When the Vatican’s synod secretariat published in 2022 a “spiritual aid” for the synod on synodality — “Towards a Spirituality for Synodality” — the document, like much of the synod, became quickly a subject of debate.
After the text was published, some critics went so far as to call the document, or the synod on synodality, “demonic” — a criticism that has persisted as the synod continues.
The document’s inclusion of a strange quote from St. Isaac the Syrian, a seventh century Syriac hermit.
St. Isaac describes a “merciful heart” as one that is “on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists.”
But are Catholics really being asked to have a merciful heart for demons? Why would a saint say that — and why would the Vatican quote it.
The Pillar takes a look.
So who was St. Isaac the Syrian?
St. Isaac was born in Qatar in 613, and at a young age became a hermit at a monastery in Kurdistan.
In 676, he was elected Bishop of Nineveh, but resigned months later, returning to his former ascetical life. He spent the rest of his days in solitude in the mountains, eating only bread and vegetables three times a week.
Isaac was a prolific writer — the author of a vast corpus of work on spiritual topics, among them the infinite love and mercy of God, prayer and fasting, and fighting the passions. He is most well known for his ascetical homilies.
What did St Isaac mean by ‘demons’?
To understand the saint’s strange quote, The Pillar talked with Dr. Sebastian Brock of Oxford University, generally regarded as the world’s most renowned scholar on St. Isaac the Syrian.
Brock pointed from Isaac to another figure — the fourth century monastic theologian Evagrius Ponticus, who was a big influence on Isaac.
According to Brock, Evagrius had noted in his own writings that monks had a tendency to “call evil people ‘demons’” as a kind of monastic shorthand.
In light of that, Brock pointed out, it’s not far-fetched to say that when St. Isaac talked about having mercy toward demons, he could have been referring to evildoing human people. Indeed, for Brock, that seems the most likely approach.
That reading seems to be in congruence with St Isaac’s other writings: “Do not foster hatred for the sinner, for we are all guilty… Hate his sins, and pray for him, so that you may be like unto Christ.”
Was St. Isaac a Nestorian?
Since we’re talking about Isaac, we should address some other issues — the monk has been accused of being both a Nestorian and a universalist.
Are those labels fair, or has the Eastern mystic been misrepresented?
Nestorianism is the heresy that asserts the separation of the human and divine natures of Christ, condemned by the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in the 5th century.
Isaac did belong to the Church of the East — which in the heat of polemical debate was often referred to as “Nestorian” by the Chalcedonian Churches.
But as far as scholars can tell, Isaac himself didn’t get involved in Christological controversies about the person of Christ. In fact, during Isaac’s lifetime, the Nestorian Bishop Daniel Bar Tunbanita, took issue with Isaac’s teaching — regarding it as too Catholic to be compatible with the Nestorian heresy — and then became his ardent opponent.
What about universalism?
There is probably more substance to the claim that St. Isaac subscribed to universalist ideas about salvation.
Universalism is the idea that all people will be saved, and enjoy eternity with God. Some universalists even hold that demons, or Satan himself, will be eventually saved.
There has been speculation that Isaac held that view. But in truth, his exact theological position is not clear.
While Isaac acknowledged that God’s eternal plan remains unknown, he also wrote about his hope that there would be some hidden mystery that lies beyond “Gehenna” at the end of time — a reality Isaac saw in conformity with the immensity of God’s love.
Of course, if St. Isaac did think demons could be saved, that would explain why he’d urge a “merciful heart” for them — but, again, to the people who study him, that explanation seems less likely than the alternative.
Ok, but can literal demons be saved?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that demons are fallen angels, “created naturally good by God,” who “became evil by their own doing.”
Their fall from grace “consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign,” the Catechism says.
“It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels' sin unforgivable,” the Catechism adds, along with a quote from St. John Damascene: "There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death."
So how come I’ve never really heard of this Isaac guy?
While Isaac’s works were translated into many languages and widely distributed throughout Medieval Europe, they never fully influenced the Western church.
Instead, Isaac’s popularity lay among Eastern Christians, where he inspired many Orthodox figures, including Elder Joseph of Mount Athos — a 20th century monk and Greek Orthodox saint — who said that “if all the writings of the desert fathers on watchfulness and prayer were lost and the writings of Isaac the Syrian alone survived, they would be enough.”
Even the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky owned a newly-available translation of St Isaac’s “Ascetical Homilies”, and is said to have based the character of Elder Zosima on Isaac the Syrian in “The Brothers Karamazov.”
St Isaac’s merciful quote about merciful hearts can be compared to Elder Zosima’s words in Dostoevsky’s work: “...Love every green leaf, every ray of God’s light; love the animals and the plants and love every inanimate object.”
Why the growing popularity in Rome?
Among a lot of Western Catholic theologians, there has been a growing appreciation of the Syriac church in recent times, thanks to academics such as Dr. Brock, who has called for the Syriac Christian tradition to act as a ‘third lung’ alongside the West and East.
In fact, the Vatican held a 2018 conference, which brought together academics from around the world to help ‘open the field’ of Syriac and Christian Arabic studies to a wider audience.
And in 2008, Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev spoke at the world’s first Congress on Divine Mercy in Rome, and related the messages of St. Isaac to that of St Faustina.
That new emphasis might explain how the quote made it into the 2022 synod text, and how Pope Francis came to reference Isaac in his 2023 Easter Message.