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We began Homily 4 where St Isaac introduces us to the importance of Renunciation and the fruit it produces in the soul. We are to wean ourselves from the things of the world in our search for the divine.

Fleeing the ease of this age and freely embracing the suffering and humiliations we begin to understand and live in accord with the standard of the Cross. The mercy we show toward others is to be the mercy of Christ - nothing less.

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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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After a brief introduction to St. Isaac and his times, we began reading and reflecting upon his first homily on "Renunciation and Monasticism." In the Syriac, the first six homilies form a unit with one title "On the Discipline of Virtue" - hence the opening sentence of this homily - "The fear of God is the beginning of virtue, and it is said to be the offspring of faith." 

This first homily seems to sow the seeds of many of the principal themes that will be developed throughout the book.  

Virtue is sown in silence.  As Christians we must seek to collect our thoughts and prevent them from wandering into distraction.  Faith frees us from the preoccupation with the self and heals us of the malady of isolation; it allows us to transcend the self in order to see God and neighbor and so love them. It is allows us to see that every moment is freighted with destiny because every moment is an opportunity to love.

To foster the development of such faith we must avoid the inconstancy that often arises in our hearts and instead remain in the silence and immersed in the study of the scriptures.  We must embrace the kind of poverty that leaves us unencumbered and so free to direct our energies to the study of the Word.  In doing so we build the entire edifice of the spiritual life.  In other words, the city must become our desert; although living in the world we remained removed from the unnecessary affairs of the world so as to protect our imaginations and allow the passions to abate.  

The soul must become drunk with faith - constantly under the influence of love.  Thus inebriated with the spirit we will find the courage to tread beneath our feet all that prevents the growth of the discipline of virtue.

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We now enter into the final Conference with Cassian and Germanus as they speak with Abba Abraham.  The name proves apropos given the fact that his task will be to reinculcate in his two charges the spirit that motivated the great Patriarch to heed God's command "Leave your country, your family and your father's house for the land I will show you."  Cassian and Germanus were longing for home; hoping their relatives would provide them with the means to support themselves in a life of solitude, prayer and study.  Pridefully they also believe that they will be able to convert these same relatives if they are more present to them.  Abba Abraham works swiftly to dismantle the obvious self deception implicit in their plan and rather bluntly accuses them of slothfulness.  

The Egyptian monks, although living closer to family, realize that undue contact would undermine not only their solitude but the rigors of the solitary life and its demands.  Every day they are called to renounce any "enervating presence" that would destroy the simplicity of life, draw them into worldly affairs and fill their minds with distracting thoughts.  The constant silence must be fostered and protected both externally and internally.

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Cassian begins with a rather dense discussion of the nature of the desires of the flesh and the spirit. While rather challenging to follow, the payoff in regards to clarity is great. The struggles between the flesh and the spirit create a kind of equilibrium for the will that prevent us from falling into excess. The desires of the flesh are limited by spiritual fervor and the ascetic disciplines and the desires of the spirit are balanced by the limits of human nature. We are prevented from simply doing "what we want to do" and the internal struggle that is an ever present reality leads us to discretion and obedience. Discussion ensued about how we often seek to anesthetize ourselves to this struggle and inner dis-ease and characterize it as frustrating or something to be limited. Rather it has been given to us by God as something which is beneficial and keeps us on the path of humble self discipline and reliance on the grace of God.

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We continue to follow Cassian as he discusses the relationship between grace and free will. God is not only the beginning and end of all things but his grace is the source of our growth in virtue and our rising out of vice when we have fallen. Our free will is used to embrace that grace in obedience or to turn away from it. Discussion then ensued about the importance and centrality of desire in the spiritual life. Christianity in its essence is relational and we create an illusion when we make the ascetical life about the performance of a muscular will as opposed growing in the freedom to embrace the grace that God offers us in love.  

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We continue with Cassian's exposition of the three forms of renunciation and the importance of understanding that simply renouncing attachment to material goods without renouncing vice is wanting in its nature. There are only two riches that endure unto eternal life - our vices and our virtues. These two things are freighted with destiny and cannot be neglected. The spiritual life cannot be stripped of its moral demands and the call to deep conversion. Even if one were to give up all of his goods or even his own life, but was lacking in love or purity of heart, he has nothing. The starkness of this teaching is as refreshing as it is challenging in an age that seeks to avoid making any moral judgments or giving moral weight to actions.

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After discussing the three sources of one's calling to monastic life or conversion, Cassian moves on to consider three forms of renunciation that lead one to embrace the life of grace: renunciation of one's attachment to material things, renunciation of one's attachment to sin, and renunciation of anything that prevents one from living in the fullness of theoria, or contemplation of God. Discussion ensued about how this renunciation is fulfilled by those who live in the world and in the face of the challenges of this generation and in light of the modern culture. How does one live for God alone in our day and seek purity of heart? What are the obstacles that we often place in our own way to pursuing the life of holiness and the joy in brings?

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Cassian takes up the theme of the three sources of one's calling to the monastic life or to conversion (God, the example of others, need) and the three types of renunciation essential for living a life of deep conversion (detachment from worldly goods, one's passions, and from all things that prevent theoria or contemplation.)  Discussion ensued about compunction, conversion in one's daily life, and embracing a spirit of renunciation in the modern world.

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Ladder of Divine Ascent; St. John Climacus; Renunciation; Detachment

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