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Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Ninive


A. J. Wensinck

segunda-feira 18 de outubro de 2021, por Cardoso de Castro


Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Niniveh. Translated by A. J. Wensinck from Bedjan’s syriac text with an introduction and registers. Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen, 1923.



The soul   whose nature is not greatly solicitous for the gathering of possessions, does not require great diligence in order to find within itself impulses of wisdom unto God  . For freedom from connection with the world will naturally set in motion flashes of intuition   from which it can exalt itself unto God and remain in ecstasy.

When the waters from without do not enter the fountain of the soul, its natural waters will arise, viz. the wonderful intuitions which are moving towards God at all time. As often as the soul is found not to be in this state, it has either found a starting point in foreign recollections, or the senses have caused it to be troubled by the touch of (outward) things, when the senses are fenced in by solitude without a break and recollections have grown dim by its helpful influence - then thou wilt see what the nature of the deliberations of the soul, and what the nature of the soul is, and what treasures are collected in it. These treasures are incorporeal intuitions which arise from the soul without care or labor being spent on them. Nay, a man does not even know that such deliberations could arise in human nature, nor does he know who was his teacher, or how he has found that which he cannot describe to his companion, or who has been his guide towards that which he has not learned from another [1].

This is the nature of the soul. So the affections are additions, entering the soul on account of (certain) causes. But naturally the soul is not affectable.

When thou findest psychic or corporeal affections here or there in the scriptures, such things are said concerning those causes. But the soul naturally has no affections.

But the philosophers who are without do not believe this; neither do those who are their followers. But we believe that God has not made His image affectable. With His image I do not mean the body but the soul which is invisible. Every image is a copy in which the prototype is depicted. And a visible image cannot be the copy of something invisible. So we believe that the affections of the soul are not natural as they say. If any one likes to dispute concerning this point we will ask him: What is natural to the soul? To be without affections, full of light, or moved by the affections and dark? Now if the nature of the soul is to be clear and a receptacle of the blessed light, it will be found in this condition when it returns unto its original state. But when it is moved by the affections, all the members of the church confess it to have abandoned its nature. Consequently the affections are later accessions to the nature of the soul. And it is not at all becoming to think the affections to be psychic. If the soul be moved by them, nevertheless it is clear that it is moved by something outside it, not by what is its own. And if these (affections) are thought to be natural, because the soul is moved by them through the intermediary cause of the body, then hunger, thirst and sleep would also be natural to the soul because it is affected and brought to rest by them along with the body. And this would also be true for the amputation of limbs, fever, pains, illnesses and so on, by which the body is affected because of its connection with the soul and the soul because of its connection with the body, being affected with joy because of bodily experiences, and receiving distress, along with the torments of the body.

What is natural to the soul; what is external to and what is above its nature [2].

Natural to the soul is the understanding of all created things, sensible   and intelligible. Above its nature its being moved by divine contemplation; external to its nature its being excited emotionally by the affections. Also the light   of the world, the victorious Basilius, says thus: when the soul is in its natural order, it is found above; When it has abandoned its nature, it is found beneath and on the earth. There are no affections above, where also the place of the soul is said to be. But when its nature abandons its order, it becomes affectable. Where then are the affections of the soul, now that it appears that they do not belong to its nature?

It is clear that the soul is moved by the reprehensible affections which are in the body, as also it is moved by hunger and thirst on account of the body. But because there are no laws concerning these, the soul is not reprehensible on account of them. Just as, sometimes, a man is ordered by God to do those things which are blameworthy and he receives, instead of blame and reprehension, good reward, as Hosea the prophet who contracted an unlawful marriage and as Elijah who committed slaughter in his zeal for God and as those, who on Moses’ order, stabbed with swords their kindred.

But it is said that, apart from what belongs to the nature of the body, the soul has also that which belongs to its nature, viz. anger and choler; and these are its passions.

Second question. We ask: when the desire of the soul is kindled to a flame by divine things, does this belong to its nature, or rather when it is set upon earthly and bodily things? And when it is said that the nature of the soul is on fire for the sake of those things which excite its zeal, is then this passion natural when it goes   hand in hand with bodily desire, envy, glory and so on, or when it goes in the direction opposite to them? We shall answer the disputed question and we too shall enquire into it.

The holy writ says many things allegorically; and often it uses metaphorical terms. Many times it applies to the soul that which belongs to the body and to the body that which belongs to the soul without distinguishing between the two, for the sake of succinctness. Now the intelligent understand what they read, viz. the aim of scripture. In the things related to the divinity of our Lord for instance, in a high and elevated way, applies to His humanity, that which does not suit human nature and to His divinity what does not suit it. And many who do not understand the aim of the language of scripture have stumbled here so that they never could rise again. - So it is also with the things which concern soul and body.

If excellence is the natural health of the soul, the affections however ailments accustomed to oppress it and to bereave it of its health, it is clear that health is prior in nature to accidental illnesses. And if this be so (as it is indeed true) then excellence necessarily must be natural to the soul and the accidental external to its nature. For it is not possible that what is prior should not be natural.

Third question. The affections of the body are they naturally inherent in it or of a secondary nature? And those which affect the soul, by the intermediary of the body, are they secondary or natural? To call those of the body not natural, is impossible. As to the soul - because it is known and universally confessed that purity belongs to its nature - no one will venture in view of this fact to maintain that it is primarily affectable; for it is generally conceded that ailment is secondary to health and it is not possible that one and the same things should be a good and an evil nature. One of the two, in any case, must be the prior of the other; and that which is the older one, is also the natural. Whatever is accidental, cannot be said to be natural and essential; but it is an irruption from without. And all accident and obtrusion is connected, whenever it be, with variation and change. Nature, however, does not change or vary.

All existing affections are given to be a help to each of the natures to which they naturally belong and for the growth of which they were given by God. The bodily affections are placed by God in the body for the sake of profit and growth of the body; and the psychic affections, i. e. the psychic powers, for the sake of the growth and profit of the soul. And when the body is compelled to desist from its affectable nature, by withdrawing from the affections, and to follow the nature of the soul, it is injured. And when the soul leaves its. own nature and follows that of the body, it is injured. Because, according to the word of the Apostle, the spirit   desires that which harms the body and the body desires that which harms the spirit (Cf. Galatians 5, 17). And these two are naturally opposites to one another. Therefore no one shall abuse God because He has implanted in our nature affections and sins. For, when He set in order each nature, He implanted in it that which gives it growth. But if one connects itself with the other, it is no longer in its own domain, but in a foreign one.

If these affections naturally belonged to the soul, why then should the soul be injured when using them? For that which is the property of nature, does not injure it. And how is it, that the accomplishment of the bodily affections is profitable and helpful to the body, whereas those of the soul injure the soul, if they belong to it? And why should, if this be true, excellence torment the body, but be beneficial unto the soul? Thou seest how what is external to their nature injures every, one of these natures. For every one of these natures exults when it is near to what is its own. If thou art desirous to know what are the properties of every one of these natures, thou must observe that its properties are those things by the use of which it profits. And if it is tormented by (the use of) any of these things, then know that it is influenced by what is not its property. We conclude: If it is known, that the affections of every one of these natures are each other’s opposites, then, consequently, all that gives profit and rest to the body when used by the soul has not to be reckoned as belonging to the soul. Because what is natural to the soul is fatal to the body, except those things which are connected with the soul in some secondary way. Because of the weakness of the flesh   the soul can absolutely not be freed from them, as long as it is clad with the flesh. For its nature is connected with the troubles of the flesh because of the union of its impulses with the carnal senses, with which they are interwoven by the inscrutable wisdom. And, though intermingled in this way, nevertheless impulses are distinguished from impulses, and will from will, viz. the carnal from the spiritual one. And nature is not at all composite nor does it disavow what is its property. And though man renders the impulses in a high degree equal to each other, by sin or by excellence, at certain times every one exerts its will and shows its power.

But when bodily thoughts have to some extent been lifted up, then their impulses manifest themselves wholly in the spiritual sphere, swimming in the heart of heaven with incomprehensible things. But even then the body cannot remain without some memory of what its own is, even as, when the impulses are in the domain of sin, the beautiful emotions of the soul are not brought to silence in the mind  .

What is purity of mind? Not that one who does not know evil things, is pure of mind - that were to be a brute. Nor do we call pure of mind those whom nature has placed in the age of boyhood; that were to postulate that man should not belong to the class of created beings. But purity of mind consists in being captivated by divine things, (a state) that is only reached when many virtues have been practised.

We do not venture to say that he that has reached it, has acquired it without the experience of contrary deliberations. Else he would not be clad with a body. For we do not think that before the world-to-be nature can be purged from contrary (inclinations). The temptation of the deliberations is not, in my opinion this, that one surrenders to them, but the beginning of the struggle within the deliberations which begins in the mind on account of the four kinds of bases which are the root of movement to all kinds of affections. So that in this life there is not found anyone exalted above earthly recollections, even if he belong to the masters of the battle and, like Paul, be reputed perfect.

But while the body by means of its impulses, in accordance with the order of nature, and the world by its natures through the intermediation of the senses, and the soul by deliberations, recollections and powers of deviation, and the demons by the co-operating forces of the things mentioned - while [3] the power of these fourfold affections is experienced by him (The mystic), he will be troubled to a small degree only [4] and be drawn towards the excellent things which are seen by intuition. Decide thou, whether it is possible that one of these four be annihilated before the annihilation of the world, or by the transition that takes places at death or whether the body can elevate itself wholly above its needs, without nature’s urging it to seek any of the worldly things. If now this is deemed absurd, so long as these (four powers) exist, it is necessary that also the affections move themselves in all beings clad with a body, and consequently caution must be practised by every one. By the affections I do not understand one or two, but all the different ones which (occur in) those clad with flesh. But if a man should venture (to say that he experiences only) weak impulses and harmless strife  , we would say that, whoever such people may be, they do not require works but great watchfulness.

What is the difference between purity of mind and purity of heart.

Purity of mind is something other than purity of heart, just as there is a difference between one of the members of the whole body and the whole body. The mind is one of the senses of the soul. The heart is the central organ of the inward senses, this means the sense   of senses, because it is the root. And if the root is holy, so also are all the branches. But this is not so if it is holy in one of the branches only. Now with but little acquaintance with the scriptures and a little exercise in fasting and solitude, the mind forgets its former occupation and is cleansed, while it refrains from foreign habits. But is also easily defiled.

The heart is purified through great trouble and by being deprived of all association with the world, together with a complete mortification in every point. And when it has been purified, its purity is not defiled by the touch of insignificant (worldly) things, this means: it has no fear even before severe struggles. For it possesses a sound stomach that easily digests all sorts of food which are difficult for others who are sick in their interior. For the physicians say: All meat which is difficult of digestion, increases the forces of the sound body, because it is taken up by a strong stomach. In the same way every purification that is brought about easily, in a short time and by small labors, is easily defiled again. But the purity that is acquired through great troubles and after a long time by the highest part of the soul, is not endangered by insignificant touches of the (worldly) things.

Quiet senses give birth to peace in the soul, because they do not allow it to experience strife. But since the soul has no sensation of any thing, it is a victory without struggle. But when it becomes negligent, it is not able to remain steadfast, and when it strives to get rid of apprehension after the latter has got accession, the soul destroys its previous properties, viz. serenity and natural perfection. For the majority of men, and possibly the whole world, leave their first state on account of this cause (Negligence). Only one out of many returns to his first place when he has once adopted the second habit. Much better is simplicity than the different kinds of forgiveness.

Human nature needs fear in order to guard against the borders of the commandments being crossed, (it needs) love to excite the desire of good things, for the sake of which man hastens to perform beautiful things.

Spiritual knowledge is posterior   to the performance of excellence. Prior to both are love and fear. And fear is prior to love. Every one who ventures to acquire the latter things before the former, undoubtedly lays a perishable foundation in his soul. For they are placed by God in such an order, that these proceed from those. Do not interchange the love of thy neighbor with the love of (worldly) things, for that which is precious above all things, is hidden in it.

A material object which is a mark for the eyes of the flesh, is also of such a nature as to affect the hidden visual powers; and the affections which cloud the second natural contemplation, acts in the same manner for the natural steadfastness. They are related to one another in the same way, up to where ceases the current of all kinds of contemplation. When the mind is in a state of natural steadfastness, it is in angelic contemplation, which is the first and natural contemplation which is also named naked mind. When the mind is in the second state of natural knowledge, it sucks and is sustained by the milk from the corporeal breasts; this state is called the last garment of the afore-mentioned state; it is placed after (the state of) purity, which the mind enters first. It is prior in being, for it is the first stage of knowledge, although posterior in honor. On this account, therefore, it is also called the second one, as also on account of the indications of some of the tokens by which the mind is purified and trained for the ascent to a second order, which is the perfection of the intellectual impulses, and the stage which is near divine contemplation [5].

The last garment of the mind are the senses. Its state of nakedness is its being moved by kinds of non-material contemplation. Leave the small things in order to find the honored ones.

Be dead in life, then thou wilt not live in death. Let thyself die in integrity, but not live in guiltiness [6]. Not only those who suffer death for the sake of the faith in Christ   are martyrs, but also those who die for the sake of keeping his commandments.

Be not inept in thy petitions, lest thou grieve God by thy ignorance.

Learn to pray with prudence, that thou mayest be esteemed worthy of glorious things.

Seek well  -esteemed things from Him, who does not withhold; then thou wilt receive honor from Him, because of the choice of thy wise will.

Solomon sought wisdom and he received, apart from it, the earthly kingdom, because he knew how to ask wisely viz. great things from the King.

Elisha sought one or two parts of the spirit that was upon his master and his request was not withheld from him.

The honor of the King is lessened by him who seeks contemptible things.

Israel   sought despicable things; it gained the anger of God. It neglected to wonder at the workings and terrible effects of His deeds and it sought the desires of its belly. And while their food was still in their mouth  , the anger of God reached them. Present thy requests unto God in accordance with His glorious being, in order that thy honour be great in His eyes and He rejoice in thee.

When a man seeks from a king a measure full of dung he will not only be despised on account of his despicable request, exposing thus his ignorance, but he also insults the king by his insipid demand: such also is he who in prayer asks corporeal things from God.

Lo, the angels and the archangels which are the chiefs off the angels look at thee in the time of prayer, (in order to know) which prayer thou wilt present unto their Lord. And they wonder at thee when they see the corporeal one leaving his dunghill and asking heavenly things.

Do not seek from God that which He is anxious to give us even if we do not beg for it, which He withholds not from his housemates and not even from those who are wholly foreign to the knowledge of Him, nay who do not even know that He is.

Use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do (Matthew   6,7). What is this "as the heathen"? The corporeal things are sought by the peoples of the earth; but give ye no thought saying- what shall we eat, or what shall we drink or where with all shall we be clothed? For your Father   knoweth that ye also have need of all these things (Matthew 6,31 sq.).

A son does not ask bread from his father, but makes supplication concerning the great portions in store for him in the house of his father. That which our Lord has commanded concerning daily bread, namely that we pray for it, is a petition which he handed down to the common people, because of the weakness of their minds. Regard that which he commands to those who are perfect in knowledge and sound of soul, viz.: ye shall not take thought of food or raiment. If your Father bestows care upon the fowls that have no soul, how much more upon you. But ask from God the Kingdom and righteousness, then he will add these things too.

If He is slow in granting thy request, when thou askest without receiving promptly, then be not distressed. For thou art not wiser than God. When thou remainest as thou art [7], (it is) either because thy behavior does not agree with thy request; or because the ways of thy heart diverge from the aim of thy prayer; or because thy inner state is childish in comparison with the greatness of the thing.

It is not becoming that great things should fall into our hands easily; lest the gift of God should be thought to be mean because of its being acquired without difficulty.

All that is acquired with labor, is guarded with caution.

Thirst after Jesus; then he will satisfy thee with his love. Shut thy eyes to the precious things of the world; then thou wilt be deemed worthy of a peace given by God to reign in thy heart.

Restrain thyself from the allurements that are shining for the eyes; then thou wilt be deemed worthy of spiritual joy.

If thy behavior is not worthy of God, do not ask from Him praised things, lest thou appear as a man who tries God.

Prayer accords strictly with behavior.

No man desires heavenly things as long as he is bound with ties (impeding) his will, on account of the body. And no man asks divine things while he is occupied with earthly things. The desire of every man is known from his works; and that which he cares for, he will be anxious to seek in prayer. And he will be zealous in showing by his outward deeds that which he asks for in his prayer.

He who desires great things, has no intercourse with mean ones.

Be free even while thou art bound in the body and show submission in thy freedom for the sake of Christ; and be wise in thy innocence, lest thou be beguiled.

Love humility in thy dealings, that thou mayest be freed from the unperceivable snares which are continually to be found by the side of the paths on which the humble walk.

Do not reject the troubles, by means of which thou art led towards knowledge.

Do not fear temptations by means of which thou wilt find precious things. Pray that thou mayest not be led into temptations of the soul. To those of the body thou shalt prepare thyself with all thy force and with all thy limbs thou shalt swim in them. For without them it is impossible for thee to approach unto God. For beyond them lies divine rest.

Who flees from temptations, flees from excellence; not from the temptations of desires, but from (those of) troubles.

How does the sentence "pray, that ye enter not into temptation" (Matthew 26,41) concord with "strive to enter in at the strait gate" (Luke 13,24) and "fear not them which kill the body" (Matthew 10,28) and "he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it"? (Matthew 10,39)

In all these places our Lord recommends to us temptations •, but in that he orders us to pray that we enter not into temptation. What kind of excellence can be accomplished without temptations? Or what kind of temptation is stronger than the which he orders us to undergo for His sake? And "he that taketh not his cross and followeth after me, is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10,38). "Pray that ye enter not into temptation", but entering into temptations occurs everywhere in his teachings. And he has said: without temptations the Kingdom of heaven is not found.

O how strait is the way of thy teachings, our Lord! And he who does not discriminate with knowledge, as he reads, will always remain without it, as far as his insight is concerned.

When the sons of Zebedee and their mother desired of him to sit with him in the Kingdom, he postulated this: Are ye able to suffer gladly the cup of temptations? Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with (Matthew 20,22)? And how orderest Thou here, O our Lord: pray that ye enter not?

Which are the temptations into which we shall pray not to enter.

Pray that thou enterest not into temptation concerning thy belief.

Pray that thou enterest not into temptation through mental   presumption, with the demon of abuse and haughtiness.

Pray that thou enterest not, under (God’s) admission, into the manifest temptations of the senses, which Satan   is able to instill unto thee with God’s permission, on account of the foolish thoughts thou hast cherished.

Pray that the witness of chastity be not taken away from thee lest thou be tempted in the flames of sin without him.

Pray that thou enterest not into the temptation of abusing anything.

Pray therefore, that thou enterest not into psychic temptations, namely those which lead the soul into struggle, doubt and allurements. But prepare for the bodily ones with thy whole body and swim in them with all thy limbs, thy eyes full of tears, that thou be found amidst of them with thy guardian. For without temptations God’s care cannot be perceived and familiarity of speech with Him cannot be acquired and spiritual wisdom cannot be learnt and the love of God cannot be implanted in the soul.

Before (having experienced) temptations, man prays unto God as a stranger. But when he has entered into troubles for the sake of his love, without being changed, then, as one that has laid upon God (the obligation of paying) a certain loan, he is reckoned as His housemate and His friend, who has fought, for the sake of His will, against the host of His enemies. This is (the meaning of): Pray that ye enter not into temptation.

And further: pray that thou enterest not into temptations for the sake of thy self-exaltation, but for the sake of thy love of God, that His power may be conspicuous in thee. Pray that thou enterest not into such on account of the folly of thy thoughts and deeds, but in order that thou provest to be a friend of God and His power be glorified in thy endurance.

On the mercy of our Lord in this matter, who measures his word in accordance with human weakness.

Further he deals (with us) in this matter compassionately. If thou considerest bodily things (it appears that God), also in this point has remembered the weakness of nature; it was possible that, on account of the wretchedness of the body, we should not find fortitude against the power of the temptations whenever it should present itself, and consequently we should even leave (the path of) truth  , being overcome by troubles. Therefore he orders us that, as much as possible, we should avoid entering willfully into temptation. And not only this, but (he even says): Pray that you be not found in it without just cause, if it be possible to please God without temptation.

But if very great excellence is desired, when temptations assail and that most terribly, and if that excellence cannot be accomplished without a man’s bearing them, in that case it is not becoming to spare ourselves or anyone. Even on account offear thou shalt not shrink from that great thing upon which the life of thy soul depends, putting forward as an apology   for thy laxness: Pray that ye enter not into temptation. For such are those, concerning whom it is said that they sin secretly by (fulfilling) the commandments.

If one of the divine commandments comes to be dissociated from a man, be it the state of chastity, or the habit of holiness, or the confession of faith, or the testimony concerning the word of God, or the cautiously guarding of the other prescriptions of the Law - it is impossible that he should not fall if he be afraid of temptations. Therefore he has to despise the body with complete confidence, and to entrust God with its soul and to proceed in the name of the Lord. And He that was with Joseph in the land of Egypt and who was the witness of his chastity, and who was with Daniel in the pit of lions, and with Hananja and his companions in the furnace, and with Jeremia in the pit of mire and who saved him and made him an object of compassion in the midst of the camp of the Chaldaeans; who was with Peter in the prison and brought him out of it through shut gates; and with Paul in the synagogues of the Jews; in short, Pie who in all generations was with His servants always and everywhere and showed in them His power and made them victorious and guarded them miraculously so that they saw His salvation manifestly at the time of their troubles, He will strengthen and guard him in the midst of the storms which surround him. Therefore he shall arm himself against the invisible foe and his hosts with the zeal of the Maccabees and of the other holy prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors and recluses who have maintained the divine laws and the spiritual commandments in frightful places and among difficult and fearful temptations and who have thrown the world and the body behind them and clung; to the truth in them without giving way to the constraint pressing both body and soul and endured as heroes; in short, whose names are written in the book of life until the coming of our Lord. And their deeds are preserved in the book by God’s decree for our instruction and encouragement according to the testimony of the blessed Apostle, so that we may get insight from them and learn the way of God, placing their stories before our mental eyes as living images, that we may resemble them and conform the ways of our behavior unto theirs, after the pattern of the Ancients.

To the soul endowed with mind the words of God are f   delightful as oily food which makes fat the body, to the palate of those who are healthy.

The stories of the just are as desirable to the ear of the perfect, as a constant watering to young plantations.

Listening to God’s providential leading of the Ancients be estimated by thee as precious drugs for weak eyes. And let the recollection of it be kept with thee at all times of the day. Meditate and think of it and learn wisdom from it, that thou be able to receive in thy soul with honor the recollection of God’s greatness and find for thyself everlasting life in Jesus Christ, the mediator of God and mankind, who was one in his two natures. Though the legions of the angels are not able to look upon the glory surrounding His majestic throne, yet for thy sake He has appeared before the world the most contemptible and humble of man; without form or comeliness; and while His invisible nature was not within the reach of the apprehension of created beings, He accomplished His providential dealings by (covering Himself) with a veil (made of the stuff) of our limbs, in order to save the life of all.

This is he through whom He has purified many peoples [8] and on whom the Lord has laid the sin of us all (Jes. 53,6), as Jesaja says. It pleased the Lord to humble him and to put him to grief (Jes. 53,10).

Sin has been placed in him who knew no sin (2 Cor. 5,21). To whom, for his providential dealings in all generations for our sake, be glory and praise and thanksgiving and adoration from all, now and at all time and for ever and ever. Amen.

Ver online : Les Voies

[1The passage reminds in a remarkable way of Plotinus’ description of the spontaneous character of the illumination.

[2This terminology occurs in Stoic writings

[3I have retained the anakolythic character of the original

[4Other Mss: he will perceive this to a small extent only.

[5The above passage betrays its relation with Philonean thought at once by the term "naked mind" which often occurs in Philo (I 76 sq., 98, 179, 270). There is further concordance, but also difference between the two authors. Both of them distinguishes three kinds of nakedness. According to Isaac they are: the puerile state, the state of natural purity, and the purified state. According to Philo (I 76 sq.) they are: the puerile state; the state of Noah’s drunkenness in which the soul has lost its faculties; the state of purity in which the soul has abandoned all earthly things.

[6Cf. Porphyrius, Sententiae, IX. And the Pythagorean sentence in Stobaeus (p. 158)

[7The prayer not being heard.

[8Jesaja 52, 15 in the Peshito