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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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Last night we discussed Homilies 11 and 12. Here St. Isaac holds up the monastic life as an exemplar which we are to emulate - monks illuminate the darkness of the world with the beauty of their virtue and in them we are to find refuge. Though not monks, we are called to an interiorized monasticism - to live as those who know how fleeting is life and how valuable is virtue. Isaac lays before us lists of their virtues by which we can gauge our deficiency or progress. It is by our virtue that we give glory to God. 
 
In Homily 12, Isaac discusses the various stages of the spiritual life. Daily we are to strive to walk the narrow path and to overcome the passions. We are to live in the hope that Christ alone provides; and even when we do not receive consolation or feel strong desire we are not to abandon that hope in God's mercy and grace. 
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The foundation of all that is good, St Isaac the Syrian tells us in Homily 8, is the knowledge of one's own weakness, realizing the need for God's help.  It is the Mother of humility and the birthplace of deep and abiding prayer. 

From such prayer comes all good things to be found for the spiritual life. It is the refuge of help, light in darkness, a staff of the infirm, medicine in sickness and a sharpened arrow against spiritual enemies. 
 
The more one prays the more one comes to treasure the gift and to cease pondering vanities. One learns to crave God and to seek Him out constantly. 
 
In His compassion God allows us to be humbled - to correct and to heal. Temptations and afflictions become profitable because they purify the soul of pride and also teach the soul to fight and remain in the arena with fortitude and courage. 
 
Thus, in all things we are to be grateful and we must acknowledge that the trials we experience are the fruit of negligence and laxity. Trials come to awaken us to the urgency of the moment, to jolt us out of our complacency and to teach us that every moment is freighted with destiny. We are temples of God the Most High and we must not take such a reality lightly or hold the grace we receive as cheap.
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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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Devastatingly Beautiful. . .  .

This is the only way to describe tonight's group and our reflection on Abba Theonas' discussion with Germanus and Cassian on Theoria or Contemplation.  One cannot help but be wrapped up in the beauty of the life and love that God has raised us to share in with Him and how we are constantly under His loving gaze and attention.  Yet, it is devastating when we come to see how easily we are pulled from God by our own carelessness and negligence.  We foster distraction when God desires union.  He would draw us close and we turn away so casually and even without notice.  

Again, we see the need to live in a constant state of repentance; of turning toward God again and again and away from the desires of the flesh and this world.  We must keep our eyes ever fixed upon the beloved; like a tightrope walker never looking to the right or left if we are to reach our destination.  We have been set upon a narrow path - that of single hearted love for the Lord and we must ever hold to it and repent of the ways we let our thoughts drift from Him.  
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This evening we made a transition from Conference 22 to Conference 23, the last of Abba Theonas's three conferences.  Our discussion began with clarifying the fact that even the righteous and holy are in need of repentance and often fall, albeit unwillingly, into the sin of distraction and being pulled away from the goal of the spiritual life - Theoria, or contemplation of God.  In the light of divine goodness, all human goodness may be referred to as evil, "Thus, although the value of all the virtues . . . is good and precious in itself, it is nonetheless obscured upon comparison with the brilliance of theoria.  For it greatly hinders and holds back holy persons from the contemplation of that sublime good if they are take up with what are still earthly pursuits, even if they are good works."  We have been created for God and intimacy with God; back to and greater than that state of original innocence and constant communion with the Lord before the Fall. We must be careful, then, not to see the pursuit of virtue or the avoidance of vice as the goal or end of the spiritual life, although they are essential to it.  These things cannot be separated from our desire for God and intimacy with Him.  Nor can we achieve them outside of His grace.  If abstracted from the love of God and the desire to live in that love - the spiritual life can become lifeless and devoid of meaning. 

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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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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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Cassian and Germanus now begin their discussion with Abba Theonas; the conference beginning with the story of Theonas' own conversion and which is meant to be the cypher through which the teachings that follow are meant to be interpreted.  There is a higher ideal of the Gospel - one that urges a far greater abnegation of self than what is found the the fulfillment of the law.  Furthermore, one is called, persuaded, to respond to the higher life of grace and is invited to assent through freedom of will and the desire for what is beautiful.  The perfect who stand not under the law but under grace, remain ardent, and so attain to that state where they are not dominated by sin.  They are not content to offer tithes but rather seek to offer themselves and their own souls to God, for which no exchange can be made by a human being.  Christ forces no one to the highest reaches of virtue by the obligation of a precept but he moves by the power of a free will and inflames by salutary persuasion and by the desire for perfection.  

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