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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 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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Last night’s reading from St. Isaac the Syrian’s 4th Homily was extraordinary.  As is so often the case, one is left with the feeling that there is no going back to a lesser vision of the faith and ascetic life.  He warns us not to sacrifice our freedom, the freedom of simplicity, by enslaving ourselves to the things of this world.  We must not live our lives to support luxury and ease and so make ourselves “slave of slaves”; that is, slaves to our passions and senses.  Humble living is to be met with restraint in speech and love of silence.  We are to constrict our thoughts and reduce distraction in order to seek contemplation above all things.  To stand before God with a pure heart to better than all things - even all acts of charity.  Care must be given not to gain the whole world and lose our souls in the process.  “It is more profitable for you to attend to raising up unto the activity of your cogitations concerning God the deadness of your soul due to the passions, than it is to resurrect the dead.”

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St. Isaac continues to lay the foundations for the discipline of virtue which include in particular the purification of the passions and the avoidance of distractions.  He emphasizes reading as an ascetical discipline - especially the reading of scripture.  Such reading helps free the mind and imagination from worldly things and the more one immerses himself in the wonder of God's love, the more the thoughts are prevented from running to the body's nature.  If the heart is not occupied with study, it cannot endure the continuous assault of thoughts.

Inconstancy of mind and heart is overcome through fear and shame - a recognition of our mortality and the repentance from sin that flows from it.  This is the foundation of one's spiritual journey and the quickest path to the kingdom.  

We must remember that not every person will be wakened to wonder by what is said in the scriptures and the great power it contains within it.  Faith more than reason must guide that study and illuminate that word and purity must clear one's vision. "A word concerning virtue has need of a heart unbusied with the earth and converse."

It becomes clear that simplicity of life and clarity of purpose and desire are necessary for those seeking the kingdom.  Our faith cannot be an auxiliary construction or something to which we lesser energies.  Nor can we compartmentalize our faith.  The path to holiness must be tread with firm purpose and with the full self invested.
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St. Isaac begins by encouraging us to become drunk with faith in God; to be so immersed in our relationship with Him that we are constantly under the influence of His grace.  Only in this way will the malady of the senses and the passions that arise out of them be healed.  It is this understanding of Christian Asceticism that must be regained.  Instead of seeking distraction and entertainment in our lives, we must seek solitude and silence; to purify the heart in order to be drawn into the Mystery and Wonder of God. 

When God's grace is abundant within us we easily scorn the fear of death and are willing to endure the greatest tribulations.  In fact, Isaac tells us, such trials are necessary for the perfecting of faith and lead us to rely more and more upon the providence of God.  Without this trust, a person is continually waylaid by his fears of the world around him and the unknown.  

Fear of God, the offspring of faith, and obedience to the commandments is the only means to avoiding distractions.  As human beings we are constantly in a state of receptivity through our senses and unless we turn away from the senses we will gradually be driven away from our delight in God.  A conscious choice must be made to simplify our lives in order to provide them with the solitude that is need for prayer and study.  Without such intent we will be driven back to the inveterate habits of licentiousness.
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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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Last night the group took up Cassian's Thirteenth Conference "On God's Protection" which discusses the essential interplay between Grace and Free will.  Part of our close reading of the text allows for a "redeeming" of Cassian's understanding of this delicate subject from what has been, I believe, gross misrepresentation of this thought.  When read in light of and in the context of the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition and its understanding of SYNERGY, Cassian's Conference is revealed as being the most refined and beautiful explication of difficult subject matter, based upon the lived experience of the ascetical life.  It also highlights the importance of the Eastern view of theology as an experiential knowledge of God rooted in purity of heart and the life of prayer and not simply being a rationalistic approach to the mysteries of the faith.

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Cassian and Germanus seek out the guidance of the elder Serenus, whose name captures his character.  Serenus had attained great purity of heart, peace, and freedom from the carnal desires of the flesh.  Cassian and Germanus come to him in a state of despair; for although having labored for years they found their thoughts wandering and pulling them back to the things of the world and the passions.  In their desolation they had begun to give up any hope of attaining such virtue and complain to Serenus that it is their nature that has prevented stability of mind and heart.  Serenus in both his teaching and example is becomes the cypher though which we are meant to come to understand both the path to and nature of purity of heart.  It is desire and thirst for God alone that can bring us to this freedom.  Faith, Hope and Love are the weapons we use to engage in the battle (the theological virtues that have God as their end) and the depths of the heart is purified by the sharp sword of the Spirit.  Once again the discussion was thoughtful and enriching and Cassian’s insights immeasurably valuable.

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We continue to make our way through Cassian's analysis of the spiritual life and its trials.  As we approach the end of the Sixth Conference, Cassian makes it clear that there is no unchanging state in the spiritual life.  We are either seeking God and growing in virtue (driven by desire) or we are being drawn deeper into the life of sin.  Love of God, desire for the Beloved, must draw us on through the life of grace.  With an intensity of mind, we must pursue what lies ahead and not let ourselves be molded and shaped by the things of the world.  We must be held by God and shaped in accord with His wisdom and will.

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 Stillness may be equated to peace of soul; the absence of spiritual warfare and the presence of calm. We beginners in the spiritual life cannot imagine what it would be like to be totally unaffected by the disquietude of the world; it is beyond our ability to comprehend never being tempted to speak in haste and never experiencing the movements of anger in our hearts. The beginner must be content with experiencing moments of this peace. He must strive to win this peace, by overcoming all the passions which seek to overthrow it. 

 
It is only when we begin to center our thoughts on the spiritual world within by pushing far from us the noise of the external world that we notice how little peace is found there. The first notice of this peacelessness is often enough to drive many back to the diversions of the world. For some, the existential pain of their passionate soul is too great to bear and they choose to run away rather than stay and face it. For those who choose to stay, the experience of the true state of their souls is a necessary lesson. We first learn the presence of our soul by its pain rather than its peace. As we continue in our spiritual lives, it is this pain which will always direct us back to the concerns of the soul when we begin to stray.

As we set a priority on peace, we will begin to notice more and more the things in our lives that rob us of peace. We will begin to find the noise of this world to be a hindrance rather than a help. We will notice how much of our time is spent following distractions. We will begin to change our lifestyle on the basis of what produces peace in our souls. We will inevitably be led to a love of quiet and solitude.

However, an important thing to note is that this is a gradual process. St. John is very quick to point out the dangers of embracing too much "stillness" before we are spiritually ready: "The man who is foul-tempered and conceited, hypocritical and a nurse of grievances, ought never to enter the life of solitude, for fear that he should gain nothing but the loss of his sanity."

Above all, then, we must remember that the path to internal peace is not an easy one. Therefore, we must set ourselves for a long struggle. We will not achieve the state of constant peace in a day. Perhaps it is enough for us today not to have allowed anger to enter our soul; perhaps it is enough for us to have refrained from that idle word which stirs up passion; perhaps it is enough for us to have refrained from viewing those things which would have aroused our sexual passions. Each day we add virtue to virtue. Each day we embrace the struggle. Each day we repent of our failures. Each day we continue the struggle. In this way, although we may never be completely successful, we will never stop trying. And God who grants the prize, will consider our struggles to be victory and will grant us His peace for eternity.
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