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Tonight we concluded Homily number 42 of St. Isaac the Syrian which focuses on the trials and afflictions that come both to the humble and the proud. Saint Isaac makes the distinction between the two and the fruit that each produces. Afflictions in those who are humble produce the fruit of patience. Whereas afflictions in those who are proud awaken the need for repentance. In many ways it is a deeply challenging Homily; so much so that St. Isaac feels compelled to say at the end “do not be angry with me that I tell you the truth. You have never sought out humility with your whole soul.”  Our tendency is to look at affliction, temptations and trials in a punitive fashion; Whereas the Fathers seek to help us understand the medicinal and healing nature of such things and to see in them the promise of joy and ultimately deification.

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We began reading Saint Isaac’s 42nd homily this evening. He presents us with the challenging topic of affliction in the spiritual life. It is such affliction that perfects virtue within us and make us cling to the things of the kingdom rather than bodily comforts. We are to love affliction as much as we love the virtue that it produces within us.  
 
In light of this we cannot be sometime ascetics - setting aside certain material goods but clinging to sensory experiences through hearing and sight that only once again enliven the passions.  Solitude and simplicity must be embraced with vigilance  for they silence the thoughts, provide strength for endurance, and teach us patience. 
 
Isaac offers us the practical advice of who to choose as a guide and who to seek for counsel. It must be one who has experiential knowledge of all that we have been speaking about - one who knows intimately the path of affliction.   
 
Finally we must learn not to fear temptations. They are part and parcel of the spiritual battle and evidence of growth. Worldly peace is a danger for one seeking the Kingdom.
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Beginning with Homily 38 and moving into Homily 39, St. Isaac treats of the struggle with sin and temptation and the methods of the devil. The starting point is not to fear temptation. Such fear reveals an avoidance of hardship and lack of zeal for the Lord. We are not promised happiness or peace in this world but affliction. Thus we are to enter the spiritual battle with strong resolve - a willingness to sacrifice all for love of God and virtue. The devil will urge us to ease our labors but we are to be unrelenting in the fight. 
 
The devil begins by observing our weapons and watching for a weak and infirm will. He will the let loose with full force upon us in order to shake our resolve and to overcome us with fear. God often allows us to feel the full brunt of these temptations if only to reveal our doubt and coldness.  We must confront the devil with fearlessness and ardor.  Anything less makes us tempters and mockers of God. He did not create us simply to enter and leave this world but made us for eternity. This is the lens through which we must view our lives. 
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Tonight‘s group was challenging as always. Saint Isaac begins to draw us into the heart of the gospel and the embrace of the cross. We must be willing he tells us to endure afflictions. We cannot draw near to Christ crucified without them or grow in righteousness.  There is no static position in the spiritual life. Truly speaking there is no spiritual life but only life in Christ and a single hearted pursuit of the Kingdom. The world beguiles us; constantly trying to pull us away from the narrow path; ensnaring even great ascetics. We must keep before our eyes the brevity of life and come to love the Lord and our souls so much that we also come to hate sin.  Furthermore, we must study the scriptures to rouse ourselves to faith and increase our fervor.  This alone gives rise to greater faith and desire for God. 

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At tonight’s group we read two exquisite homilies from Saint Isaac the Syrian: Homilies 34 and 35. Both speak to us about the essential Ascetical nature of Christianity and the fruit of the Ascetical life. The ordering of the passions, the bearing of affliction, the study of the Scriptures and the Fathers, all create within the heart a yearning and desire for God. In this pursuit, humility is the key virtue, the mother of virtues, that fosters in the soul an ever increasing love for God and joy. This Joy, Isaac tells us, is perceived by the world as a holy madness. At group’s end, however, we are left simply to echo the sentiment of Isaac - “May God grant us also to attain to such derangement.”

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St. Isaac began his teaching with a few warnings last evening. The constancy of a soul and its purity is tested by the subtleties of vainglory. The moment one begins to trust in the strength of his virtue and to think it is invincible, he begins to speak freely of licentious subjects. He will then be inundated by unchaste thoughts and his mind will be defiled.  The greater the vainglory the greater the subjugation to the passion. 
 
Purity must be guard by bodily toil, reading of the scriptures, and care for the virtues until cleansing tears rise from the depths of the heart creating a fervent longing for God. Yet if tears are lost through negligence or sloth one cannot presume that this precious gift will be regained. 
 
Affliction alone solidifies and purifies the virtues in the heart and once the heart is purified the Holy Spirit becomes the teacher and guide. Fervor and the desire it expresses guides one to God with an ever greater swiftness. 
 
The pursuit of God must not be made in an over calculated fashion, where fear of perils hinders movement. Free reign must be given to desire and not held back by a false prudence masking a lack of courage. 
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We continued discussing a beautiful section of Homily Five where St. Isaac develops his thought on the establishment of purity of heart and the virtues necessary to help it take root deeply. Practicality in our approach to daily circumstances must be set aside. Rather we must patiently endure the rebuke of others, insults and even false accusations. The ego must be set aside and there must be a willingness to experience humiliation. In the end we must let go of the illusion of our goodness and the demand and expectation of justice in this world; rather, we must cling to God and God alone as the source of identity and hope. A lengthy and spirited discussion ensued.

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In this beautiful section of Homily Five, St. Isaac speaks of how ever-present and close God is to us through his angels and in his actions on our behalf.  Why would we be anxious about anything, he asks?  We have a God set on our salvation, who does not abandon us in our sin but makes use of every opportunity to raise us up.  We must not let anything steal the peace that comes to us from this knowledge.  Rather, we must mortify ourselves and never let any opportunity pass us by to serve another or give alms; for in doing so we comfort "His image" - we console Christ Himself in the suffering poor.  

God makes use of everything in His Providence to raise us out of sin - He administers sicknesses in body for health of our soul and allows temptations and trials to come to raise us out of negligence and idleness.  He orders all things for our profit and in this we are to learn that God alone is our deliverer.  We are to use our life in this world for repentance so that we can come to share in our eternal inheritance.  

Afflictions spur us on and lead to remembrance of God.  It is this remembrance of God that creates a connectivity with Him and draws down His mercy.  "Remember God that He too might always remember you."

Isaac reminds us to seek help before it is needed.  That is, "before the war begins, seek after your ally; before you fall ill, seek out your physician; and before grevious things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him . . . "  Faith must be fostered throughout the course of our lives and our relationship with the Lord allowed to deepen.  It is in this that confidence in the spiritual life comes.  Fear and destructiion comes from neglect.

 

 

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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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