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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 that loves God (finds) its rest in God only.

First detach from thyself the outward bonds, then strive to bind thy heart to God.

To be detached from matter is prior to being bound to God.

When a child has been weaned, bread is given him as food. And a man who wishes to become excellent in God, has first to wean himself from the world, as a child is weaned from his mother’s breasts.

Bodily labors are prior to psychic service, as the creation of the body takes place before that of the soul.

For he who does not perform bodily labor, does not perform psychic labors either. For the latter are born out of the former as the ears from mere grains. And he who does not perform psychic service, is also devoid of spiritual gifts.

Temporary suffering for the sake of the truth is not to be compared with the delight preserved for those who perform labors of excellence.

As the weeping of the time of sowing is followed by the joys of harvest (NT: literally: full hands), so are the labors for the sake of God followed by joy.

The bread earned with sweat, delights the workman; labors for the sake of righteousness, the heart that has received the knowledge of Christ.

Suffer contempt and humiliation in the thought of excellence, for the sake of the heart’s familiarity of speech with God. Every time a man suffers a hard word with discernment, save only when it is caused by his own fault, he receives a crown of thorns on his head for the sake of Christ; blessed is he! At other times he is crowned and knows it not.

He who flees from the fame (that rests) on knowledge, will perceive in himself the hope of the world to come.

He who promises to leave the world, yet quarrels with men concerning (worldly) things because he is not willing to give up anything of what is agreeable unto him, he is perfectly blind, because he has given up the whole world voluntarily, yet quarrels about a part of it.

If anyone flees from what is agreeable (unto him) in this world, his mind will behold the world to come.

He who is master of possessions, is the slave of passions. Do not estimate gold and silver only as possessions, but all things thou possessest for the sake of the desire of thy will.

He who cuts off impediments from fear of affections, he is a wise man indeed.

Without the constant service of excellence true knowledge cannot be found.

Not by bodily works alone is the knowledge of life acquired, but by directing our efforts to the cutting off of mental affections.

He who labors without discernment will easily become the victim of the causes of sin when they present themselves to him. Never praise him who labors with his body, but concerning his senses is lax and without constraint, viz. whose ears and mouth are open and whose eyes are prone to wander.

If thou settest up as thy aim to practice mercy, train thyself not to pursue justice in other fields, lest thou appear to work with one hand and to spill with the other. For there clemency is necessary, but here magnanimity.

Let the forgiveness of those who are guilty towards thee in these things, be reckoned by thee as a work of righteousness. Then thou wilt see peace springing up in thy soul from both sides, that is when thy path is superior to dignity and justice, and thou wilt favor the rise of freedom in all things. For one of the saints, speaking of these things, says: The merciful, if he be not just, is blind, in so far as he provides others from wealth which has been gathered with justice and by his own labors, and not from the acquirements of falsehood, oppression, iniquity and cunning.

In the same way, in another place, this man preaches: If thou sowest among the poor, sow from thy own possessions; what thou sowest from those of others is much more bitter than weeds. But I say: if the merciful be not even above justice, he is not merciful. This means, that he will not only show mercy unto men on his own part, but that he will voluntarily suffer iniquity with delight, so that he does not maintain and postulate full justice in his dealings with his fellow men, but is merciful towards him and surpassing justice by mercy, wreathing for himself the crown not of the just under the law, but of the perfect under the new covenant.

To give the poor from one’s own possessions, and to cover the naked on seeing them, to love the neighbor as one self, not to do iniquity or falsehood, are things commanded also by the old law. But perfection in behavior, according to the new covenant, commands thus: If a man takes from thee, do not demand back; give every one who asks from thee. And not only hast thou to suffer gladly iniquitous dealing in possessions and other outward things, but thou hast even to give thyself in behalf of thy neighbor.

Merciful is he, who shows his compassion towards his neighbor not only in gifts, but who after hearing or seeing anything that causes suffering to any one, cannot withhold his heart from burning; who, even if he receives a blow on his cheek from his brother, does not venture to repay him even with a word and so cause him to suffer intellectually.

Honor the works of vigils, then thou wilt find consolation near in thy self. Be constantly occupied with recitation in solitude, then thou wilt be drawn towards ecstasy at all times. Love poverty with endurance, that thy mind may be concentrated and so not wander.

Hate abundance, that thou be preserved against confusion of mind.

Cut off (intercourse with) the multitude and take care of thy behavior that thy soul be saved from spilling its inward rest. Love chastity lest thou be put to shame at the time of prayer before Him who exposes thee to strife.

Acquire a pure behavior, that thy soul may exult during prayer and joy be kindled in thy mind at the recollection of death.

Keep control of small things, lest thou neglect great ones. Be not lazy with regard to labors lest thou be put to shame when in presence of all comrades.

Pursue thy work with knowledge, lest it throw thee out of thy whole course.

Be not destitute of provisions; lest (thy companions) leave thee alone in the midst of the way and depart.

Acquire freedom in thy behavior, that thou be freed from confusion.

Do not use thy freedom for the sake of comfort, lest thou become a slave of slaves.

Love abstinence in thy behavior, that the deliberations leading to haughtiness of heart and lasciviousness may be restrained.

That he who loves finery should acquire a humble mind, is not possible. For the heart within and the habits without necessarily must be parallel one to another. Who would be able to acquire chastity of mind, when he is addicted to luxuriance? And who could acquire humble inward deliberations, when he is pursuing outward glory? And who is he, that being lascivious without and lax in his limbs, should be chaste in his heart and pious in his deliberations? When the mind is guided by the senses, it feeds with them upon the food of the beasts; but when the senses are guided by the mind, they feed with it upon the sustenance of the angels.

Vain glory is a servant to fornication. If it is concerned with behavior, to haughtiness. To humility brevity is proper. Love of glory is connected with prolixity. The former through constant concentration, attains to contemplation and arms the soul unto chastity. The latter through the continual wandering of the mind, gathers provisions through contact with (outward) things, and defiles the heart.

It touches lasciviously upon the nature of things and excites the mind through lascivious deliberations. The former is spiritually concentrated by contemplation and moves its possessors towards glory.

Compare not all powers and signs that are worked in the whole world, with a man’s consciously sitting in solitude.

Love the ease of solitude rather than satisfying the hunger of the world and the converting of the multitude of heathen peoples from error unto adoring God. Let it be more excellent in thy eyes to detach thyself from the bonds of sin, than to detach the subdued unto liberty from those who subject their bodies.

Prefer to make peace with thyself, in harmony with the trinity within thee: body, soul and spirit, rather than to appease those who are angry at thy teachings.

Love simplicity of speech together with experienced knowledge within, rather than the production of a Gihon of teachings by acuteness of mind and out of a deposit of hear-say and ink.

Be anxious to quicken the deadness of thy soul caused by-affections, unto the emotion of the impulses in God, rather than to quicken those who are dead in the natural sense. There have been many people who have exercised powers, quickened the dead, bestowed their labor upon the erring, done great signs and drawn many people towards God by exciting their admiration of the things done by them; but afterwards those who have saved others, have fallen into impure and disreputable passions. And after they had given life to others, they have brought themselves to death and caused themselves to stumble by the offence given by their works. The cause of this is, that, while they were still sick of soul, they did not care for their own healing, but plunged themselves into the sea of the world in order to heal the souls of others, being still sick themselves. So they have bereft themselves of the hope in God as I said before, because the weakness of their senses was not yet able to bear the touch of the rays of (worldly) things that excite usually the vehemence of the affections in those who still are in want of caution. I mean the sight of women and comfort and money and worldly things, and the passion for governing and for exalting oneself above others. Be despised by fools for simplicity, not by the wise for audacity. Seek poverty for humility’s sake and do not seek riches for the sake of audaciousness. Confound critics by the power of thy virtues, not by thy word; and the impudence of those who will not be persuaded, by the peacefulness of thy lips, not by sounds. Confound the lascivious by thy honorable behavior and those of audacious sensuality by the chastity of thy eyeballs that are concentrated within thee in quiet.

Deem thyself a stranger wherever thou enterest all thy lifelong [1], that thou mayest be able to flee from the great damages rising from freedom of speech.

Think concerning thyself always that thou knowest nothing, that thou mayest be liberated from the reprehensible things caused in thee by conceit, then thou wilt be entitled to direct others.

Let thy mouth constantly administer blessing; then the scorn of any one will never hurt thee. Disdain gives birth to disdain, blessing to blessing.

Think concerning thyself always that thou needest teaching, in order that thou be found a wise man during thy whole life.

Do not hand down to others as thy own, the practical ethics that thou hast not yet reached; lest thou be put to shame by thyself and thy deception appear from the comparison with thy behavior. But if thou speakest concerning what is becoming, speak as one belonging to the class of pupils, not as an authority, having before subdued thy self and shown thyself as being less than thy listener. Then thou wilt give also thy hearers an example of humility and thy words will spur them unto the course towards (good) works and thou wilt be honored in their eyes.

As much as is possible for thee, speak about such things with tears, so that it be profitable unto thyself and thy companions and attract grace towards thee.

If, by the grace of Christ, thou hast reached the delight of the mysteries of the visible created things, which is the first summit of knowledge, then arm thy soul against the spirit of slander. For without arms thou canst not hold thy place in this country, but thou wouldst soon be killed secretly by the seducers. Let thy arms be: fasting and tears which thou shedst in constant self-humiliation; and prudence against reading books which accentuate the differences between the confessions, with the aim of causing schisms, which provides the spirit of slander with a mighty weapon against the soul.

When thy stomach is replenished, do not venture to scrutinize, or thou willst regret it. Understand what I say: in a full stomach, there is no knowledge of the mysteries of God. Be occupied with the books of God’s providence intensely, without becoming satisfied. They have been composed by holy men and show the aim of His different works in His establishing the different natures of the world [2]. Let thy mind be strengthened by them and thou wilt acquire enlightened impulses from their subtlety; then thy mind will go its way with a clear consciousness towards the aim of (understanding) the right scheme of the creation of the world, according to the laudable wise intention of the Creator of the natures.

Read in the two Testaments which God has destined for the instruction of the whole world, so that it should be dazzled by the power of His Providence in every generation and be enveloped in wonder.

Such recitations and the like are very useful to this aim. Let thy recitation take place in complete rest, while thou art free from too great care for the body and from the disturbance of practice; then the recitation will give thy soul a delicious taste, by the sweet insight, exalted above the senses, which the soul, by constant intercourse with it, perceives in itself. Do not deem the words that are founded upon experience as the babbling of those who sell words, lest thou remain in darkness till the end of thy life, bereft of their profit, groping in the night in times of war, nay even falling into one of the pits, under the pretext of (clinging to) truth.

This shall be the sign for thee, when thou art near to enter that country: when grace begins to open thy eyes so that they perceive things by essential sight, at that time thy eyes will begin to shed tears till they wash thy cheeks even by their multitude, and the vehemence of the senses will be calmed so that they will be shut up within thee peacefully. If any man teach thee otherwise, do not believe him. To ask from the body anything else - as a manifest sign of the real apperception - than tears, is not allowed to thee, save only if the influence of the members of the body be silent. This takes place when the mind is elevated above (earthly) beings and the body is without tears, apprehension and emotionality, except only its natural animal existence. For this knowledge does not stoop to take with it as secondary companions of spiritual sight the ideas of the things of the sensual world. "Whether in the body or out of it, I do not know". It is God who knows this as well as the fact that he has heard unutterable words.

All that is heard by the ears can be spoken. But he did not hear sensible sounds, nor did he (see) in a vision of corporeal sensible images, but with the impulses of the mind, in a state of rapture apart from the body, the will having no part in it. The eye never saw the like, the ear never heard its equal and his varied knowledge never dreamt of recollecting the likeness of what his heart saw, namely that which God has in store to show the pure in heart when they have become dead to the world : not corporeal sight received through the eyes of the flesh in gross distinctions, nor fantasies which they themselves form in their mind, in a secondary way, but simplicity of contemplation concerning things of intellect and faith - the contrary of partition and division - that show the images of the elements.

Fix thy gaze on the sphere of the sun according to thy visual strength and only with the object of enjoying its rays, noth with the aim of scrutinizing the course of its wheel, lest even thy limited sight be taken from thee. If thou find honey, eat in measure lest thou, having become satisfied, hast to reject it. The nature of the soul is of small dimensions; and sometimes it proceeds onwards, desiring to learn what is beyond its nature. And many times, during the course of recitation and the contemplation of things, it grasps one or more things; yet the sum of its knowledge is insignificant as compared with what it found. But how far does its knowledge penetrate? Until its deliberations are clad with emotion and trembling. Then it hastens to turn backwards from fear, venturing (from time to time) to penetrate into the luminous things.

But fear withholds it on account of the frightfulness of these things. And discernment warns in silence the mind of the soul not to be audacious lest it should die. What is too hard for thee, seek not; what is too strong for thee, search not. Scrutinize with thy intellect that which has been allowed to thee, and do not venture to approach unto hidden things. Adore therefore and praise in silence and confess thy inability to understand. For too much for thee has been shown to thee, but do not trouble thyself with the rest of His works. As it is not good to eat much honey, so it is not good to examine laudable words. Lest, desiring to gaze from a great distance before we have approached near, we be exhausted by the interminable way, without having the power to gaze, and be injured. For sometimes in stead of truth fantasies arise; when namely the intellect becomes too weary to understand, and forgets its true essence. And the wise Solomon has well said that he that hath no rule over his own spirit, is like a city that is in ruins and without walls.

It is not necessary to search for God in heaven and earth and to send out our mind to seek Him in different places.

Purify thy soul, o man, and strip thyself from the thought of recollections which are unnatural and hang before thy impulses the curtain of chastity and humility. Thereby thou wilt find Him that is within thee. For to the humble the mysteries are revealed.

If thou wouldst give thyself to the service of the pure prayer of the mind and to constant vigils in order to acquire a mind clad with light, withdraw thyself from the sight of the world, and cut off intercourse by speech. And refuse to receive in thy cell thy accustomed friend, even (if he comes) for the sake of excellence, save only him that has the same aim as thyself and shares in the secrets of thy behavior. If thou art in fear of distraction and secret psychic intercourse, which originates spontaneously without our seeking it, cut off from thee even outward intercourse.

Let thy prayers be followed by works of excellence, that thy soul may see the flower of the light of truth. In consequence of the heart’s freedom from external recollections, the mind will receive (the gift) of ecstatic understanding of things. The soul can easily be accustomed to interchange one occupation with another if we only bestow some little care and trouble upon it.

Burden it with the labor of reading books expounding the narrow ways of behavior, contemplation, and the stories of the saints, even if it does not perceive delight in the beginning, because of the darkness and disturbance originating in present recollections; then it will interchange one habit with another.

Accordingly when thou risest for prayer and service, instead of meditating worldly things, scriptural thoughts will be pictured in the mind. And thereby the recollection of that which it saw and heard before, will be forgotten and effaced in it. So thy mind will reach purity. This is what has been said: the mind is made chaste by recitation when it comes to prayer, and by recitation it is enlightened during prayer. This means: the soul will find strength to interchange outward distraction with the habits of prayer, viz. essential understanding shining in the mind on account of the wondrous recollections of that world. How often at those times has the power of contemplation (stimulated! by the scriptures, made silent and stupefied (the solitary) during prayer and left him standing without impulses ; the same power, that cuts off prayer by delight as I have said, giving rest to the heart and bringing to silence its impulses, the psychic and bodily members being in rest.

Those know what I say, who have experienced this in their soul, who have penetrated into its mysteries, who have not learnt it from others or snatched it from writings which so often are found to falsify truth.

A full stomach shrinks from examining spiritual questions, as a harlot from speaking of chastity. A conscience full of disease abhors fat food; a mind full of the world, cannot approach the investigation of divine service.

Fire cannot burn fresh wood; the love of God cannot be kindled in a heart that loves comfort.

A harlot cannot cling to the love of one man; neither can the soul, that is tied to many things, cling to loving spiritual teachings.

As he who has never seen the sun with his eyes is not able, on the basis of hearing about it, to imagine its light in his mind, or to receive some image in his soul, or to perceive the beauty of its rays, so he who in his soul does not have perception for the taste of spiritual service and whose behavior has never brought him experience of its mysteries so that he is able to conceive in his mind an image resembling the truth,

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[1Bukhari, Rikak; b. 3: Be in the world as a stranger. And according to Porphyrius man in this world is a stranger, who longs for home (Zeller, Phil. d. Griechen III, 2, p. 718). Cf. Hebrews 11, 13 etc.

[2Isaac uses the word "nature" in a sense corresponding with our "species"