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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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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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As we draw close to the end of the Conferences, the final pages follow Germanus and Cassian as they engage Abba Abraham on the theme of Mortification.  Even after lengthy discussion, the two young monks continue to express their desire to return to their homeland to live there under the care of their relatives and in turn to attend to their spiritual needs.  With great patience, Abraham confutes the laziness of his two young friends and the lukewarmness into which they have fallen.  They must know, he tells them, that "in the world to come you will be joined in the fate of those with whom you partook in this life of either gain or loss, or joy or sorrow." Inevitably Cassian and Germanus will get tied into the earthly affairs and fate of those around them.  They will be drawn into the drama of their relatives lives - good or bad it does not matter.  Also, he warns them that in allowing others to do too much in support of them, they will lose formation that the hardship of the desert itself provides.  Rather, in all things they should prefer deprivation and poverty.  Such charity and care belongs to the weak alone.  As those who have chosen the solitary life, they have foregone access to such generous resources as a matter of course.  They should prefer the sands rough with natural bitterness and regions wasted by floods of salt water - regions, that is, that only allow them to live day to day and in reliance upon divine providence and the labor of their hands.  Those who have an undisciplined heart and fall into distraction of mind because of it, lose whatever they seem to have acquired by the conversion of others put their profits in a bag of holes.  Leaving the desert will deprive them of their own betterment and bring them most likely to ruination.  

Their pathology is rooted in the reasonable part of the soul.  They think somehow that they have the strength and constitution that matches the desert monks and that they no longer need their instruction.   The only cure for this sickness is humility.  Their souls have been hurt by their believing not only that they have already attained the heights of perfection but even that they are able to teach others.  They have been seized by this errant conceit because of the swelling of vainglory that can only to be cut off immediately through humble contrition.
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We labored through a few pages of the conference where Abba Nesteros lays out the types of Spiritual Knowledge that exist - tropology, allegory and analogy.  Of these various types of knowledge the tropological is most necessary early in the spiritual life - that which pertains to correction of life and to practical instruction in the conquering of vice and growth in virtue.  One cannot find perfection in the words of others but rather in the virtuousness of their own acts.  Our hearts must become sacred tabernacles, cleansed of every contagion of sin and ready to receive the Word of God.

Great care must be taken to remain silent, guarding the teachings of the elders in the heart rather than rushing to teach them to others.  Avoid all vainglory in questions and never seek to show off your learning. Don't teach unless you have previously lived the truths you put forward; for Abba Nesteros writes "whoever neglects many great things and dares to teach them is certainly not merely least in the Kingdom of Heaven but should be considered greatest in the punishment of Gehenna."
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35-64 St. John then describes how to cultivate the presence of humility within our hearts. The truly humble, he teaches, will never trust in himself or his own strength. He who has genuine humility will not sin voluntarily. Through his lowly self-abasing actions he will seek to form this virtue in his soul. Humble is as humble does!

Some drive out empty pride by thinking to the end of their lives of their past misdeeds, for which they were forgiven and which now serve as a spur to humility. Others, remembering the passion of Christ, think of themselves as eternally in debt. Others hold themselves in contempt when they think of their daily lapses. Others come to possess this mother of graces by way of their continuous temptations, weaknesses, and sins. There are some - and I cannot say if they are to be found nowadays - who humble themselves in proportion to the gifts they receive from God and live with a sense of their unworthiness to have such wealth bestowed on them, so that each day they think of themselves as sinking further into debt. That is real humility, real beatitude, a real reward! And you may be sure that it is by this particularly blessed route that anyone has traveled who in a few short years has arrived at the summit of dispassion.

. . . God is delighted when He sees us courting dishonor for the purpose of crushing, striking, and destroying our empty esteem. And virtue of this sort comes only from a complete abandonment of the world and only the really great can endure the derision of their own folk.

A lemon tree naturally lifts its branches upwards when it has no fruit. The more its branches bend, the more fruit you will find there. The meaning of this will be clear to the man disposed to understand it.

Just as birds fear the sight of a hawk, those who practice humility fear the sound of an argument.

A humble man will always hate his own will as a cause of error. In his petitions to the Lord which he makes with unwavering faith he learns what he should do and obeys. He does not spend his time scrutinizing the lifestyle of his superiors. He lays all his burden on the God Who used an ass to teach Balaam what had to be done. All the acts, thoughts, and words of such a man are directed to the will of God and he never trusts himself. Indeed, to a humble man, self-confidence is as much a thorn and a burden as the orders of someone else are to a proud man.

Humility cannot be genuine and at one and the same time have a worldly strain. Genuine humility is not in us if we fall into voluntary sin, and this is the sign that there is something material still within us.
The Lord understood that the virtue of the soul is shaped by our outward behavior. He therefore took a towel and showed us how to walk by the road of humility (cf. John 13:4). The soul indeed is molded by the doings of the body, conforming to and taking shape from what it does.

A man who sits on a throne acts in one way, and the man who sits on a dunghill acts in another. That, perhaps, is the reason why that great and just man sat on the dunghill outside the city. Totally humbled, he said in all sincerity, "I despise myself, waste away" (Job 42:6), and have regarded myself as dust and ashes.

Humility has its signs. It also has its sinews and its ways, and these are as follows - - poverty, withdrawal from the world, the concealment of one's wisdom, simplicity of speech, the seeking of alms, the disguising of one's nobility, the exclusion of free and easy relationships, the banishment of idle talk.
Nothing can ever so humble the soul as destitution and the subsistence of a beggar. We will show ourselves true lovers of wisdom and of God if we stubbornly run away from all possibility of aggrandizement.

65-66 St. John concludes by reminding us once again that humility is not a virtue that one obtains through struggle alone, but it is given by God and comes through loving union with Him.

Someone discovered in his heart how beautiful humility is, and in his amazement he asked her to reveal here parent's name. Humility smiled, joyous and serene: "Why are you in such a rush to learn the name of my begetter? He has no name, nor will I reveal him to you until you have God for your possession. To Whom be glory forever." Amen.

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Having shown us the danger of pride, St. John wishes to lead us step by step to the virtue of humility (Step 25). Before we consider humility, however, he insists that we must seek meekness. What is meekness? St. John answers: "Meekness is a mind consistent amid honor and dishonor; meekness prays quietly and sincerely for a neighbor however troublesome he may be; meekness is a rock looking out over the sea of anger which breaks the waves which come crashing on it and stays entirely unmoved; meekness works alongside of obedience, guides a religious community, checks frenzy, curbs anger."
A meek person 1) is not quick to defend or justify himself in the presence and thoughts of others. He is not easily unsettled by the words and opinions of others, 2) guards his heart carefully against the intrusion of thoughts of "frenzy (against any thoughts which disturb his internal peace), 3) is calm in the midst of disturbing events; he is not easily excited or provoked, 4) watches over his words, carefully choosing to utter only those which bring peace, 5) does not project himself into conversations or situations in which his presence is not desired, 6) does not jump in to correct everyone and everything, 7) is willing to wait for God to act and does not believe that his action is necessary to God, 8) knows how to pray and to be quiet, 9) has no personal agenda and is concerned only for God's will - recognizing that God's will unfolds itself in ways that are unusual and unexpected. Thus, even in his concern for God's will, he is willing to calmly wait for God to accomplish His purpose. When he must act, he does so out of calm faith rather than panicky unbelief.


It is interesting that St. John connects meekness with simplicity and guilelessness: "A meek soul is a throne of simplicity, but a wrathful mind is a creature of evil." "Guilelessness is the joyful condition of an uncalculating soul." He use three images as illustrations: childhood, Adam in the Garden and St. Paul the simple. 
 
During childhood, he tells us, there is an absence of concern to "fit in". Those who have struggled for simplicity live much the same. Fitting in with the crowd, and compromising one's integrity to do so, are not a part of their lifestyle. They are free from the necessity to change themselves (becoming social/spiritual chameleons) to "fit in" and to meet the expectations of others. 
 
From Adam in the Garden we learn that simplicity is the absence of self-awareness. St. John writes: "As long as Adam has simplicity, he saw neither the nakedness of his soul nor the indecency of his flesh." Adam was free from the desire to "look in the mirror" and the necessity of "standing on the scale." Does not a lot of vanity spring from an unhealthy desire to look good in the eyes of other people or to find out how we look to others? Here we see why St. John keeps mentioning hypocrisy as he discusses simplicity. Our outside appearance often becomes the equivalent of a mask, designed to keep people from seeing us as we really are. Our outside appearance becomes divorced from our inner self. The inherent, simple connection between our inner soul and outer body becomes distorted. This distortion wreaks havoc on our spiritual lives. From St. Paul the Simple, we learn that simplicity is linked to obedience and firm faith. St. Paul was a disciple of Antony the Great. St. Antony thought him too old to be a monk, but Paul submitted to the severest disciplines with such unquestioning obedience that in a relatively short time he acquired holiness and spiritual powers even greater than his master's. After relating this story, St. John draws this conclusion: "Fight to escape your own cleverness. If you do, then you will find salvation and an uprightness through Jesus Christ. . . " 
 
If we follow the simple path - distrusting our own wisdom, doing the best we can yet realizing that our mind, without warmth of heart is a very weak tool - - then a Godly life will begin to be formed in us.
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 St. John says that pride flows out of our love of the praise of men (Vainglory). Its midpoint is "the shameless parading of our achievements, complacency, and unwillingness to be found out." It is "the spurning of God's help, the exalting of one's own efforts and a devilish disposition." In rather frightening words, St. John writes: "A proud monk needs no demon. He has turned into one, an enemy to himself." 

 
How can we recognize that this spiritual ailment is afflicting us? In a series of proverbs, St. John gives us several signs which manifest its presence in our hearts: 1) a know-it-all, argumentative spirit, 2) a refusal to obey, a belief that we know better than our spiritual elders, 3) an aversion to correction, a belief that we are beyond the need for reproach and/or instruction, 4) a desire to lead and an innate belief that we know what needs to be done and how it needs to be done better than others, 5) a false humility, 6) a lack of awareness of our own sins and shortcomings, 7) an inflated opinion of our own virtues, 8) a belief that we have attained the blessedness of heaven, a forgetting of the need to finish the race and of the possibility of failure.

How do we overcome pride in our lives? Once again, St. John's words are practical and to the point. His advice can be summarized as follows: 1) it is helpful to keep before us the struggles and virtues of the holy Fathers and saints. It is so easy for us to compare ourselves with our contemporaries and think that we are doing pretty well. In our day and age, it is a great temptation for those who are trying to live pious and prayerful lives to begin to think that they are somehow doing a lot for the Lord, that they are waging a serious and dedicated struggle and that they have achieved a level of spiritual maturity. One has only to look to the Fathers and the Saints to see how shallow and false this kind of thinking is, 2) it is helpful for us to remember how many blessings we have received and to remember how any advancements we have made in the spiritual life are the result not of our own efforts but God's mercy, 3) it is helpful to remember that everything we obtain by way of struggle in the spiritual life is offered to us only because of the struggle of Christ. No matter how hard we struggle, without Christ there would be no victory. The doors of Heaven would still be closed. The grave would still have its claim on us and we would be shut out from the presence of God. "If we were to die ten thousand times for Christ, we should still not have repaid what we owe, for in value rather than in physical substance there is no comparison between the blood of God and that of His servants."

"Such is the twenty-third step. Whoever climbs it, if indeed any can, will certainly be strong."
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I am sure that each one of us can easily relate to what St. John is describing in this step. Vainglory is the beginning of pride; it is the congratulation of self for work well done. It is the desire to be recognized by others; the love of praise. St. John writes: "The spirit of despair exults at the sight of mounting vice, the spirit of vainglory at the sight of the growing treasures of virtue."


What are the signs that we have succumbed to this passion and been overwhelmed by this demon? St. John list several. Vainglory enters our lives when we grow concerned about what other people think about us. It puts down its roots into our hearts when we begin to worry about their disapproval and to be pleased by their approval. It captures our hearts when we enjoy their words of praise. It takes over our hearts when we begin to work for these words of praise that bring us joy.

How can we conquer vainglory? St. John is very clear in his instructions. "The first step is overcoming vainglory is to remain silent and accept dishonor gladly. The middle step is to check every act of vainglory while it is still in thought. The end (insofar as one may talk of an end to an abyss) is to be able to accept humiliation before others without actually feeling it." These words are so easy to type and to read - - but not so easy to put into practice.

John knows that we must work to gradually change our intentions. His advice as always is very practical. "If ever we seek glory, if it comes our way uninvited, or if we plan some course of action because of vainglory, we should think of our mourning and of the blessed fear on us as we stood alone in prayer before God. If we do this we will assuredly outflank shameless vainglory, that is, if our wish for true prayer is genuine. This may be insufficient. In which case let us briefly remember that we must die. Should this also prove ineffective, let us at least go in fear of the shame that always comes after honor, for assuredly he who exalts himself will be humbled not only there but here also. When those who praise us, or rather, those who lead us astray begin to exalt us, we should briefly remember the multitude of our sins and in this way we will discover that we do not deserve whatever is said or done in our honor."

It is very interesting that St. John insists that the battle against pride is either won or lost here. "A worm, fully grown, often sprouts wings and can fly up high. Vainglory, fully grown, can give birth to pride, which is the beginning and the end of all evil." What a valuable insight for the spiritual life. What a great source of hope it is to know that we can deal a fatal blow to our pride by working on our attachment to the praise of others. Each day we can take small steps; asking ourselves difficult but honest questions: "Does my behavior change when no one can see me and when no one is around?" "Do I find myself telling others about all my spiritual efforts and blessings?" "Do I find myself replaying what others have said to me or what I have said to them over and over again in my mind?" "Do I act and talk as if I have experiential knowledge of spiritual truths that I have only read about?" "Do I become discouraged and quit when no one notices what I do or when I do not receive the praise and thanksgiving I think I deserve?" "Do I hide my sins and failings from others, even to the point of lying or shading the truth so that my true faults are not discovered by others?" "Do I become defensive when I am criticized? Do I feel the need to always make sure that everyone knows why I did something?"

Again, this is not easy. But the promise St. John holds out should be enough to make us keep trying: "Anyone free from this sickness is close to salvation." 
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