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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 began Homily 40 and it has proven like so many before it to be challenging and beautiful. St. Issac captures not only the foundational and essential elements of the spiritual life but presents us with an ever so honest presentation of the consequences of negligence. St. Isaac teaches us that stability of place fosters a kind of internal stability and stillness of mind. To leave the stillness and the watchfulness it affords opens our imagination and memories back up to the passions that had been once healed. 
 
Fasting humbles the mind and body to make them more docile and placid to the workings of grace. Fasting involves the whole self in the spiritual life in order that life itself can become Liturgy - that is worship of God. To let go of perpetual fasting is to make ourselves swine - our belly and passions become insatiable and we begin to consume what is unfit for human being created in the imagine and likeness of God. The unconscious bears witness to this as fantasies emerge in dreams and the body responds by emitting the concrete manifestation of those fantasies enacted. 
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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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In the second half of Homily 20, St. Isaac the Syrian lays out for us the beauty of maintaining Night Vigils. He values it so much that he tells us that we should never remove it from our spiritual life. Nor are we to dissipate our toil by becoming inattentive and negligent in our daily life. If we cultivate our converse with God throughout the day so that it conforms to our night's mediation then in a very short while we shall have embraced Jesus' bosom. Dominion over one's thoughts and purity and concentration is granted to the mind that allows it to gaze upon and understand the mysteries revealed in the Scriptures. Even in illness when other disciplines are relaxed Vigils gain for the mind a steadfastness in prayer. If we maintain the practice throughout our lives we will behold the glory experienced by the righteous. 
 
This isn't without struggle. We must be willing to endure and persevere through times of heaviness and coldness and learn through these experiences that great fruit is received and suddenly our strength will return to us.  We will be overcome with wonder and purifying tears will flow. 
 
If after fasting, prayer and Vigils have led to the taming of the body, the arousal of appetites should return, Isaac warns us that we must through repentance search for the source of pride that diminishes this great gift until our hearts are once again brought to rest in God. 
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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 concluded Homily 15. St. Isaac beautifully weaved his way back and forth between the dangers of talkativeness, gluttony and and the association with those who would pull one away from the path of sanctity and the contrasting virtues of silence, fasting and solitude. 
 
The greater the embrace of the virtues often brings with it a kind of isolation. The witness of virtue itself is challenging and elicits the fearful anger or resentment of others. 
 
One should lives one's life from Eucharist to Eucharist - desiring the nourishment that comes from and is a taste of heaven.  The more one longs for the Bread of Life and to be nourished upon the love of God the less one will be attracted to worldly pleasures that are often sought in its place. 
 
Living for God and from God must become the ultimate joy and pursuit at every moment of one's life. 
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In this section of the 4th Homily Isaac warns: "Do not take it upon yourself to teach others while still in ill health; rather consider yourself ignorant and always a novice - preferring humility, holiness and purity to all things. Guard against becoming mere vendors of words and arm yourself with the weapons of tears, fasting and the study of scripture and the Fathers.

 

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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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Germanus and Cassian finally begin to talk with Abba Theonas about the relaxation of Pentecost; that is, how one approaches a festal season and moderation of ascetical practices.  Theonas starts by emphasizing the importance of discretion and right judgment arising out of a well formed conscience so that one avoid extremes.  During such a season a person wouldn't want to indiscriminately maintain disciplines so as to overly weaken the body or fain asceticism before others or relax disciplines too much so as to lose control of the passions one has labored to overcome during Lent.

Celebration and relaxation should not simply be considered in a worldly fashion.  As Christians we want to protect the nobler festival of the mind and the joy of incorruption above all things.  The relaxation we embrace should reflect that joyful reality and we should not give way to the gross indiscretion of the world and fail to abstain from overly rich foods or eat a great deal more than usual.  The celebration lies within and we don't want to overemphasize the satisfaction of carnal desires.

Attention then turns to Lent as tithing of a portion of one's life to God for the sake of greater emancipation from one's sins and passions.  Likewise, Theonas goes on to explain we are to tithe the first fruits of every day to God.  Before any worldly work is done, our thoughts must turn to God and we must offer Him first our sacrifice of praise.  
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