Words from St. Isaac of Syria


St. Isaac stretches love and mercy to it’s farthest limits, occasionally beyond the bounds of canonical understanding. He remains a saint of the Church and his words are very important to hear.

Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others.

Be crucified, but do not crucify others.

Se slandered, but do not slander others.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity.

Suffer with the sick.

Be afflicted with sinners.

Exult with those who repent.

Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone.

Be a partaker of the sufferings of all, but keep your body distant from all.

Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly.

Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them.

And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place, do not destroy their character.

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.

The person who is genuinely charitable not only gives charity out of his own possessions, but gladly tolerates injustice from others and forgives them. Whoever lays down his soul for his brother acts generously, rather than the person who demonstrates his generosity by his gifts.

God is not One who requites evil, but who sets evil right.

Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness.

The person who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God, and while yet in this world, even now breathes the air of the resurrection.

In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.

Question: When is a person sure of having arrived at purity?

Answer: When that person considers all human beings are good, and no created thing appears impure or defiled. Then a person is truly pure in heart.

Love is sweeter than life.

Sweeter still, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb is the awareness of God whence love is born.

Love is not loath to accept the hardest of deaths for those it loves.

Love is the child of knowledge.

Lord, fill my heart with eternal life.

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; 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.

When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of angels. The person who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and every hour and is thereby made immortal. …When we hear Jesus say, “Ye shall eat and drink at the table of my kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love, rather than food and drink, is sufficient to nourish a person. This is the wine “which maketh glad the heart.” Blessed is the one who partakes of this wine! Licentious people have drunk this wine and become chaste; sinners have drunk it and have forgotten the pathways of stumbling; drunkards have drunk this wine and become fasters; 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 become wise.

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.

O my Hope, pour into my heart the inebriation that consists in the hope of you. O Jesus Christ, the resurrection and light of all worlds, place upon my soul’s head the crown of knowledge of you; open before me all of a sudden the door of mercies, cause the rays of your grace to shine out in my heart.

O Christ, who are covered with light as though with a garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which you caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May your Divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with you.

I give praise to your holy Nature, Lord, for you have made my nature a sanctuary for your hiddenness and a tabernacle for your holy mysteries, a place where you can dwell, and a holy temple for your Divinity.

Adapted from Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev’s The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Cistercian Studies 175), Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2000.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





37 responses to “Words from St. Isaac of Syria”

  1. Alyssa Avatar

    Thank you.

  2. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen

    Though St. Isaac does cross some boundaries, it seems, he nevertheless pushes us in a direction that we ought to be pushed. We cannot know God if we do not love our enemy. It is quite clear in Scripture. It also makes me know how far I have to go before my heart will be pure.

  3. Lady MacBeth Avatar

    Thank you and Fr.Kimel for this posting. If ever the world (myself included)needed to love more, it is now. This posting has much for me to meditate on in the coming days.

  4. Gina Avatar

    he nevertheless pushes us in a direction that we ought to be pushed
    This is my feeling reading St. Isaac as well. He’s giving glimpses of a horizon I can barely see. I wonder, how do we know our feet is on the right road? What’s the difference, if any, between this vision of love and every sane person’s wish to be a “good person”?

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    For one, his vision is that of a saint, and he is not alone among the saints. The vision of loving your enemies even as God loves His enemies transcends most people’s vision for goodness. It almost offends our goodness. Indeed the goodness of God is a “terrible” goodness in a more classical sense.

    But St. Isaac’s vision is not a bourgeoise vision of niceness, but something radically true that sweeps all of our compromises aside. It is a love that ravishes the human heart.

    It is embodied in many saints – most recently – and closest to my experience, St. Silouan of Mt. Athos.

    Also, it is always right to ask, how does the vision of St. Isaac compare to the teachings of Christ. In that test, I think he stands well. Despite phrases such as having compassion and weeping for the demons. Last Sunday’s gospel, the Gadarene Demoniac in OCA usage, the demons begged Christ not to send them into the deep but to allow them to enter the herd of swine. And the Scripture says, “He permitted them.” Christ was merciful to demons. It didn’t do them any good, they took the mercy of God and ran into the deep anyway. But it’s the mercy of God that St. Isaac teaches, and the possibility of being conformed to it. This we know is true, because we’ve seen it.

  6. ochlophobist Avatar

    “Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone.”

    It strikes me that we are encouraged to do the opposite these days. That is, to be friends with only a few (those who are most like us) and to offer our spirit to anyone who will come along, through sex, or therapy, or the ubiquitous Jerry Springer style confessional.

    I have often found the words of the St. Isaac and other Saints of the Syrian tradition to be nearly impossible to swallow in any meaningful sense. But it has occurred to me of late that I have been reading their words as ethical statements when I should have been reading their words as evangelical admonitions. When read from the point of view of “what must I do to be right?” they are useless. When read from the point of view of “what must I do to be saved” they are compelling. But then again, ethics is merely secular soteriology which has abstracted away the human person.

    Thank you.

  7. […] The first of the Pontificator’s Laws may be charitably and hopefully restated to say that when [Roman] Catholics and the Orthodox agree, well, protestants better pay attention… the (soon to be again Rev’d Fr.) Al Kimel and Rev’d Father Stephen have both posted this on their websites. Therefore: this orthodox e’copalian had better get busy. Here is collected wisdom from The Church. […]

  8. NewTrollObserver Avatar


    When you say that St. Isaac “does cross some boundaries”, do you mean to say that those boundaries are the boundaries that divide ‘heresy’ from ‘non-heresy’, or are they the boundaries between the ‘easily-misunderstood’ and the ‘easily-understood’?

  9. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen

    The latter would be generous. I do not think he crosses the bounds into formal heresy (he never goes quite as far as Origen, it would seem). But I added that caveat for any reader who might be taken aback by some of his expressions. Learning to read the Fathers can be less easily than we think.

  10. Joel Avatar

    Magnificent! I want to read more. George MacDonald (19th century writer and influence on C.S. Lewis) wrote with a kindred spirit to St. Isaac’s:

    “Love is one, and love is changeless. For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds….Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And God is our consuming fire.”

    Now I wonder what was a book of Isaac’s doing in Smerdyakov’s room (in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov)?

  11. Audrey Avatar

    I love these quotes so much; thank you for sharing them.

  12. fr habib JAJOU Avatar

    I was born in Mosul, the same city where St Isaac was bishop. Many thanks for publishing the text. May I translate it to Arabic Lang. My first lang. is Aramaic so I am ready to do something …..God keep you well

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Please feel free to translate. And thank you.

  14. Antonina Avatar

    Thank you for featuring this. As a traditional Eastern Orthodox residing in Georgia, its difficult to find others with similar spiritual goals, pray for me!

  15. NonPossumDecepi Avatar

    Absolutely most inspiring! Thank you for posting St. Isaac’s beautiful words of Truth and purity. 🙂

  16. […] “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.” See “Words from St. Isaac of Syria” By fatherstephen. […]

  17. michael127 Avatar

    Thanks for this post. I used it in my blog http://michael127.wordpress.com/2010/10/04/sunday-gospel-27th-ordinary-time-year-of-luke/ so I hope that’s okay. (I gave full credit to you and put the link in etc.)

  18. Maria Avatar

    You cannot compare St. Isaac’s words and the words of Christ. St. Isaac tells from his own experience how to work with your human nature because he has this experience. The words of Christ come from a different perspective – they teach how to be saved but not from sinful experience. I’ve been reading Isaac for 25 years, and many a time marveled at the practicality and usefulness of his vision.

  19. […] Selections from the writings of Saint Issac Prayer in the writings of Saint Issac the Syrian The theology of Saint Isaac the Syrian Website […]

  20. Corey Avatar

    If I may, there seems to be more than one St. Isaac of Syria. Could you clarify which one wrote the above?

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    I know of only one.

  22. simmmo Avatar

    There is also St Isaac the Syrian aka or St Isaac of Spoleto. He lived in Syria during the mid 6th century.

    The Isaac referred to here is St Isaac the Syrian aka St Isaac of Nineveh, who lived in the 7th century.

  23. […] do know. God as revealed in Christ; pure love all the way through and motivated always by love. Words from St. Isaac of Syria[bless and do not curse]|[bless and do not curse]Glory to God for All T… __________________ A bruised reed shall He not break, and the smoking flax shall He not quench. […]

  24. Juanita Shah Avatar
    Juanita Shah

    Truly enjoy the post thank you

  25. davidp Avatar

    Just had to post this with the above poem….


    What is this awesome mystery that is taking place within me?
    I can find no words to express it;
    my poor hand is unable to capture it
    in describing the praise and glory that belong
    to the One who is above all praise,
    and who transcends every word…
    My intellect sees what has happened
    but it cannot explain it.
    It can see, and wishes to explain,
    but can find no word that will suffice;
    for what it sees is invisible and entirely formless,
    simple, completely uncompounded,
    unbounded in its awesome greatness.
    What I have seen is the totality recapitulated as one,
    received not in essence but by participation.
    Just as if you lit a flame from a flame,
    it is the whole flame you receive.

  26. […] For more from St. Isaac: Glory to God for All Things: Words from St. Isaac of Syria  […]

  27. trevor presley Avatar
    trevor presley

    last night i dreamt …and tossed and turned and the phrase isaac of syria was through my mind and thoughts half the night – i had only briefly heard of this person from a discussion on universal reconciliation … i awoke and almost forgot as i began my day, but then it pressed one last time to the front of my mind … i began to pray before i was to google who this person was in church history and what he had said. I began to pray the Lords prayer and when i came to the part about daily bread -I just sort of plead from my soul that the Love of Christ was my bread that i needed today and every day. then when I began to read the sayings of Isaac of nineveh here on this page … i was overwhelmed with the reality of communion with christ as he described the idea of ‘eating Love everyday’ my heart was deeply touched … and i balled for a bit … thanking Christ for this very personal communication to me.

    i want to know more about the eastern orthodox church … someone is whispering in my ear as I Long to worship in Spirit and truth !

    Trevor Presley

  28. Fr. Francis Stiteler, OCSO Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen, Thanks for your posting which I just today discovered. I was trying to find the source of a quote form St Isaac appearing in the martyred and now beatified Fr Christophe Lebreton’s journals “Born from the Gaze of God” which we are currently reading in our refectory.
    The quote reads; ” When will a man know that his heart has attained purity? When he thinks that all men are good and none of them impure. It is at this moment that the heart of man is truly pure. And what is purity of heart? In short, it is the mercy that one experiences for the whole universe. (…) It is an unlimited compassion that is born in the heart of man and makes him like God. ”
    I am hoping you might recognize the quote and point me to it’s source. We have several good books on St Isaac but certainly a small portion of his total works. I would appreciate any leads you could give me. Thanks, Fr Francis Michael
    ps I see you are in TN – Do you ever give Retreats or conferences ? I am sure the Brothers would love to hear some talks on the spirituality of St Isaac or St Ephraim etc…

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Francis,
    I would probably look at the quotes in Sebastian Brock’s work – but it could also be in the Philokalia – where there is good amount of St. Isaac. I’ll have to see. I do give talks and retreats – but would likely be less than qualified on St. Isaac or St. Ephraim.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For the record – what did you use in your search? I did some myself but did not turn this up. Did you use word or phrase? Always interested in those things. I went out for “limpid” – and found some nice quotes – but not this one (it’s essentially “pure”). Tried a few others. I’ve got a number of St. Isaac books in Kindle format – which makes them searchable (the feature I like most about e-books). But I had not turned this up. Well done!

  31. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Oh Father!…. “for the win” LoL 😀
    Well, all I did was google the first line of the quote and St. Isaac’s name, like this:

    St. Isaac the Syrian “When will a man know that his heart has attained purity?”

    and found a site that stated the source.
    An inquiry using quotes is for the most part helpful…but sometimes you only get a handful of hits and find nothing!

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You are now officially part of the research staff!

  33. Paula Az Avatar
    Paula Az

    Wow…what a privilege! Thanks, Father!
    Seriously, anything I can do to help, it would be my pleasure!

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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