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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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Cassian describes his initial travels to Egypt with Germanus and their first encounter with Abba Chaeremon, and man of great age and holiness and seek a word from him regarding the path to perfection.  Acknowledging their desire for God, the old man agrees and settles down to speak of the three things that forestall vicious behavior, namely, fear of punishment, hope of reward, and love.  To the three checks on evil there correspond three virtues - faith, hope and love.  The virtues in question are all directed toward a good end, to be sure, but they are not all equally excellent, for they correspond in turn to three significantly different states: Fear belongs to the condition of a slave, hope to that of a hireling and love to that of a son.  Only those who have attained to the image and likeness of God may be numbered in the third state, which is the noblest.  

Persons who avoid vice out of fear are far less stable in virtue than are those who do so out of love.  The former acts as if coerced and when the coercive element is no longer present they cease to be attracted to the good.  The latter, however, are drawn to the good for its own sake.  
Persons who are moved by love also will have in particular the gift of compassion for others in their weakness, realizing that they themselves are utterly dependent upon divine mercy and grace.
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Our discussion of Cassian's magnificent conference on prayer came to a close with Germanus asking how, now that they have learned of this formula for unceasing prayer, they can hold fast to the verse that Abba Isaac had given them.  How were they to keep their thoughts from flitting between scripture passage to scripture passage and remaining mere touchers and tasters of spiritual meanings and not possessors and begettors of them?  Abba Isaac's response is brief and to the point: they must simply remain steadfast in the practice of the prayer and stabilize their minds through vigils, meditation and prayer.  Beyond this they are to allow the life of the cenobium to do its work: leading them to renounce their attachment to everything in order to be fully committed to praying without ceasing. They cannot restrict their time of prayer to when they have bended knees but they must seek to live in a constant state of recollection and avoidance of distraction throughout the day.  In short, they must allow themselves to embrace the poverty of this prayer, of setting aside all thoughts but God through it, in order to also experience its true blessing and the perfection it leads to in the spiritual life.  No one is ever excluded from the perfection of heart because of illiteracy or simplicity.  

It is to perfection that Cassian will turn in the Eleventh Conference which includes fostering three things that forestall vicious behavior; namely, fear of punishment, hope of reward, and love.  Ultimately is is the love of virtue for its own sake that is most important as well as what Cassian describes as an attitude of loving fear: a reluctance to hurt a person whom one loves.  Are only fear and anxiety in this world should be wounding the loving heart of God who has given us so much.
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After having considered the formula that the mind is to hold to ceaselessly, "O God, incline unto my aid, O Lord, make haste to help me", the group listened to Abba Issac describe the fruits that such a practice produces in the soul.  Chief among them is poverty of spirit: nothing can be holier than that of one who realizes that he has no protection and no strength and who seeks daily help from God's bounty and who understands that his life and property are sustained at each and every moment by divine assistance.  Such a person becomes the "Lord's beggar."  

With this comes the fruit of discretion, that allows one to penetrate the most sublime mysteries.  The very dispositions of the psalms are taken into oneself, so that they arise from the heart not as another's words but as one's own.  The meaning of the words come not through exegesis but through proof; that is, when our experience not only perceives but anticipates its thought.  It will be as if we have become the author, grasping in anticipation the meaning of scripture; having received in power the Word rather than the simply the knowledge of it.
Once the mind's attentiveness has been set ablaze, prayer pours forth in unspeakable ecstasy to God with unutterable groans and sighs. 
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We found ourselves quite suddenly at the denouement of Cassian's Conferences - Abba Isaac's beautiful description of how to engage in unceasing prayer and the formula to be used.  However, this seemed less like a spiritual discourse and more like a privileged view of the heart and experience of the old man seasoned in the practice of prayer.  The very reading of it was a prayer - which Abba Isaac acknowledges that Germanus and Cassian were only able to receive because the ground of their hearts had been prepared through long years of discipline and fidelity to the spiritual life.  The shape of the prayer is the uninterrupted and repeated saying of Psalm 70:1, "O God, incline unto my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me."  Abba Isaac reveals how it adjusts itself to every condition and affliction and protects every virtue.  Yet, it does far more than that: Abba Isaac states that "straitened by the poverty of this verse (having forgone any thought but that of God), the soul will very easily attain to that gospel beatitude which holds the first place among the other beatitudes.  For it says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  Through it one professes oneself to be the Lord's beggar.

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