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Tonight we came to the conclusion of Homily 17 of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Isaac continues to discuss the Chaste life and how to protect it. He instructs us to keep our inner life a private affair. We must not reveal what is most intimate and our relationship with God or our vulnerabilities. We must never put ourselves or God to the test nor must we retaliate when we are condemned by others. Gluttony must be avoided at all costs and we must avoid rich foods so as not to weigh ourselves down. Silence is to be guarded as most valuable and in this we should avoid talkativeness and flee theological discussions. We must occupy ourselves with one thing alone – our relationship with Christ. 
 
In Homily 18 St. Isaac begins to speak to us about the stages of the spiritual life. In particular he focuses upon the violence we must do to ourselves in order to transform the passions - fasting, reading, vigils, prostrations.  Such must be embraced to stoke the fires of devotion and compunction which give way to tears that cleanse the heart. We must keep our focus on these disciplines and not hurry indiscriminately towards the higher forms of prayer. To do so would be to subject ourselves to potential delusion.
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We continued reading the 17th Homily of St. Isaac the Syrian which focuses on establishing a "Rule" of life for beginners in light of Hesychasm and Philokalic Spirituality as a whole. Isaac shows how every aspect of our life must be transformed by the grace of God. With a holy genius, he reveals the healing of soul that must take place. Every interaction with others, every emotion, can be a means of seduction and so must be considered with radical honesty. We must possess a willingness to reflect upon things such as laughter, the familiar and lingering gaze upon another, and encounters with the opposite sex from the perspective of their impact upon the spiritual life and the vulnerability that arises out of our sin. This is never a solitary pursuit. A solidarity exists between each of us and thus a responsibility for one another's salvation.

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In Homily 17, St. Isaac begins to lay out a "Rule of Life" for those seeking to live chastely and in a way pleasing to God. Chiefly this means showing restraint and wisdom in regard to every aspect of life: sight, speech, attire, food, alcohol, etc. Thus, discretion is put forward as the most important of all the virtues - the ability to discern between good and evil. Purity of heart and purity in action is essential; as is setting aside all egoism. Indiscriminate familiarity in relations with others must be avoided and a proper respect for boundaries in relationships and in daily interactions is essential. This is not fastidiousness but rather an acknowledgment of the power of the senses, desires, appetites - indeed all that is human. All must be purified and transformed by the grace of God. 

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St. Isaac presents us with the identity of the monk and his defining characteristics. Discussion ensued about interiorized monasticism and our embrace of the call to sanctity. Holiness, the control of the passions and unceasing prayer are meant not only for the monk but for all. 
 
Like the monk we are called to love chastity and to pursue it through nourishing ourselves upon the writings of the scriptures and the Fathers and through prolonged prayer. We must immerse ourselves deeply in the love and mercy of God in order that the deep wounds we bear may be healed. 
 
Our life is found not in the things of this world but in God. We are strangers to the city and citizens of the Kingdom. Our detachment must be such that we fear not the loss of our reputation but endure all dishonor quietly in order to defuse hatred and anger. 
 
Bearing such affliction purifies and solidifies the particular virtues within us as gold is purified in the fire. 
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We began Homily 4 where St Isaac introduces us to the importance of Renunciation and the fruit it produces in the soul. We are to wean ourselves from the things of the world in our search for the divine.

Fleeing the ease of this age and freely embracing the suffering and humiliations we begin to understand and live in accord with the standard of the Cross. The mercy we show toward others is to be the mercy of Christ - nothing less.

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Abba Theonas continues to draw Cassian and Germanus into the greater vision of the Christian life - guided not by law but by grace.  The measure of holiness for the Christian is always Christ, the sinless one, and so even though our conscience does not rebuke us we know that we are but worthless servants who have only done our duty.  We seek the purity of heart and chastity that not only avoids fornication but seeks freedom from all wantonness.  In this the fundamental attitude of the Christian must be humility.  We must live in a constant state of repentance, penance and prayer; understanding that daily we fall through weakness into the capital sins and that it is only by being lifted up by God's grace and participating in the perfect purity of Christ that we come to share in the holiness of God.  

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The desert fathers are not shy when it comes to talking about the more intimate details of human sexuality and its interplay with the spiritual life.  Conference 22 picks up with Cassian and Germanus' much anticipated discussion with Abba Theonas about why fasting does not always seem to guarantee freedom from nocturnal emission of semen.  There is no dualism between mind and body in Cassian's thought - each has an impact on the spiritual life and are intimately tied together.  Nocturnal emissions take place for three possible reasons: Either a surfeit of food and drink has demanded this sort of release; or some kind of spiritual neglect has provoked it; or, finally, the devil himself has brought it about and uses it to humiliate a person who is otherwise progressing in purity, thus making him hesitate to receive Holy Communion.

This leads Germanus to ask whether a person who has had a nocturnal emission is permitted to receive communion and if so under what circumstances.  Passions may lie deep within the unconscious and arise within dreams and cause such natural phenomena.  An individual can incur guilt by irregularity and neglectful practices - times of gluttony, entertaining momentary sinful thoughts, lack of prayer, etc.  The unconscious reveals a great deal about one's conscious spiritual life and practice.  

Such considerations are important especially when it comes to receiving Holy Communion for one who seeks to truly discern the Body and Blood of the Lord.  Though seeming subtle and significant to the modern mind all of this speaks to the importance of purity of heart and whether one is in a right relationship with God and living, as it were, from communion to communion.  Do we appreciate the nature of the gift that we receive in the Holy Eucharist and do we live our lives in such a fashion that we are constantly preparing to receive the gift of God's grace and striving to allow it to bear the greatest fruit possible?  If the Eucharist is Life and the center of our lives then our attentiveness to both our conscious awareness and practices and to manifestations of our unconscious should be great.  What do our dreams or the presence of nocturnal emissions tell us about aspects of our internal state that may be hidden to us?  

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As we come to the end of Conference 21, Abba Theonas raises the bar for us in terms of how we understand our lives as Christian men and women.  He presents us with a magnificent comparison between focusing on our lives in a legalistic fashion (fulfilling certain precepts and obligations) and seeing our lives as being caught up in the grace of God and transcending the limitations of the law in every way.  

Sin is to have no dominion over us for the love of God has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Every disposition to sin is to be something absolutely foreign to us since all our concentration and all our longing is constantly fixed upon the divine love and to such a degree that we do not take delight in base things and do not even make use of those things that would normally be conceded to us by our own judgment and that of the world's.  The grace of the Savior is to inflame us with a holy love of incorruption which burns up all the thorns of evil desires such that the dying ember of vice does not diminish our integrity in any way.

This is something that must be experienced to be understood fully.  The purity of heart and the all consuming love for God and the love virtue is rarely tasted in our day.  May God fill us with the desire for it!
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Nowhere is the universal call to holiness, the call to live in and embrace the grace of God radically, more fully and challengingly expressed than in this section of Cassian's 21st Conference.  These realities become extremely personal as they are displayed through the story of the conversion of Theonas, the elder of the conference.  The pursuit of the perfection of grace touches every aspect of life and whether a person is a monk, a virgin or married, they are called to take it up whatever the costs.  Theonas was married and comes to the realization that he must embrace more than a lawful commitment to his spouse but a relationship that fosters chastity.  The locus of conflict that he begins to identify is between sexual habit and continence in the heart and that it is possible for a person not to be a lover of marriage but rather of slave of lust.  Sexuality here becomes the perfect mirror of the human self - the lens through which we see the contortions and distortions of human motivations.  He and his wife had been pushed into marriage with the notion that the vows alone would control sexual passions.  They mistakenly thought that purity of heart could be fostered without embracing fully the life of grace and its expression in a disciplined life.  Marriage is touched by grace - it is to make present the selfless love of Christ for his Bride the Church.  This comes at a costs and by grace, not by magic or wishful thinking.  

Theonas desired not only his own salvation but that of his wife; that they would abstain from conjugal relationship and embrace ascetical discipline until their hearts were purified and the love for each other chaste. He would not defraud himself or his wife of salvation or become for each other merely "seducer."  To divorce his wife with whom he was one would mean cutting off and losing a part of himself.  If his hand causes him to sin he must in the end cut it off.  To be Christ's disciple, to love himself above all things, then he would fulfill and embrace the words of the Lord that "unless you hate father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister and yes even your own life, you cannot be my disciple."  

Cassian will not allow us to easily dismiss these challenging teachings of the Gospel as hyperbole or set aside the call to embrace the grace of God and so be transformed from "glory to glory."
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Taking up Cassian's Conference 13 ON GOD'S PROTECTION again, we prefaced our conversation with a closer look at the criticism lodged against Cassian's thought by Prosper of Aquitaine.  Considering the study of Casiday in his book, Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian, it becomes clear through a thorough analysis of both Cassian and Prosper that Prosper in his zeal to defend the Church against the heresy of Pelagianism misrepresents Cassian's teaching and even alters or excludes portions deliberately.  Unfortunately, it is only in recent times that scholars have begun to closely scrutinize both writers' works in a fashion that gives a clear and accurate picture of the truth.

Having addressed these concerns, we then turned once more to the text only to find ourselves captivated by the depth and beauty of the elder Chaeremon's teaching on the essential nature of God's grace in the pursuit of all virtue, especially chastity.  Furthermore, God is set on the salvation of all men and women and looks for the smallest response to his grace within us; only then to pour forth an abundance on us and to guide and direct our steps at every turn.  God is like a jealous lover; not hurt by our rejection but rather driven on by love to draw us back to Him by any means necessary.
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