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Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Ninive


Trad. 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 fact that a man may fall into accidental faults, proves the weakness of his nature, namely that our nature necessarily is liable to such things. It has not seemed good unto God   that it would be profitable for him that he should be wholly exalted above this (weakness), before his nature arrived at the second creation. The fact of his being subject to chance, is profitable for the subjugation of the mind. But the constant (falling into faults) causes audacity.

There are three modes by which every rational soul may approach unto God: by the fervour of faith; by fear; by punishment from God. For it cannot approach unto the rank of love by its own power; but only if it is based on one of these modes.

As from a disordered (NT: Thomas a Kempis’ inordinatus) belly confusion of thought is born, so, from wantonness in speech and confusion of habits, ignorance and folly of mind.

The care of practical things confuses the soul  , and the distraction of work disturbs the mind and makes it lose its quietness and drives away from it its peacefulness. It is becoming for the solitary who has devoted himself to heavenly work, that his mind be constantly free from care so that, when he examines his soul and deliberates, he may not see in it any thing belonging to this world, nor desire of any visible object, but that, on account of his complete absorption from temporary things, he may be able to meditate upon the law of the Lord night and day, without any distraction.

Bodily works without mental   beauty are like a barren womb and dry breasts; they do not bring any nearer unto the knowledge of God. They have no care for a body labouring to eradicate passions from the mind; so they do not reap anything.

As a man who sows on thorns and is not able to reap, so is he whose mind is injured by care and wrath and desire of gathering treasures, and who sighs on his bed on account of the frequency of his vigils and abstinence. Witness is the scripture that says: As a nation that did righteousness and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in coming near unto God. Wherefore have we fasted and thou seest not? Have we afflicted our soul and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure and sacrifice unto all your idols.

This means: the evil designs and the evil thoughts hold you in yourself in stead of God and sacrifice to them your liberty, a thing esteemed at all times; the sacrifice which is honored above all things and which you ought not to omit, consists of your good works and pious inner being. A good land which makes its lord rejoice by yielding an hundredfold, is the soul that is made excellent by meditation on God, in vigil day and night. The Lord will build upon its foundations and around it, a cloud for shade during the day and a shining flame of fire during the night. From within its darkness, light will dawn.

As a cloud obscures the rays of the moon  , so the vapour of the stomach obscures the divine wisdom so that the soul does not see it. As a hearth burning with dry wood, so is bodily desire in a full stomach. As oily matter excites the fierceness of a flame, so does the humidity of food the carnal passion in the body.

The knowledge of God does not dwell in a body that loves comfort.

A man who loves his body will not be deemed worthy of divine gifts.

As from the travail a fruit is born that gladdens the woman, so from labours there is born in the soul the knowledge of God’s mysteries. To the pusillanimous and those who love comfort, a fruit is born that causes shame. As a father   shows mercy unto his son, so Christ   shows mercy unto the body that performs labours, and He is near its mouth at all times. The labour of wisdom is priceless.

A stranger is he who is strange is his spirit   unto every habit of this world. A mourner (NT: also a word for monk) is he, who spends all the days of this life in hunger, thirst and mourning, for the sake of the expectation of heavenly hope. A recluse is he who, removing his abode from the sight of the world, and looking beyond, has only one demand in prayer: the desire of the world to be. The riches of the solitary are in his heart. The riches of the solitary are either consolation granted him from the midst of mourning, or gladness that dawns from faith, the treasury of his spirit. The compassionate is he, whose spirit does not distinguish, when practising compassion, any of the classes of men. Virginity is this, that a man not only guards his body from the corruptions of revelling, but that he also guards his chastity against his soul even when he is alone. If thou desirest chastity, restrain the course of impure deliberations, by occupying thyself with recitation and constant beseechings unto God. Then thou wilt be armed also in thy inner being against the things that spring from nature. Without those, man is able to see purity in himself.

If thou art desirous to acquire compassion, first train thyself to acquire contempt for (outward) things, lest their importance draw the mind away from the aim which it has set before itself. The purity of compassion is known from patience in bearing wrong, and the perfection of humility from idle oppression borne gladly. If thou art really compassionate, thou wilt not be angry within thyself, when thou art bereft of thy possessions iniquitously and with injustice; and thou wilt not show thy suffering openly unto others, but let the sin of thy injustice be effaced by passionate compassion, as the headiness of wine   is abated by (mixing it with) much water  . But show thou the mark of purity that arises from great mercy, by adding there-unto other things and do well   to those who do thee wrong, with gladness, as also the blessed Elisha did unto his enemies, which were come to take him prisoner who, by praying and by blinding their eyes by visions, made manifest the power at his disposal. And if he had wished this, they would have been annihilated before him; but by providing them with food and drink and letting them go away, he made manifest the mercy he possessed within himself.

If thou art truly humble, be not troubled if thou art oppressed. And do not excuse thyself in any point, but actually take upon thee the wrong laid to thy charge, without being anxious to persuade people that the matter is otherwise. On the contrary, pray that thou mayest obtain forgiveness. Some have taken upon them the evil name of fornication and others have taken upon them deeds of adultery for which they were too pious, and the fruit of a sin which they had not committed they made appear serious by bewailing it as if it were their own. And they implored forgiveness for sins which they had not committed from their oppressor with tears, while their soul was crowned with the full purity of chastity. Others, lest they should be praised on account of wonderful deeds performed in secret, have assumed the habits of lunatics, though they were in the full possession of their wits and their serenity; so that the holy angels, in admiration of these deeds, became spectators of the greatness of such men. Thou, however, hast assumed humility where those others have given witness against themselves; thou art not even able to keep silence if thou art accused, and yet thou deemest thyself to be humble? If thou art (really) humble, try thyself by these things, whether or not thou art troubled.

The many mansions in the house of the Father denote the spiritual degrees of the inhabitants of that place. This means: the different gifts and the spiritual ranks in which they rejoice spiritually, and the variety of the classes of gifts. It is not to be understood in such a manner, that every person has really his defined portion in the various local habitations, so that (these differences) manifest themselves openly in the variety of particular mansions appointed for every one; but they are to be compared with the personal advantage every one of us obtains by the personal yet common use of this apperceptive sun in accordance with the purity of his visual power. Thus as the eyelid regulates the effusion of the quality of light, and as a lamp (NT: the same comparison is used by Ghazali, Ihya, III, p.4), in one and the same house, distributes the use of its light in a varied fashion, although the lamp itself is not bereft of the simplicity of its light, so as to become many with its varied aspects, so, those who have been deemed worthy of that place, although dwelling in one mansion, indivisible   as it is into parts, attract, at a fixed time, from one and the same intelligible sun, every one according to the rank of his behaviour, the own delight, in one air and one place and one abode and with one sight and one mode. The high degree of his neighbour’s rank is not seen by him who is inferior  , namely not as if it arose from the many gifts of his neighbour and from the scarcity of his own gifts, so that it should be to him a cause of grief and spiritual torment, absit! To think such things in the place of delights were impossible. Every one rejoices within himself at the gift he has been deemed worthy of, and at the height of his rank. But the outward aspect of them all, is one; and the place is one. And what is still truer, they dwell as in encampments of angels, in one aereal abode, in equality of actual vision, with secret consciousness of their (different) ranks, in contemplative revelations that vary according to their degree.

If real   personal beings possess, apart from working apperceptive power, also spiritual impulses, no one will venture, even in the world to be, to proclaim in words an order of things deviating from this one: that (that the only differentiation is with regard to) the intellect and further (spiritual) powers, even though (this differentiation) be very manifest on account of the perfection of nature. True, therefore, is the word spoken by the Fathers: on the one hand there is ignorance for an undetermined time; on the other hand there is a limited time for the manifestation of its abrogation, together with (the revelation of) other peculiar   mysteries that are defined in silence by the (supreme) being. For there is no mean between complete elevation and absolute abasement, in the future separation. Either one belongs wholly to the high ones or wholly to the low ones. But within this and the other (state) there are varying modes of retribution.

And if this be true, as it is true, what then is the folly of some, who say: I do not desire to be in the kingdom; if I only could strive after salvation from hell. Being saved from hell is the kingdom. And being without the kingdom is hell. For the scriptures do not teach three places (in the world to be). What do they teach? When the son of man shall come in his glory, he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Here the scriptures do not mention three classes, but two: those of the right hand and those of the left. The difference between the dwelling place is given distinctly. And these, it says, shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of the father, and those (will depart) into everlasting fire. Further: They shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham   in the kingdom. And the children of the promise that have not been obedient shall go into the darkness outside the kingdom. There will be psychic weeping and grinding of teeth, which is a grief more hard than the fire. Now thou understandest that to remain far from that elevation means torturing hell.

It is beautiful for a man to admonish mankind unto beautiful things and to bring them, by his constant care, from error to the knowledge of life. And this is the stage of our Lord and the apostles, and it is very elevated. But if he perceives within himself, that by familiar and constant intercourse, his inner-being becomes injured by the sight of (worldly) things, and his serenity is disturbed so as to lose its discernment, and is darkened, since his spirit still acquires cautiousness and stricter submission of the senses. For he is sick as long as his senses are not yet healed: and wishing to heal others, he loses his own partial health of soul and quits the chaste freedom of his will for a troubled mind. Such a one has to recall the word of the apostle who says; Strong meat belongeth to the healthy, and he shall turn back, lest he hear from them, symbolically: How art thou a physician for others, yet full of wounds thyself? Accordingly he shall keep to himself and guard his own health only. Then instead of audible words he shall care for a beautiful behaviour, and others will profit not by his spoken words, but by the health in which he holds himself, if possible. Thus by his health they will be healed, even though he be absent, (thay is to say) by the zeal of his excellent deeds, which is a more excellent thing than to serve them merely with words, while sick himself, and in need of healing more than they themselves.

For if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch. For strong meat belongeth to the healthy and to those whose senses have been trained and strengthened so as to receive all kinds of food, that is (those that are strengthened) against all sensual shocks, because the heart is healthy on account of its training in perfection.

But when Satan   desires to defile the chaste spirit by thoughts of fornication, he first tempts its endurance by vain glory, since the beginning of such a thought does not resemble that of the affections. This he does with the guarded spirit into which he cannot easily instill a thought which is purely evil. But when he that was strong, by meditating on old thoughts has left his fortress and when he is at some distance from it, Satan causes him to be assailed by full opportunity of fornication, by associating the spirit with lascivious things.

At first the spirit feels a sudden terror when it meets them, because of the chastity of the deliberations that meet the (worldly) things, for the mind, their governor, has refrained from looking at them before. But it falls from the height of its original thought, even though it be not defiled. And it does not turn and regains quickly the former deliberations which are the cause of the secondary ones, then, when it meets often with these things, custom will blind the discernment of the soul through frequency, of meeting. So in accordance with the quantity and the character of the first affection, is the submission to the second.

To avoid the affections by the recollection of virtues is easier and more beautiful than to vanquish them in strife  . For when the affections leave their place and are in motion so as to show themselves at strife, then they also print on the spirit forms and images. (People of) this rank (NT: those who vanquish the affections) possess a great valiance, so that they draw strength from the spirit; but the mind is greatly disturbed and troubled. By the former way of proceeding mentioned, even the traces of affections are not known in the spirit when they have departed.

Bodily labours and meditating upon the scriptures preserve purity. And labours are made firm by hope and fear. Hope and fear are established in the spirit by seclusion from the children of man and by constant prayer. Until man has received the Comforter, he needs written documents (NT: litt.: impressions in ink), in order to fix in his heart, by images, profitable recollections. And by constant meditation upon them, he will renew the attractions of excellence and see in himself caution against the narrow paths of sin; for he does not yet possess the dominating force of spirit which reduces to oblivion those powers which bereave man of profitable recollections and adduce in him languor by distraction of mind.

But when spiritual force enters and dwells in the intelligible forces of the operative soul, then there are fixed in the heart in stead of written laws spiritual commandments, which the heart learns secretly from the spirit, which does not need the help of sensible   material by the medium   of the senses.

Whenever the mind learns from matter this instruction is followed by error and forgetfulness. But whenever it draws instruction from incorruptible things, its recollection will also be incorruptible, founded on their intelligible nature.

There are good deliberations and there, is a good will. There are evil deliberations and there is an evil heart. The former, without the latter are of little account for remuneration. The latter are impulses which blow over the mind, as the winds that blow over the sea causing waves to arise. But the latter are the roots. And in accordance with the fundamental direction is also the good or the bad remuneration; not in accordance with the motion of the deliberations. For the soul does not cease from setting into motion varying deliberations, and if thou calculatest a remuneration for all these even though they have no root beneath, thou wilt be near to changing thy remuneration and thy retributions thousand times every day.

A young bird without wings is the mind that has lately left the bonds of the affections, by means of the works of repentance. At the time of prayer it strives to exalt itself above earthly things, but it cannot. For it creeps still on the surface of the earth, where also the serpent crawls. But it concentrates its deliberations by recitation and works and fear and care for excellent qualities. For beyond these it does not yet know anything. And these keep the mind pure for a short time. But then recollections will return, troubling and defiling the heart. For he does not yet perceive the air of peace and liberty, which concentrates the mind for a long time, (keeping it) quiet without any recollection of (worldly) things. For it has still wings of flesh  , viz. bodily virtues which are exercised openly. But is does not yet see and perceive the theoretical significance of the virtues exercised, which consists in wings of the mind by which it approaches unto heavenly things and is removed far from the earth.

As long as man serves God in a way that can be perceived by the senses and in (outward) things, the prints of things will be delineated in his deliberations and his mind will think of divine things in bodily forms. But when he perceives that which is within things, then, according to the measure of its apperceptive power, the mind will also be exalted above the forms of things in due time. The eyes of the Lord are upon the humble and His ears are willing to hear them. The prayer of the humble (goes  ) as it were from his mouth unto (God’s) ear: O Lord, my God, let my darkness be enlightened. When thou art (occupied) in solitude with the beautiful work of humility, when thy soul is near unto coming forth from under the darkness, this will be thy sign thy heart will burn and glow as with fire, night and day, so that thou wilt esteem all earthly-things as ash and dung. This means that it will not even please thee to touch food, on account of the pleasure of the new, fervent deliberations, which move continually within thee. Then, of a sudden, the fountain of tears will be given thee, so that they flow from thy eyes, as the waters of brooks, without compulsion, mingling themselves with all thy work, viz. with thy recitation and with thy prayer, with thy service and with thy meditation, with thy food and with thy drink, with all that thou doest tears will stream. If thou observest this in thyself, take heart, thou hast passed through the sea. Continue thy labours, keep thy cautiousness sound that thy grace may augment from day to day. As long as thou hast not yet met with these things, thy way has not yet finally reached the mountain of God.

If this state vanishes after thou hast found it and if this fervour abates, without thy proceeding to take another thing as its substitute, woe to thee, what hast thou lost! Either thou hast become haughty, or thou art lax. What is it that is situated after tears, and what a man meets after having passed beyond them, and what there is further after this latter state, we will describe beneath, in those chapters which deal with the course of behaviour, as a thing concerning which we are enlightened by the scriptures and by the Fathers who were entrusted such mysteries.

If thou hast no works thou shalt not speak about excellence. Dearer to God are trials for righteousness’ sake, than all vows and sacrifices. And dearer is the odour of the sweat of the fatigue they cause, than all the drugs of sweet scent and exquisite perfumes.

All excellence, which does not vex the body, must be deemed by thee a miscarriage without a soul. The sacrifices of the righteous are the tears of their eyes, and their acceptable offerings are the sighs of their vigils. The saints lament because of the dullness of the body and they sigh and send their prayers unto God with suffering. And at the voice of their lamentations the holy hosts assemble to them in order to give them heart through hope and to console them. The holy angels are their partners during the temptations and sufferings of the saints, because they are near to them.

Labours and humility make man a God on the earth. Faith and compassion give a speedy advance to clearness. Fervour and a broken heart cannot dwell in one soul; neither do those that are drunk know control of their mind. When fervour has been given, sorrow and mourning are taken away. Wine has been given for gladness, and fervour for the joy of the soul. The former warms the heart, the word of God the mind. Those who are kindled by fervour, are transported to the world to be in their deliberations by meditations of hope. As to those who are drunk with wine, various hallucinations present themselves, so he, who is drunk and is ablaze does not know trouble, nor the world nor anything in it. These things happen to those who are simple of heart and fervent with hope.

The many things which will happen unto those who go the traditional course of behaviour after long labours of purification are tasted by them, in the beginning of the way, by faith of soul only. All that the Lord wills, He does.

simple and avoid investigation, in fervour to God, without turning their back, for they will quickly be safe in the harbour of the promises and rest in the mansions attained by all who labour well. There they are consoled for their toiling, exulting with the joy of their hope.

Those who proceed with hope, are not liable to see the injuries on the way; neither are they able to investigate the like. But when they have gone ashore they appear unto them, and they praise God (thinking of) how they have been guarded amidst all those storms and the many cliffs of which they were unconscious, because they were not anxious to look at such things. But those who cherish serious thoughts and wish to deal very prudently, and give themselves up to evolving deliberations and to bear and make many preparations, and wish to see and to deliberate the causes of injuries and thoughts of relaxation, such are usually constantly found at the door of their houses. For the slothful man saith, There is a lion without, I shall be slain in the streets. And as those who said: And there we saw the giants, and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers. And the cities are strong and walled up to heaven. These are the people who at the time of death are found at the beginning of their way. They are those who constantly wish to act prudently, but never to begin. But the simple swims and passes with his first ardour. He does not think of the body nor of the possibility that his commerce will not prosper.

Let not the greatness of thy wisdom be a stumbling-block for thyself and a snare before thee, preventing thee from beginning manly and quickly, in the hope in God, thy course cleansed with blood, lest thou be constantly needy and devoid of the knowledge of God.

He who looks at the winds will not sow. Better for us is death in the war for (the sake of) God, than a life of shame and baseness. If thou wilt begin with one of the works of God, make thy testament beforehand as one who has no further life in this world and as one prepared for death. Draw near to it without hope, as one whose end will be reached in that action and as if it will be the end of thy days without thy seeing any more. Let this be truly decided in thy mind, lest victory be taken from thee through hope of life, being a cause of spiritual laxity.

Therefore let not wisdom reign wholly over thy actions. Give quickly room also to faith in thy spirit. Remember constantly the days after death and let laxity never enter thy soul, according to the word of the sage who has said: A thousand years in this world are not like one day in the world of the righteous.

Begin manly with every work of excellence; do not approach it with a double heart. Do not doubt in thy heart, on the way of thy course, of the hope of God’s grace, lest thy toiling become in vain and the work of thy service become heavy for thee. But believe in thy heart that God is merciful and gives grace to those who seek Him, not in accordance with our service but in accordance with the love of our soul and with our faith in Him. For as thou hast believed, so it will happen unto thee. Some are occupied by knocking their head the whole day in stead of by their services; and with some, perpetual kneelings take the place of the number of their prayers. Some are occupied by the course of their tears in stead of by their canonical (duties) without seeking any thing besides, because it is better to them than all other things. Some fulfill the laws prescribed to them by their zeal for their spiritual meditations, by their suffering from hunger which eats away their flesh. Some are withheld from accomplishing their work, by the torments which torture their stomach. Some do not make a break in their reciting of Psalms on account of their spiritual fervour. The heart of some is set aflame by written words; some are captivated by the understanding thereof. And there are some whose lips are withheld from their ordinary course by the stupor caused by the contents of their recitation. Some taste all these things and are satisfied and turn away and desist. Some taste a little from them only, and become puffed up and insolent and forget.

Some are held back from them by the severe suffering from their plagues; some by all kinds of allurements; some by power, some by glory among men, others by passion for (worldly) things; some by wanton occupations. Some however advance well and making up their mind, they do not turn their back before they have taken possession of the pearl.

Begin every work for the sake of God joyfully. And if thou art pure from affections and from doubt of heart, God will remunerate thee and help thee and give thee wisdom, and according to His will and in a wonderful way He will bring thee to perfection. To whom be glory and power and adoration and exaltation for ever and ever. Amen.

Completed are the six treatises on the behaviour of excellence.

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