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We continued our discussion of Homily 40 and St Isaac’s teaching on the practice of regular fasting. Without fasting and abstinence we are easily delivered up to the warfare of the passions. Infidelity to this practice and lack of rules regarding eating and times for meals have made us spiritually weak. Modern man suffers from intemperance and we cannot seem to suffer hunger even for the briefest time. Thus we have become slaves of our passions. The enemy can see our negligence and can easily vanquish us by hunger. Discussion ensued about the contemporary lack of Asceticism in this regard and the encouragement to eat without discretion from every quarter. 
 
Isaac warns us that our beginning in the spiritual life is important. We must not despise small matters. If we do, we give the enemy ground to wage war with us in great matters. The wise fight with discretion and are attentive to small struggles. Such attentiveness reveals to the enemy that we are not to be trifled with and that we will respond at the first signs of attack. 
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We continued this evening with our reading of St. Isaac’s 37th Homily and his discussion of the essential practices of fasting and vigil that are the foundation of the spiritual life. Through this fasting we begin to experience the “warmth” of our hunger for God and the unshakable peace of prayer. It is also here that we move toward stillness of the thoughts and the passions and so are prepared for the purification of heart that God alone brings about. 
 
Isaac also emphasizes the importance of solitude in achieving and maintaining this purity of heart. We can’t throw ourselves into the chaos and disorder of the world and expect to thrive. Rather we must guard our hearts vigilantly. 
 
Discussion ensued about Isaac’s thought that this is the true mode of freedom and that we should choose fidelity to God’s law and the salvation it promises over the law of the world which is rooted in the flesh. Life in this world is brief and we must be mindful of the dust to which we shall return and the judgement we shall undergo. 
 
Final thoughts centered on the state of cultural collapse in the West and the reduction of Christianity for many to a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It is a similitude of faith but not life in Christ or the deification that we are called to by grace.
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Our group began tonight with a very challenging question: what is it to deny oneself?  It is here that we are confronted with the full force of the gospel as reflected through the lived experience of the fathers. To deny oneself is to embrace the cross freely, to be ready for every affliction. It is the willingness to reject everything in this world to attain what Christ promises. We must be willing to be hated by the world as Christ himself was hated by the world, to prepare ourselves for complete dissolution for the sake of eternal life. 
 
It is a jarring reality and turns our worldview upside down. There must be a willingness within us to estrange ourselves from everything that produces slackness. Our desire for Christ and to share in His life leads us along the same path that he trod - into the desert to strip ourselves of the false self. 
 
This led us as a group to discuss what this means for us who live in the world. What does it mean to be a Christian, to embrace the fullness of the life of holiness that Christ has called us to?  Have we been so formed by the culture that we have created an image of Christ that allows us to remain focused on the world and not the kingdom?  How do we evangelize?  Do we settle for something less than being conformed to Christ in every way such that others encounter Him through us?  Do we live a life of perpetual adoration - a life that is a sacrifice of praise.
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How do we foster stillness and unceasing prayer in our lives?  St. Isaac counsels us in Homily 19 to always keep our eye - the eye of the heart - fixed on God. This means not only fostering a virtuous life but also avoiding that which would pull us away from this aim. We must seek to free ourselves from obsessive concerns with the things of the world and from falling lockstep into its frenetic pace. Don't multiply the occupations of your life for in this you may very well be pushing God away.  The spiritual life cannot be a part time occupation. It must be our life. God cannot be pushed to the margins nor can we neglect the grace he offers and its sweetness without quickly losing it.  Meaningless chatter and the noise of dissipated converse destroys stillness as frost destroys new buds on the tree. A divided heart obscures the vision of God and his love.  The ego and pride-driven self-interest draws us down into darkness. Only a humble and contrite heart is lifted up and exalted to share in the life of God. 
 
Have we lost a clear sense of our identity in Christ?  Has the faith been so obscured that we no longer invest ourselves in it but simply take what measure we desire? 
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Last evening we picked up midway through Homily Six where St. Isaac takes up the topic of the vision of the divine in the Kingdom. Such vision and its nature is predicated on the individuals degree of perfection and its gifts. Yet, Isaac is quick to remind us that there is no division amongst us and the experience of God despite how this experience is perceived. There is no disunity or division in heaven and no comparison of gifts. Each delights in the experience and continues to be drawn into the fullness of God.

Following upon this, St. Isaac would have us understand that there exists only Gehenna and Heaven and no other state. It is foolhardy to propose an in-between state that is somehow greater than Gehenna but not yet the Kingdom. Such a notion speaks of an individual's hope that the one can live this life without a sense of urgency rooted in our ultimate end. Every moment is freighted with destiny because every moment is an opportunity to love - an opportunity embraced or set aside. To propose anything less is to foster false hope as well as mediocrity and lukewarmness.

A rather lengthy discussion ensued about the differences between Eastern and Western spirituality; in particular the use of discursive mediation and the use of imagination among Western writers and the avoidance of it among the Eastern ascetics. While largely a part of our spiritual patrimony those in the West have not been catechized in the Ascetical theology and practice of the East and the understanding of the active life as being rooted in the purification of the passions and the development of unceasing prayer. The understanding of the Church as a hospital and a place of healing and Christianity being an Ascetical religion has largely been neglected in recent generations as well as its impact on our understanding of liturgy, religious art and life as a whole.

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In the final paragraph of Homily Four, St. Isaac exhorts us to die to all things and the doings of the world that give rise to the passions.  He acknowledges that there is a a kind of madness to this as seen from a worldly perspective and that reality gets turned on its head.  But it is only when we trust to the Lord by embracing this path fully that we will experience the sweetness of spiritual inebriation.  Though difficult, he encourages us not to lose hope for the mere movement of toward God and the mere expression of desire for holiness brings with it a flood of grace and mercy.

Homily Five begins by reminding us that we have received all that we need through the revelation of nature and the scriptures to guide and direct us in the spiritual life; especially the reality of our own mortality.  Death gives rise to the question of the meaning of our lives and what path we are going to pursue.  We cannot, however, approach these realities and think that we can stand still or refrain from offering any response.  "Whoever does not voluntarily withdraw himself from the passions is involuntarily drawn away by sin."  There is no static position for us as human beings.  We must withdraw from the causes of the passions and set ourselves toward the good; realizing that God honors not wealth but rather poverty of spirit, not pride but humility.

In the spiritual battle, we must engage "manfully", that is, with courage.  We must not doubt God is our Helper in the good work otherwise we will be scared of our own shadow.  If we hope in Him, however, we will experience Him as one who manages our "household", that is, our heart and sends His angels to strengthen and encourage us.

Never hold any sin to be slight.  To love God is to hate evil and our sin, no matter how grave or small in our eyes. And having made any strides in the spiritual life, it must be seen as mere fidelity and obedience to what is commanded of us.  Pride must have no place within us.

Sin must be fought and healed with the right remedies.  Lack of chastity cannot be healed by giving great alms and fasting does not overcome avarice.  In place of the loss of sanctity God requires sanctification.  Lack of chastity must be restored to purity.

 

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Last night we considered the proper measure of discretion needed in ascetical pursuits; dedicating your soul to the work of prayer; pursuing the life of solitude with those who share your desire; the importance of reading in stirring the heart to contemplation; the necessity of almsgiving and the willingness to live with scarcity.  We discussed implications of Isaac's for those who live in the world and pursue purity of heart.

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St. Isaac continued to guide us to a clearer understanding of the Passions and in particular they are contrary to the nature of the soul that has been created for holiness and virtue. Lengthy discussion ensued about the place of asceticism in the lives of all Christian men and women. Regardless of our station in life we are to embrace the grace of our baptism and strive to overcome the Passions. A false clericalism exists that claims that those in the single or married state are not called to radical holiness. The best belongs to everyone not simply to a select few.

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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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