February 4, 2023

Saint Isidore of Pelusium, the Philosophical Ascetic of the Church

 By Lambros Skontzos

Egypt was the cradle of monasticism in early Christian times. Great ascetic figures brightened Egyptian monasticism. One of them was Saint Isidore of Pelusium. A truly great personality of Orthodox monasticism, who perfectly combined in his person asceticism and theology.

He came from lower Egypt. He was born in 350 near Mount Pelusium and therefore received the nickname Pelusiumite, which was located at the northeastern end of the Nile Delta. His parents were virtuous, faithful and noble, and raised him in piety. Having the financial ability, they gave him a great education. He learned his first letters in his hometown. Then, around 370, he went to Alexandria, where he studied at the famous philosophical schools there. He studied Theology at the famous Catechetical School of Alexandria, where his teacher was the great ecclesiastical theologian and teacher Didymus the Blind. He studied ancient Greek literature and studied the Holy Bible and the Fathers of the Church in depth. He was a particular admirer of Saint John Chrysostom (354-407) and a scholar of his works. He even supported him during his dispute with Patriarch Theophilus (+ 412) and worked for his restoration in Alexandria.

A milestone in his life was his meeting with Athanasius the Great (298-373), by whom he was ordained a deacon. On entering the holy priesthood he displayed unusual zeal and piety. In fact, in his priestly ministry he used his philosophical knowledge, so that he distinguished himself as a great thinker, but also a man of virtue and deep faith in God. Having the Righteous Forerunner as his model, he worked actively, leading multitudes of people to salvation. When he was ordained a presbyter, he returned to Pelusium, where he developed an enormous pastoral work and at the same time emerged as a great spiritual personality, distinguished by holiness.

Around 400 he decided to retire to a monastery in the area, where he submitted to a holy elder and began his personal struggle for purification and sanctification. He prayed incessantly and studied the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers and ancient Greek philosophy, so that he acquired a great reputation as the great and mature father, to whom many people ran to benefit and be spiritually edified. To the numerous visitors he offered, in addition to spiritual food, Abrahamic hospitality, ministering to them himself.

But, with his personal purification and struggle against his passions, he became a model ascetic for a large number of monks in the surrounding area. He became their supervisor, instructing and supporting them. But for more quiet he withdrew deeper into the desert, for more quiet, prayer, asceticism and study. But he did not abandon his visitors. He communicated with them by letters. More than two thousand of them have been saved, in which his high spirituality, his philosophical and poetic acumen and his incomparable way of persuading their recipients of God's love and mercy, are imprinted. In fact, his stylus is nowadays the object of study by philologists, for its beauty.

Many of his letters have a rebuking content, through which he severely checked those who committed serious errors, with a view to correcting them. Characteristic examples are his rebuking letters to the Bishop of Pelusium Eusebius, to the Patriarch of Alexandria Theophilus and to the Emperor Theodosius II (408-450), to whom he pointed out their errors and called them to repentance and correction. He considered repentance as the highest virtue.

Isidore censured with particular severity the actions of wicked clerics. He denounced simony, avarice and immorality among the clergy, which tarnished the image of the Church in the eyes of non-Christians. He went against candidate Bishops, who tried to withdraw by dishonest means. He considered the Priesthood a great ministry, in which lower passions do not fit and that the priest must be an example of a holy life.

In addition to letters, he also wrote wonderful theological treatises. In his work "Discourse to the Greeks" he defends the Church's teaching on Divine Providence, while in his work "That There Is No Such Thing As Fate" he proves the fragility of the fallacy of fatalism. It should be noted that the dying Greek philosophy at the time attempted to falsify the truth of the Church.

Isidore also displayed great anti-heretical works. In his letter "Letter on Divine Wisdom" he vehemently rebukes the heresy of Nestorius and other heretics. In a letter he had asked the emperor Theodosius II to participate in the Third Ecumenical Synod in Ephesus in 431. In his letter to Saint Cyril of Alexandria, who had opposed excessively the heretic Nestorius, he asked him to lower his tone, to let there be a dialogue and let the truth be revealed through it. According to him, our infallible guides are the Holy Bible and the God-bearing Fathers of the Church, who interpreted the hagiographic texts with humility and prayer. Instead, fallacy is the result of selfishness and self-importance.

In 437 the Lord called him to Him. He reposed peacefully, surrendering his sanctified soul to Him whom he had loved and served all his life. The Church proclaimed him a saint and his memory is celebrated on February 4.

Saint Isidore of Pelusium can also become our teacher in today's age, where faith in God is waning, impiety and immorality have reached an extreme point, and fallacies and cacodoxies tend to suffocate the saving truth of our Church. His rebuking texts against the evil and Simonian clergy of his time can also illustrate the contemporary phenomena of decline, moral rot and relaxation of the orthodox confessional opinion of today's clergy.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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