The Three Degrees of Knowledge: An Exploration of Theosis in the Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian
V. Rev. Michael Gillis
Glory be to Him who richly pours forth His gifts upon men! …By His grace He has dispelled the hardness of our hearts, that we might gain understanding from the divine vision of the Scriptures and the instructions of the great Fathers. For by my own struggles I have not been vouchsafed to experience even one thousandth part of what I have written with my hands, and especially in this homily which I now compose for the healing and enlightenment of our souls, and of those who come across it, with the hope that, perchance, some might rouse themselves by reason of their desire for what I speak of, and endeavour to practise it (238).
The influence of St. Isaac the Syrian (+ c. 700) on Orthodox Christian spirituality cannot be overestimated. He was a man of practical spirituality, a bishop and a hermit who, through his writings, has been able to guide thousands upon thousands of other hermits, monks and laypeople into a deeper relationship with God in Christ. In my own life, St. Isaac’s words have been a light to me, not so much a light outside illuminating my path, but a light inside. That is, sometimes when I read St. Isaac it is as though I am not reading words in a book outside me; but it is as if something inside me suddenly sees, knows and understands; it is as if a lightning flash suddenly appears within me. This inner experience is often wordless. It is a knowing and seeing beyond conception (in contrast to “getting it” in mathematics, science, languages or other academic pursuits). Consequently, it is very difficult to speak about. To speak of such things feels too much like lying. There are no words, and yet love compels us to find words, to grope, to try to share an image, metaphor or allegory that points in some small way to the reality one knows and experiences beyond words.
St. Isaac wrote in Syriac, not in Greek. Furthermore, St. Isaac was outside the Christian empire, outside the intellectual world that influenced much of the Orthodox Christian Spirituality written in Greek. As a result, St. Isaac didn't use many standard Greek technical terms such as, for example, theosis. But that doesn’t mean that St. Isaac didn’t know and teach the way to becoming sons of God by grace. It means that he taught the Orthodox way with a perspective that is fresh to us who are used to thinking in the categories and vocabulary of the Greek theological tradition and that often brings enlightenment through unexpected images and vocabulary. Archimandrite Vasileios, a man whom Metropolitan Kalistos Ware describes as “the pioneer of the striking revival and renewal of monastic life on the Holy Mountain,” (Editor’s Note, Vasileios, 5) says St. Isaac “describes to you with assurance and sobriety what happens on the journey towards deification” (Vasileios, 14).
St. Isaac is not a systematic writer. He writes as one moved by the Spirit, not as one writing a treatise. Consequently, it would be foolish to try to impose order on his writing based on my own limited understanding of his writings and even more limited experience of the spiritual realities of which he writes. Nonetheless, as a fool, I have endeavoured to layout some of his teaching in a form that may be easier for beginners like myself to understand—with the hope that some may be enticed to buy his homilies and read them and even begin in some small ways to practice what he teaches.
St. Isaac’s homilies are full of several-step dictums, pithy proverbs and colourful images each pointing the way along the spiritual path to Christ-likeness. Nevertheless, there is one particular metaphor that is often quoted from St. Isaac’s works. Understanding this image will, I think, help us enter in some small way into understanding St. Isaac’s teaching about human transformation into Christ-likeness. The image is of three degrees of knowledge. St. Isaac is quick to point out that these are not three different kinds of knowledge; but rather, they are three degrees, or levels of perception. All three degrees are necessary—even the first, or lowest. For St. Isaac, lower degrees of knowledge must be “swallowed by” or submitted to higher degrees. These three degrees of knowledge are called 1) contrary to nature, 2) natural, and 3) super natural (128, 362, 399). It will be easier to understand these three degrees of knowledge and how they relate to and reveal theosis if we begin with the second, then discuss the first and finally the third.
The Second Degree
The second degree of knowledge, the natural degree of knowledge, is a knowing that is according to a human being’s created nature, or knowing according to a healthy human mind. This degree of knowledge discerns good from evil and leads to the fear of God. It is a knowing that deduces the existence of God and the reality of judgement from the observation of the creation (291-3, 360) and by the initial stages of attention to one’s own inner life (i.e. one might reason, ‘if I judge others for being unkind to me, probably the Creator will judge me for being unkind to others’). Through turning from bestial appetites and merely calculating, worldly ways of knowing, one returns to a healthy state of mind, a mind ruled by a kind of moral (not merely calculating) reason. As one returns to a healthy state of mind, God can grant the gift of faith which “produces fear in us, and fear compels us to repent and to set ourselves to work” (361).
Knowledge leads us to virtue, but faith is greater than knowledge; and knowledge must follow faith, which is the appropriate order, once faith is revealed. This initial faith St. Isaac refers to as the faith of hearing (c.f. Job 42:5). Faith then leads knowledge to virtuous works of the body such as fasting, vigil, love for one’s neighbor, investigating the Scripture, controlling the passions, etc. (394,5,8). However, this progress in virtue does not go unhindered. In this second degree of knowledge, labour is required, “the sweat of the brow”; and virtuous works are often accompanied by the pain of thorns. Nevertheless, these virtuous actions are perfected by the action of the Holy Spirit (398) and lead one to the beginning of contemplation, or theoria - “Divine vision of created things” (148), “divine vision of God’s judgements and of visible creation” (146).
When one is being perfected in (maturing or growing in) the good deeds expressed in concrete actions and the theoria of the second degree of knowledge, “another faith is begotten…called the faith of divine vision” (361) which is the condition and the means by which one begins to enter the third degree of knowledge.
The First Degree
But before we look at the third degree of knowledge, let’s go back and take a look at the first. The first degree of knowledge is what St. Isaac calls “common knowledge” or knowledge that is “contrary to human nature.” St. Isaac says that we fall to this level of knowledge by being concerned for our body and its comforts: “the pleasure loving will veils natural knowledge” (362). It is merely psychic (e.g. according to the [unenlightened, merely calculating] soul or mind; c.f. 1 Cor. 2:14). It is the knowledge of “rational wisdom” which is suitable only for guidance in worldly, merely mechanical things. It is the knowledge that produces “novelties of invention, the arts [i.e. how to do stuff], sciences, doctrines [i.e. laws]; and all other things which crown the body in this visible world” ( 396).
This first degree of knowledge “uproots love” (397). It is a knowledge that “investigates the minute faults of other men and the causes thereof, and their weaknesses; and it arms a man for stubbornly upholding his opinion, for disputation, and aids him in cunningly employing devices and crafty machinations…. In this knowledge are produced and are found presumption and pride, for it attributes every good thing to itself, and does not refer it to God” (397). It “follows the desire of the flesh” (398). It is the knowledge of one who has “fallen away from the light of the knowledge of God” (398). “For whenever the mind is drawn away by the senses, it also eats the food of beasts with them. But when the senses are drawn by the mind, they partake together with it of the sustenance of angels” (144). This matter of what is drawing and what is being drawn is critical in discerning first versus second degree knowledge. The senses yank around the mind in the first degree, but the mind begins to reign in and control the senses in the second degree.
However, first degree of knowledge is not evil in and of itself. It is merely the knowledge of the body and the lower calculating aspect of the soul uncontrolled by the higher, “rational” aspect of the soul and unguided by faith (360). When one falls away from faith and the fear of God through desire for pleasure and comfort, one is then left with only this first degree of knowledge, and cannot “enter into incomprehensible matters” (397). Those stuck in this first degree “know not that there is something better… because they measure their discipline according to the standard of the ear and the flesh” (397). Thus they are become as “mindless beasts,” rejecting natural knowledge and the faith that is revealed through it. St. Isaac points us to the psalmist who says: “Man being in honour did not understand; he was compared to the senseless cattle, and became like them” ( 360; c.f. Psalm 48:13 LXX). Functioning in this first degree of knowledge, a man does not fear God, he fears only death (438), and he measures himself only by the satisfaction of his flesh and “according to the standard of the ear”: the scuttlebutt of the current trend, fashion, prejudice or wisdom of the age.
The Third Degree
St. Isaac mentions two specific virtues that both create the conditions for and manifest the presence of the third degree of knowledge. These virtues are humility and love. Humility enables the theoria that begins to be experienced in the second degree of knowledge to beget another, second kind a faith, a faith that St. Isaac calls a “confirming” faith, a faith of seeing (361; c.f. Job 42:5). That is, one begins to see, or perceive directly, the divine reality that one had only “heard” of before.
However, to see, one must acquire humility: “By humility, true knowledge makes perfect the soul of those who have acquired it” (397). This humility makes one “worthy” of “diverse theorias and divine revelations, by the lofty vision of spiritual things” (397). “Humility attains to divine vision because of her continual self-constraint”(144). As a gift of God, one “sees,” or experiences directly, “perfect rest” [from labouring in virtue], “consolation, words in the heart, awareness, delight, fruition of the soul, burning love, joy in God, and whatsoever things…are bestowed on a soul counted worthy of yonder blessedness, whatsoever things are subtly indicated in the divine scriptures” (395). As knowledge begins to be led by this faith of seeing, or as this “faith swallows up knowledge…it begets it anew”; knowledge is “converted” by this faith (399). This is the third degree of knowledge, a knowledge converted and born again by being “swallowed up” by the faith of the direct knowledge of or experience of God. Knowledge “becomes wholly and completely spirit” (399).
St. Isaac emphasizes that this spiritual knowledge is in no way the product of human cognition: “Take care,” he says, “lest you think in any wise that a man receives that other, spiritual knowledge through this merely human knowledge of ours…. Not even an inkling of it can be perceived by those who are zealous to train themselves in such knowledge” (500,1). Therefore he exhorts: “Take refuge in weakness and simplicity.” And, “If…you wish to pass your life in [spiritual knowledge], by no means encourage your feeble deliberations” (502).
Humility not only precedes this third degree of knowledge, this faith of seeing; but the third degree of knowledge also manifests God-like humility—which may be near to some of what the Holy Fathers in the Greek tradition refer to when they speak of theosis: “Wherefore every man has put on Christ when he is clothed in the raiment [of humility] wherein the Creator was seen through the body that He put on” (535). “For humility is the raiment of the Godhead…every man who has been clothed with it has truly been made like unto Him” (534). “And if she [humility] becomes ours, she will make us sons of God” (484).
As lofty as humility is in the eyes of St. Isaac, he is very clear that humility grows in us as we grow in our knowledge of our weakness which we gain through striving and falling through temptation and striving again to keep God’s commandments, which is the work of virtue (363, 503). “Virtue,” he says, “is the mother of mourning, and from mourning humility is born, and upon humility a gift is bestowed. Therefore the recompense is not for virtue, nor for toil on account of virtue, but for humility that is born of both” (422). It strikes me as profoundly ironic yet deeply real and true that, as St. Isaac sees it, one is clothed in “the very raiment of the Godhead” through one’s falls, through the struggle and tears and ‘falling down and getting back up again' of our Christian struggle for virtue in this world.
However, there is another, perhaps even more important mark of the third degree of knowledge: love. “Love, however, raises him above nature and the struggle, the fear, [and] the toil [;] and the weariness in all things passes away from him.” In the second degree of knowledge, one is motivated to repentance and virtue by the fear of God, which is the awareness of coming judgement (438). Yet loving one’s neighbour as virtue, that is, doing the loving thing by your neighbour, is not the same thing as actually having love in your heart for your neighbour. Similarly, attaining virtue is not the same as loving God, although it is preliminary. Or we might say virtue is the fertile field in which love of God (and neighbour) grows.
The “clear sign,” St. Isaac says, that “the image of the heavenly Father will be seen in” someone is when compassionate action moves you to compunction of heart so that “you are full of mercy for all mankind, and that your heart is afflicted by the intensity of your pity for men and burns as with fire, without making distinctions between persons.” (552). And he says elsewhere, “By the superabundant outpouring of their love and compassion upon all men [the perfected saints] resemble God…. This sign of complete likeness to God [is]: to be perfect in the love of their neighbour” (493). Here love is not a virtue, nor does one strive to do virtuous (loving) actions; rather, in the third degree of knowledge, love burns and pierces one’s heart—which of course results in loving actions, but not as labours, but as compelled by the love burning in one’s heart.
The virtuous person, on the other hand, functioning in the second degree of knowledge and motivated by awareness of judgement (i.e. fear of God), is constantly experiencing a “pricking of the conscience,” “an unceasing remembrance of death” (and the judgement of God) and “a certain anxiety” that one experiences as a “torment until a man departs from this life” (362). Love, however, lifts a person above the suffering one experiences in the pursuit of virtue. “We are among these things until we attain to love, which frees us from them all.” And, “Until we find love, our labour [in virtue] is in the land of thorns” (358). Moving from fear of God to love, is both the means to and the fruit of the third degree of knowledge.
Once one has acquired love in the third degree of knowledge, on the human level, mercy, kindness, generosity and all other virtues are no longer something striven for, but flow freely, without labour. And toward God, “the soul then rushes forward…on the wings of faith…taking leave of visible creation, and as though drunken, she is ever found in the awestruck wonder of solicitude for God; and with simple, uncompounded vision, and with invisible perception of the Divine nature, the understanding becomes accustomed to attending to reflection upon that nature’s hiddenness” (401). All fear is gone, and we run like children into the arms of our Father.
What begins as theoria in the second degree of knowledge, arising from a virtuous way of life as “the appetitive part is fixed in a natural state of health”(469), becomes “more refined” as glimmers of experience proper to the third degree of knowledge begin to dawn in one’s heart. Theoria , one’s inner life, “acquires that which is of the Spirit, and comes to resemble the life of the unseen hosts which perform their liturgy not by the palpable activity of works, but through…the meditation of the understanding” (398,9). Here a person perceives the mysteries of God personally and directly through divine theoria, and here all fear is lost, or is rather “swallowed up by love” : “But when a man has reached the knowledge of the truth by the active perception of the mysteries of God and becomes steadfast in his hope in things to come, he is swallowed up by love” (438).
Using the tripartite image of a whole human being, body, soul and spirit, St. Isaac likens the first degree of knowledge to the body, which must be kept in subjection to the soul. When the body is kept in subjection by the soul, one begins to experience the second degree of knowledge, which he likens to the soul itself. The second, natural, degree of knowledge is enlightened by the first gift of faith (the faith of hearing) producing the fear of God, or awareness of God and His judgement. This compels one to the practice of virtue and the contemplation of created things (theoria of created things and God’s judgement). As one grows in humility through the trials, afflictions and failures in the pursuit of virtue in the second degree of knowledge, a second faith (the faith of seeing) enlightens one to ascend to the spirit, the third degree of knowledge. Here, through the divine theoria of unseen and immaterial (heavenly) things and through love, one is freed from fear of God (c.f.395 - 401).
But nowhere, as indicated above, does St. Isaac use the word theosis. It is apparently not part of his vocabulary. Neither does the Saint use the language of participation in his description of the highest levels of our human calling to know God and become like Christ. Nevertheless, the idea of theosis is found in St. Isaac’s writings. However, instead of the language of participation with God, St. Isaac prefers to speak of the acquisition of humility and being consumed by love. And this, then, has been the purpose of this presentation: to show through an introduction to St. Isaac’s three degrees of knowledge that he does speak of becoming sons of God by grace, albeit not using the technical language commonly used in the Greek patristic tradition.
And yet, to attempt to parse out St. Isaac’s teaching on any topic as though neat formulae can be deduced from his writings is to betray him. St. Isaac is a mystic and a poet, a man who speaks of the journey he himself has traveled and the mysteries he himself has known. Nonetheless, as an aid to our weakness, I have constructed an awkward schematic of his teaching on the progress of the Christian to Christlikeness. I have both introduced you to St. Isaac and misrepresented him to you. To know St. Isaac you must read him yourself—but not with the information-seeking mind of the first degree of knowledge, nor even with the rational mind of the second. St. Isaac lives as a saint in the heavenly reality and he himself must help us understand. We must come to him in a way that approaches the third degree of knowledge, humbled by our weakness and ignorance and pierced by love for every creature. Here St. Isaac himself teaches us not with words, but in silence, “the mystery of the age to come” (467).
We must also understand that although these three degrees of knowledge represent a kind of progression, they by no means represent distinct steps or states or experiences. Movement from the knowledge of the flesh to natural knowledge is not like crossing a line: it is not as though one moment you are on one side of the line and the next moment you are on the other side. Rather, the progression that St. Isaac seem to be envisioning is more like a sunrise. The light of a higher knowledge begins to dawn even while we are still surrounded by the darkness of a baser perception of reality.
And even as the light of a higher knowledge shines with noonday brightness, still there are shadows, still there are animal appetites and broken memories and demonic arrows that assail us, sometimes, it seems, like the constant dripping of a rainy day. Throughout his homilies, St. Isaac warns us never to think we have arrived. The greatest ascetics fall, how much more must we then be aware of our own shadows. But even a fall, even a great fall is not the end. St. Isaac tells us that a great fall, if we confess our sin, then even this can be the beginning of a new humility, a new knowledge of the mystery of God’s love.
And so, to sum up using the words of St. Isaac: “The carnal man fears [death] as a beast fears slaughter; the rational man fears the judgement of God; but the man who has become a son is adorned by love and is not caught by the rod of fear” (438). Or to quote one of St. Isaac’s many allegories:
As it is not possible to cross over the great ocean without a ship, so no one can attain to love without fear. This fetid sea, which lies between us and the noetic paradise, we can cross with the boat of repentance, whose oarsmen are those of fear. But if the oarsmen of fear do not pilot this barque of repentance wherewith we cross over the sea of this world to God, we shall be drowned in the fetid sea. Repentance is the ship, and fear is the pilot; love is the divine haven. Thus fear sets us in the ship of repentance, transports us over the foul sea of this life (that is, of the world), and guides us to the divine port, which is love (359).