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Archive for the 'Spiritual Battle' Category

We began our discussion of St Isaac’s 37th Homily with his teaching about the importance of separating ourselves from the things of the world so as to make the ascetical struggle easier.  The struggle is easier when the sources of temptation are at a distance. We must in fact flee from those things that cause warfare and not associate with that which fights against us. The stillness and purity that is gained through asceticism must not be thoughtlessly thrown away; For even the memory or imagination of certain things can bring us harm. Thus we must guard against becoming overconfident so as not to trample our consciences. Various examples of this were discussed. 
St. Isaac then moved on to consider what is the beginning of the spiritual war and where does one start the fight. Fasting and Vigils are the signs of our hatred for sin and desire for God. They are God’s holy pathway and the foundation of every virtue. Day and night they lead us to God - humbling the mind and body and making us ever watchful and discerning. Discussion ensued about what this means for those living in the world and how it they are to be fostered. 

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Tonight‘s discussion of homilies 32 and 33 focused upon Saint Isaac’s teaching that we should not approach the life of faith as if it were simply self improvement. We must beware of seeking our joys in the things of this world or reducing God to something manageable and controllable rather than an all enveloping mystery. The poverty that we experience in our moral life and psychologically and emotionally simply at times has to be in endured. We are drawn in to the perfection of God by grace. We do not make ourselves perfect. More often than not we are humbled by our weaknesses until we rest solely upon the grace of God.
We continue to struggle of course,  but we must avoid extremes in behavior - excesses in satisfying our appetites or too great a rigor that leads to despondency.  Our life is Christ and often our greatest struggle as human beings is to let go of the illusion that lasting joy can be found in any other place.

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The group began by continuing to reflect upon the final paragraphs of Homily 30 wherein St Isaac emphasizes the uniqueness of man, in particular our corporeal nature and our reason and free will. It is this reality the shapes our spiritual struggle. We need to understand our strengths and limitations. 
In Homily 31 Isaac moves on to discuss the importance of vigilance in the moment - not looking to the past or to others but struggling today with what we are faced. We must valiantly engage in the battle and bear the recompense for our sin in a spirit of hope and joy. We are not to blame others for our sorrows but see them as rooted in our sin and as opportunities for virtue and healing. 
Finally at the beginning of Homily 32 Isaac introduces us to the fiercest of struggles - learning to abhor sin with our whole heart and the resistance that we face in this task. Only through this can we then develop a true love for virtue. This struggle is the unseen martyrdom of the spiritual life - the bloodless martyrdom that we experience daily.

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Tonight's discussion was on Homily 9 and focused on the distinction between voluntary and involuntary sin, the effects of laxity and heedlessness in the spiritual life, the need to remain stalwart in spiritual warfare, courageously entering into the battle and understanding that it may leave us wounded and permanently scarred. We should fear only the devastation that comes from trampling on our own conscience, willingly reaching out our hand to the devil and so taking the path of perdition. 
The unfortunate focus in our culture and the culture of Church today is on pursuing individual freedom, fulfillment and satisfaction in this world over and above the pursuit of holiness of life and purity of heart. Our time in this world is short and we must lives as those who understand the urgency of conversion.

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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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St. Isaac once again teaches us that we must fully and wisely engage in the spiritual battle - fighting on the right battlefield and making use of the right remedies to heal wounds. He warns us never to treat any sin as slight; for ignoring any sin will eventually make it our master.

Above all we must not be overly confident in our own strength but rather trust in divine providence and the manifestation of that providence in God's angels. They are always there interceding for us, revealing our enemies and fortifying us in the struggle. They show us how close God is to us.


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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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II. Conquest of Sin:

Both eastern and western spirituality as a whole conceives of the ascetic life as a slow progress upward toward God, a climb of the hill by spiritual exercise - - prayer, mortification of the carnal lusts, growth in the knowledge of God - until the soul has become Christ like, God-like.

This being true, there developed early on principles upon which asceticism might be conducted. Cassian does not develop a system to be followed, but establishes certain principles to be followed in one's spiritual life. As always he makes these principles
understandable to the western mind.

A. Flesh and Spirit:

1. basic antagonism between the two - a war in which neither ceases to attack or defend does not mean the material substance of the body but the carnal desires, the passions.

2. The essence of the Christian life is seen as a war within the personality.

3. Cassian experience was that the body was not evil in essence, but is inclined to and
encourages evil, though its union with and war against the spirit is nevertheless for the
benefit of the spiritual life.

4. the Christian way is not quiet or gentle or pleasant; it is a battle fought in the soul.
This battle is the condition of spiritual progress.

5. Apart from this violence of warring, there is nothing but indifference, lukewarmness.
Advance to attack expresses Cassian's outlook; for the lustful will is the chief adversary of man.

B. The Goal:

1. the ultimate goal is the kingdom of heaven, but the aim(skopos) of the purgative
process is purity of heart. The purgative process must place a person in a state of
freedom from the passions, to produce in the mind a concentration of thought upon God,
in the soul an indifference to all apart from the Creator. To this goal the monk must
march along the royal road unswervingly, must close his eyes like the competitor in a
shooting contest to all but the bullseye. Asceticism is a means toward the skopos

2. Behind this theory lay the ideal of the angelic life.

This was the notion that man must aim at contemplating and worshipping and praising God like the angels and at doing his will on earth as the angels in heaven. But according to Cassian sinlessness is impossible, temptations never cease in this life and there is always the need to fight.

3. Perfection in this life is relative perfection, not to be identified with sinlessness but
rather with the completion of the purgative process, which can be described as the state
of purity of heart.

It is possible to achieve freedom from the grosser passions, but this does not mean immunity from temptation. Purity of heart is but the moral platform from whence God can be seen.

C. The Principal Sins:

1. Cassian list contained eight principal sins: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, dejection, accidie, vainglory, pride. Cassian treated them as sin produced by
corresponding temptations.

2. The order is not random. They are linked together as cars in a railroad train. Because
they are so intimately coupled an attack upon one is an attack upon all and conversely a
surrender to one is a surrender to all, and because gluttony acquires its capital place in
the list as the root instigator of the corrupting series, fasting and abstinence must become
the first and most valuable element in all ascetic practice.

3. Cassian writing is intended to drive the mind to seek the reason for sin, not in superficial symptoms but in the latent evil in the human heart. Fight, strive, press on, struggle, resist, conquer - - are all key words. Cassian can only repeat, "here is the evil - fight against it.

4. In all of this grace is presupposed: God is both the goal and the means by which the
goal is attained. Grace is what leads us to embrace methods of spiritual progress.

D. The Motive of the Life of Virtue:

1. Three things enable men to control and remedy their faults: a) the Fear
of hell, or the penalties of earthly laws, b) the thought of and desire for the kingdom of heaven and c) a love of goodness and virtue in itself.

2. These three motives are not equally excellent, but correspond to different grades in the
spiritual life, in which the third, the selfless motive must be the highest aim of all who seek after God. The Christian is seeking to be united with God.

3. The soul must love and follow God for his own sake and not in the hope of personal
advantage or enjoyment. Ethics are the instrument to the love of God.

E. The Virtues:

1. virtue for Cassian consists in not committing sin. Where he thinks of virtue, he
normally treats it as the opposite of vice: chastity means not fornicating, patience not
being angry, humility not being proud, temperance not being gluttonous.

2. Charity, or love of God, was the transcendent virtue in which all individual virtues were absorbed. For this reason he was uninterested in the discussion of the specific virtues and
the distinctions of later moralists.

3. morality acts as an instrument to the contemplation of God, and so Cassian invariably treats good deeds not as the flowing outcome of the love of God but as a useful aid in the
struggle for personal perfection. Good works and acts of virtue will even disappear in
heaven where all is caught up in the contemplation of God.

4. He normally conceived the fight as a battle against the pressing, insidious powers of
evil, rarely as a battle for the good. The assaulting sins are much more numerous than
the defending virtues.

III. Grace:

A. The Doctrine of Cassian:

1. His thought centers upon the strife between flesh and spirit. The carnality of man
which is the result of the Fall, has not made man incapable of doing good: it has rather
produced a tension in human nature whereby sinful desires pull against the spiritual
desires. In the middle of the strife, between the flesh on the one side and the spirit on the
other, the free will is set maintaining the tension. He calls the free will the balance in the
scales of the body.

2. Cassian's view stirred him to emphasize the powers of the human will - - even if it is
weakened. The whole weight of his thought is thrown upon the necessity for exertion.
The monk must fight to achieve purity of heart, he must work to eject the seeds of vices,
he must fast and watch and labor with his hands, he must direct his mental process and
ward off temptations. In all of this grace is not discarded but thoroughly assumed, on
account of the enormous importance he attaches to prayer.

3. Cassian never suggests that sin can be overcome, that the Christian road can be
travelled, unless God grant his grace. Rather his teaching emphasizes two truths of the
Christian faith - - that man depends absolutely upon God, and that his will has full
responsibility for choice between good and evil.

4. Cassian is the teacher, emphasizing opposite sides of the same question for practical
reasons. Grace is not set in antithesis to freedom of the will, but to laziness.

B. Grace in the Conferences:

1. In Cassian, as opposed to Augustine, the human will is not portrayed so darkly. After
the Fall, while having a bias toward and desire for evil, man still has knowledge of the good; and since the human race has this knowledge of the good, it can sometimes
perform it naturally, of its own free will unaided by grace except in so far as God is
regarded as granting his grace when he originally created man capable of doing good. In
Augustine the will to good is dead: in Cassian it is not dead, but neither is it healthy.
Rather he conceives the human will as sick, needing constant attention from healing
grace, but like a sick man still capable occasionally - if revived by medicine - of healthy

2. In a more subtle argument, Cassian teaches that grace is sometimes removed for the benefit of the soul. To prevent the will becoming slothful and idle, grace may wait for some move on the part of the will. We see here again the connection in his mind between
grace and laziness.

IV. The Life of Contemplation:

A. Sinlessness:

1. although some ascetics considered sinlessness to be within the power of human nature,
Cassian denied the possibility. The soul is bound to leave the divine vision because of
that law in human nature resulting from the Fall. The word saint is not a synonym of the
word immaculate for Cassian.

2. Cassian will allow that an ascetic may achieve the destruction of all his faults. Yet this is not sinlessness, since the mind cannot maintain it hold upon the contemplation of God; and in the eyes of the saint even momentary departure from contemplation is the vilest of sin. Full possession of the virtues may be attained, but not the possibility of keeping the mind concentrated on God.

3. The principal barrier for the monk lies not so much in the commission of external sin,
but in the slippery thought of his own mind. Thus there can be perfection attain in the
active life, but not in the contemplative life.

B. The Mind

1. Cassian regards contemplation as the mind seeing God; union as the linking of the mind to God. Since the mind through the Fall is so unstable and wandering that it can never be still, the problem of contemplation consists in fixing the mind to a single point - God. Cassian reverts to the difficulty of the mobile mind perhaps more frequently than to any other subject dealt with in the Conferences.

2. Swarms of thoughts enter the mind, whether suggested by devils or by earthly
distractions. Yet, Cassian did not seek the stripping naked of the mind, but rather the mind must attempt to control the ascending and descending of thoughts, until the former
predominate over the latter.

3. In later stages, there is progressive simplification until the state of pure prayer is
reached where the prayer is so concentrated upon God alone that the mind has come to
unity from diversity and holds one prayer, one thought.

C. Prayer and Contemplation

1. Cassian's teaching on prayer is not unlike the consensus of Egyptian monastic thought
upon the beginnings of contemplation: from the discursive use of the mind in meditation,
the soul passes by a gradual simplification of thought to a condition where it does not
need mental variety in order to pray, but can rest "satisfied, and more deeply satisfied,
with a simple look at God than it was at first with much thinking. In the early stages the
soul is frequently filled with sensible sweetness, with spiritual delight in God. This
sweetness vanishes as advance is made upon the contemplative way, until the soul
confronts God in a cloud of unknowing, dimly and ignorantly, while the intellect without
concepts and without images, is not only at rest but cannot think discursively at all. In
pure contemplation all the faculties of the intellect and the heart are silenced in face of the simple longing for God.

2. For Cassian, the supreme goal of life, the kingdom of God itself, is to be found, in the
direct perception of God. He is at one with Egyptian tradition in believing that none may
enter upon this way who has not first undertaken the practical training of the active life.
The monk cannot contemplate if he is proud, unchaste or dejected, if he is not seeking
detachment from created things.

3. As prayer is reduced from a multiplicity of thoughts to simplicity, the object of
contemplation, which began by being complex, becomes little by little a unity. The ladder of contemplation has three rungs: the contemplation of many things, the contemplation of a few, the contemplation of one alone.

4. Cassian only mentions the effects of contemplation occasionally. It brings union with, by union of wills though not in essence. The soul comes to the image and likeness of God feeds on the beauty and knowledge of God, it receives the indwelling Christ the Holy Spirit, it is illumined attains to the adopted Sonship and possesses all that belongs to the Father. The soul is so filled that it begins to share in the love of the Blessed Trinity. For John, contemplation is a formless thoughtless, vacuity. Rather it is a unity wherein fullness is found: where God shall be all our love, and every desire and wish and effort, every thought of ours, and all our life and words and breath, and that unity which
already exist between the Father and the Son, and the Son and the Father, has
been shed abroad in our hearts and minds.

V. Conclusions:

Cassian bequeathed to Western Christianity the idea that the spiritual life was a science in which prayer reigned:that is possible to analyze temptation and the nature of sin: that methods of prayer and mortification are neither haphazard nor individual, but order according to established experience. All the guides to spirituality in which western Europe later abounded are his direct descendants.


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Stages of Temptation; Inventiveness of the Demons and their strategies; Examining one's falls, their causes and committing them to memory; knowing one's weak spots; Ignorance and Captivity; Cures; Spiritual work and the beauty achieved through humility, silence and prayer.


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