Isaac was born in Nineveh and in his youth lived an ascetical life in the Monastery of Mar [Saint] Matthew in the proximity of Nineveh. When Isaac became known because of the sanctity of his life and of his many miracles, he was elected bishop of Nineveh and was forced to accept that rank. But, after only five months, he left the bishopric and secretly withdrew into the wilderness to the Monastery of Rabban Shabur. He complied many works of which about a hundred homilies on the spiritual life and asceticism, written primarily from his personal experience, have come down to us today. He was unequaled as a psychologist and as a director in the spiritual life. Even such saints as was St. Simeon [the New Stylite] of the Wonderful Mountain near Antioch sought counsel from him. Isaac died in extreme old age toward the end of the seventh century.
The fame of his work “Ascetical Homilies” grew quickly, and about 100 years after their composition they were translated from Syriac into Greek by two monks of the Monastery of Mar Sabbas in Palestine, from which they spread throughout the monasteries of the Roman Empire and became a guide to all generations thereafter.
Feast Day: January 28
Saint Isaac the Syrian: On the proper way to face sorrows
Just as the eyebrows approach each other, so are the temptations close to men. It was the economy of God to be so, with wisdom that we may receive benefit: namely, through knocking persistently, because of the sorrows, on the door of God’s mercy and to enter into your mind, due to the fear of grievous events, the seed of memory of God, so that you may approach Him with supplications and your heart be sanctified through the continuous remembrance of Him. And while you ask Him, He will listen.
The person walking the road of God must thank Him for all the sorrows that he faces, and to accuse and dishonor his negligent self, and know that the Lord who loves and looks after him, would not have allowed the grievous things to happen to wake his mind up, if he had somehow not been negligent. God may have allowed some sorrow because man has become proud and consequently he should understand and let him not become disturbed but find the cause within himself, so that the affliction may not double up, namely suffer and not wish to be treated. “In God who is the source of justice there is no injustice”. May we not think otherwise.
Do not avoid the sorrows, because being helped by them you learn the truth and love of God well. And do not fear the temptations (negative experiences) for through them you discover treasures. Pray that you may not enter into spiritual temptations, while for the bodily ones, prepare to face them with all your strength, for without them you cannot approach God. Through them comes the divine rest. Whoever avoids the bodily temptations avoids virtue.
Without temptations the providence of God for man does not manifest itself, and it is impossible without them to receive the boldness in God and learn the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and moreover, it will not be possible to anchor the divine love in your soul. Before the arrival of temptations, man prays to God as a stranger. From the moment however he enters into temptations for the love of God and does not change opinion, let’s say, he has God duty bound towards him and God considers him a genuine friend. For he fought and conquered the enemy, to fulfill the will of God.
God does not grant any big grace without a big temptation preceding it, for according to the severity of the temptations the graces were ordained by the wisdom of God, which however men normally do not understand. By the measure of the great sorrows that the providence of God sends you, you understand the great value that His magnanimity grants you. For according to the sorrow you experience is the consolation you will receive.
If you ask me what is the reason for all these, I will answer you: your negligence, for you did not bother to find the cure. The cure of all of them is one, and with it man’s soul finds immediately the consolation it longs for. But what is the cure? “It is the humility of the heart”. Without it, it is impossible to destroy the fence of temptations, in the contrary in fact you will discover that the temptations become stronger and weaken you…
According to the level of humility, God gives you the strength to endure calamities. And according to the measure of your patience, the weight of your sorrows becomes light and so you are consoled. And as you are consoled so does your love for God increases. And as much as you love God that much greater joy the Holy Spirit bestows on you. Our compassionate God wishing to bring the temptation of His true children to a good end, does not take but instead gives them the strength to endure. “All these gifts (consolation, love, joy) the strugglers acquire as fruit of their patience” for their souls to arrive at perfection. I wish our Christ and God to make us worthy through His grace to endure the bitterness of temptations for His love and with gratitude of our heart. Amen.
The saints show their love to God indeed, by their suffering in His name when for example He sends them sorrows without however distancing from them, for He loves them. Through this suffering love their heart obtains Boldness, so that they may approach Him freely and with conviction that their supplications will be heard and realized. The power of prayer that has boldness is great. That is why He allows His saints to experience every sorrow and acquire experience and be assured of His help and how much He provides and cares for them. This way they acquire wisdom and good sense from temptations, that they may not become negligent, that they may not lack spiritual asceticism on both good and bad, and thus receive through their trials, the knowledge of all things they would need. For otherwise they will be swept away by ignorance and will become the mockery of demons. For if they exercised only in the good things and had no experience of struggles with the evil, they would have gone to war totally unprepared…
Man cannot taste and value the good, if previously he did not experience the bitterness of the temptations…
Men come to the true knowledge, when God deprives them of His power and makes them to co-experience the human weakness and the difficulty that temptations cause, the cunningness of the enemy, and what adversary they have to fight and how much they have advanced and progressed in virtue and that without the power of God they are weak towards any passion. God does this, that they may receive from all these negative experiences, true humility and to approach close to Him and wait for His certain help and to pray with patience. So where could they learn all these but through the experience of many sorrows which He allows for them to experience? For this way one acquires stable faith through these sorrows while he is assured of the divine help that he many times receives during his struggles.
The strugglers therefore, are tempted that they may increase their spiritual wealth, the negligent though to protect themselves from whatever hurts them, the slumberous that they may be awakened, the distant ones that they may approach God and the friends of God that they may enter His Holy Abode with boldness. A son inexperienced in life cannot manage the wealth of his father and help him. For this, in the beginning God sends difficulties and hardships to His children and then He reveals His gifts. Like little children become frightened of scary sights and run, grabbing at their dress of their parents and ask for their help, so does the soul; the more upset and saddened by the fear of temptation the more it runs and clings on God and begs Him with unceasing supplications. And as temptations fall on it, one after the other, that much more it prays. However, when they stop and it recovers its comforts, normally it loses touch with reality and distances from God.
The sorrows and dangers kill sensuality, while good times and indifference feed it. For this both God and the holy Angels are joyful in our sorrows, while the devil and his accomplices are joyful when we are lazy and have a good time.
Leave your cares to God and in all your difficulties judge yourself, for you, yourself is the cause for all…
All the sad occasions and sorrows will torment us doubly if we have no patience. For with patience man turns away the bitterness of afflictions, while pusillanimity gives birth to the despair of hell. Patience is the mother of consolation; it is spiritual power that is born of a broad heart. It is difficult for man to find this power during sorrows, if he does not have the divine grace, which he acquires through persistent prayers and with tears.
Quotes from Saint Isaac on Sin, Hell and Repentance
“As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful. That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion: remorse. But love inebriates the souls of the sons and daughters of heaven by its delectability.
“If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?
“Sin is the fruit of free will. There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist.
“God’s recompense to sinners is that, instead of a just recompense, God rewards them with resurrection.
“O wonder! The Creator clothed in a human being enters the house of tax collectors and prostitutes. Thus the entire universe, through the beauty of the sight of him, was drawn by his love to the single confession of God, the Lord of all.
“Will God, if I ask, forgive me these things by which I am pained and by whose memory I am tormented, things by which, though I abhor them, I go on backsliding? Yet after they have taken place the pain they give me is even greater than that of a scorpion’s sting. Though I abhor them, I am still in the middle of them, and when I repent of them with suffering I wretchedly return to them again.”
“This is how many God-fearing people think, people who foster virtue and are pricked with the suffering of compunction, who mourn over their sin; yet human prosperity compels them to bear with the backsliding which results from it. They live between sin and repentance all the time. Let us not be in doubt, O fellow humanity, concerning the hope of our salvation, seeing that the One who bore sufferings for our sakes is very concerned about our salvation; God’s mercifulness is far more extensive than we can conceive, God’s grace is greater than what we ask for.
“Repentance is given us as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God. That of which we have received an earnest by baptism, we receive as a gift by means of repentance. Repentance is the door of mercy, opened to those who seek it. By this door we enter into the mercy of God, and apart from this entrance we shall not find mercy.
“Blessed is God who uses corporeal objects continually to draw us close in a symbolic way to a knowledge of God’s invisible nature. O name of Jesus, key to all gifts, open up for me the great door to your treasure-house, that I may enter and praise you with the praise that comes from the heart.”