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Pearls of Saint Isaac of Nineveh


These short quotes have been taken and slightly adapted from The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac, Holy Transfiguration Monastery 1984



When a sailor voyages in the midst of the sea, he watches the stars and in relation to them he guides his ship until he reaches harbor. But a monk watches prayer, because it sets him right and directs his course to that harbor toward which his discipline should lead. A monk gazes at prayer at all times, so that it might show him an island where he can anchor his ship and take on provisions; then once more he sets his course for another island. Such is the voyage of a monk in this life: he sails from one island to another, that is, from knowledge to knowledge, and by his successive change of islands, that is, of states of knowledge, he progresses until he emerges from the sea and his journey attains to that true city, whose inhabitants no longer engage in commerce but each rests upon his own riches. Blessed is the man who has not lost his course in this vain world, on this great sea! Blessed is the man whose ship has not broken up and who has reached harbor with joy!

A man who craves esteem cannot be rid of the causes of grief.

Spiritual delight is not enjoyment found in things that exist s outside the soul.

Through the toil of prayer and the anguish of your heart commune with those who are grieved at heart, and the Source of mercy will be opened up to your petitions.

Beware of reading the doctrines of heretics for they, more than anything else, can equip the spirit of blasphemy against you.

It is just as shameful for lovers of the flesh and the belly to search out spiritual things as it is for a harlot to discourse on chastity.

Whenever you wish to make a beginning in some good work, first prepare yourself for the temptations that will come upon you, and do not doubt the truth.

He who is able to suffer wrong with joy, though having means at hand to rebuff it, has consciously received from God the consolation of his faith.

The man who endures accusations against himself with humility has arrived at perfection. He is marveled at by the holy angels, for there is no other virtue so great and so hard to achieve.

When temptation overtakes the deceitful man, he does not have the presence of mind to call upon God, or to expect salvation from Him, since in the days of his ease he stood aloof from God's will.

Before the war begins, seek out your ally; before you fall ill, seek out your physician; and before grievous things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him, and He will listen to you.

Before you stumble, call out and plead; before you make a vow, have ready what things you promise, for they are your provisions afterwards.

The ark of Noah was built in the time of peace, and its timbers were planted by him a hundred years beforehand. In the time of wrath the evil man perished, but the ark became the shelter for the righteous.

Love the poor, and through them you will find mercy.

Do not disdain those who are handicapped from birth, because all of us will go to the grave equally privileged.

Love sinners, but hate their works; and do not despise them for their faults, lest you be tempted by the same trespasses.

It is better to avoid the passions by the recollection of the virtues than by resisting and arguing with them. For when the passions leave their place and arise for battle, they imprint on the mind images and idols. This warfare has great force, able to weaken the mind and violently perturb and confuse a man's thinking. But if a man acts by the first rule we have mentioned, when the passions are repulsed they leave no trace in the mind.

Just as the dolphin stirs and swims about when the visible sea is still and calm, so also, when the sea of the heart is tranquil and still from wrath and anger, mysteries and divine revelations are stirred in her at all times to delight her.

That which befalls a fish out of water, befalls the mind that has come out of the remembrance of God and wanders in the remembrance of the world.

Just as fish perish from lack of water, so the meditative movements that God causes to blossom forth vanish from the heart of the monk who loves to dwell and pass his life in company with worldly men.

The more a man's tongue flees verbosity, the more his intellect is illumined so as to be able to discern deep thoughts; for the rational intellect is befuddled by verbosity.

Who does not love a humble and meek man? Only proud men and slanderers, who are foreign to his work.

Flee from discussions of dogma as from an unruly lion; and never embark upon them yourself, either with those raised in the Church, or with strangers.

The saints in heaven will not supplicate with prayer when their intellects have been consumed up by the Spirit, but rather with awe struck wonder they dwell in that gladdening glory.

The cell of a solitary is the cleft in the rock where God spoke with Moses, as the Fathers say.

I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love? I mean, those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy f or those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its charm.

On that day God will not judge us about psalmody, nor for the neglect of prayer, but because by abandoning them, we have opened our door to the demons.

Stillness mortifies the outward senses and resurrects the inward movements, whereas agitation does the opposite, that is, it resurrects the outward senses and deadens the inward movements.

What is the sign that a man has attained to purity of heart, and when does a man know that his heart has entered into purity? When he sees all men as good and none appears to him to be unclean and defiled, then in truth, his heart is pure.

Whenever in your path you find unchanging peace, beware: you are very far from the divine paths trodden by the weary feet of the saints. For as long as you are journeying in the way to the city of the Kingdom and are drawing near the city of God, this will be a sign for you: the strength of the temptations that you encounter. And the nearer you draw close and progress, the more temptations will multiply against you.

Faith is the door to mysteries. What the bodily eyes are to sensory objects, faith is to the eyes of the intellect that gaze at hidden treasures.

Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all beatitude, and there the blessed Paul partook of supernatural nourishment.

Until we find love, our labor is in the land of tares, and in the midst of tares we both sow and reap, even if our seed is the seed of righteousness.

The man who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and hour and so is made immortal. 'Whoever eats of this bread', He says, 'which I will give him, will never taste death.' Blessed is he who consumes the bread of love, which is Jesus! He who eats of love eats Christ, the God over all, as John bears witness, saying, 'God is love.'

Love is the Kingdom, which the Lord mystically promised His disciples to eat in His Kingdom. For when we hear Him say, 'You shall eat and drink at the table of My Kingdom,' what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love is sufficient to nourish a man instead of food and drink. This is the wine 'which makes glad the heart of man.' Blessed is he who partakes of this wine! Licentious men have drunk this wine and felt shame; sinners have drunk it and have forgotten the pathways of stumbling; drunkards have drunk this wine and became firm in virtue; the rich have drunk it and desired poverty; the poor have drunk it and been enriched with hope; the sick have drunk it and become strong; the unlearned have taken it and been made wise.

As it is not possible to cross over the great ocean without a ship, so no one can attain to love without fear. This filthy sea, which lies between us and the paradise of the heart, we may cross by the boat of repentance, whose oarsmen are those of fear. But if fear's oarsmen do not pilot the boat of repentance whereby we cross over the sea of this world to God, we shall be drowned in the sordid abyss.

The man who chooses to consider God an avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it, that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness! The aim of His design is the correction of men; and if it were not that, we should be stripped of the honor of our free will, perhaps He would not even heal us by reproof.

A mind that has found spiritual wisdom is like a man who finds a fully equipped ship at sea, and once he has gone aboard, it brings him from the sea of this world to the isle of the age to come. In like manner, the perception of the future age while in this world is like an islet in the ocean; and he who approaches it toils no longer amid the billows of the appearances of this age.

A swimmer dives naked into the sea until he finds a pearl; and a wise monk, stripped of everything, journeys through life until he finds in himself the Pearl, Jesus Christ; and when he finds Him, he does not seek to acquire anything else besides Him.

A serpent guards its head when its body is being crushed, and a wise monk guards his faith at all times, for this is the origin of his life.

A dog that licks a rasp drinks its own blood and does not know its own harm because of the sweetness of the blood; and a monk who stoops to drink vainglory, consumes his life and does not perceive his harm because of the fleeting sweetness.

Worldly glory is a reef in the sea covered by water; for as this lies unknown to the sailor until his vessel strikes it, cracks up, is filled with water and sinks, so vain glory does to a man until it drowns and destroys him.

Do not approach the words of the mysteries contained in the divine Scriptures without prayer and beseeching God for help, but say: Lord, grant me to perceive the power in them! Reckon prayer to be the key to the true understanding of the divine Scriptures.

A small but always persistent discipline is a great force; for a soft drop falling persistently, hollows out hard rock.

As children are not born without a mother, so passions are not born without distraction of the mind, and sin is not committed without parley with the passions.

Ease and idleness are the destruction of the soul and they can injure her more than the demons.

If you compel your body when it is weak to labors that exceed its strength, you will instill darkness upon darkness into your soul and bring greater confusion upon her.

Mercy and legality in one soul is like a man who worships God and the idols in one house.

As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so legality and mercy cannot abide in one soul.

As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God's use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy.

Be persecuted, but persecute not; be crucified, but crucify not; be wronged, but wrong not; be slandered, but slander not. Have clemency, not zeal, with respect to evil. Lay hold of goodness, not legality.

Be every man's friend, but in your mind remain alone.

If you cannot be merciful, at least speak as though you are a sinner. If you are not a peacemaker, at least do not be a troublemaker. If you cannot be assiduous, at least in your thought be like a sluggard. If you are not victorious, do not exalt yourself over the vanquished. If you cannot close the mouth of a man who disparages his companion, at least refrain from joining him in this.

No man has understanding if he is not humble, and whoever lacks humility is devoid of understanding. No man is humble if he is not peaceful, and he who is not peaceful is not humble. And no man is peaceful without rejoicing.

We should not be exceedingly grieved when we make a slip in some matter, but only if we persist in it; for even the perfect often slip, but to persist therein is total death.

There is no knowledge that is not impoverished, however rich it should be; but heaven and earth cannot contain the treasures of faith.

Truly, confusion should be called (if permissible) the chariot of the devil, because Satan is always eager to mount upon it as a charioteer, and bearing with him the throng of the passions, he invades the wretched soul and plunges her into the pit of confusion.

The recompense is not given for labor but for humility. He who maltreats the latter loses the former.

Christ demands not the doing of the commandments, but the soul's amendment, because of which He gave His commandments to rational beings.

A gift free of trials is a disaster to those who receive it.

To choose what is good belongs to the good will of the man who desires it; but to accomplish the choice of this good will belongs to God.

His path has been trodden from the ages and from all generations by the cross and by death. How is it with you, that the afflictions on the path seem to you to be off the path? Do you not wish to follow the steps of the saints? Or have you plans for devising some way of your own, and of journeying therein without suffering.

The path of God is a daily cross. No one has ascended into Heaven by means of ease, for we know where the way of ease leads and how it ends.

In truth, without afflictions there is no life.

The carnal man fears death like a beast fears slaughter. The rational man fears the judgment of God. But the man who has become a son is adorned by love and is not taught by the rod of fear; he says, 'But I and my father's house will serve the Lord.'

A merciful man is the physician of his own soul. Like a violent wind he drives the darkness of the passions out of his inner self.

Conquer evil men by your gentle kindness, and make zealous men wonder at your goodness. Put the lover of legality to shame by your compassion. With the afflicted be afflicted in mind. Love all men, but keep distant from all men.

As long as you have feet, run after work, before you are bound with that bond which cannot be loosed again once it is put on. As long as you have hands, stretch them out to Heaven in prayer, before your arms fall from their joints, and though you desire to draw them up, you will not be able. As long as you have fingers, cross yourself in prayer, before death comes loosing the comely strength of their sinews. As long as you have eyes, fill them with tears before that hour when dust will cover your black clothes and your eyes will be fixed in one direction in an unseeing gaze and you will not know it. Yes, fill your eyes with tears as long as your heart is controlled by the power of discernment and before your soul is shaken by her departure from it and the heart is left like a house deserted by its owner.

Silence is a mystery of the age to come, but words are instruments of this world.

The passions are like dogs accustomed to lick blood in butchers' shops. When these are barred from what their habit feeds on, they stand in front of the doors and howl until the force of their previous custom is spent.

A man who sits in stillness and who receives experience of God's kindness has little need of persuasive argument, and his soul is not sick with the disease of unbelief, like those who are doubtful of the truth. For the testimony of his own understanding is sufficient to persuade him above endless words having no experience behind them.

Know with certainty, therefore, that to stand is not within your power, nor does it pertain to your virtue, but it belongs to grace herself which carries you upon the palm of her hand, that you may not be alarmed.

Humility, even without works, gains forgiveness for many offenses; but without her, works are of no profit to us, and rather prepare for us great evils.

Not every quiet man is humble, but every humble man is quiet.

Walk before God in simplicity and not with knowledge. Simplicity is accompanied by faith; but subtle and intricate deliberations, by conceit; and conceit is accompanied by separation from God.

When you fall down before God in prayer, become in your thought like an ant, like the creeping things of the earth, like a leech, and like a tiny lisping child. Do not say anything before Him with knowledge, but with a child's manner of thought draw near God and walk before Him, that you may be counted worthy of that paternal providence which fathers have for their small children.

A man cannot receive spiritual knowledge unless he is converted and becomes like a little child. Only then does he experience that delight which belongs to the Kingdom of the Heavens. By 'Kingdom of the Heavens' the Scriptures mean spiritual divine vision.

It is not possible without temptations for a man to grow wise in spiritual warfare, to know his Provider and perceive his God, and to be secretly confirmed in his faith, save by virtue of the experience which he has gained.

A man can never learn what divine power is, while he abides in comfort and spacious living.

Just as a man whose head is submerged in the water cannot breathe the subtle air which is poured upon the atmosphere's empty opening, so he who immerses his mind in the cares of the present life cannot take in the breath that is a perception of the new world.

It is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins.

This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.

The cross is the door to mysteries. Through this door the intellect makes entrance into the knowledge of heavenly mysteries. The knowledge of the cross is concealed in the sufferings of the cross. The more we participate in its sufferings, the greater the perception we gain through the cross. For, as the Apostle says, 'As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds by Christ.' Now by consolation he means thoria, which, being interpreted, is vision of soul. Vision gives birth to consolation.

Prayer offered up at night possesses a great power, more so than the prayer of the day-time. Therefore all the righteous prayed during the night, while combating the heaviness of the body and the sweetness of sleep and repelling bodily nature.

There is nothing which even Satan fears so much as prayer that is offered during vigilance at night. And even if it is offered with distraction, it does not return empty, unless perhaps that which is asked for is unsuitable.

He who despises the sick will not see light, and the day of him who turns his face from a man grieved by affliction will become darkness. The sons of the man who scorns the voice of one suffering hardship will grope their way, being struck with blindness.

For unless those who travel on the road go forward day by day, shortening their journey - and, on the contrary, should they stand in one place - the road before them will never diminish and they will never arrive at their destination. So it is with us also. If we do not constrain ourselves little by little, we shall never have the strength to abstain from bodily things so as to gaze toward God.