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14 Letters of Saint Isidore of Pelusium


1. To the monk Nilus.

The holy bishops and the guides of the monastic discipline, from the conflicts and struggles which they underwent,[1] established fitting terms, for activities for our instruction and knowledge. They called the withdrawal from the material world “renunciation,” and ready obedience “subjection.” And they, on the one hand, only had nature as a teacher[2]; and we, on the other hand, having their recorded[3] conduct, consider the work to be small. “Renunciation,” therefore, must be the forgetting of the former way of thinking and the refusal of fellowship[4]; and “subjection” must be the cessation and dissolution from the people on earth, just as it stands written.

2. To the monk Dorotheus.

Burning coals were set ablaze by[5]it.[6]

Burning coals were set ablaze by[7] it; namely, the saints are set ablaze by the fire from[8] God. For since our God is a consuming fire, those who contemplate God with purity are likewise called burning coals. Being set ablaze in union with him, they appear as stars in the world.[9]

3. To the scholar Neilammon[10].

Concerning an active life of good works.

Having learned quite clearly from the ancients, that to be is not to think, what then is to be? Do more, and do not just talk.

4. To the reader Timotheus.

Concerning the conflicts[11] which you undergo, excellent sir, be convinced: the present circumstances put before us are an invisible arena,[12] in which we do not wrestle against perceptible beasts, but against perceptible[13] passions. These are the very things that, if they should prevail over the strength in us, will bring on danger not just as far as the body but bring death to the soul itself. But if they should be controlled then[14] they will flee, and we will gain for ourselves great rewards and acclamation; and here we wrestle these often, but hereafter certainly we will receive rewards and acclamation,[15] since the coming age has been entrusted with rewards, just as this age has been entrusted with trials.[16]

5. To Nilus.

Concerning the food of the Precursor[17] and asceticism[18].

Since the divine prophesies report the account accurately, the excessive debate is unnecessary for the ones reading these things intelligently. If, therefore, we have been instructed about both the food and clothes of perfect, godly[19] asceticism[20], with reference to John the Baptist, we will be content with hair[21], for example, for a covering; and we will be content with twigs[22] from herbs and plants for a little food and strength and a simple meal[23]. But if these things, because of weakness, are too intense[24], let the testing and directive of the one put forward[25] be an example for us of every need and way of life[26].

6. To Ursenuphius.

Concerning: “For [there is] a cup in the hand of the Lord.”[27]

“There is a cup in the hand of the Lord full of a mixture of pure wine.” The divine prophecy makes known the just recompense is a mixture, on the one hand, with kindness for repentance with respect to the ones putting away[28] sins. “For he was turning from this way to that way,” that is to say, from kindness to the one being owed punishment and just judgment for faults. But in order that we do not altogether appear to be light-hearted[29] of the punishment, it was added: “Nevertheless its dregs were not poured out.” For if they will despise salvation altogether, in the end they will not escape the punishment. “For all the sinners upon the earth,” he says, “will likewise drink” the cup of judgment.

7. To Timotheus.

Concerning the Mother of God.

The holy book of the Gospels, recording the genealogy to Joseph, who derives kinship from David, was pleased[30] to show through him that the Virgin was also of the same tribe of David; just as the divine law prophesied, the pair came from the same tribe. And the interpreter of heavenly doctrines, the great Apostle Paul, openly makes the truth quite clear, testifying that the Lord would be a descendant from Judah. Because you know these things more keenly[31], do not feign ignorance with respect to the questioning. For by doing this,[32] you are shown to be pursuing shabbiness.[33]

8. To the same.

That it is necessary that the labor of spiritual discipline[34] be moderate[35].

Just as the body that is healthy lacks a bruise, since it soothes the swelling of an injury[36], so also the body that is sick is in need of aid, and the soul that is downcast ruins the body, with the result that it must be illuminated by the divine commandments.[37] One, therefore, must take care of both. For when one of the two[38] is in want, sanctification[39] is difficult.

9. To the same.

Concerning the appearances at night.

The appearances at night, as you have written, you who are most fond of learning, are not only echoes of associations and conversations of the day, but also the product of frivolous practice[40]. For when the mind is seized in a stupor from drunkenness, a stimulant of the passions occurs. But when one is wakefully self-controlled and preparedly waiting for the Lord, that person is neither defeated by the belly nor by the passions of the belly[41]. For you see, nothing other than this will prepare someone or bind the strength of the loins.[42]

10. To the elder Eusebius.

That nothing is greater than love, in which one has[43] brotherly union as proof.

Thus, nothing is as greatly desired by God than[44] love, through which both man had come into existence, and is a subject of love until death. For on this account, namely, the first call of his disciples, there happened to be two brothers; thus, from the beginning the all-wise savior immediately showed that he desires all his disciples to be united in a brotherly manner. Therefore, let us consider nothing more precious than love, which unites everyone, and protects everyone in harmonious accord.

11. To the scholar Ophelion.

That in philosophy one is frequently wronged or maltreated.

If Socrates, the lawgiver of the Athenian doctrines, was beaten and did not retaliate, why are you alone at a loss having been maltreated, as you have written? For if you should pursue philosophy, on the one hand, you will bring upon yourself the glory of Socrates, even though you have been abused less than Socrates. But this person[45], on the contrary, will be wounded as from a dart in arrogance; or, there will be a time when he will be changed from the propensity of sin, and of mind and speech – and he will thank you[46] for the cause of his change[47].

12. To Ammonius.

Although you conceal failure[48], still you show yourself as haughty, being puffed up concerning your tribe[49], strength, and worth. Therefore, either get for yourself a spirit that is in measure with you, or else be someone who is laughed at by all.

13. To the monk Lampetius.

When you were approaching the high mountain of ascetic practice[50], you cleansed[51] both your clothes and senses. And according to the report of godly opinion you prepared your[52] heart.[53] Assuredly you had been resolved to leave[54] the unspiritual things, in order that you, having arrived at the citadel of virtues, might hear God uttering a message (the one who inscribes the old law on physical tablets) and might become a tablet made by God. And now these things are celebrated by all concerning you, that, on the one hand, they proclaim eagerly that you took hold of the plow of salvation; but, on the other hand, having lost heart, in turn, you turned back. Accordingly, does this pattern not frighten you? Namely, that although Simon[55] was baptized and followed the ministers of Christ, he, in turn, turned back to the material world (on account of which the wretched one was brought down from the height to the notorious death; that from the one calamity against that one it might be shown what sorts of calamities the deserving ones meet, namely, those who broke their word[56] about the spiritual way of life). Hold fast to the intention[57] of Simon. And if only everyone who had a share of this resolve and knowledge would avert that punishment to the enemies![58] Fulfill the covenant[59] to the Lord, and devote yourself carefully to his vineyard. The reward is with him, which each one will receive according to their own work.

14. To the monk Patrimus.

Concerning practical asceticism[60].

You have a good disposition, as I have come to know, learning earnestly and speaking nobly. But the way of spiritual asceticism[61] prospers more from action than from speech. If, therefore, it is your concern for unfading rewards, consider speaking[62] well as trivial; pursue this so that you fare well.


[1] This is athletic imagery for events encountered in the Christian life and especially spiritual asceticism; literally it may be read: “from the games and races which they performed.” For similar imagery, see 1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7; Hebrews 10:32.

[2] In this construction, the verb ἔχω takes as its object an accusative (φύσιν) and a predicate accusative (διδάσκαλον); see Bauer (=BDAG hereafter), 421. Here I take μόνην as an adverb, which is usually in the neuter case; so does the Latin translation: Atque illi quidem naturam solum magistram habuerunt.

[3] Or, “famous.”

[4] The wide semantic range of συνήθεια includes: “friendship,” “intimacy,” “practice,” “habit,” “custom,” and “tradition.”

[5] This prepositional phrase απ’ αὐτοῦ denotes agency: “by it” or “from it” (cp. Psalm 18: 8; LXX Psalm 17:8).

[6] This letters comments on Psalm 18:8 (LXX Psalm 17:8). In context, “it” in this letter refers to fire that came out of the mouth of the Lord; thus, “the coals were kindled by the fire [which came from the Lord’s mouth].”

[7] Same note 5 above for comment on απ’ αὐτοῦ.

[8] This prepositional phrase έκ τοῦ Θεοῦ denotes the source of the preposition αὐτοῦ; its antecedent is “fire.” See note 5 above.

[9] This borrows the imagery of Daniel 12:3 and Philippians 2:15.

[10] Νειλαμβωνι is the name of the recipient in the dative. This dative case either preserves a longer form or alternative spelling for the name for the name: Νειλαμμων.

[11] Or, “games”; see note 1 above.

[12] Or, “contests.” Again, athletic imagery is used concerning events encountered in the Christian life; see note 1 above.

[13] Or, “spiritual.”

[14] The conjunction here is καί.

[15] Literally: “And here, on the one hand, often, but, on the other hand, after these things, certainly.” Both subject and verb have to be supplied in both clauses. Context suggests the juxtaposition of trials now and rewards later.

[16] Or “contests.” In this sense, we now participate in contests; in the coming age we receive the rewards in full.

[17] I.e., John the Baptist.

[18] Generally, “practice,” “exercise,” or “discipline”; more specifically, “asceticism” or “monastic life.”

[19] I take κατὰ Θεὸν as paraphrasis to indicate the nature of “the perfect asceticism”; see κατά in BDAG 5.b.β.

[20] See note 18 above.

[21] Here “hair” is a reference to the camel hair that John the Baptist wore as a covering; cf. Mark 1:6; Matthew 3:4.

[22] Or, “branches.” Here it is the food on the “twig” or “branch” that is in view.

[23] This Greek phrase reads: πρὸς ὀλίγην τροφὴν καὶ δύναμιν καὶ ἀπέριττον. I take πρὸς as governing (1) ὀλίγην τροφὴν καὶ δύναμιν and (2) ἀπέριττον. The adjective ἀπέριττον (“simple”) requires an implied noun in which to modify; so, “simple meal.”

[24] Based on context, I take μείζονα to refer to intensity; thus, “too intense” or “more intense”; it could also refer to importance; thus, “greater importance” or “more important.”

[25] I.e., John the Baptist.

[26] Or, “way of life”; or more specifically, “diet.”

[27] This letter comments on Psalm 75:8 (LXX Psalm 74:8).

[28] This use of χαίρω means “taking leave of,” “parting,” or “putting away”; see LSJ, IV.3 of χαίρω.

[29] This syntax is difficult, in part because the text does not seem certain (i.e., parentheses are around the infinitive ἐπιλησμονεῖν). And the meaning of this parenthetical word is similar to the nominative plural adjective οἱ ῥάθυμοι. It seems the infinitive is redundant and should be ignored. So, I treat the verb φαντάζω like the verb φαίνω. φαίνω can be the main verb of a clause, take an implied infinitive (εἴναι) or participle (ὄντες), and take a predicate nominative (see II.B of φαίνω in LSJ). This fits our context; and so we ignore the parenthetical verb ἐπιλησμονεῖν. It could be argued that the parenthetical infinitive ἐπιλησμονεῖν could be the complementary infinitive to the main verb φαντάζω (here, φαντασθῶμεν). But LSJ notes that this verb should take an infinitive and an accusative; here we do not have an accusative. Instead, we have a plural nominative.

[30] Or, “satisfied.”

[31] I take δριμύτερον adverbially. It is also in the comparative state.

[32] I.e. evading questions.

[33] The Greek is awkward here. Literally it reads: “For you, pursuing shabbiness, are not hidden.” Note the Latin translation of this sentence: Nec enim mihi obscurum est, te vilitatem hic aucupari.

[34] For the meaning of ἀσκήσεως, see note 18 above.

[35] I take σύμμετρον as absolute in meaning: “in due measure,” “right-sized,” or “moderate.”

[36] Literally, “suffering.”

[37] The grammar up to this point is awkward. I rearranged the word order to show more clearly the intended parallelism between the healthy body and the sick body and soul.

[38] I.e., the body or soul.

[39] Or more generally, “completion” or “perfection.”

[40] This phrase “frivolous practice” may be translated more neutrally, i.e., “indifferent interaction”; context, however, suggests something more pointed.

[41] A feminine object is implied here. The only feminine singular antecedent which makes logical sense is “belly.”

[42] I rendered these present verbs in the future for clarity.

[43] This construction is ἔχω with a direct object and a predicate object (see note 2 above).

[44] ὡς as a comparative particle is usually translated “as.”

[45] Literally, “he.” This unidentified subject is likely the one who has maltreated the recipient of the letter. Isidore predicts calamity or a change in heart for this unidentified person.

[46] See LSJ εἲδω B.1, p. 483 for this idiom.

[47] Literally, “the change.”

[48] The Latin translation has vitium (“sin”).

[49] Literally, “tribe,” “race,” or “kind.”

[50] Or more generally, “way of life” or “conduct.”

[51] This is an aorist participle.

[52] Literally, “you prepared the heart.”

[53] I take the phrase τῶν θείων δογμάτων as modifying τὴν ἀκοὴν (“the report”); thus: “according to the report of godly opinion, you prepared your heart.” The Latin translation also follows this decision: ad divinorum dogmatum auditionem pectus adornabas.

[54] Literally, “lose thought of.”

[55] For “Simon,” see Acts 8:9-24.

[56] See ψεύω A.3; B.II in LSJ, p. 2021.

[57] The intention of Simon, i.e., not his actions.

[58] Here the Greek grammar here is awkward.

[59] Literally, “articles of agreement,” thus, “covenant” or “treaty”; see συνθήκη in LSJ συνθήκη definition II.2 and Lampe definition 4.

[60] Generally, “practice” or “discipline”; more specifically, “asceticism” or “monastic life.” See note 18 above.

[61] Or more generally understood: “conduct,” “behavior,” or “way of life.”

[62] For τίθημι plus and infinitive, see τίθημι B.II.5, p. 1791 in LSJ. Here τίθημι is a verb of thinking and the infinitive acts like a participle.