Ever been to Qatar? It is a small nation state that sits on the southwestern side of the Persian Gulf in the Middle East. Shaped like an oversized thumb, it is becoming a crossroads of global finance and trade in competition with places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the nearby United Arab Emirates. Qatar will host the next World Cup, already hosts a variety of events and concerts, and famously is the home of the 24/7 news channel Al Jazeera. It also was the first country on the Arabian Peninsula to allow a new church to be built on its soil.
I was briefly in Doha last week, the capital of Qatar. As I thought about this country and its growing global influence, I was reminded of one of my favorite Christian mystics. He is from the 7th century Church of the East and known by several names, including Isaac the Syrian, Isaac of Nineveh, and Isaac the Qatari. Isaac is one of the greatest mystical writers of the Church, a teacher of prayer who is loved and read across a wide spectrum of the Christian faith as well as by many Muslims. My definition of a “mystical writer” is one who teaches on experiential aspects of the Christian life from their own depths of experience in intimacy with God. Isaac also taught on many areas of Biblical studies and theology as an ordained Bishop of Nineveh, near the modern city of Mosul in Iraq, and then for the greater part of his life as a solitary monk in the mountains of Khuzistan. (now Iran).
Isaac ended his life in the monastery of Rabban Shapur, and according to Isho’dena in the Book of Chastity, was blind due to so much time spent reading the Scriptures. Isaac’s exact birth and death dates are unknown, but his life spanned much of the 7th century. He was part of the great Church of the East (also called the East Syrian Church), one of the greatest missionary forces in history. In 635, probably within a few years of Isaac’s birth, the Church had spread to China by a mission led by the Persian monk Alopen. (see my posts on the Church of the East in China). The geographer/monk Cosmos in the previous century had noted East Syrian Christians in strength in India as well. Qatar itself in the 7th century was an important center of Christianity, seeing monastic missionaries sent out from there into other parts of Asia.
The 7th century of course was also extremely important because of the developments that were occurring not so far away in the Western Arabian desert. In 610, perhaps right around Isaac’s birth, a Meccan merchant-mystic named Muhammad received a revelation that would result in a new religious faith emerging called Islam. Within a generation of the Prophet’s death in 632, Islam had spread throughout the Middle East and into North Africa. It is interesting to note that Isaac was alive during this first phase of Muslim expansion, and his influence on later developments of mysticism within Islam are a great possibility. As A.J. Wensink wrote in 1923, “Isaac stands chronologically and materially on the threshold of Muslim mysticism. He has developed some essential features which have become prominent among Muslims.” More on that in a later post.
Isaac today is one of the most well-loved “cross-over” saints of the greater Church. On Mount Athos in Greece, the heart of Greek Orthodox monasticism, he is widely read. His name is known perhaps to every monk in Russia and he is venerated there as a Saint. His writings have even helped to spur a revival in recent years in Egyptian Coptic monasticism. Isaac is also known and loved in Catholic circles, and many Protestants read him as well. It is his writings on prayer that are especially read and treasured, particularly his concept of “pure prayer” or the “prayer of stillness”.
How ironic that in a world today of 24/7 noise, and news channels that never end including Al Jazeera in Qatar, a saint from that same place can still speak to those who would listen. His writings on praying with stillness, which I’ll write more on in the next post, are a counter-cultural protest to our never turned-off world. This last Christmas my family, after a generous financial gift from a friend, gave me a smart phone. Not because I’m particularly smart, but because they love me. (Incredibly enough I now have the best phone of all of them). But quite often I’m not very “smart” with it. I reach for it way too often. According to Ariana Huffington in her recent book Thrive, “The average smartphone user checks his or her device every six and a half minutes. That works out to around 150 times a day. Our brains are naturally wired to connect, so it’s not easy to turn away from these kinds of stimuli.” (emphasis mine)
She goes on to write that such frequent usage “can begin to actually rewire our brains to make us less adept at real human connection.” (pg. 62) I haven’t kept track yet of how many times I reach for my smartphone a day, but I probably will when I get the courage. Like any other habit, it starts small and then grinds a path through our brain into our actions. But also like any habit, it can be changed through enough greater habits grounded in the will to do so.
Isaac of course did not have a smartphone to contend with in his years as a Bishop or a solitary monk. But that is not to say that there were not real distractions of another kind. Distractions have always been there. His message of finding a place of stillness and learning to pray in “pure prayer” call to us from the 7th century into our 21st century context. In the next post, I’ll write more about what is this prayer of stillness.
I need to stop now because there is a message waiting for me on my Messenger app. and I haven’t checked it in the last seven minutes.