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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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Last night we reflected upon Homily 16 of St. Issac the Syrian. It is a beautiful exhortation to let go of our attachment to the world and the things of the world, to let go of the security and false hope they promise. Isaac encourages us to cling only to Christ who is our salvation and source of healing. The path to healing and joy is repentance. The sacrifice we may make in renouncing the world pale in comparison to both the immediate and ultimate end such renunciation promises - purity of heart and deification. Even the deep sorrow of compunction and the tears shed over our sins, carry within them the joy of renewed intimacy with 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 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!
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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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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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Along with Cassian and Germanus, we came to the end of the first conference on prayer with Abba Issac, where discussion focussed on the different origins of tears (consciousness of one's own sins, fear of Gehenna, the sins of others, and the hardships of this life in the face of a deep longing for heaven).  Tears are to be fostered as a part of compunction, but never forced once one has reached deeper level of prayer, so as not to focus on things of lesser importance.  

Prayers are heard or not heard for various reasons.  Our hearts must be filled with a kind of urgency that gives rise to persistence in prayer and we must not doubt that God will hear and answer our prayers in due course, so long as like our Lord we seek only the will of God and what is for our salvation.
Prayer is to be engaged in silently; not only so as not to disturb others but in order not to reveal to demons the more intimate aspects of our relationship with God.  Some things are only to be shared between the soul and the Heavenly Bridegroom.
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Germanus, Cassian's traveling companion, begins this section by talking about the mind's inconstancy and seeming inability to hold on to holy thoughts.  He presses Abba Issac to move ahead with a discussion on how to pray without ceasing.  But Abba Issac knows that there is work that must first be done in understanding the various aspects of prayer as outlined by the Apostle Paul and to see an example of the forms of prayer expressed perfectly and in unison by Jesus in the Our Father.  No person's prayers are uniform and each is affected by their level of purity of heart.

A rather lengthy discussion ensued about the struggle with secularism and worldliness that impedes the freedom and simplicity necessary to allow prayer to become the focus and center of one's life.  
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Prayer is the subject of conferences 9 and 10 and its importance is underlined at the very beginning of the 9th: "The end of every monk and the perfection of his heart incline him to constant and uninterrupted perseverance in prayer." But this constant prayer demands, in turn, perfection of heart and the virtues that go with it.  This ninth conference serves as a kind of preliminary, among other things establishing the conditions for prayer and the different possible characteristics of prayer.  

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Cassian takes up the theme of the three sources of one's calling to the monastic life or to conversion (God, the example of others, need) and the three types of renunciation essential for living a life of deep conversion (detachment from worldly goods, one's passions, and from all things that prevent theoria or contemplation.)  Discussion ensued about compunction, conversion in one's daily life, and embracing a spirit of renunciation in the modern world.

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