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22.10.17 Mayes, Diving for Pearls

22.10.17 Mayes, Diving for Pearls

Andrew D. Mayes’ Diving for Pearls is an engaging and informative introduction to the rich meditations of Isaac the Syrian, more properly known as Isaac of Nineveh, a seventh-century theologian and monastic of great importance in Eastern Christian spiritual thought. Mayes’ ideas emerge from a heartfelt engagement with Isaac’s writings, supported with key research. It is not, however, a scholarly monograph or academic volume and is thus a bit of an outlier compared to the kinds of things typically covered here in The Medieval Review. I do think scholarly and academic readers can benefit from this book, as I will explain below, but it is also true that they are not the primary intended audience. Diving for Pearls has much to offer, but only if readers approach it for what it is, rather than what it is not.

Mayes writes that his work looks “to inspire preachers and teachers on prayer,” to “stimulate and provide resources for spiritual directors and retreat-givers,” and to introduce “seekers” to Isaac of Nineveh’s writings (x). To this end, each chapter ends with questions for reflection along with prayer exercises. The book concludes with two appendices, the second of which outlines a suggested schedule for organizing a spiritual retreat around the book. The bibliography (totaling just under four pages) contains primary sources for all three parts of Isaac’s work, primary sources for “other spiritual writers” (161) referenced throughout Mayes’ volume, and an array of secondary sources.

I cover the bibliography in some detail because it provides a helpful snapshot of the scope and intentions of the book: while it includes the most important and relevant scholarly sources for studying Isaac, it also includes a surprising range of secondary sources which Mayes uses to connect Isaac to contemporary spirituality. For example, the bibliography includes the work of Sebastian Brock, a leading scholar on early Syriac Christian writing who, among other achievements, rediscovered and then translated the manuscript of part two of Isaac’s work. Brock’s Spirituality in the Syriac Tradition (St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, 1989) would be essential to cite in any scholarly book on Isaac and other Syriac writers. (For what it is worth, Mayes notes that Diving for Pearls was “written with the personal encouragement” of Brock (xii).) The bibliography also includes modern spiritual and religious writers, ranging from Thomas Merton to some less obvious choices (less obvious, that is, to the typical scholarly reader), such as What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology by Brian Wren (SCM, 1989).

The main strength of this volume is its timeliness. In the preface and introduction, Mayes recounts the remarkable story of how parts two and three of Isaac of Nineveh’s works were recovered. For anyone who has not yet read this story, the introduction of Diving for Pearls will be a treat. It includes the history of the remarkable survival of part two through warfare and upheaval, culminating in a previously unpublished account from Sebastian Brock about the serendipitous discovery of MS. syr.e.7 in the Bodleian Library (9-10). And it also includes the equally remarkable story of part three, winding its way from a “Jewish antiquarian bookshop in Teheran” to Italian and then English translations (10-11). Brock’s English translation of part two was published in 1995, and Mary T. Hansbury’s English translation of part three in 2016. In comparison with part one, which has been accessible for centuries, parts two and three are relatively new, and their English translations even newer. Thus, as Mayes notes, “[w]hile scholarly articles and theses have been published, no work in English explores the implications for spirituality and the contemporary life of prayer from Isaac’s Parts Two and Three” (xi).

An additional strength of Diving for Pearls lies in Mayes’ skillful rendering of complex spiritual concepts into clear and accessible language. A reader would not need to bring prior knowledge of early Christianity, Syriac spiritual traditions, or theology in order to appreciate the book. In the preface, Mayes notes that English translations of Isaac’s writings are “expensive scholarly works, with detailed annotations” and thus not readily accessible to non-specialists. While academics might be accustomed to paying $40-$50 for scholarly translations (which is the price range of the part two and three translations on Amazon at the time of this review), someone looking to encounter Isaac’s writings for personal and spiritual benefit may well consider that prohibitively expensive. Mayes’ goal is, therefore, “is to make such precious translations accessible to the spiritual seeker--to allow Isaac here to speak for himself” (xi).

Mayes structures the book following one of the metaphors central to Isaac of Nineveh’s thought: the diver in search of precious pearls. The metaphor emerges partly from the well-known Gospel parable of the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46), but it also emerges from Isaac’s personal history growing up on the coasts near present-day Qatar and Bahrain. Like a pearl diver, Isaac believes that someone truly engaging in the practice of prayer must be prepared to leave the comfort of shore, navigate currents and waves, and take risks in the depths in order to find true treasures on the calm of the ocean floor.

As Mayes explains, the metaphor of diving for pearls leads Isaac to some conclusions which will likely be striking to readers more generally accustomed to Western models of spirituality (although readers experienced with Eastern Orthodox thought and apophatic spirituality will find them very familiar). Isaac encourages a “spirituality of descent,” which is different than the Western emphasis on ascent. Mayes notes, that the “model of descent, rather, leads us toward surrendering, sinking into God, letting go, unlearning,” and it “seems to require a certain relinquishment of control, a releasing of our grip on securities” (65). This spirituality of descent is intimately related to the apophatic tradition in Christian thought, sometimes called the via negativa, which emphasizes the unknown and unknowable and which seeks the “place of deepest silence in the ocean of God’s love, where an unspeakable perception of God’s mysteries is characterized by an amazement beyond words” (77).

Isaac of Nineveh’s meditations include other surprises for newcomers to his works. As Mayes explains, Isaac’s understanding of the life of prayer also led him to a belief in universalism, or apocatastasis: “Why would God create people only to have them condemned forever? God’s foreknowledge of human proclivities must exclude the imposition of eternal punishment, which, says Isaac, is totally incompatible with the God of love” (119).

In addition, Isaac of Nineveh’s advice on the wanderings of the mind will sound familiar to anyone who has explored present-day principles of meditation or mindfulness. Isaac explains that “there is a good kind of wandering and a bad kind of wandering. When you are in prayer, do not seek to be entirely free of mental wandering, which is impossible, but seek to wander following something that is good” (part two, chapter XV, paragraphs 3-5, qtd. on p. 90). Mayes cites (without fully embracing or rejecting) Hilarion Alfeyev’s warning that Isaac’s ideas must not be understood as the equivalent of a Buddhist state of Nirvana (102). Nevertheless, Mayes concludes that “such silence is indispensable,” no matter how one construes Isaac’s advice on “wandering” in relation to other systems of spirituality (102).

While I cannot say that all the connections Mayes makes throughout this book to contemporary writers and perspectives resonated for me as a reader (either in a personal sense as a practicing Eastern Orthodox Christian or in an academic sense), the range of his research does represent a sensitive approach to Isaac’s ideas and to the hopes and possibilities offered by a richer life of prayer.

As I mentioned in the opening of this review, Diving for Pearls is neither a scholarly nor academic volume, but that does not mean it has nothing to offer scholarly or academic readers. The reflection questions and prayer exercises can easily be skipped. What remains is an encouraging introduction to Isaac of Nineveh’s thought, rich with provocative passages from the relatively new English translations of parts two and three, all accompanied by Mayes’ lucid explanations and helpful contextualization. Mayes does indeed succeed in taking us on a guided dive with Isaac of Nineveh.