Isaac of Nineveh

Eastern Orthodox saint

Isaac of Nineveh (c. 613 – c. 700), also known as Saint Isaac the Syrian, Abba Isaac, Isaac Syrus and Isaac of Qatar, was a 7th-century Syriac Christian bishop and theologian best remembered for his written works on Christian asceticism.

Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh's works are divided into the First Part, Second Part (discovered in 1983), Third Part (discovered in the 21st century), and Fifth Part (discovered in the 21st century).

Quotes edit

  • What is a charitable heart? It is a heart which is burning with love for the whole creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts … for all creatures. He who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes being filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion which seizes his heart; a heart which is softened and can no longer bear to see or learn from others of any suffering, even the smallest pain being inflicted upon a creature. That is why such a man never ceases to pray for the animals … [He is] … moved by the infinite pity which reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming united with God.
    • Mystic Treatises, cited in Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (1976), p. 111; also cited and discussed in A. M. Allchin, The World is a Wedding (1978), p. 85. Quoted in Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (1994), p. 56.

First Part edit

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, second edition (2011), published by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, MA
  • In the measure that love for the flesh prevails in you, you can never become brave and dauntless, on account of the host of adversaries that constantly surround the object of your love.
    • Homily 1, p. 115

  • There is nothing so capable of banishing the inveterate habits of licentiousness from our soul, and of driving away those active memories which rebel in our flesh and produce a turbulent flame, as to immerse oneself in the fervent love of instruction, and to search closely into the depth of the insights of divine Scripture.
    • Homily 1, p. 115

  • If the heart is not occupied with study, it cannot endure the turbulence of the body's assault.
    • Homily 1, p. 116

  • But what need is there to speak of the ascetics, those strangers to the world, and of the anchorites, who made the desert a city and a dwelling-place and hostelry of angels? For the angels continually visited these men because their modes of life were so similar; and as being troops of a single Sovereign, at all times they kept company with their comrades-in-arms, that is to say, those who embraced the desert all the days of their life, and took up their abode in mountains and in dens and caves of the earth because of their love for God. And since, having abandoned things earthly, they loved the heavenly and were become imitators of the angels, rightly did those very same holy angels not conceal the sight of themselves from them, and they fulfilled their every wish.
    • Homily 5, p. 158

  • Moreover, from time to time they [the angels] appeared to them to teach them how they ought to lead their lives.
Sometimes they clarified certain perplexities for them;
or sometimes the saints themselves asked them for what was needed.
And sometimes they guided them when they had strayed along the way;
or sometimes they came to their rescue when they fell into temptations.
Sometimes they snatched them from unexpected mishap and peril that overtook them, such as a snake, or a ledge, or a splinter of wood, or a blow from a stone.
Or sometimes, when the enemy was openly waging war on the saints, they showed themselves visibly to their eyes and said that they were sent to their aid, and brought them confidence, daring, and refreshment by their words.
At other times they performed healings through them;
or at times they cured the saints themselves when they fell into certain ailments.
Sometimes, when their bodies succumbed from lack of food, with a touch of the hand, or with words, they fortified and strengthened them above nature;
or sometimes, they brought them food, loaves of bread (which were oftentimes even hot), and other things for their nourishment.
To some of them they foretold their departure;
and to others, the very manner of their departing.
  • Homily 5, pp. 158-9

  • The man whose tongue is inclined to silence will acquire a humble discipline in all his habits and will thus gain control over his passions without toil. The passions are uprooted and driven away by unceasing study of God and this is the sword that slays them. Just as the dolphin stirs and swims about when the visible sea is still and calm, so also, when the sea of the heart is tranquil and still from wrath and anger, mysteries and divine revelations are stirred in her at all times to delight her.
    • Homily 15, p. 204

  • O, how evil for hesychasts is the sight of men and intercourse with them! And in very truth, my brethren, association with those who have relaxed stillness is especially harmful.
For just as the sudden blast of ice, falling on the buds of the fruit-trees, nips and destroys them, so too, contacts with men, even though they be quite brief and (to all appearance) made for good purpose, wither the bloom of virtue — newly flowering in the temperate air of stillness — which covers with softness and delicacy the fruit-tree of the soul planted by the streams of the waters of repentance.
And just as the bitterness of the frost, seizing upon new shoots, consumes them, so too does conversation with men seize upon the root of a mind that has begun to sprout the tender blades of the virtues.
And if the talk of those who have controlled themselves in one particular, but who in another have minor faults, is apt to harm the soul, how much more will the chatter and sight of ignoramuses and fools (not to say of laymen)?
  • Homily 19, p. 220

  • If you wish to hold fast to stillness, become like the Cherubim, who take no thought for anything of this life, and consider that no one else exists in creation save you yourself and God Whom you heed, even as you have been taught by your fathers who lived before you.
    • Homily 21, p. 234

  • Abba Arsenius for God’s sake conversed with no one, neither for spiritual profit nor for any other reason. Another man for God’s sake spoke all the day long and received every stranger, but he, on the contrary, chose silence and stillness. For this cause he conversed with the Spirit of God in the midst of the sea of the present life and passed over it with sublime tranquillity in the ship of stillness, even as it was clearly revealed to certain ascetics who inquired of God concerning this. And this is the definition of stillness: silence to all things.
If in stillness you are found full of turbulence, and you disturb your body by the work of your hands and your soul with cares, then judge for yourself what sort of stillness you are practising, being concerned over many things in order to please God! For it is ridiculous for us to speak of achieving stillness if we do not abandon all things and separate ourselves from every care.
  • Homily 21, pp. 234-5

  • The sweetness of prayer is one thing, and the divine vision of prayer is another; and the second is more honorable than the first, as a mature man is more perfect than an immature child. Sometimes verses become sweet in a man’s mouth, and during prayer one verse is chanted numberless times and does not permit him to continue to the next, for he can find no satiety therein.
But sometimes a certain divine vision is born of prayer, and the prayer of a man’s lips is cut short, and stricken with awe by this vision he becomes as it were a body bereft of breath. This (and the like) we call the divine vision of prayer, and not, as fools affirm it to be, some image and form, or a representation of the imagination. And further, in the divine vision of prayer there exist measures and distinctions of gifts.
Till this point it is still prayer, for the mind has not yet passed to where there is no prayer: that state is above prayer. The movements of the tongue and the heart in prayer are keys; what comes after them, however, is the entrance into the treasury. Here let every mouth, every tongue become silent, and let the heart (the treasurer of the thoughts), and the mind (the ruler of the senses), and the reason (that swift-winged and most shameless bird), and their every device be still. Here let those who seek tarry, for the Master of the house has come.
  • Homily 23, pp. 238-9

  • On pure prayer: Even as the whole force of the laws and the commandments given by God to men terminate in the purity of the heart, according to the word of the Fathers, so all the modes and forms of prayer which men pray to God terminate in pure prayer. For sighs, prostrations, heartfelt supplications, sweet cries of lamentation, and all the other forms of prayer have, as I have said, their boundary and the extent of their domain in pure prayer. But once the mind crosses this boundary, from the purity of prayer even to that which is within, it no longer possesses prayer, or movement, or weeping, or dominion, or free will, or supplication, or desire, or fervent longing for things hoped for in this life or in the age to come. Therefore, there exists no prayer beyond pure prayer. Every movement and every form of prayer leads the mind this far by the authority of the free will; for this reason there is a struggle in prayer. But beyond this boundary there is awestruck wonder and not prayer. For what pertains to prayer has ceased, while a certain divine vision remains, and the mind does not pray a prayer.
  • Homily 23, p. 239

  • At this time (when we make our petitions and our supplications to God, and we speak with Him) a man forcefully gathers together all the movements and deliberations [of his soul] and converses with God alone, and his heart is abundantly filled with God. From this he begins to understand incomprehensible things, for the Holy Spirit moves in each man according to his measure, and taking material from that which a man prays, He moves within him, so that during prayer his prayer is bereaved of movement, and his mind is confounded and swallowed up in awestruck wonder, and forgets the very desire of its own entreaty. The mind’s movements are immersed in a profound drunkenness, and it is not in this world; at such a time there will be no distinction between soul and body, nor the remembrance of anything, even as the great and divine Gregory has said: ‘Prayer is the purity of the mind, and it is terminated only by the light of the Holy Trinity through awestruck wonder.’
Do you see how prayer is terminated through the astonishment of the understanding at that which is begotten of prayer in the mind, as I said at the beginning of this homily and in many other places?
And again the same Gregory writes: ‘Purity of mind is the lofty flight of the noetic faculties, which resembles the hue of the sky, and upon and through which the light of the Holy Trinity shines at the time of prayer.’
  • Homily 23, pp. 244-5

  • Therefore, as I have said, one must not call this gift and grace spiritual prayer, but the offspring of pure prayer which is engulfed by the Holy Spirit. At that moment the understanding is yonder, above prayer; and at the discovery of something better, prayer is abandoned. Then the understanding does not pray with prayer, but it gazes in ecstasy at incomprehensible things that lie beyond this mortal world, and it is silenced by its ignorance of all that is found there. This is the unknowing that has been called higher than knowledge. This is the unknowing concerning which it has been said. ‘Blessed is the man who has attained the unknowing that is inseparable from prayer,’ of which may we be deemed worthy by the grace of the only-begotten Son of God.
  • Homily 23, pp. 245

  • Fire that has flared up in dry wood is difficult to put out, and the flame of divine fervor that descends into the heart of him who has renounced the world will not be extinguished, and it is fiercer than fire.
  • Homily 48, p. 365

  • When a sailor voyages in the midst of the sea, he watches the stars, and in relation to them he guides his ship until he reaches harbor. But a monk watches prayer, because it sets him right and directs his course to that harbor toward which his discipline should lead. A monk gazes at prayer at all times, so that it might show him an island where he can anchor his ship and take on provisions; then once more he sets his course for another island. Such is the voyage of a monk in this life: he sails from one island to another, that is, from knowledge to knowledge, and by his successive change of islands, that is, of states of knowledge, he progresses until he emerges from the sea and his journey attains to that true city, whose inhabitants no longer engage in commerce but each rests upon his own riches. Blessed is the man who has not lost his course in this vain world, on this great sea. Blessed is the man whose ship has not broken up and who has reached harbor with joy!
A swimmer dives naked into the sea until he finds a pearl;
and a wise monk, stripped of everything, journeys through life until he finds in himself the Pearl, Jesus Christ; and when he finds Him, he does not seek to acquire anything else besides Him.
A pearl is kept in a vault,
and a solitary’s delight is preserved within stillness.
A virgin is harmed in gatherings and crowds of people,
and the mind of a monk in conversation with many men.
A bird, wherever it may be, hastens back to its nest, there to hatch its young;
and a monk possessing discernment hastens to his cell, there to produce the fruit of life.
A serpent guards its head when its body is being crushed,
and a wise solitary guards his faith at all times, for this is the origin of his life.
A cloud obscures the sun,
and much talk obscures the soul which has begun to be illuminated by the divine vision of prayer.
  • Homily 48, p. 366

  • As grass and fire cannot co-exist in one place,
so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul.
As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold,
so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy.
As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea,
so are the sins of all flesh in comparison with the mind of God.
And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obstructed by a handful of dust,
so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures.
As a man who sows in the sea and expects to reap a harvest,
so is he who remembers wrongs and prays.
As the flame of fire cannot be checked from rising upward,
so the prayers of the merciful are not hindered from ascending to Heaven.
The current of a stream runs swiftly in a narrow place,
and likewise the force of anger whenever it finds a place in our mind.
  • Homily 51, pp. 379-80

  • True is the word of the Lord which declares that no man possessing love for the world can acquire the love of God,
nor can any who has communion with the world have communion with God,
nor can any who has concern for the world have concern for God.
  • Homily 59, p. 428

  • Question Whence does a man perceive that he has attained to humility?
Answer From the fact that he regards it as odious to please the world either by his association with it or by word, and that the glory of this world is an abomination in his eyes.
  • Homily 62, p. 439

  • Life in the world is like a manuscript of writings that is still in rough draft. When a man wishes or desires to do so, he can add something or subtract from it, and make changes in the writings. But the life in the world to come is like documents written on clean scrolls and sealed with the royal seal, where no addition or deletion is possible. Therefore, so long as we are found in the midst of change, let us pay heed to ourselves; and while we have power over the manuscript of our life, which we have written by our own hand, let us strive earnestly to add to it by leading a good manner of life, and let us erase from it the failings of our former life. We have power to erase our debts from it as long as we are here. And God will take into account every change we make in it, so that we may be deemed worthy of eternal life before we go before the King and He sets His seal upon it. For so long as we are in this world, God does not affix His seal either to what is good or to what is evil, even up to the moment of our departure when the service of our fatherland is completed and we set out upon our journey.
    • Homily 62, p. 442

  • Once an elder was asked, ‘What is repentance?’
And he replied, ‘Repentance is a contrite and humble heart.’
‘And what is humility?’
‘It is a twofold voluntary death to all things.’
‘And what is a merciful heart?’
It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and at the recollection and sight of them, the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy that grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up prayers with tears continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles, because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.
  • Homily 71, p. 491

  • The whole length of the night is as the day to them, and the coming of darkness is as the rising of the sun by reason of that hope which exalts their hearts and inebriates them by its meditation.
    • Homily 75, p. 518

  • ... how they departed and hid themselves in mountains, caves, and in solitary, secluded places, because they saw that this discipline cannot be perfectly accomplished in the society of men on account of the many obstacles; and how these men became dead during their lives for the sake of the life that is in God, wandering in desert regions and amid rocky crags like men who have lost their way, and how the entire world is not comparable to the glory of any one of them.
Some of them dwelt on sheer and rugged crags, some at the foot of mountains or in deep gorges, some in dens and hollows of the earth, like men who burrow in the ground to lay snares for foxes, some in tombs, and some on the peaks of mountains. Some erected small hovels in the desert and therein passed the rest of their lives. And some built small stone enclosures on the summits of mountains, that is, small cells, and dwelt there as pleasurably as though they were in the palaces of kings. They had no concern for how they could find their livelihood, but only how each of them could please God and bring his struggle to completion in a beautiful way.
  • Homily 75, p. 519

Humility edit

  • Again he was asked, ‘How can a man acquire humility?’
And he said:
‘By unceasing remembrance of transgressions;
by expectation of approaching death;
by inexpensive clothing;
by always preferring the last place;
by always running to do the tasks that are the most insignificant and disdainful;
by not being disobedient;
by unceasing silence;
by dislike of gatherings;
by desiring to be unknown and of no account;
by never possessing anything at all through self-will;
by shunning conversation with numerous persons;
by having no love of material gain;
and after these things, by raising the mind above the reproach and accusation of every man and above zealotry;
by not being one whose hand is against every man, and against whom is every man’s hand, but rather one who remains alone, occupied with his own affairs;
by having no concern for anyone in the world save himself.
But in brief: exile, poverty, and a solitary life give birth to humility and cleanse the heart.’
  • Homily 71, p. 492

  • A humble man is never pleased to see gatherings, confused crowds, tumult, shouts and cries, opulence, adornment, and luxury, the cause of insobriety;
nor does he take pleasure in conversations, assemblies, noise, and the scattering of the senses;
but above all he chooses to be by himself and to collect himself within himself, being alone in stillness, separated from all creation, and taking heed to himself in a silent place.
Insignificance, absence of possessions, want and poverty are in every wise beloved by him.
He is not engaged in manifold and fluctuating affairs, but at all times he desires to be unoccupied and free of the cares and the confusion of the things of this world, that he may keep his thoughts from going outside himself.
  • Homily 71, p. 496

  • A humble man is never rash, hasty, or perturbed, never has any hot and volatile thoughts, but at all times remains calm. Even if heaven were to fall and cleave to the earth, the humble man would not be dismayed. Not every quiet man is humble, but every humble man is quiet. There is no humble man who is not self-constrained; but you will find many who are self-constrained without being humble. This is also what the meek and humble Lord meant when He said, ‘Learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.’ For the humble man is always at rest, because there is nothing that can agitate or shake his mind. Just as no one can frighten a mountain, so the mind of a humble man cannot be frightened. If it be permissible and not incongruous, I should say that the humble man is not of this world. For he is not troubled and altered by sorrows, nor amazed and carried away by joys, but all his gladness and his real rejoicing are in the things of his Master.
Humility is accompanied by modesty and self-collectedness:
that is, chastity of the senses;
a moderated voice;
mean speech;
poor raiment;
a gait that is not pompous;
a gaze directed toward the earth;
superabundant mercy;
easily flowing tears;
a solitary soul;
a contrite heart;
imperturbability to anger;
undistracted senses;
few possessions;
moderation in every need;
manliness of heart born of a hatred for this temporal life;
patient endurance of trials;
deliberations that are weighty, not light;
extinction of thoughts;
guarding of the mysteries of chastity;
and above all, continually to be still and always to claim ignorance.
  • Homily 71, p. 497

Second Part edit

‘The Second Part’, Chapters IV-XLI, trans. Sebastian Brock, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 555, Scriptores Syri 225, Louvain: Peeters, 1995.
  • So then, let us not attribute to God's actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, we should speak of fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital; and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love. Love, when it operates, is not concerned with the requiting of former things by means of its own good deeds or correction; rather, it looks to what is most advantageous in the future: it examines what is to come, and not things that are past.
    • XXXIX, 17, p. 170
  • By saying that He will even hand us over to burning for the sake of sufferings, torment and all sorts of ills, we are attributing to the divine Nature an enmity towards the very rational beings which He created through grace; the same is true if we say that He acts or thinks with spite and with a vengeful purpose, as though He was avenging Himself. Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us.
    • XXXIX, 22, p. 172
  • And it is clear that He does not abandon them the moment they fall, and that demons will not remain in their demonic state, and sinners (will not remain) in their sins; rather, He is going to bring them to a single equal state of perfection in relationship to His own Being — in a (state) in which the holy angels are now, in perfection of love and a passionless mind. He is going to bring them into that excellency of will, where it will not be as though they were curbed and not <free>, or having stirrings from the Opponent then; rather, (they will be) in a (state of) excelling knowledge, with a mind made mature in the stirrings which partake of the divine outpouring which the blessed Creator is preparing in His grace; they will be perfected in love for Him, with a perfect mind which is above any aberration in all its stirrings.
    • XL, 4, p. 175
  • No part belonging to any single one of (all) rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernal Kingdom which is prepared for all worlds. Because of that goodness of His nature by which He brought the universe into being (and then) bears, guides and provides for the worlds and (all) created things in His immeasurable compassion, He has devised the establishment of the Kingdom of heaven for the entire community of rational beings — even though an intervening time is reserved for the general raising (of all) to the same level.
    • XL, 7, p. 176
  • Let us beware in ourselves, my beloved, and realize that even if Gehenna is subject to a limit, the taste of its experience is most terrible, and the extent of its bounds escapes our very understanding. Let us strive all the more to partake of the taste of God's love for the sake of perpetual reflection on Him, and let us not (have) experience of Gehenna through neglect.
    • XLI, 1, p. 180

Third Part edit

Hansbury, Mary T. (2016). Isaac the Syrian's Spiritual Works. Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press. ISBN 978-1-4632-0593-5. 
  • The life of solitaries is higher than this world for their way of life is similar to that of the world to come; namely they do not take wife or husband. Instead of this, face to face, they experience intimacy with God. By means of the true icon of the world beyond, they are always united to God in prayer. For prayer more than any other thing, draws the mind to fellowship with God and makes it shine in its ways.
    • I.1, 8
  • Mysteries are revealed, worlds are transfigured in the mind and thoughts are altered within the flesh, <such that> it no longer seems like flesh. The mind changes abodes and is brought from one to another, not of its own will. In its course, however, it remains gathered and united to the Divine Essence; and the intellect at the end of its course, turns to the first cause and origin. Thus the nature of rational beings observes the sublime order of God’s love, by consideration of the <Divine Essence>.
    • I.9, 16

Quotes about Isaac of Nineveh edit

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, second edition (2011), published by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, MA
  • If all the writings of the desert fathers which teach us concerning watchfulness and prayer were lost and the writings of Abba Isaac the Syrian alone survived, they would suffice to teach one from beginning to end concerning the life of stillness and prayer. They are the Alpha and Omega of the life of watchfulness and interior prayer, and alone suffice to guide one from his first steps to perfection.
  • I am reading St Isaac the Syrian. I find something true, heroic, spiritual in him; something which transcends space and time. I feel that here, for the first time, is a voice which resonates in the deepest parts of my being, hitherto closed and unknown to me. Although he is so far removed from me in time and space, he has come right into the house of my soul. In a moment of quiet he has spoken to me, sat down beside me. Although I have read so many other things, although I have met so many other people, and though today there are others living around me, no one else has been so discerning. To no one else have I opened the door of my soul in this way. Or to put it better, no one else has shown me in such a brotherly, friendly way that, within myself, within human nature, there is such a door, a door which opens onto a space which is open and unlimited. and no one else has told me this unexpected and ineffable truth, that the whole of this inner world belongs to man.
    • Archimandrite Vasileios, Hymn of Entry. Liturgy and Life in the Orthodox Church (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1984), pp. 131-2.

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