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With the concluding section of Homily 23, we reach the apex of St. Isaac’s thought on what he describes as pure prayer and what is “beyond prayer”. Prayer always involves the movement toward God, seeking him out and desiring Him, offering up supplication and pleas for his mercy. Pure prayer takes places when the law of God is embraced and fulfilled and when no thought or distraction commingles within the soul completely directed toward God. 
 
Prayer always acts as the seed planted and what is beyond prayer, divine vision, is the harvesting of the sheaves. Theoria, knowledge, or noetic vision is an operation of the Spirit who guides the soul. Our senses and their operations become superfluous and the soul becomes like unto the Godhead by an incomprehensible union and is illumined by a ray of sublime Light. The understanding gazes in ecstasy at incomprehensible things that lie beyond this mortal world. This is the “unknowing” that has been called higher than knowledge; a walking in the darkness of faith where one comes to know God as He is in Himself. 
 
Discussion also ensued regarding the struggles of the Western mind to grasp the spiritual tradition of the Eastern Fathers; the moralizing and legalizing of the spiritual life and virtue versus deification. 
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How do we foster stillness and unceasing prayer in our lives?  St. Isaac counsels us in Homily 19 to always keep our eye - the eye of the heart - fixed on God. This means not only fostering a virtuous life but also avoiding that which would pull us away from this aim. We must seek to free ourselves from obsessive concerns with the things of the world and from falling lockstep into its frenetic pace. Don't multiply the occupations of your life for in this you may very well be pushing God away.  The spiritual life cannot be a part time occupation. It must be our life. God cannot be pushed to the margins nor can we neglect the grace he offers and its sweetness without quickly losing it.  Meaningless chatter and the noise of dissipated converse destroys stillness as frost destroys new buds on the tree. A divided heart obscures the vision of God and his love.  The ego and pride-driven self-interest draws us down into darkness. Only a humble and contrite heart is lifted up and exalted to share in the life of God. 
 
Have we lost a clear sense of our identity in Christ?  Has the faith been so obscured that we no longer invest ourselves in it but simply take what measure we desire? 
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Isaac puts forward a vision of renunciation rarely conceived of by the Christian - involving the setting aside of all things internal and external that draw us away from God or leave us with a false view of the self. Everything pales in comparison to seeking within the soul the mystery of blessedness which is of the future age.

 

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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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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 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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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 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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Again, Germanus and Cassian take up their discussion with Abba John about the end of the life of a cenobite and of the hermit.  Both have been deeply humbled as their understanding of the necessity and importance of long formation in the cenobia for developing the capacity of pursuing the anchoritic life.  Only by having lived in community and having crucified the ego and one's passions can one possibly pursue the life of greater solitude and contemplation. For it is in the deeper silence of the the anchoritic life that the once hidden passions will again emerge.  In fact, some people become so savage due to the unbroken silence of the desert simply because they sought it in pride or prematurely.  If one goes off to the desert with vices not yet attended to, only their effects will be repressed but the dispositions to them will not be extinguished.  

A great deal of discussion focused on the applying the wisdom of the desert to the life of one seeking holiness while living in the world.  Simplicity of life and clarity about the essential pursuit of purity of heart as well as emotional maturity were discussed at length in regard to how they apply to the married state, consecrated single life and the life of the secular clergy.  One must cultivate a sensitive conscience through frequent examination and humble repentance.  Prayer must be fostered not as a good activity but as the very source of life and holiness.  Christians must once again foster a culture that is truly shaped by the gospel.  They must also be attentive to the ways the Divine Physician provides for healing when spiritual guides our lacking.  
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