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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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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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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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We picked up this evening about midway through Saint Isaac’s Homily 25. St. Isaac has been speaking about the beauty of the solitary way of life and the constant called to intimacy with God. In the sections considered this evening Isaac warns of the pitfalls solitaries often experience. As one is separated from the false self and the ego diminished one experiences the full vision of the poverty of their sin and the darkness it brings.  The self is left to walk in the darkness of faith to rely only on the mercy of God. The temptation is to shrink back from this intimacy and knowledge of God or to seek worldly and sensible consolations. Worse yet one might fall into despair having been stripped of all worldly consolations but not seeking rest in God. This is by far the most pitiable state of man.

Isaac presents this all as a prelude to calling us to live out our lives in Expectation of the promise of life and eternal love that come to us through Christ. To seek the Kingdom above all things and to desire the things of the Kingdom frees us from the net of despair and fosters an invincible form of long suffering. Come what may one lives in and through hope.

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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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Once worldly cares have been stilled and virtue acquired, Abba Nesteros tells Cassian and Germanus that an assiduous program of reading the Bible must be undertaken. Reading though brings with it the danger of pride and consequently Abba Nesteros tells them that humble discretion must be exercised. He suggest the memorization of Scripture - in fact, perhaps, surprising to modern ears, the memorization of the entire Bible. Scripture is put forward here as the subject of continual mediation.

Spiritual matters are not to be spoken of lightly; nor without experience behind them.  Our one desire should be to seek to be the spouse of Christ and to allow our hearts to be shaped fully by His Word.  Holiness leads to the deepest knowledge and we must avoid relying simply on human wisdom and rhetorical skill.  Likewise we must set aside all daydreaming about worldly literature and the exercise of the intellect, reason and imagination and make Christ our lasting treasure; understanding that in Him we lack absolutely nothing.  

Finally, when speaking of the mysteries of God, our words should be directed especially to those who know the bitterness of life, whose hearts have been crushed by the weight of their own sin - those who know their poverty and so can truly be nourished and healed by the Word.

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Cassian and Germanus came to the end of their conference with Abba Chaeremon on Perfection discussing the various ranks of perfection that depend on an individual's virtue, will and ardor.  We are challenged by God to go from the heights to sill higher places, driven by love.  The greatest perfection is to share in the sonship of Christ; to be motivated by love in all things.  The only fear we are to have is the fear that is a part of the nature and disposition of love itself - a fear of not doing the will of God or of losing a life a virtue through negligence.  We must be preoccupied with a concerned devotion not only in every action but also in every word, lest our ardor become to the slightest extent lukewarm.

From this, we moved on to consider the distinct connection between perfection and chastity which is the subject of Conference Twelve.  Chastity, an inner tranquillity and peace and freedom from impurity is a means to an end for Cassian; a means to love with the perfection and purity of heart he has described.  It is possible to eradicate impurity through ascetical practices strengthened by the grace of God.  There is a difference between abstinence and chastity. With abstinence there can be a gnawing longing for the thing struggled against; whereas with chastity there is a love of purity for its own sake that penetrates into the unconscious and touches even the involuntary movements of the flesh.
Discussion then ensued regarding the profound depth psychology of the desert fathers and how this differs from modern, secular psychological thought and practice as a means of healing.
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After discussing the three sources of one's calling to monastic life or conversion, Cassian moves on to consider three forms of renunciation that lead one to embrace the life of grace: renunciation of one's attachment to material things, renunciation of one's attachment to sin, and renunciation of anything that prevents one from living in the fullness of theoria, or contemplation of God. Discussion ensued about how this renunciation is fulfilled by those who live in the world and in the face of the challenges of this generation and in light of the modern culture. How does one live for God alone in our day and seek purity of heart? What are the obstacles that we often place in our own way to pursuing the life of holiness and the joy in brings?

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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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St. John then discusses more advanced forms of discernment and how such a gift may be fostered in a persons' soul. (a) He speaks of the necessity of mortifying one's will, seeking the counsel of others with humility, and abandoning attachment to everything. (b) A person must learn how to judge failures and successes in his spiritual pursuits and interpret their meaning. (c) He must also learn not to follow certain inclinations that would lead him to take upon himself tasks beyond his capabilities. (d) Such a virtue will help him to understand the meaning of the moral lapses in those who seem to be holy and blessed with many spiritual gifts. (e) Gradually he will learn not to be surprised at the unexpected actions of others, but will remain a peace even when afflicted and rebuked. (f) He will understand the need to strike down demons before giving them an opportunity to wound him. (g) His eyes will be open to how demons seek to teach us how to interpret scripture in a distorted fashion and how they seek to confuse our thoughts. (h) He will see how and in what manner he must enter into the struggle and who his enemies are.

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