The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, Revised Second Edition

I have mentioned before the works of Saint Isaac the Syrian, with a special focus on those appearing in English, and in particular the first edition of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery publication of Dana Miller’s translation, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. The first edition was long out of print, with copies going for sometimes over a thousand US dollars on the used book circuit. Good news! Holy Transfiguraton Monastery has published a new edition of The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, available from the monastery’s online store or a visit in person to the monastery bookstore. I’d like to describe here the differences between the two editions.

First is the matter of size! The first edition was 10.5 inches high, 8.25 inches wide, and 2.5 inches thick. The cover was a beautfiful burgundy, gold-embossed leather over boards. The paper is Warren Old Style seventy pound paper, quite thick. The font is eleven point Century. My copy, which I obtained used, was, one might say, “well-loved.” Had the pages been of thinner stock, I expect many of them would have been torn or worn through. It was obviously much used, occasionally over breakfast, it would seem…. This first edition has the overall impression of something like a lectern Bible, a big, solid, large dictionary-sized tome, rather uncomfortably sized for easy personal reading.

The new edition is quite a bit smaller: 9.75 inches high, 6 1/8 inches wide, and only 1.75 inches thick. The cover is a green cloth, again gold-embossed. The paper is Mohawk Via Laid, a sixty pound paper. The font is Monotype Fournier, with the size unspecified, but slightly smaller than the eleven point Century of the first edition. The readability is not affected however. The paper is lighter than the first edition, and readability is actually thus slightly improved, despite the slightly smaller font. Importantly, the smaller font, thinner paper and the less generous margins make for a more manageable volume, more the size of a standard trade hardcover than an unwieldy dictionary.

Both editions, in their different ways, are exemplars of the consistently high quality of HTM publications, with fine paper, excellent binding, and two-color printing: rubrics throughout both volumes are actually in red.

Aside from the striking difference in size, more striking is the difference content. Here is an explanation of the contents of the present edition from the Translator’s Introduction (pages 104-105):

In the Introduction to the first edition, we wrote on page cii, ‘For many years we have desired to see and English translation of Saint Isaac’s Ascetical Homilies that might be employed by Orthodox monastics and laymenn.’ With this second edition we attempt to fulfill that desire.

In preparing the first edition we confronted a multitude of points — textual, historical, and theological — on which it was necessary to be satisfied, and we felt it to the reader’s benefit to document many of the answers that we found, either in footnotes, or in the Introduction, Appendices, or Epilogue. The result was a hefty tome well received in academic circles, to whom in format and approach it was geared more than to the monastic or layman seeking guidance in repentance, prayer, and the love of God. One pious friend told us that he trusts the monastery’s translations and felt no need for the constant distraction of footnotes discussing differences in the text; that they would be appropriate for someone studying Greek or Syriac, but not for a devotional book. And a devotional book is what we aim at now.

Thus, we have reduced the amount of footnotes by almost two-thirds. We tallied 1,231 footnotes to the homilies of the first edition. [note 121: Including the Introduction, Appendices, and Epilogue yields 1,628. Chialà’s 406-page work on St. Isaac, which is a straightforward scholarly study, has 1,598 footnotes. Compare with the 1,231 footnotes in our first edition, the three footnotes to the 97 pages of St. Isaac’s writings translated by Kadloubovsky and Palmer in Early Fathers from the Philokalia; for a book of 415 pages, they used 45 footnotes.] Of these, some 350 were simple scriptural references, leaving almost 900 footnotes of explanation. We have reduced the explanatory footnotes to under 300, and have placed the scriptural references in the margin. The great majority of footnotes eliminated were those that gave variant readings; footnotes that helped comprehension of the text were not only retained, but added to.

We have also elminated Appendices B and D [note 122: Appendix B contained A Selection from the Book of Grace by Symeon d-Taibutha and An Epistle to Abba Symeon of Caesarea; Appendix D, two homilies by Mar John the Solitary.] which contained texts not by Saint Isaac, and the Epilogue on the History of the Church of Persia; and we have added a Glossary, in Appendix C, of various terms used by Saint Isaac, in a special sense and requiring some explanation.

This edition differs from the first in two other points. First, we have translated from Bedjan’s Syriac printed text two short homilies not included in the first edition, which can be found in Appendix A as Homilies I and III. We have also added some passages that following the Greek were omitted, and expanded various passages that following the Greek were abbreviated, so that we are aware of no significant passage in the Syriac not represented here. Though this edition is shorter than the first overall, it contains more Abba Isaac.

Second, besides correcting a handful of outright mistranslations, we have revised the text here and there. Saint Isaac requires enough effort on the reader’s part as it is, and in places the translation itself made the going rougher than necessary. Wherever we found we could make the meaning easier to grasp without misrepresenting or simplifying the original, we did so. In some homilies onl a clause or two was changed; in others, stretches of text were reworked. In all cases we strove for greater clarity and stricter fidelity to the original. Usually the two went hand in hand, when bringing our translation closer to the original also made it easier to understand; in fact it was not infrequent that the Greek and Syriac agreed even in the details of syntax, and simply by following both more faithfully, the English became clearer. All the same, the hardy of heart who like a challenge will still find it here. Except in the case of obvious typographical errors, no revision or correction was made without consulting the originals.

From the above account, it will be seen that this is truly a new edition, one that is better tailored to the needs of devotional readers, while still maintaining an accuracy exemplary of scholarly integrity. A reader would benefit from both editions, of course, if such scholarly details as variant readings are needed. In such a case, however, I would myself expect a reader concerned with such detail to be working from the originals instead, rather than via translation.

This is a very welcome edition, well worth the wait. I know that it’s popular here amongst the students of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Several of us have walked over to the monastery to pick up copies from the bookstore. We’re all thankful for their continued work at publishing such consistently excellent publications of such superior material quality. I hope other readers will obtain copies and come to appreciate and benefit from the writings of Saint Isaac as well!


  1. At the risk of comparing apples to oranges, for a practitioner of contemplative prayer how would you compare the content of St. Isaac’s homilies to the Philokalia? What are the strengths/weaknesses of each?

    1. That’s a good question, Chris. Both are excellent on that very topic, though the Philokalia is more narrowly focused on prayer of the heart than St Isaac is. He writes of various topics of the ascetic life, one of which is prayer of the heart. I think my answer of a preference would come down to being based more in the realms of compilation and translation. The Philokalia is a compilation, so it is not consistent in style or level. Some texts are very difficult, while some are simpler and clearer. Also, the translation was a group effort, and not entirely consistent in the rendering of several important terms in Orthodox theology, nous, for one. (See “A Study of English Orthodox Theological Terms Compared to the Original Greek” here.) The Saint Isaac editions, however, are excellent, and consistent in their rendering, with annotation providing information in any cases of variation. They were also accomplished by individuals, rather than groups, so that the translation style is more consistent, in this case consistently excellent. Also, the St Isaac edition win in the quality of the books themselves. Both editions are beautiful. This cannot be said of the Philokalia, even of its exceedingly rare hardcover first editions. Also, the English Philokalia translation that is the most complete is as yet incomplete, covering 4 of the 5 Greek volumes. There are two volumes of excerpts by Cavarnos that provide a better translation of the Philokalia, including the introduction to the work written by St Nikodemos, and a few of the short introductions to the Saints’ writings, also not translated in the Faber & Faber editions. In the end, the St Isaac editions win hands down. The quality production of the HTM St Isaac editions is demonstrative of their care for the writings of the Saint, and a way of reverencing him. I hope that makes sense! It’s not just that they’re beautiful books, but they’re beautiful for the reason that they’ve been lavished with the care that’s proper for such a work. I don’t find that same concern demonstrated by the Faber & Faber Philokalia. It’s not strictly a translation of the Greek Philokalia, but another edition of it, one that is partly stripped of important elements of the original. But it’s what we’ve got in English, so that’s what most people use. The Cavarnos translations are actually even more readable, and more stable theologically because of the care and consistency of Cavarnos’ translation methodology. Those are available here. I hope this helps!

      1. That helps a lot, actually. What about audience, though? The Philokalia is a set of texts by monastics for monastics, and, as you say, some of the material is rather dense and of such opacity that a layman’s attempt at understanding will ricochet rather than penetrate. Is this the case with St. Isaac’s homilies as well? Or should the fact that these are ‘homilies’ immediately suggest that this is material for layman and monastic alike?

        1. Well, St Isaac’s homilies are not actually quite homilies. The collection bears that title, but the individual chapters are a variety of short writings. Some are letters, as they include addressees and such. Others may have been short oral deliveries, but there’s no description of context. They’re definitely, explicitly, designed for monks, though. So they’re similar to the Philokalia in that regard. While both collections are intended primarily for monks and for the monastic life, however, this doesn’t mean that neither is useful for life in the world, as you’re aware. St Isaac is perhaps the more striking for a deep understanding of human psychology that he displays. Or maybe it’s just because we have so much from him in one collection (there is also a second large collection preserved in Syriac, which is yet to be fully translated into English; there are complete translations in Italian and French, but the original Syriac text has not yet been published). And I may be mistaken, but I seem to recall that St Nikodemos mentions in his introduction to the Philokalia its value not just for monks but for those in the world. (The first volume of the Cavarnos translations includes St Nikodemos’ introduction.) Interesting questions!

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