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Tonight's discussion was on Homily 9 and focused on the distinction between voluntary and involuntary sin, the effects of laxity and heedlessness in the spiritual life, the need to remain stalwart in spiritual warfare, courageously entering into the battle and understanding that it may leave us wounded and permanently scarred. We should fear only the devastation that comes from trampling on our own conscience, willingly reaching out our hand to the devil and so taking the path of perdition. 
 
The unfortunate focus in our culture and the culture of Church today is on pursuing individual freedom, fulfillment and satisfaction in this world over and above the pursuit of holiness of life and purity of heart. Our time in this world is short and we must lives as those who understand the urgency of conversion.
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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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St. Isaac began his teaching with a few warnings last evening. The constancy of a soul and its purity is tested by the subtleties of vainglory. The moment one begins to trust in the strength of his virtue and to think it is invincible, he begins to speak freely of licentious subjects. He will then be inundated by unchaste thoughts and his mind will be defiled.  The greater the vainglory the greater the subjugation to the passion. 
 
Purity must be guard by bodily toil, reading of the scriptures, and care for the virtues until cleansing tears rise from the depths of the heart creating a fervent longing for God. Yet if tears are lost through negligence or sloth one cannot presume that this precious gift will be regained. 
 
Affliction alone solidifies and purifies the virtues in the heart and once the heart is purified the Holy Spirit becomes the teacher and guide. Fervor and the desire it expresses guides one to God with an ever greater swiftness. 
 
The pursuit of God must not be made in an over calculated fashion, where fear of perils hinders movement. Free reign must be given to desire and not held back by a false prudence masking a lack of courage. 
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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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In a wonderful discussion of the end of homily five and the beginning of homily six, we lingered over what St. Isaac describes as the aim of our conduct: "to be courteous and respectful to all. Ans do not provoke any man or vie zealously with him, either for the sake of the Faith, or on account of his evil deeds; but watch over yourself not to blame or accuse any man in any matter. For we have a Judge in heaven who is impartial. But if you would have that man return to the truth, be grieved over him and, with tears and love, say a word or two unto him; but do not be inflamed with anger against him, lest he see within you signs of hostility. For love does not know how to be angry, or provoked, or passionately to reproach anyone. The proof of love and knowledge is profound humility, which is born of a good conscience in Jesus Christ our Lord...".

We are to win over souls not with anger or hostility or with argument, but rather with a genuine love for the other and a desire for their well being. We should grieve over the sins of others and not use them as an opportunity to berate or condescend.

Isaac continues to revolve around the virtues of humility and purity of heart in Homily Six and how they take root within us. He warns that God will allow us to experience the fruit of our negligence and the sorrow that is born of sin in order to draw is back to Himself. We must understand that asceticism without a heart truly consecrated to God is wasted.

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We continued discussing a beautiful section of Homily Five where St. Isaac develops his thought on the establishment of purity of heart and the virtues necessary to help it take root deeply. Practicality in our approach to daily circumstances must be set aside. Rather we must patiently endure the rebuke of others, insults and even false accusations. The ego must be set aside and there must be a willingness to experience humiliation. In the end we must let go of the illusion of our goodness and the demand and expectation of justice in this world; rather, we must cling to God and God alone as the source of identity and hope. A lengthy and spirited discussion ensued.

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St. Isaac once again teaches us that we must fully and wisely engage in the spiritual battle - fighting on the right battlefield and making use of the right remedies to heal wounds. He warns us never to treat any sin as slight; for ignoring any sin will eventually make it our master.

Above all we must not be overly confident in our own strength but rather trust in divine providence and the manifestation of that providence in God's angels. They are always there interceding for us, revealing our enemies and fortifying us in the struggle. They show us how close God is to us.

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In the final paragraph of Homily Four, St. Isaac exhorts us to die to all things and the doings of the world that give rise to the passions.  He acknowledges that there is a a kind of madness to this as seen from a worldly perspective and that reality gets turned on its head.  But it is only when we trust to the Lord by embracing this path fully that we will experience the sweetness of spiritual inebriation.  Though difficult, he encourages us not to lose hope for the mere movement of toward God and the mere expression of desire for holiness brings with it a flood of grace and mercy.

Homily Five begins by reminding us that we have received all that we need through the revelation of nature and the scriptures to guide and direct us in the spiritual life; especially the reality of our own mortality.  Death gives rise to the question of the meaning of our lives and what path we are going to pursue.  We cannot, however, approach these realities and think that we can stand still or refrain from offering any response.  "Whoever does not voluntarily withdraw himself from the passions is involuntarily drawn away by sin."  There is no static position for us as human beings.  We must withdraw from the causes of the passions and set ourselves toward the good; realizing that God honors not wealth but rather poverty of spirit, not pride but humility.

In the spiritual battle, we must engage "manfully", that is, with courage.  We must not doubt God is our Helper in the good work otherwise we will be scared of our own shadow.  If we hope in Him, however, we will experience Him as one who manages our "household", that is, our heart and sends His angels to strengthen and encourage us.

Never hold any sin to be slight.  To love God is to hate evil and our sin, no matter how grave or small in our eyes. And having made any strides in the spiritual life, it must be seen as mere fidelity and obedience to what is commanded of us.  Pride must have no place within us.

Sin must be fought and healed with the right remedies.  Lack of chastity cannot be healed by giving great alms and fasting does not overcome avarice.  In place of the loss of sanctity God requires sanctification.  Lack of chastity must be restored to purity.

 

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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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After a brief hiatus, the group came to the end of Conference 23.  Once again we found ourselves grappling, along with Cassian and Germanus, with the fact that despite the holiness and perfection that one may reach, our weakness and sin draws us away from living in a constant state of communion with God.  Created to live in a constant state of receptivity our sin leads to a flighty wandering of the mind and a turning away from God in a multitude of ways - even during the time of prayer.  

The greater the perfection and holiness of the individual, the greater the experience of his own sinfulness and the deeper the compunction over the weakness of his constitution.  Along with this comes a greater sense of his solidarity with others in that sin - the adulterous heart that turns away from God due to mere distractedness and laziness of mind is not in the end any less grave than what we often consider serious sins.  Humility must be one's constant companion and mercy the constant attitude with which one approaches others.

The transgressions we commit daily and our infidelity to God requires not only humility but the medicine He gives through Holy Communion.  This alone is the remedy for our sickness and its importance is understood only through action and experience.  Let us daily call out to Him for mercy and consume the medicine of immortality.
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