought.

The 10th Conference begins by relating how the patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria scandalized the Scetic anchorites by his Paschal Letter denouncing Anthropomorphism, and how the aged abbat Serapion, though convinced of his error, could not render thanks with the rest, but fell a-weeping and crying, "They have taken my God from me!" Cassianus and the other witnesses asked Isaacus to account for the old man's heresy. Isaacus made it a survival of heathen ideas of Deity in a simple and unlettered mind (cc. 1–5). Isaacus proceeds to shew how to attain to perfect and unceasing prayer. That will be realized when all our love and desire, every aim, effort, thought, all that we contemplate, speak of, hope for, is God; when we are united with Him by an enduring and indissoluble affection. C. 10 gives as a prayer suited to all emergencies the verse Ps. lxx. 1. Ill prays he who only prays when upon his knees. He prays never, who even upon his knees is distracted by wandering thoughts. Such as we would be found when praying, such should we be before we pray.

When 50 years old Isaacus was expelled from his desert by Theophilus of Alexandria, albeit that prelate had made bishops of seven or eight of his anchorites. Isaacus turned for succour to St. Chrysostom and Olympias. He was still living in a.d. 408.

Sources.—Pallad. Dialog. de Vita Chrysost. in Patr. Gk. xlvii. 59, 60; Cassiani Massil. Collat. 9, 10, in Migne, xlix. 770 sqq.; Apophthegmata Patr. ib. lxv. 223; a number of anecdotes headed περὶ τοῦ Ἀββᾶ Ἰσὰακ τοῦ πρεσβυτέρου τῶν Κελλίων, but referring to several persons, cf. de Vit. Patr. lib. iii. col. 752, in Migne, lxxiii.; Tillem. Mém. viii. 650, 617, 648, and 813, n. vi.; Ceillier, viii. 174–177.

(ii) Isaacus, presbyter and abbat of the Nitrian desert, sometimes called Presbyter of the Cells (Κελλία N. of Nitria). The chief 539account of this Isaacus is also in Palladius (Dialog. Migne, xlvii. coll. 59, 60). He was head of 210 recluses. His charity and humility were famous. He built a hospital for the sick and for the numerous visitors to his community. Like Isaacus of Scetis, he was an adept in the Scriptures. Like him, too, after 30 years in the desert, he was driven forth c. 400 by the patriarch Theophilus, who had chosen a number of his disciples to be bishops. The Apophthegmata Patrum gives some stories about Isaac of the Cells. "The abbat Isaac said, In my youth I lived with abbat Cronius. Old and trembling as he was, he would never bid me do anything; he would rise by himself, and hand the water-cruse (τὸ βαυκάλιον) to me and the rest. And abbat Theodore of Phermè, with whom also I lived, would set out the table by himself and say, 'Brother, if thou wilt, come and eat.' I said, 'Father, I came to thee to profit: why dost not bid me do somewhat?' He answered never a word; but when the old men asked him the same thing, he broke out with, 'Am I Coenobiarch, that I should command him? If he like, what he sees me doing, he will himself do.' Thenceforward I forestalled the old man's purposes. And I had learned the lesson of doing in silence."

It appears that, after the persecution of Theophilus, Isaacus had returned to his desert. In the Apoph. Patr., Migne, t. lxv. 223, 239, there are other anecdotes concerning him (cf. Tillem. Mém. viii. 623–625).

(iii) Isaacus, called Thebaeus, an anchorite of the Thebaid, probably not identical with (ii), although Cronius, the master of the Cellia, at one time lived in the Thebaid (Vit. Patr. lib. vii. col. 1044, Migne, t. lxxiii.). Alardus Gazaeus, the Benedictine annotator of Cassianus, writes (Collat. 9 ad init.) that there were two chief anchorites named Isaac; one who lived in the Scetic desert, and another called Thebaeus, often mentioned in the Vitae Patrum and in Pratum Spirituale, c. 161.

Once Isaac ("de Thebaida," Vit. Patr. v.) had banished an offending brother from the congregation. When he would have entered his cell, an angel stood in the way. "God sends me to learn where you wish Him to bestow the solitary whom you have condemned." The abbat owned his fault and was forgiven, but was warned not to rob God of His prerogative by anticipating His judgments. Isaac Thebaeus used to say to the brethren, "Bring no children hither. Four churches in Scetis have been desolated, owing to children."

Sources.—Apoph. Patr. col. 240, in Migne, lxv.; de Vit. Patr. lib. v. in Migne, lxxiii. (version of an unknown Greek author by Pelagius, c. 550), coll. 909, 918; de Vit. Patr. iii. col. 786 (prob. by Rufinus).

(iv) Isaacus, disciple of St. Apollos, probably lived at Cellia. He was accomplished in every good work. On his way to the church he would hold no converse with any, and after communion he would hurry back to his cell, without waiting for the cup of wine and the food (παξαμάτης) usually handed round among the brethren after service. "A lamp goes out, if one hold it long in the open air; and if I, kindled by the holy oblation, linger outside my cell, my mind grows dark" (Apoph. Patr. col. 241).

[C.J.B.]

« Isaacus, Donatist Martyr Isaacus, Egyptian solitary Isaacus Senior, disciple of Ephraim the Syrian »





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