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St. Isaac begins homily three by making an argument that the passions are not natural to the soul.  The soul by nature is pure and virtuous.  Its contranatural state is to be moved by the passions that arise from the sense and appetites of the body.  It is then in a state of illness.  There is a distinction, I believe, that Isaac is making between desire and the passions.  Desire for God is not the same as being passionate as is so often described in popular conversation.  We wrong attribute and project onto the soul things that are not proper to it in its natural state.

A rather spirit discussion arose about seeking a life of dispassion in the world.  Is desert living and the struggle appropriate and possible for those living in the world?  What discipline is needed to live distinctively as Christians in the world?  

 

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In a magnificent closing to Homily Two and beginning to Homily Three, St. Isaac in a short few paragraphs lays out for us the types of passions and their nature and how a soul determines growth in the spiritual life.  Measure your way of life by what arises in your thoughts.  It is only with toil that  the soul enters understanding of the wisdom of God and if she becomes still to the world and the cares of life; for then she can come to know her nature and what treasures she has hidden within herself. She will be lifted up twoard God and filled with the wonder of God; knowing the living water of the spirit that bubbles up within the soul.  As the senses become more confined, the soul becomes more open to the contemplation of God.

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The impact of sloth on the soul is often neglected and its significance minimized. St. Isaac the Syrian warns that without harsh tribulations of the flesh it is difficult for the untrained youth to be held under the yoke of sanctification. We must be willing to take upon ourselves the cross of the pursuit of virtue before sharing in its glory. Whenever the soul becomes heedless of the labors of virtue, he is inevitably drawn to what is opposed to them and thus becomes deprived of God's help and so subject to alien spirits. Every man who before training in the afflications of the cross completely and pursues the sweetness and glory of the cross out of sloth and for its own sweetness, has wrath come upon him. He lacks the proper wedding garment - the healing of the infirmity of his thoughts by patient endurance of the labor that belongs to the shame of the cross. A man whose mind is polluted with the passions of dishonor and rushes to imagine with his mind and ascend to the divine vision, is put to silence by divine punishment. "And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’"

Theoria is rooted in virtue and becomes the receptacle and house of the knowledge of God.  It is in the body that we must pursue virtue and so we must engage in the rigors of asceticism.  We are not angels but rather fallen human beings who must purify the eye of the heart for the perception of the divine mysteries.

St. Isaac then begins to clarify the understanding of the word world.  The world is collective noun applied to all the passions.  Great care must be given in separating oneself from the world and with humility we must understand that depeneding on our state we may not perceive all the passions that hold us in their grip.

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Where is spiritual joy to be found? What does it mean to be a lover of virtue? How does one show mercy to those who have fallen? Where does sloth begin?  These are the fundamental questions St. Isaac the Syrian begins to address in Homily Two.  

In a few rather difficult paragraphs we are instructed not to become overly focused on the experience of the Kingdom and what it will be like.  While it might be something that in some measure can be known noetically, it is not like our experiences in this life.  Our focus should rather be on the pursuit of virtue and purifying the nous.  The good things of heaven are incomprehensible and we must not let thinking about them become a distraction for us.

St. Isaac then moves on to clarify something about the attitude that we must have as we seek to grow in virtue and overcome vice. We must come to see that often hidden within valiant struggle is still the desire for the vice. The sign that one is a lover of virtue is expressed through the willingness to endure all manner of evil and suffering to maintain it with joy! The pure heart remains unconfused and unmoved by the "flattery of tantalizing pleasures." Sin must no longer have any attraction for us. Isaac also adds that if we lose the ability or free will to sin due to certain circumstances, i.e., illness, we will not come to know the true joy of repentance. Absence of sin does not mean the presence of virtue. All of this is a challenge to halfhearted approach to the spiritual life.

When faced with another's sin, we must seek to cover their shame and support them in their repentance so long as we don't place ourselves in jeopardy in the process.  We must not voluntarily make trial of our minds but engaging sin directly with lewd reflections that can tempt us.

The practice of virtue for the young is always accompanied by affliction in order to be kept them under the yoke of sanctification.  When prayer and religious services are neglected then sloth has already taken hold.  And the moment one turns from God's help, he easily falls into the hands of his adversaries.

 

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The thread that connects the thoughts of St. Isaac the Syrian's second homily is thankfulness to God. How we receive the gifts of God has great significance. One need only think of the story of the ten lepers in the Gospel. Only one returns to give thanks to the Giver for the healing he received. Lack of thanksgiving is akin to dishonesty, St. Isaac states. It shows that one does not grasp the true worth of what one has received and so not worthy themselves of receiving something greater. With the eyes of faith, one must grasp the generosity of the healer, even if the cure is painful. To fail to acknowledge such goodness or generosity or to resist the gift only increase the torment of the affliction. If we receive what the Lord gives us with true gratitude - whether painful or consoling - He will not fail to pour greater graces upon us for our salvation. Lacking such an understanding of things, God's gifts seem small in one's eyes - thus making one a "fool".

In our times of trial and failure we are to remind ourselves of times when we were filled with zeal for the Lord so as to stir our souls in to flame once more and awaken them from their slumber. Likewise we are to remember the falls of the mighty in the spiritual life, so as to encourage us when we have fallen that we might arise with confidence in the Lord.

Why spend so much energy pursuing the things of this world that turn to ash when the Kingdom of God is within you? Be a persecutor of yourself and do not pamper the body. Drive the enemy before you. Be peaceful and do everything you can to maintain your peace. Avoid everything that may distract or agitate and so hinder communion with God. Be diligent in seeking the treasure of the Kingdom that lies within you.

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Once again St. Isaac's words stir the heart to hope and the desire for God.  As a homily it offers with surprising brevity a clear and rich explication of the spiritual life.  He begins by calling us to humbly follow the spiritual path common to all men.  God's grace can work when and as it will in a person's life, but we should strive to walk the known paths that lead to virtue.  The more one grows in virtue the more the soul's insatiable desire for virtue seizes hold.  Discussion ensued about perhaps how uncommon an experience that is today.  Do we experience a growing and insatiable desire for virtue within our souls?  

Perfection is the standard for Christians in the spiritual life.  Union with God means sharing in His virtues and embodying them in our lives.  For example, the whole sum of the deeds of mercy immediately brings a soul into communion with the unity of the glory of the Godhead's splendor.  

The truth of this is manifest in speech: That which comes from righteous activity is a treasury of hope, but wisdom not based on righteous activity is a deposit of disgrace.  Words arising out of experience transform the listener.

Isaac concludes by reminding us that all good things come through God and are wrought in us in secret through baptism and faith.  Any virtue we possess comes through these mediators and through them we have been called by our Lord Jesus Christ to His good labors.
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St. Isaac continues to lay the foundations for the discipline of virtue which include in particular the purification of the passions and the avoidance of distractions.  He emphasizes reading as an ascetical discipline - especially the reading of scripture.  Such reading helps free the mind and imagination from worldly things and the more one immerses himself in the wonder of God's love, the more the thoughts are prevented from running to the body's nature.  If the heart is not occupied with study, it cannot endure the continuous assault of thoughts.

Inconstancy of mind and heart is overcome through fear and shame - a recognition of our mortality and the repentance from sin that flows from it.  This is the foundation of one's spiritual journey and the quickest path to the kingdom.  

We must remember that not every person will be wakened to wonder by what is said in the scriptures and the great power it contains within it.  Faith more than reason must guide that study and illuminate that word and purity must clear one's vision. "A word concerning virtue has need of a heart unbusied with the earth and converse."

It becomes clear that simplicity of life and clarity of purpose and desire are necessary for those seeking the kingdom.  Our faith cannot be an auxiliary construction or something to which we lesser energies.  Nor can we compartmentalize our faith.  The path to holiness must be tread with firm purpose and with the full self invested.
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St. Isaac begins by encouraging us to become drunk with faith in God; to be so immersed in our relationship with Him that we are constantly under the influence of His grace.  Only in this way will the malady of the senses and the passions that arise out of them be healed.  It is this understanding of Christian Asceticism that must be regained.  Instead of seeking distraction and entertainment in our lives, we must seek solitude and silence; to purify the heart in order to be drawn into the Mystery and Wonder of God. 

When God's grace is abundant within us we easily scorn the fear of death and are willing to endure the greatest tribulations.  In fact, Isaac tells us, such trials are necessary for the perfecting of faith and lead us to rely more and more upon the providence of God.  Without this trust, a person is continually waylaid by his fears of the world around him and the unknown.  

Fear of God, the offspring of faith, and obedience to the commandments is the only means to avoiding distractions.  As human beings we are constantly in a state of receptivity through our senses and unless we turn away from the senses we will gradually be driven away from our delight in God.  A conscious choice must be made to simplify our lives in order to provide them with the solitude that is need for prayer and study.  Without such intent we will be driven back to the inveterate habits of licentiousness.
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After a brief introduction to St. Isaac and his times, we began reading and reflecting upon his first homily on "Renunciation and Monasticism." In the Syriac, the first six homilies form a unit with one title "On the Discipline of Virtue" - hence the opening sentence of this homily - "The fear of God is the beginning of virtue, and it is said to be the offspring of faith." 

This first homily seems to sow the seeds of many of the principal themes that will be developed throughout the book.  

Virtue is sown in silence.  As Christians we must seek to collect our thoughts and prevent them from wandering into distraction.  Faith frees us from the preoccupation with the self and heals us of the malady of isolation; it allows us to transcend the self in order to see God and neighbor and so love them. It is allows us to see that every moment is freighted with destiny because every moment is an opportunity to love.

To foster the development of such faith we must avoid the inconstancy that often arises in our hearts and instead remain in the silence and immersed in the study of the scriptures.  We must embrace the kind of poverty that leaves us unencumbered and so free to direct our energies to the study of the Word.  In doing so we build the entire edifice of the spiritual life.  In other words, the city must become our desert; although living in the world we remained removed from the unnecessary affairs of the world so as to protect our imaginations and allow the passions to abate.  

The soul must become drunk with faith - constantly under the influence of love.  Thus inebriated with the spirit we will find the courage to tread beneath our feet all that prevents the growth of the discipline of virtue.

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After nearly 2 3/4 years we finally came to the final few paragraphs of Cassian's last Conference (24) on Mortification - and O how fitting and beautiful a conclusion!  

Cassian and Germanus had been questioning Abba Abraham about the possibility of returning to their homeland and living under the support of their relatives.  After he reveals the subtle illusions hidden behind their desires, Germanus presses Abba Abraham for a "complete" explanation of the Lord's teaching:  

The Lord tells us, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." Yet, often the prophets express that the opposite to be true. Such a view, Abba Abraham explains, arises out of obstinacy, lack of confidence and faith; as in some sense does Germanus' question. 

Remaining in our passions, the delights of the flesh turn upon us like tormentors. When we abandon the royal road, we make living the Gospel burdensome; whereas for those who take up fully and in true faith the yoke of Christ remain unmoved by every trial. 

Our ruin is clinging to delight in this present life and our tendency to blame God because we are crooked and perverse. It is not the lazy, the negligent, the lax, the fastidious or the weak who seize the kingdom of heaven but rather the violent - those who exercise a noble violence upon their own soul and who snatch it away from the fleeting pleasures of this life.


Only life in Christ brings with it the strength, virtue and hope of Christ and makes it our own!

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