Conversations with Abba Isaac: Violence in the Middle East

In June of 2014, the city of Mosul fell to the militant Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). As most are aware, Mosul is but one of many cities that has fallen victim to demonic violence in recent months. Among the victims of this violence are the last vestiges of an ancient Christian civilization.

On the eastern bank of the Tigris River across from Mosul are the ruins of Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria. From the ruins of this once proud and majestic city comes the voice of a man who for a short time was the local bishop. His voice is not loud because even during his life, a life lived over a thousand years ago, he spoke the language of the age to come: the language of silence. The still voice of Abba Isaac the Bishop of Nineveh remains with us and cannot be drowned out by the empty shouting of men who hate and kill in the name of God. His words, to quote Elder Sophrony, are, “immensely powerful with the power of unassuming love.”

Comparing the words of Abba Isaac to those who now control his homeland, I am reminded of something that Zissimos Lorenzatos once wrote. “There are dead people who direct the course of our lives and there are living people who, the louder they shout, the more clear it becomes that they are dead before their time.” The voice of Abba Isaac has directed innumerable lives, including such diverse people as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Elder Paisios.

Abba Isaac, with extraordinary prescience, speaks to those who use faith as a pretext for violence and hate:

A zealous man [the Syriac word used here for “zeal” has the connotation of fanaticism] never achieves peace of mind; but he who is a stranger to peace is a stranger to joy. If, as it is said, peace of mind is perfect health, and zeal is opposed to peace, then the man who has zeal is sick with a grievous disease… Zeal is not reckoned among men to be a form of wisdom, but as one of the maladies of the soul, namely narrow-mindedness and deep ignorance.

We should not presume to respond to the demonic zeal of ISIL with a “just” zeal. We are reminded by Abba Issac that, “Mercy and justice in one soul is like a man who worships God and the idols in one house. Mercy is opposed to justice… As grass and fire cannot co-exist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul.”

While the Middle East and much of the rest of the world is being consumed by violence and suffering, we are left asking ourselves, what can we do? What does Abba Isaac call us to do? Abba Isaac instructs us to offer concrete acts of self-emptying love for those who are suffering. What if we are unable to love in a self-sacrificing and tangible way? He tells us that we can pray. Are we unable to pray? He tells us we can weep for those who suffer. Are our eyes dry and is despair at the door? This blind man of the desert, our Blessed Abba Isaac, responds by giving us a vision of hope and calls us to entrust ourselves to the love of God, saying to us:

“In love did He bring the world into existence; in love does he guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things…”

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Fr. Micah Hirschy grew up in St. Paul, MN and…
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