Isaac the Syrian vs. Mechtild of Magdeburg

Why is this day unique in the annals of Lent Madness 2017? It is the ONLY non-weekday battle of the season. Yes, we're amazing at math. Thus the first Saturday of every season includes the one and only weekend battle of Lent Madness (trust us - we've done the math).

Yesterday Henry Beard Delany romped to a first round victory over Aelred of Rievaulx 78%  to 22%. He'll go on to face the winner of Anselm of Canterbury vs. Florence Nightingale in the Saintly Sixteen.

Enjoy your Sunday devotions on the First Sunday in Lent (make sure to tell everybody at coffee hour just how much you love Lent Madness) and we'll get back to voting first thing Monday Morning as John Wycliffe takes on Moses the Black!

Isaac the Syrian

Isaac the Syrian, also know as Isaac of Nineveh, was born around 630 in eastern Arabia. At a young age he entered a monastery, where he dedicated himself to asceticism—a practice of withdrawing from the world in order to build a deeper spiritual life. Having spent countless hours studying in the monastery’s library, he became a renowned theologian.

After spending years as a monk, Isaac was consecrated Bishop of Nineveh, but he didn’t enjoy his new office and abdicated five months later. He then relocated to the wilderness of Mount Matout, where he lived as a hermit in solitude for many years. It is said that he ate only three loaves of bread and some uncooked vegetables each week. Old and blind, he eventually retired to the Assyrian monastery of Shabar in Mesopotamia, where he died and was buried.

Isaac was a prolific writer whose sermons about the inner spiritual life and the work of the Holy Spirit are considered key to understanding asceticism in the early church. His manuscripts in Syrian Arabic have survived for many centuries in Greek, Arabic, and Russian translations. His teachings about God’s providence, faith, prayer, obedience, and neighborly love have inspired generations of Christians and continue to be translated and published in many languages.

Because he avoided weighing in on the theological debates of his day, he is venerated and appreciated in many different Christian traditions, including the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the (non-Chalcedonian) Oriental churches. His feast is celebrated on January 28.

Collect for Isaac the Syrian
God of unsearchable wisdom, we thank you for the spirited life of our brother Isaac the Syrian, who wrote and prayed in companionship with you alone. Help us, like Isaac, relentlessly seek your wisdom and adore your face as you show it to us in the faces of our neighbors, family, friends, and all those who may be different from us. Amen.

-Hugo Olaiz

Mechtild of Magdeburg

Born to a wealthy Saxon family around 1210, Mechtild of Magdeburg received the first of the daily visions that would come to her for the rest of her life at the tender age of 12. She called these her divine “greetings” from the Holy Spirit.

Leaving her family in 1230 “in order to dwell in the love of God,” she joined a Beguine community in Magdeburg, Germany. These intentional communities of the faithful stressed imitation of Christ’s life through religious devotion, voluntary poverty, and care of the poor and sick.

Dwelling in community in Magdeburg for forty years, Mechtild received spiritual instruction from the Dominicans. Mechtild’s confessor, Heinrich von Halle, encouraged her to write down her spiritual experiences and visions. From about 1250 until 1270, she wrote six of her seven volumes series, Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of the Godhead).

Mechtild’s descriptions of her daily visions are filled with passion. Besides being written by a woman when most women were neither literate nor educated, Mechtild composed her work in middle-low German while most religious literature was being written in Latin.

Mechtild’s devotional poetry is reminiscent of both love poetry and folk songs. Her books offer an account of the ecstatic, passionate experience of personal daily greetings from the Holy Spirit, in addition to her courageous condemnation of vices practiced by the clergy of her day. Mechtild’s writings were distributed widely during her lifetime and brought her much criticism— but her work was also deeply admired by and influential for other medieval mystics. Her writings indicate that Mechtild’s life was complicated by serious illnesses. In approximately 1270, blind and living alone, she was taken in by the convent of Helfta near Eisleben for the final years of her life. While in this community, the nuns cared for her, and she dictated her seventh book.

The exact date of her death in the late 1200s is unknown. Around 1290, Dominican friars of the Halle community translated the first six of her books into Latin. The feast of Mechtild of Magdeburg is November 19.

Collect for Mechtild of Magdeburg
Almighty God, we praise you for your servant, Mechtild of Magdeburg, through whom you have called the church to its tasks and renewed its life. Raise up in our own day teachers and prophets inspired by your Spirit, whose voices will give strength to your church and proclaim the reality of your reign, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

-Beth Lewis

Isaac the Syrian vs. Mechtild of Magdeburg

  • Mechtild of Magdeburg (77%, 5,394 Votes)
  • Isaac the Syrian (23%, 1,570 Votes)

Total Voters: 6,964

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Isaac the Syrian—Unknown artist, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Mechtild of Magdeburg—Unknown Artist, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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252 comments on “Isaac the Syrian vs. Mechtild of Magdeburg”

  1. I voted for Mechtild because (I don't know why) she is a girl and was blind.

    1. Well Oliver- they were both blind- but it's nice you didn't exclude her because she was a girl-but instead you liked the diversity. I voted for her too- and I also don't know why- I didn't like either choice- just like November for me.

    2. Not to be too picky, Oliver, and I'm glad to see you back, but weren't you 9 last year?
      I also voted for Mechtild.

  2. Good reasons Oliver - I liked her because she was a girl, but I am also a girl and that might have had something to do with my decision. Good to have you back!

    1. My favorite thing about Mechtild (and possibly the reason she's not Saint Mechtild) is that she referred to local clergy at one point as pigs feeding at the trough. Read Enduring Grace by Carol Lee Flinders for a good description of her (and six other incredible churchwomen)

      1. I liked Mechtild also. I loved the "pigs feeding at the trough" comment -- Go Girl!

    2. I voted for Mechtild because I felt sorry for her being blind and having a name like Mechtild. It sounds like someone clearing their throat. I also like her comment about clergy - being one, I know how true it can be.

      1. Well, being handicapped should not be a reason. My husband and I are both deaf, live products give lives, pay our taxes, have 3 kids (all can hear), five grandchildren and now a baby greatgrand....and I am a priest too...so I don't see handicaps or ordination as being inherently worthy of pity parties.

        1. One must look at these persons as a reflection of their times as well as their faith. In her era Mechtild would have been extraordinary in that she was literate; and generally put aside as she aged and became vision challenged. That the order revered her and gave her place and later a scribe for her last work is a reflection of her outward expression of her great inner faith.

        2. But Isaac the Syrian was also blind- so the disability shouldn't give anyone the advantage. I have 2 deaf sons. I never cut anyone any slack - they can still do chores and help like everyone else- they are adults now and independent- One of my deaf sons has 2 children. But neither of them are saints!!

    1. I agree. This may have been the most difficult choice for me in all the voting I've done over the past years. They both did so much for the contemplative life. Thank God for both of these saints.

  3. Another easy one for me. I voted for the activist over the Ascetic. Especially this year, this is no time to withdraw to contemplate. We must demonstrate Christ to authorities of fear.

    1. Interesting. I voted for her too but it seem like they both withdrew and lived contemplative lives.

    2. I agree wholeheartedly. While there is an important place for both, it is vital to lead by word, action and example, particularly now. Thank you for voicing so succinctly what I was thinking.

    3. I so agree! She shows a deeply spiritual life ought to be connected to service in the world.

    4. My wife is a deacon and is very active in immigration issues. As a result of her efforts (along with many other people), our community (Oak Park, IL) has declared itself a Sanctuary City. Yet she would be the first to say that activists need contemplatives. Those who withdraw from the world, by their prayers, give those engaged in the world the power to stand up to injustice and to effect change. God works through all his children in each way that he has called them.

      1. Lovely comment. Thank you. I have a soft spot for ascetics because I just can't imagine being one. Yet the wisdom they acquire from that intense one on one with God is so valuable for the rest of us. I voted for Isaac the Syrian also because he had the courage and conviction to abdicate his bishopric. What a wrenching decision it must have been. I'll remember him the next time I face one of those decisions. And... the Syrians need a champion right now.

          1. It was hard to choose. I'm all for action vs contemplation. I was drawn to Isaac because his writing has stood the test of time inspiring faith and brotherly love. It's all about love.

      2. Harlie, wish that many more cities would become Sanctuaries. Here in Tx. they're trying to get ride of any and stop the institution of others. I don't feel That is what God would be wanting from us.

    5. I agree with Lee. I am amazed that she wasn't shunned for criticizing the Priests, especially coming from a female. It's hard to imagine that there was lieniency in exposing the vices of clergy. I would have expected her to have been burned at the stake.

      1. She is about the same time as Hildegard of bingen wasn't she. I think there were a few really strong mystics in that timeframe and maybe a little earlier. I picked her because women mystics just win for me. Although Isaac could well have one if against someone else. Will have to look up their work!

    6. I also voted against the ascetic. Too many of them were anti-woman in their writings, though I don't know that Isaac was. Anyway, between a possible anti-woman ascetic and a woman who lived in community for 40 years, I chose the latter.

  4. Tough vote as both had strange history hard to relate to for me. Voted for the Syrian just because he was Syrian although I know the area of Germany where Mechtild is from - Also her name impossible to pronounce

    1. I had the same thought. With all the demonization of Syrians and middle easterners in general lately, we need to be reminded of the profound spiritual heritage of the middle east.

      1. I agree. I voted for Isaac because he was Syrian. Syria once had many Christians a one time. His writings must have touched many lives

  5. Mechtild of Magdeburg cared for the poor and sick which is why I voted for her.

    1. I voted for Mechtild for the same reason: she was a caregiver in addition to being a writer. I also like the idea of the Beguines--women living and working together to help others!

  6. I really have to vote for Mechtild because she railed against abuses by clergy, she wrote in German so the ordinary people could read, because I am partial to the German people and language and because she had those wonderful visits from the Holy Spirit.

    1. What a wonderful well-balanced Christian and an amazing woman in her time (anytime, also).

  7. Hard to decide, but as a woman I opted to vote for Mechtild. Now I want to read their work - hope I can find good examples of writing from both these intriguing saints.

  8. Isaac the Syrian has always fascinated me. I find his story and work compelling. And we have a monastery named for him close by. The monks are involved in creating Icons of great beauty and meaning.

  9. Both writers, sharing their relationship with God in their own language. Following God's call, challenging traditional expectations to be unique, they each expressed diverse facets of creation.

    This is a rough choice. shall have to withhold my vote till later.

    Maybe it's the uniqueness of voting on a weekend that has me unable to choose.

  10. Isaac, I liked the part in the prayer: seeking his wisdom in the faces of our neighbors, family, friends, and those who may be different from us!

    1. There is something about Isaac that really appealed to me. He doesn't sound like the regular ascetic, if there is such a thing. He sounds very genuine, not to say the others don't. So, it looks as if I'm on to my third loser!

    2. I have been on the short side of the voting, too, but there are no losers in Lent Madness. Meeting or getting better acquainted with each contender adds light to my life.

    3. Rev. Eric - I've done the same thing! Ive even known they would lose, but I just voted as I felt was best. Glad to see im not the only one! It'll be interesting to see how long the streak lasts ...
      I chose Isaac because I really admire his spiritual strength. It resonates with me. I also agree with the comments about the current situation in Syria. The people there can use a hero and our prayers.

  11. I voted for Isaac because he seems to have been a major influence in the Eastern Christian Churches - and in Lent Madness we don't normallly pay much attention to Eastern Christianity. These churches are vitally inportant to Christianity overall and I think we're short-sighted when we overlook them.

  12. Isaac was born and grew up in an area of the world where Islam was just beginning. In trying to navigate that reality gave him an opportunity to experience three different monotheistic traditions and he probably found truth existed in all three. It was also a time that a lot of Christendom had conflicts about some of the realities of their faith. That he maintained his devotion to Christ with such competing ideologies and theologies (even though there are similarities between them) meant he had to find the path that would draw him closer to God. While Asceticism is not for everyone, Isaac gave the world a different way of thinking about relationship with God. Mechtild found her path through the mystic tradition, which led her to serve others and to stand against abuses and bad actors within the hierarchy of the church. While we think of the Reformation as beginning with the 95 theses of Martin Luther, there are earlier examples of people who were willing to question their faith. Both means of drawing closer to God and seeking truth have merit and that makes this a tougher decision that it would first appear to be.

    1. Thanks, Sharon, for that additional info and insights. One of the reasons I read comments before voting is that you all help inform my decision.

    2. Sharon, thank you for sharing your insight with us. This is a new experience for me. It makes you want to learn more doesn't it?

  13. Mechtild because she wrote in the language the people she wanted to reach could understand

  14. Being legally blind in one eye, I can identify with both as to how that effects life in general, I had difficulty deciding, both of these saints were for building up the body of Christ , Finally I chose Isaac because he chose
    to commune with God alone where he could hear the small voice. Sometimes we just need to be apart from the rest of the human din.

  15. I voted for Mechtild because she dared to point out the vices of the clergy and presented her love of the Holy Spirit in a language that made learning more available to the people.

    1. Those were the two reasons why Mechtild got my vote too. However it was a difficult choice today!

      1. The question of the day. Though while Isaac is a Syrian Eastern Christian, I think Maechtid of Magdeburg wasn't a Protestant Christian since she was born about 407 years to early. More likely she was a Roman Catholic Christian, making the question SEC or RCC.

        My 2¢.

  16. I voted for Isaac, although I can see he's already losing. Contemplatives don't do well, generally, in Lent Madness competitions. But I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Isaac, because he believed in Universal Salvation and taught that no one is excluded from the love of Christ.
    To quote him: "What is a merciful heart? It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for men and women, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures. "
    Not even the demons are beyond love. Go, Isaac!

    1. I voted for Isaac, too.. in general, I lean toward mystics and direct revelation. This vote was for his avoiding the theological debates of the time! Just to be clear, my choices often lose as well.

  17. St. Isaac is the man, and a major contributor to the Philokalia. I don't think he'll win the popularity contest but he gets my vote anyway.

  18. Just found this among poems by Mechtild of Magdeburg at poetseers.com and had to share:
    I cannot Dance

    I cannot dance, Lord, unless you lead me.
    If you want me to leap with abandon,
    You must intone the song.
    Then I shall leap into love,
    From love into knowledge,
    From knowledge into enjoyment,
    And from enjoyment beyond all human sensations.
    There I want to remain, yet want also to circle higher still.

    1. Although I had already decided to vote for Mechtild, This clinched it for me.

  19. I voted Mechtild because she wrote in her own language, a precursor to centuries later when Latin vs. local languages became a great debate.

  20. Mechtild's story is very appealing, but I voted for Isaac. I was amazed to learn in grad school that the early church had *three* strong centers, not just Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Christianity but Syriac as well, which didn't survive the perils of geopolitics as well as Constantinople and Rome. Few of its works have been translated into English and so have been mostly lost to the West. The resonance with the current tragic situation in Syria prompts me to lift up this saint of that war-torn land.

    Plus, I'm more of a theologian than a mystic. And I have to admire a man who was consecrated a bishop and then gave it up after three months to go back to a life of prayer.

  21. Oliver - I always wait to read your comments before I vote. 🙂 Today, I voted with you!

  22. I voted for Isaac of Nineveh because I am currently reading Sebastian Brock's excellent anthology of the Syriac Fathers' writings on prayer and the spiritual life. (The Sisters of the Love of God, a Carmelite-infused monastic order in the Church of England have also published numerous books by Syriac Fathers.)
    The Syriac Fathers like Isaac, provide a much more Semitic view of spirituality than the majority of the tradition and therefore probably a spirituality closer to Jesus and the Disciples.
    I also appreciate the fact that St Isaac was able to step back from a position of prestige and power to which he was ill suited.
    And in this age of controversy and divisiveness, we need to honor voices that uncompromisingly remain in the center, speaking truth in love.