There is a wisdom found in ancient spiritual texts that is timeless. These works are at once an expression of their own era as well as a source of insight into the experiences of the present. As more of these writings are unearthed and explored anew, contemporary spiritual seekers are aided in their quest for the Sacred in their lives. For example, when Andrew D. Mayes revisits the words of seventh-century saint Isaac in Diving for Pearls: Exploring the Depths of Prayer with Isaac the Syrian, he gives readers the gift of profound spiritual revelations.
Mayes, an Episcopal priest, a teacher, and a spiritual advisor, has written many books on spirituality, including the award-winning Learning the Language of the Soul: A Spiritual Lexicon. His newest book, Diving for Pearls, takes readers on a journey that is theologically grounded while also approachable. Each quote from Isaac the Syrian is carefully and seamlessly placed within Mayes’s own prose and that of other experts on his topics.
In Mayes’s book, Isaac’s beautiful, sometimes poetic passages are held together by recurring ocean themes. Mayes reenforces this motif with the book’s structure. Each of the eight sections follows the “dive for pearls” beginning with “Becoming Explorers” and concluding with “Homecoming.” At the end of each section are resources, questions for reflection, and prayer exercises. There are also appendices providing resources and additional materials including a retreat day outline. Retreat facilitators, spiritual directors, teachers, and seekers themselves will all find this text helpful when guiding others and themselves toward spiritual progress.
Along with modes of spiritual understanding Isaac holds in common with, as Mayes and others call it, the Western church, Isaac also reflects powerful beliefs more prevalent in the Eastern church. One striking example is the message that wisdom is acquired not from thinking to comprehending, and then to feeling, but rather the reverse. He writes that wisdom “will not come from the place where it is expected, nor through observation.… But within the hidden form of the intellect it is revealed without cause and without meditation upon it” (75). There is an understanding displayed here through which spiritual seekers can approach the polarization within the current crises.
It is common for many to look for answers through the intellect first, asking themselves how they can fix what they see as the problem. Perhaps it would be more helpful to lead not with the head, but with the heart, because it is there that one finds the divine wisdom that springs forth from love.
Diving for Pearls: Exploring the Depths of Prayer with Isaac the Syrian
by Andrew D. Mayes
Cistercian Publications, 2021
Monique CM Keffer, MA
is a writer, spiritual director, supervisor, and speaker, trained at Sacred Ground in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA.