Further letters of Isidore of Pelusium

In his cell outside the Egyptian city of Pelusium, ca. 430 AD, Isidore of Pelusium is still writing spiritual advice to us all. 

Some are doing well.  But it can be risky to be proud of success in overcoming temptation:

1225 (V.10) TO SYMMACHUS

In the civil wars, even if the conquerors are more unfortunate than the conquered — indeed they have more to blush about, precisely because they did whatever was done more than the others did — they will in any case oppose each other with the idea of a reconciliation in mind. But in us, where the warfare is more relentless than in the civil war — because it takes place inside a single being — it takes place without the idea of a reconciliation in mind. On the contrary, one sees he who has done more of it than his adversary glorify himself for it, whereas he should blush! Because punishment is reserved for the author of the drama, rather than for those who are simply its victims.

Others haven’t quite grasped why they need to renounce what they imagine to be the “innocent pleasures” of contemporary society:

1226 (V.11) TO MARTINIANUS, ZOSIMUS, MARON, EUSTATHIUS

My dear chaps, flee from vice: it is capable of making its devotees mad and foolish. Pursue virtue: it is capable of rendering those who stick to it wise, and of maintaining in them a good disposition. Because there is often gentleness and serenity in their eyes, this shows that in them a spirit full of wisdom has entered everywhere.

The legislation of Constantine made it financially profitable to become a priest and thereby avoid the ever-increasing taxes that finally destroyed the late Roman economy.  A century later, the theological standard of the ordinary priests could be low.  Some didn’t even understand that Jesus was God.  Gently Isidore addresses this:

1227 (IV. 166) TO ARCHIBIUS THE PRIEST

You were saying that you did not understand the expression “In him all the fullness of the divinity dwells, corporeally“; myself, I think that this expression is put for substantially. Because this is not an operation of the divinity produced by the substance who governed this immaculate temple, but a substance with innumerable operations: it was not a fraction of a gift, but the source of all good. It is, he means, He himself who reigns with the Father, who reigns in heaven and governs the earth, who was made man and, with the weapons of a combatant, took up position in the line of battle, at the same time organizing the world, ensuring victory to mankind, putting to rout the demon kidnappers, throwing down their chief who was swollen with pride, and filling the Church with innumerable gifts. This is a king, he says, who has been a general, not a general who could have been spared the title of king; this is the king who in the shape of a slave hid his own dignity in the battle, not a simple soldier who assumed the title of king. He was a king when he legislated, not a simple soldier starting to legislate: because the expression “I say to you” is that of a king; “I do want, be purified!” is that of a sovereign; “May it be for you as you wish” comes from someone with absolute power; “Be silent, silence” is that of a lord; and all the expressions of this kind which I don’t want to enumerate in full so as not to lengthen my letter.

But if you are shocked by the Passion, an audacious temptation against God which reached only his flesh, listen to the choir of the apostles: “But, he says, as Christ suffered in his flesh.” If thus He who had received in His hands the keys of Heaven has shown that the flesh suffered in a real sense — it alone was accessible to suffering because the divine is impassive — if even, because they had put the heir to death, the Jews suffered more than in any tragedy, don’t let yourself be disturbed by the Passion, but let it lead you to make full thanksgivings, because the king, the impassive one, who could not accept the shadow of a change, has delivered his own flesh, and appearing many times as a weak man, thought up a stratagem to surprise the evil one, and having produced brilliant trophies of victory, has risen up to Heaven, and returned to the dwelling of his nature.

But if, as some say, he was simply a man, lacking in divine grace, why then did the Jews, when they killed a great number of the saints, not undergo the same fate in turn, while, because of Him, no tragedy can bear comparison with their sufferings? Well, it is obvious that the first were only saints, while Him, he was the only-begotten God who had condescended to be made man. They did not have same dignity when they went to the torment: they were servants. He, he was the Master; this is what involved the Jews in relentless punishment. “Here the heir,” they say. The vine growers threw themselves on the heir to kill him, and not on a servant like themselves, on the real son of the Master, and not on one of themselves which had been raised to the dignity of son. How indeed was the Son was sent after the servants, He should be respected? How was it that he was called the second man come from the sky? How did God come here, if he cooperated with man? How did He abase himself, when He was the equal of God? How did God send his Son with a flesh similar to that of the sinners? Or how is there not scorn for the Sacred mysteries, when they claim to be the body and the blood of a man? How did he say: “You have provided me with a body”? How must He also have something to offer to him? How, by His own blood did he release the prisoners? How did they crucify the Lord of glory? How was the Word made flesh? How did the Father, having spoken on several occasions and in many ways in the prophets, then speak in His Son? Or again, how did the Son share much the same living conditions (as ourselves)? Well, rather than overpower your attention by an exhaustive enumeration, I will say just one thing which summarizes them all: to pronounce humble words while being God, this is to carry out effectively the economy of salvation, and that causes no damage to His immaculate substance; on the other hand, to pronounce divine and supernatural words, when one is just a man, is the height of presumption. Because, while a king can allow himself to be ordinary in his remarks and his thought, for a soldier or a General, to speak like a king is prohibited. If thus he were God, as precisely he was, by being made man there is a place for the humble things; while if he were only a man, there is no place for that which is above.

Leave a Reply