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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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We began last evening's discussion with the brief but powerful conclusion to St. Isaac's Sixth Homily. Worldly wisdom can become a stumbling block to our souls and a snare before us. We can approach the spiritual life in a willful manner, placing great trust in ourselves and our own judgement. Rather we are to have fortitude in our pursuit of God and set out with an earnestness - walking by the knowledge that comes through faith.  Each person is unique and while we embrace a rule of life we must allow the Spirit to guide us in the way that leads to our sanctification. 
 
The focus of Homily Seven is on the difference between True and False Hope.  Hope is not a passive virtue in the sense that it finds expression in our willingness to toil and labor in the pursuit of holiness and that confidence arises out of a pure conscience that does not desist in standing before God.  "Think not to grasp the winds in your fist, that is, faith without works."  Our confidence must be built upon the real relationship we have with God not upon the illusion of empty trust and lack of commitment. 
 
At times God allows us to be chastised to awaken us from such illusions - to be "seared with the hot iron many times" so that we may be instructed.  For mercy's sake, God allows us to experience tribulation. 
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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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Last evening we picked up midway through Homily Six where St. Isaac takes up the topic of the vision of the divine in the Kingdom. Such vision and its nature is predicated on the individuals degree of perfection and its gifts. Yet, Isaac is quick to remind us that there is no division amongst us and the experience of God despite how this experience is perceived. There is no disunity or division in heaven and no comparison of gifts. Each delights in the experience and continues to be drawn into the fullness of God.

Following upon this, St. Isaac would have us understand that there exists only Gehenna and Heaven and no other state. It is foolhardy to propose an in-between state that is somehow greater than Gehenna but not yet the Kingdom. Such a notion speaks of an individual's hope that the one can live this life without a sense of urgency rooted in our ultimate end. Every moment is freighted with destiny because every moment is an opportunity to love - an opportunity embraced or set aside. To propose anything less is to foster false hope as well as mediocrity and lukewarmness.

A rather lengthy discussion ensued about the differences between Eastern and Western spirituality; in particular the use of discursive mediation and the use of imagination among Western writers and the avoidance of it among the Eastern ascetics. While largely a part of our spiritual patrimony those in the West have not been catechized in the Ascetical theology and practice of the East and the understanding of the active life as being rooted in the purification of the passions and the development of unceasing prayer. The understanding of the Church as a hospital and a place of healing and Christianity being an Ascetical religion has largely been neglected in recent generations as well as its impact on our understanding of liturgy, religious art and life as a whole.

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St. Isaac presents us with the identity of the monk and his defining characteristics. Discussion ensued about interiorized monasticism and our embrace of the call to sanctity. Holiness, the control of the passions and unceasing prayer are meant not only for the monk but for all. 
 
Like the monk we are called to love chastity and to pursue it through nourishing ourselves upon the writings of the scriptures and the Fathers and through prolonged prayer. We must immerse ourselves deeply in the love and mercy of God in order that the deep wounds we bear may be healed. 
 
Our life is found not in the things of this world but in God. We are strangers to the city and citizens of the Kingdom. Our detachment must be such that we fear not the loss of our reputation but endure all dishonor quietly in order to defuse hatred and anger. 
 
Bearing such affliction purifies and solidifies the particular virtues within us as gold is purified in the fire. 
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In a wonderful discussion of the end of homily five and the beginning of homily six, we lingered over what St. Isaac describes as the aim of our conduct: "to be courteous and respectful to all. Ans do not provoke any man or vie zealously with him, either for the sake of the Faith, or on account of his evil deeds; but watch over yourself not to blame or accuse any man in any matter. For we have a Judge in heaven who is impartial. But if you would have that man return to the truth, be grieved over him and, with tears and love, say a word or two unto him; but do not be inflamed with anger against him, lest he see within you signs of hostility. For love does not know how to be angry, or provoked, or passionately to reproach anyone. The proof of love and knowledge is profound humility, which is born of a good conscience in Jesus Christ our Lord...".

We are to win over souls not with anger or hostility or with argument, but rather with a genuine love for the other and a desire for their well being. We should grieve over the sins of others and not use them as an opportunity to berate or condescend.

Isaac continues to revolve around the virtues of humility and purity of heart in Homily Six and how they take root within us. He warns that God will allow us to experience the fruit of our negligence and the sorrow that is born of sin in order to draw is back to Himself. We must understand that asceticism without a heart truly consecrated to God is wasted.

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We continued discussing a beautiful section of Homily Five where St. Isaac develops his thought on the establishment of purity of heart and the virtues necessary to help it take root deeply. Practicality in our approach to daily circumstances must be set aside. Rather we must patiently endure the rebuke of others, insults and even false accusations. The ego must be set aside and there must be a willingness to experience humiliation. In the end we must let go of the illusion of our goodness and the demand and expectation of justice in this world; rather, we must cling to God and God alone as the source of identity and hope. A lengthy and spirited discussion ensued.

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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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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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