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Tonight was a wonderful journey with St. Isaac as he visited with one exemplar after another of the solitary life; describing along the way the particular virtues they possessed, how they prayed and the lessons they taught. 
 
The solitary life is unique in the value it gives to the pursuit of stillness and unceasing prayer or as St Isaac often describes it - the Angelic life or Celestial husbandry. The solitary like those in other vocations must cling to their identity and the path that God has called them to walk. They must avoid the temptation to look aside to other things or practices that though clearly admirable do not fulfill the aim of their vocation. In this they become models of fidelity for us all.
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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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Last night we picked up with Homily 13 which focused on initial effects of Stillness on the soul. For a brief period of time she is deprived of spiritual comfort as she begins to walk more and more in the darkness of faith and as God continues His work of purification. St. Isaac warns that the pursuit of Stillness must be something one sets oneself to cultivating for the rest of one's life. This is no avocation but something to which one commits the rest of their days. 
 
Patience is needed so as not to fall into despondency and discouragement. One must persevere in prayer and look to the Fathers for direction and nourishment.  
 
In Homily 14, St. Isaac tells us that the sign and fruit of true stillness is tears. The more one enters into the reality of the Kingdom and intimacy with God the more they pass into an inexpressible beauty and as baby born into this world weeps so does one who enters the stillness of God shed copious tears for years on end.  Only then does a soul pass into peace of thought and the Holy Spirit begins to reveal heavenly things to her. 
 
We began Homily 15 by discussing how one in the world and surrounded by its noise could cultivate this stillness. One must come to realize that the desert is not a geographical region but rather the heart. It is there that we must foster constant stillness and remove those things from our lives that inhibit its growth. 
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Last night the group discussed homily 10 of St. Isaac. The fundamental theme was the importance of repentance and also the avoidance of presumption in the spiritual life. Repentance must be followed by a firm resolution to change one's life. One must become a hater of sin.  
 
We also suffer under the consequences of our own sins and the sins of others. There's a radical solidarity that we share in our sin and so also radical solidarity that we must share in our efforts to make reparation.  
 
By virtue of our baptism, we have been consecrated to God in our lives. We belong to him and our lives must be modeled on his love of virtue. Our share in the life of the most Holy Trinity is the pearl of great price for which we must be willing to sacrifice all to obtain.
 
A lengthy discussion ensued regarding the application of Saint Isaac's teaching to our lives and our love for the Church. We must never underestimate the power of prayer, the conversion of life, and their impact on the life of the church and the world.
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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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In this beautiful section of Homily Five, St. Isaac speaks of how ever-present and close God is to us through his angels and in his actions on our behalf.  Why would we be anxious about anything, he asks?  We have a God set on our salvation, who does not abandon us in our sin but makes use of every opportunity to raise us up.  We must not let anything steal the peace that comes to us from this knowledge.  Rather, we must mortify ourselves and never let any opportunity pass us by to serve another or give alms; for in doing so we comfort "His image" - we console Christ Himself in the suffering poor.  

God makes use of everything in His Providence to raise us out of sin - He administers sicknesses in body for health of our soul and allows temptations and trials to come to raise us out of negligence and idleness.  He orders all things for our profit and in this we are to learn that God alone is our deliverer.  We are to use our life in this world for repentance so that we can come to share in our eternal inheritance.  

Afflictions spur us on and lead to remembrance of God.  It is this remembrance of God that creates a connectivity with Him and draws down His mercy.  "Remember God that He too might always remember you."

Isaac reminds us to seek help before it is needed.  That is, "before the war begins, seek after your ally; before you fall ill, seek out your physician; and before grevious things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him . . . "  Faith must be fostered throughout the course of our lives and our relationship with the Lord allowed to deepen.  It is in this that confidence in the spiritual life comes.  Fear and destructiion comes from neglect.

 

 

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Last night we considered the proper measure of discretion needed in ascetical pursuits; dedicating your soul to the work of prayer; pursuing the life of solitude with those who share your desire; the importance of reading in stirring the heart to contemplation; the necessity of almsgiving and the willingness to live with scarcity.  We discussed implications of Isaac's for those who live in the world and pursue purity of heart.

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St. Isaac calls us in this homily to abandon the small things, to spurn the superfluous in favor of pursuing the pearl of great price. We are to live as those who are dead in order that we might be alive to God.

This, in turn, must shape our prayer. We are not to ask for what is worldly or base but only what is honorable. We are to ask for what is heavenly; seeking the Kingdom and its righteous and above all thirst for the love of Christ.

Only then will we be able to cast off the temptation to flee our afflictions; for it is through them that we enter into the knowledge of the truth and purity of heart is solidified.

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Germanus and Cassian continue their conversation with Abba John who in many ways is unique.  He began his life in the Cenobium, became an anchorite, and then returned to the common life of the Cenobium after many years in solitude.  Abba John experienced the desire and the fruit of the life of deep solitude as an anchorite - intimacy with God and theoria or contemplation.  However, after many years of solitude distractions and concerns began to weigh upon him so much so that he was losing the simplicity of life and freedom that allows for undistracted contemplation.  There was a relaxation, among many of the anchorites, of the simplicity necessary for such a life and an over-concern for carnal realities began to emerge; too much of a focus on bodily comfort and the variety and plentitude of food.  Too much concern was focused on the morrow rather that God in the present moment.  What may seem to be a slight regression in practice to us made an enormous difference for those who were to be seeking God in radical simplicity in order to be free emotionally and spiritually to be raised up to the heights of prayer.  Abba John, therefore, wisely and humbly made the decision to return to the Cenobium where he could live with a greater freedom from such concerns because of the nature and support of the common life as well as live under obedience to a superior and so be conformed to Christ more perfectly.  

Lengthy discussion then ensued regarding how such principles could be applied to contemporary life and the pursuit of holiness in the world.  How do we regain our simplicity and clarity of focus on living the Christian life in a world that thrives on distraction and a busyness that crowds out solitude and prayer?  The loss of a larger Catholic culture and its formative effects has been immeasurable.  Individuals and families live in isolation and find themselves walking in lockstep with those living in and formed by modern worldly sensibilities.  If the family is the domestic Church then should it not possess more in common with the cenobium?  Should not an environment be sought and created that nourishes the faith, the pursuit of holiness and a life of simplicity where prayer can emerge and shape one's existence?
The renewal of Christian culture is something that will likely take place by slowly building that which will endure; not necessarily by appealing to modern sensibilities but living the gospel fully and embracing the love of the Cross. Cassian's writing remains ever relevant because it approaches the human person in relation to God not in a superficial fashion but as the deep mystery in which we must be fully immersed.    
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Living in the desert, having access to a holy elder, and being surrounded by those of great virtue is not a guarantee that one will grow in humility and patience.  The true battle ground is within the heart and the fierce struggle that must take place is with one's own dispositions.  The Christian must undergo a decisive change in the way they look at reality and the struggles of life.  The pursuit of holiness and virtue must become the center of consciousness - the frame of reference; as well as an unceasing reliance upon the grace of God through prayer.  The wisdom that must guide us in our reaction to the slights and insults of others must be the wisdom of the cross; the ego must as it were be crucified in love for God and neighbor.  Our natural disposition so often is to defend and strike back rather than to receive with love the hatred of others in such a way that it can be transformed by the love of God. 

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