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Mystic Treatises

Isaac of Nineveh: Mystic Treatises (XXII)

Trad. A. J. Wensinck

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

XXII ON VARIOUS (EXPERIENCES) DURING PRAYER AND ON THE LIMITS OF THE POWER OF THE MIND. AND IN HOW FAR IT HAS POWER TO MOVE ITS ARBITRARY IMPULSES BY THE VARIOUS HABITS OF PRAYER. AND WHAT IS THE LIMIT PRESCRIBED TO NATURE DURING PRAYER, THE LIMIT WHICH PRAYER IS NOT ALLOWED TO SURPASS. AND HOW WHEN IT HAS PASSED IT AND HAS PROCEEDED FARTHER, IT IS NO LONGER PRAYER, EVEN THOUGH WHAT HAPPENS IS CALLED BY THE NAME OF PRAYER

Glory to Him whose gift has been poured out upon mankind, in that He has ordained that they, although of the flesh, should serve on the earth the class of immaterial beings and has deemed worthy the nature of mortals to speak about such mysteries, especially sinners as we are, who are not even worthy of hearing speech concerning such things. In His bounty He has opened our blind heart to understand, by the contemplation of the scriptures and the instruction of the great Fathers even although I have not been deemed worthy of experiencing for personal zeal one thousandth of what I have written with my hands, especially in this tract, which we have ventured to write for the illumination and exhortation of our soul and of those who come across it, that perhaps, on account of its desire, it may be incited to approach unto practice.

How then? Delight during prayer is different from sight during prayer. The latter is more excellent than the former, as an adult man is superior to a little boy. It will happen that the words become sweet in the mouth and that one word of prayer is repeated infinitely so that no feeling of satiety with it causes thee to proceed and to pass over to a second.

Sometimes from prayer a certain contemplation is born which also makes prayer vanish from the lips. And he to whom this contemplation happens becomes as a corpse without soul, in ecstasy. This we call sight during prayer and not an image or form forged by phantasy, as fools say. Also in this contemplation during prayer there are degrees and differences in gifts. But till this point there is still prayer. For thought has not yet passed into the state where there is no prayer, but a state superior to it. For the motions of the tongue and the heart during prayer, are keys. What comes after them is the entering into the treasury. Here then all mouths and tongues are silent, and the heart, the treasurer of the thoughts, the mind, the governor of the senses, the daring spirit, that swift bird, and all their means and powers and the beseeching persuasions have to stand still there: for the master of the house has come.

For like as the whole force of the laws   and the commandments which God has laid down for mankind, have their term in the purity of the heart, according to the word of the Fathers, so all kinds and habits of prayer with which mankind prays unto God, have their term in pure prayer. Lamentations and self-humiliations and beseechings and inner supplications and sweet tears and all other habits which prayer possesses, - as I have said: their boundary and the domain within which they are set into motion, is pure prayer.

As soon as the spirit has crossed the boundary of pure prayer and proceeded onwards, there is neither prayer, nor emotions, nor tears, nor authority, nor freedom, nor beseechings, nor desire, nor longing after any of those things which are hoped for in this world or in the world to be.

Therefore there is no prayer beyond pure prayer, and all its emotions and habits by their authority with freedom conduct the spirit thus far and there is struggle in it; but beyond this limit it passes into ecstasy and is no longer prayer. From here onwards the spirit desists from prayer; there is sight, but the spirit does not pray.

Every kind of prayer which exists is set into motion by the impulses of the soul. But when the mind has entered the emotions of spirituality, then it can no longer pray.

Prayer is different from contemplation during prayer, though they are caused by each other. One is the seed; the other the load (of harvest) borne by the hands, while the reaper is astonished by the undescribable sight of how from the mean and bare grains of seed glorious ears suddenly grow up before him. And during sight he remains without motion.

Every prayer which exists, is demand and request, or praise or thanksgiving. But judge whether there exists any of these modes, or demand of anything, when the mind has passed into this domain and has entered this place.

I ask this of those who know the truth. It is not given to every one to enquire into these distinctions, but only to those who have been personally witness and ministers of this matter or have been brought up in the presence of the spiritual authors (NT: literally: the Fathers) of such experiences and have received the truth from their mouth and have passed their days with such occupations, asking and answering concerning matters of truth. As among ten thousand men there is scarcely to be found a single one who has fulfilled the commandments and the laws   to any extent and who has been deemed worthy of serenity of soul, so there is rarely to be found one among many, who on account of strenuous vigilance has been deemed worthy of pure prayer and who has made his way into this domain and been deemed worthy of this mystery. Not many are deemed worthy of pure prayer, only a few. But as to that mystery which lies beyond, there is scarcely to be found a single man in every generation who has drawn near to this knowledge of God’s grace.


Prayer is a beseeching for, a caring for, a longing for some thing, either liberation from the evil things here or (in the world) to come, or a desire for promised things, or a demand for something by which man wishes to be brought nearer unto God. In these emotions are included all habits of prayer. But its being pure or not depends upon the following circumstances. If, when the spirit is prepared to offer one of the emotions which we have enumerated, any foreign deliberation or distraction mingles itself with it, prayer is called non-pure, because it has brought upon the altar of the Lord an animal which it is not allowed (to offer), the altar which is an upright, intelligible heart.

But when the spirit gives itself with longing to one of these emotions, in accordance to the necessity of the case, at the time of beseeching, and when on account of its alacrity the gaze of the emotion is directed by the eye of faith beyond the curtain of the heart, the entrances of the soul are closed thereby against the foreign deliberations which are called strangers (NT: proselytes), whom the law does not allow to enter the tabernacle. This is called the accepted offering of the heart and pure prayer. Its boundaries are to this point. What lies beyond cannot be called prayer.

If any one should mention what by the Fathers is called spiritual prayer, without understanding the force of the words of the Fathers, saying: This belongs also to the domain of prayer, I think that, if he should reach true insight, it would prove a blasphemy if there should be found any of the creatures who should say that spiritual prayer can be prayed at all. For all prayer that can be prayed, lies on this side of spirituality. And all that is spiritual, is in kind free from emotion and prayer.

Now if man is hardly able to pray pure prayer what must be said of spiritual prayer? The holy Fathers are accustomed to designate all profitable emotions and all spiritual working by the name of prayer. And the blessed commentator (NT: Theodore of Mapsuestia) even counts beautiful deeds as prayer; though it is clear that prayer is different from deeds which are things done. But sometimes they designate by spiritual prayer that which they sometimes call contemplation; and sometimes knowledge; and sometimes revelations of intelligible things. Doest thou see, how the Fathers change their designations of spiritual things? This is because accurate designations can only be established concerning earthly things. The things of the world-to-be do not possess a true name, but only simple cognition, which is exalted above all names and signs and forms and colours and habits and composite denominations. When, therefore, the knowledge of the soul exalts itself above this circle of visible things, the Fathers use concerning this knowledge any designations they like, though no one does know the real names in order that the psychic deliberations may be based on them. We use denominations and riddles, according to the word of the holy Dionysius   (Areopagita) who says: We use signs and syllables, conventional names and words in behalf of the senses. But when by spiritual working our soul is moved unto divine things, then the senses and their workings are superfluous to us, as also the spiritual forces of the soul are superfluous as soon as our soul becomes the image of the godhead through unification with the incomprehensible and radiant in the rays of the sublime, by those impulses which are not for the eyes.

Therefore, my brother, of this thou mayest be sure: that the power of the mind to use the emotions with discernment has its limit in purity during prayer. When the mind has reached this point, it will either turn backwards, or it will desist from prayer; so prayer is, as it were, a mediator between the psychic and the spiritual state. As long, however, as it is in emotion, it is in the psychic state. But as soon as it has passed this limit, prayer ceases.

As the saints, in the world to come do not pray, when the mind has been engulfed by the (divine) spirit, but they dwell in ecstasy in that delightful glory, so the mind, when it has been made worthy of perceiving the future blessedness, will forget itself and all that is here, and it will not be moved any longer by the thought of anything (NT: Cf. Plotinus  ’s description of the mind’s delight when it has forgotten matter).


Man, therefore, may freely go so far as to say: all excellence whatever and all orders of prayer whatever, in body or in spirit, are in the realm of free will, as well as the mind that dominates the senses. But when the influence of the spirit reigns over the mind that regulates the senses and the deliberations, freedom is taken away from nature which no longer governs but is governed. And how could there be prayer at that time, when nature does not possess power over its self, but is conducted by an outward force without knowing whither. Nature then does not direct the emotions of the spirit according to its will, but captivity reigns over nature in that hour and conducts it there where sensual apperception ceases; because nature even has no will at that time, even to this extent that it does not know whether it is in or without the body, as scripture testifies. Has therefore such a one prayer who is a captive to this degree and who even does not know himself? So no one should say with blasphemy that there is anyone who could venture to say that it is possible to pray spiritual prayer. This audaciousness the Mesalleyane vindicate for themselves, those haughty ignorants who proclaim concerning themselves that they are able to pray spiritual prayer when they like. But those who are humble and have insight and are inclined to learn from the Fathers and know the limits of nature, do not abandon their deliberations to this audaciousness.

And therefore, when there is no prayer, can then this unspeakable gift be designated by the name of prayer? The cause, as we say, is therein, that at the time of prayer (this gift) is granted unto those who are worthy. And in prayer it has its starting-point, because this glorious gift cannot be granted excepted at this time, according to the testimony of the Fathers. Therefore it is called by the name of prayer, because from prayer the mind is conducted towards this blessed state, and because prayer is its starting-point and it does not occur on any other occasion, according to the testimony of Mar Evagrius   and others. And we see also that the majority of the saints say that during prayer their mind was snatched.

If any one asks: How is it that at this time only these great and unspeakable gifts are granted? we answer: Because at this time, more than in any other hour, man is concentrated and prepared to look unto God and to desire and to expect compassion from Him. In short: it is the time that the demand of him who is at the gate of the king and asks desiringly and beseechingly, is likely to be heard. And what time is there when man is so cautious and fit and prepared, as the time when he prays? Or should it be becoming that he should be deemed worthy of this at the time when he sleeps or settles any affair or is distracted of mind? However, the saints do not even know a time of idleness, because at all times they are occupied by spiritual things, for when they are not standing in preparation for prayer, they often meditate upon some stories of the scriptures, or their mind meditates in contemplation of the created things, or (their mind is occupied) with other things meditation of which is profitable.


At the time of prayer the gaze of the spirit is exclusively fixed on God and the tendency of its emotion is wholly directed towards Him, and it offers to Him the beseechings of the heart with the necessary zeal, with fervour and ardour. Therefore it is becoming that at this time, when a single thought dominates the soul, divine mercy should well forth from Him. For we see also that when we offer the visible sacrifice, while every one is prepared and standing in prayer, supplicating and beseeching, the mind being concentrated upon God, the gift of the spirit descends upon the bread and wine which we lay on the altar. To Zechariah also the angel appeared at the time of prayer and announced to him the conception of John. And to Peter appeared, while he was praying on the roof the prayer of the sixth hour, the revelation that made him acquainted with the accession of the gentiles, by the cloth that descended from heaven and by the animals that were on it. And to Cornelius appeared, when he prayed, that which is written concerning him. And God spoke with Joshua the son of Nun while he was prostrated in prayer. And over the ark was placed a plate, from which the priest was taught by divine revelation what was required, at the time when the high priest, once in a year, entered the inner sanctuary at the dreadful time of prayer while all the tribes of the children of Israel were gathered and stood in trembling and fear in the outer tabernacle in prayer. And while the high priest was prostrated the voice of God was heard from the plate over the ark, in a dreadful, unspeakable revelation. How dreadful was the mystery that was ministered in this ceremony! So all the revelations and visions that happened unto the saints, happened at the time of prayer.

What time is so holy and fit for sanctification and the receiving of gifts as the time of prayer, in which man speaks with God? At this time man utters his desires unto God, beseeching Him and speaking with Him and his whole emotion and thought are concentrated from all sides upon Him with compulsion; of God alone he thinks and Him alone he supplicates; his whole thought is absorbed in discourse with Him and his heart is full of Him. It is in this state, therefore, that the Holy Ghost joins with the things which man prays, some unattainable insights, which it stirs in him in accordance with his aptitude of being moved so that by these insights the emotion of prayer ceases, the mind is absorbed in ecstasy and the desired object of prayer is forgotten. The impulses are drowned in a heavy drunkenness and man is no longer in this world. Then there is no longer discrimination of body or of soul, nor recollection of anything, as Evagrius   says.


Prayer namely is steadfastness of mind, which is terminated only by the light of the holy Trinity through ecstasy. Thou seest, how prayer is terminated when those insights which are born in the spirit from prayer, pass into ecstasy, as I have said in the beginning of this treatise and in several places further on.

Further he (evidently Evagrius  ) says: Steadfastness of mind is highness of intelligible apperceptions (NT: literally: things), which resembles the colour of the sky over which rises, at the time of prayer, the light of the holy Trinity. When is a man deemed worthy of the whole of this grace such that during prayer he is exalted unto this height? He says: When the mind puts off the old man and puts on the new one by grace, then it also sees its steadfastness at the time of prayer, resembling sapphire or the colour of heaven, as the place of God was called by the elders of Israel, to whom it appeared on the mountain.

So, as I have said, this gift is not to be called spiritual prayer, but what then? The fruit of pure prayer, which is engulfed in the spirit. The mind has ascended here above prayer. And, having found what is more excellent, it desists from prayer. And further there is no longer prayer, but the gaze in ecstasy at the unattainable things which do not belong to the world of mortals, and peace without knowledge of any earthly thing. This is the well known ignorance (Cf. Dionysius   Areopagita) concerning which Evagrius   says: Blessed is he who has reached, during prayer, unconsciousness which is not to be surpassed.


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