St. Isaac was born in Nineveh. We know nothing of his childhood except that he and
his brother took up the monastic life early on, entering the Monastery of St. Matthew.
St. Isaac soon developed a desire for the solitary life, departing the monastery and
settling far away from his monastic community in a lonely cell where he was able to
devote himself fully to God. St. Isaac's brother, who had since become abbot of the
monastery, begged him to return to the communal life, but Isaac refused even to
make a short visit.
St. Isaac was soon called by God to rule over the Church in Nineveh. Although he
ruled well as a bishop, affairs in the church there soon convinced him that he could
not serve as a bishop. He retired again to his blessed solitude where he remained for
the rest of his life. The writings St. Isaac produced in his solitary life have served the
Church and the faithful well for some fourteen centuries (he died at the end of the
sixth century), certainly a greater service to the faithful than he would have provided
had he remained in the world as a bishop. He wrote from experience and guided those
who came to him on the basis of his own activity. St. Isaac taught from practice, not
These teachings came down to us in Syriac and Arabic. About half of them have been
translated into Greek and then into Russian.
Sayings of St Isaac the Syrian
When a man comes to know that he can fall away from God as a dry leaf falls from a
tree, then he knows the power of his soul.
God rejoices when a man offers Him a wise prayer.
The angel who is always near us is by nothing so distressed and made indignant as
when, without being constrained by some necessity, we deprive ourselves of the
ministration of the Holy Mysteries and of reception of Holy Communion, which grants
remission of sins. For at that hour the priest offers up the sacrifice of the Body of Him
Who gives us life, and the Holy Spirit descends and consecrates the Body and Blood
and grants remission to creation. The Cherubim, the Seraphim, and the angels stand
with great awe, fear, and joy. They rejoice over the Holy Mysteries while experiencing
inexpressible astonishment. The angel who is always by us is consoled, because he
also partakes in that dread spectacle and is not deprived of that perfect intercourse.
Never seek consolation that lies outside the heart. Raise yourself above all
consolation that the senses provide, so that you may be accounted worthy to receive
that [consolation] which is within, beyond the senses.
No man has been entrusted with great things without having first been tried in small
The only way that a man who wishes to be wise in the eyes of God can do so is to
become a fool tot he world and a despiser of human glory.
There is no prayer so quickly heard as the prayer whereby a man asks to be reconciled
with those who are wroth with him. For when he charges himself with the offence, this
prayer is immediately answered.
Awesome is the man who conceals the greatness of his labour by self-reproach; at
such a man the angels marvel.
A heart full of sorrow on account of its feebleness and impotence regarding outward
physical deeds takes the place of all physical works. Deeds of the body performed
without sorrow of mind are like a body without a soul.
When you approach your bed, say to it, 'This very night, perchance, you will be my
tomb, O bed; for I know not whether tonight instead of a transient sleep, the eternal
sleep of death will be mine.' And so, 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.
Take provisions for your long way, O wise man! Remove the heaviness of sleep from
your heart, O invited guest! Set your baggage in order for departure, O sojourner! The
morningtide is night at hand, O wayfarer; why do you sleep? Arise and prepare
yourself, O mariner who is to voyage on the sea! Arise and make ready the tackle of
your ship, for you do not know at what hour the wind will carry you out!
Honour flees away from before the man that runs after it; but he who flees from it,
the same will it hunt down, and to all men become a herald of his humility.
The man who follows Christ in solitary mourning is greater than he who praises Christ
amid the congregation of men.
· Why do you increase your bonds? Take hold of your life before your light grows
dark and you seek help and do not find it. This life has been given to you for
repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.
The man who is deemed worthy to see himself is greater than he who is deemed
worthy to see the angels.
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 very truth his heart is pure.Our soul
cannot yield spiritual fruit unless our heart is dead to the world. Blessed is the man
who realizes his weakness, for this knowledge becomes the foundation, the root and
the beginning of every boon. For as soon as a man understands and truly feels his
weakness, he immediately puts a restraint on the vain pride of his soul which
obscures reason, and thus he gains protection.
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. Before the war begins, seek after
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
hearken to you.
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.
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
to God and walk before Him, that you may be counted worthy of that paternal
providence which fathers have for their small children.
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