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Tonight we read homily 44 of St. Isaac the Syrian on Stillness. Isaac speaks of the value of stillness and the unwillingness an anchorite should have to sacrifice it. No dishonor or honor should lead a monk away from the silence. No natural bond or act of charity should tempt the one called by God to it to free himself from the charge. God alone can ask for such absolute love and commitment. The monk embraces the solitude not for himself or because of any whim or natural inclination but rather to obey God’s call him to serve the church in such a fashion.  He does not despise association with men but rather loves stillness because God set it before him as the path to salvation. 
 
Such a writing calls us all to reflect upon our lives and the depth of our commitment to God. It confronts us with the gospel and it’s truth in an unvarnished fashion. It is nothing less than unsettling and one must listen with faith. If we do not find it disturbing, then we have to ask ourselves if we have ever heard the gospel in its fullness. In whatever vocation we find ourselves, God wants our hearts completely and absolute fidelity.
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Tonight we were able to read homily 43 in its entirety. St. Isaac describes the various modes of discipline in the spiritual life - the purification of the body and senses, the purification of the soul (which is freedom from secret passions) and finally the purification of the mind or the nous which comes from God‘s revelation of himself to us and raising us up to Divine visions.  The third mode draws us into what he describes as hypostatic Theoria, where an individual begins to experience the limpid purity of his primordial nature as one created for God and union with God. In this experience one becomes awestruck with wonder at God; tasting what will be experienced in all of its fullness in existence after the resurrection.  Such a state carries with it no sorrow or attachment to the things of the world. If we only knew the depths of God’s blessings we would long to experience that intimate union with him now and always.   
 
We must remind ourselves that Christian mysticism is distinctive and unique.  It comes about not through altering the consciousness through asceticism or meditation but through God’s revelation of Himself and raising us up by His grace as a prelude to beholding Him with mediation unto the ages of ages.
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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 our discussion of Homily 37 and began with St. Isaac’s distinction between revelations and visions. Visions are concrete appearances of the incorporeal world such as angels and saints and are consolation for those who have embraced the anchoritic life in particular. Stripped of all worldly attachments God strengthens and encourages such individuals for the ascetic life. Revelations however come to the perfect and pure of heart and give insights into eschatological future states.  The intellect (Nous) is engaged and participated in the Kingdom. It is an inward mystical experience. 
 
The fathers, including Isaac, make these distinctions because of the dangers of prelest or delusion. Purity of heart is essential. A man must be free from outside modes of knowledge and embrace a kind of primordial simplicity and guilelessness.  
 
It is in this profound childlike and humble state that God can raise one up to experience his love and life. Such purity comes through spiritual mourning and compunction. Humbled by the truth He raises us up.  This is not raw emotionalism but rather a life wholly directed toward God and desiring Him. Such weeping purifies memory and imagination so that nothing holds a person back from God.
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We returned to homily 37 tonight where St Isaac instructs us on the meaning and value of tears. They both cleanse us from our sins and are an expression of our compunction. Furthermore they anoint us and transform our countenance as we enter into greater intimacy with God and are transformed by his Grace. 
 
Life transformed by God’s grace through such tears manifests to the world the resurrection that we experience now in Christ. We are to cast off the old man and live as those who seek Christ alone. Essential to this is fostering a life of stillness where we can mortify the senses in order to be more attentive to God. 
 
To one whose conscience is clear and pure God will often provide visions or revelations. Sometimes he offers these simply to console one struggling in the spiritual life, in particular those living in the desert as anchorites. Having stripped themselves of all earthly consolation, God in his providence supports and nourishes them by manifesting to them the truth through these two means. 
 
Discussion ensued regarding the experience of those in the world. While perhaps not experiencing the visions that are intrinsic to the solitary life, we are still called to foster stillness and seek intimacy with God as does the monk. To live our lives seeking God in all we do and having our lives shaped by this reality.
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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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We began our discussion of St Isaac’s 37th Homily with his teaching about the importance of separating ourselves from the things of the world so as to make the ascetical struggle easier.  The struggle is easier when the sources of temptation are at a distance. We must in fact flee from those things that cause warfare and not associate with that which fights against us. The stillness and purity that is gained through asceticism must not be thoughtlessly thrown away; For even the memory or imagination of certain things can bring us harm. Thus we must guard against becoming overconfident so as not to trample our consciences. Various examples of this were discussed. 
 
St. Isaac then moved on to consider what is the beginning of the spiritual war and where does one start the fight. Fasting and Vigils are the signs of our hatred for sin and desire for God. They are God’s holy pathway and the foundation of every virtue. Day and night they lead us to God - humbling the mind and body and making us ever watchful and discerning. Discussion ensued about what this means for those living in the world and how it they are to be fostered. 
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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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We picked up this evening with Homilies 36 and 37. Once again Isaac speaks to us of the importance of the Ascetical life and how it is the foundation of our sanctification. The ordering of the passions through tears, prayer and solitude are key as is humility. What Isaac seeks most of all in these Homilies though is to open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love and His desire to draw us into His life. Isaac wants us to see how this love permeates all things and in seeing it he wants to stir our desire for God. This Life and Love are greater than all things worldly and so we should freely and without fear be willing to sacrifice all for it.

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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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