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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.

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.

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.


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!


As we draw close to the end of the Conferences, the final pages follow Germanus and Cassian as they engage Abba Abraham on the theme of Mortification.  Even after lengthy discussion, the two young monks continue to express their desire to return to their homeland to live there under the care of their relatives and in turn to attend to their spiritual needs.  With great patience, Abraham confutes the laziness of his two young friends and the lukewarmness into which they have fallen.  They must know, he tells them, that "in the world to come you will be joined in the fate of those with whom you partook in this life of either gain or loss, or joy or sorrow." Inevitably Cassian and Germanus will get tied into the earthly affairs and fate of those around them.  They will be drawn into the drama of their relatives lives - good or bad it does not matter.  Also, he warns them that in allowing others to do too much in support of them, they will lose formation that the hardship of the desert itself provides.  Rather, in all things they should prefer deprivation and poverty.  Such charity and care belongs to the weak alone.  As those who have chosen the solitary life, they have foregone access to such generous resources as a matter of course.  They should prefer the sands rough with natural bitterness and regions wasted by floods of salt water - regions, that is, that only allow them to live day to day and in reliance upon divine providence and the labor of their hands.  Those who have an undisciplined heart and fall into distraction of mind because of it, lose whatever they seem to have acquired by the conversion of others put their profits in a bag of holes.  Leaving the desert will deprive them of their own betterment and bring them most likely to ruination.  

Their pathology is rooted in the reasonable part of the soul.  They think somehow that they have the strength and constitution that matches the desert monks and that they no longer need their instruction.   The only cure for this sickness is humility.  Their souls have been hurt by their believing not only that they have already attained the heights of perfection but even that they are able to teach others.  They have been seized by this errant conceit because of the swelling of vainglory that can only to be cut off immediately through humble contrition.

Abba Abraham continues to engage Germanus and Cassian about their desire to return home to be near their relatives.  He warns them that the promise of being taken care of by others will draw them away from the particular hardship and asceticism necessary to live the life of true solitude and to remain focused upon God alone.  Freedom to study and pray unimpeded is not the extent of the solitary life.  It is also not to be drawn into the affairs of others, good or bad, but rather to remain within one's cell and to limit one's thoughts to God. Acedia, or a kind of listlessness will draw them out from the solitude especially when the environment and the freedom to engage others are there as a temptation.  The Egyptian monks have already built up a strong constitution in avoiding this vice and the pathless environment of the desert makes it unattractive to relatives and the curious alike.  One must learn to trust solely in the providence of God to provide for their needs and to satisfy the desires of their hearts.  Having chosen the solitary life the must see themselves as dead to the world and to all but God.


We now enter into the final Conference with Cassian and Germanus as they speak with Abba Abraham.  The name proves apropos given the fact that his task will be to reinculcate in his two charges the spirit that motivated the great Patriarch to heed God's command "Leave your country, your family and your father's house for the land I will show you."  Cassian and Germanus were longing for home; hoping their relatives would provide them with the means to support themselves in a life of solitude, prayer and study.  Pridefully they also believe that they will be able to convert these same relatives if they are more present to them.  Abba Abraham works swiftly to dismantle the obvious self deception implicit in their plan and rather bluntly accuses them of slothfulness.  

The Egyptian monks, although living closer to family, realize that undue contact would undermine not only their solitude but the rigors of the solitary life and its demands.  Every day they are called to renounce any "enervating presence" that would destroy the simplicity of life, draw them into worldly affairs and fill their minds with distracting thoughts.  The constant silence must be fostered and protected both externally and internally.


After a brief hiatus, the group came to the end of Conference 23.  Once again we found ourselves grappling, along with Cassian and Germanus, with the fact that despite the holiness and perfection that one may reach, our weakness and sin draws us away from living in a constant state of communion with God.  Created to live in a constant state of receptivity our sin leads to a flighty wandering of the mind and a turning away from God in a multitude of ways - even during the time of prayer.  

The greater the perfection and holiness of the individual, the greater the experience of his own sinfulness and the deeper the compunction over the weakness of his constitution.  Along with this comes a greater sense of his solidarity with others in that sin - the adulterous heart that turns away from God due to mere distractedness and laziness of mind is not in the end any less grave than what we often consider serious sins.  Humility must be one's constant companion and mercy the constant attitude with which one approaches others.

The transgressions we commit daily and our infidelity to God requires not only humility but the medicine He gives through Holy Communion.  This alone is the remedy for our sickness and its importance is understood only through action and experience.  Let us daily call out to Him for mercy and consume the medicine of immortality.

We continued to follow Abba Theonas' discussion with Germanus and Cassian on Theoria and the obstacles to lasting contemplation.  Theonas drives home the experience of wretchedness of the holy individual who is pulled away from contemplation of God by distraction and the weakness of the fleshly mind.  We "Fall" from contemplation and if we had a true sense of the loss that that is to us we too would experience deep compunction.  Yet, it is the action of constantly turning back to God that brings the holy soul the immediate outpouring of God's grace.  The anguished longing and desire of the soul is met by the immediate desire of God for renewed union.  

The group sought to understand this through the place where we all experience the deepest intimacy with God - the Mass.  In a world that fosters distraction and celebrates noise, it is easy for us to lose a kind of "custody of the eyes" - or custody of the Nous (the eye of the heart) that keeps us focused on the gift of love that is being offered to us and the sacrifice through which it has been made possible.  Only one who has tasted the sweetness of God's loves can understand the "Wretchedness" that St. Paul speaks of and the desire to be delivered from this body of death.  The deeper the love, the greater the pain at losing sight of the Beloved!

Few penetrate the meaning of the Fall (although we all experience its effects) as the desert Fathers or capture what it means to live according to the law of Grace.  One has to taste something of the experience of purity of heart, contemplation, and the peace of Christ, to grasp fully what Abba Theonas is speaking about in this conference.  How many of us would experience true compunction and the tears of repentance over being distracted from God and our thoughts of God?  We are trained from an early age not to seek and value above all things that constant state of communion with God but rather encouraged to pursue one distraction after another or to direct our greatest energies to fleshly concerns.  In light of this it is easy to understand the ubiquitous experience of anxiety that touches every human being.  We know not only separation from God because of our sin but a profound inner division.  When St. Paul said: "The good that I want I do not do, but the evil that I hate, this I do", he was not referring to the struggle with base passions (which in reality we do not hate but most often desire) but rather of the condition of one who has achieved purity of heart and so mourns at how often he is pulled from gazing upon the divine brilliance and focused instead upon something much less.  To live fully in accord with the law of grace, to know the invincible peace of the Kingdom, is the reality that has been made possible for us through the blood of Christ.  Yet it is the reality the eludes our grasps because we do not seek it from the hand of the Lord but rather to construct it ourselves and in accord with the measure of our minds.  


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